'American Prometheus' authors on 'The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer' A new biography describes J. Robert Oppenheimer --remembered as the father of the bomb — a complex, contradictory and at times mystical genius who defied easy labels.

'American Prometheus' authors on 'The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington. Neal Conan is out today.

J. Robert Oppenheimer first fell in love with the New Mexico desert as a teen-ager. His memories moved him to poetry years later. It included these verses: `In the dry hills down by the river, half withered, we had the hot winds against us.' He would return to that desert in the flower of his career to manage the Manhattan Project and design a bomb that would generate the most destructive hot wind human hands could make.

Authors Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin have written a new biography of Oppenheimer that takes a comprehensive look at a complex genius, one who one friend described as a maddening bundle of contradictions. Oppenheimer was born into a well-to-do German-Jewish family in New York City. After graduating from Harvard, he quickly distinguished himself as one of the world's leading researchers in the field of quantum physics. At the same time, he became associated with various progressive causes and the Communist Party. That, and complicated love life, would lead to the destruction of his career at the height of the American anti-Communist hysteria in the 1950s.

"American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" is the book. Its authors are my guests. Kai Bird has written and co-authored many books, including "Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy." And Martin J. Sherwin is the Walter S. Dickson professor of English and American history at Tufts University. He's the author of "A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies." And they join us now from the studios of member station KQED in California.

Thank you both for being with us.

Mr. KAI BIRD (Co-author, "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer"): Thank you.

Professor MARTIN J. SHERWIN (Co-author, "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer"): Hi. This is Marty Sherwin. Thank you, Frank. Glad to be here.

STASIO: Well, Martin, let me start with you. You've written about a man--you and Kai have written about a man who managed the project that gave us the bomb and then was chopped to pieces for daring to imagine world peace. Very complex figure.

Prof. SHERWIN: A very complex figure and very complex times, from the Great Depression through World War II, through the McCarthy era. And that's the centerpiece of Oppenheimer's life, but there was also a lot that preceded it.

STASIO: Well, let's talk a little bit about his history, his upbringing. He's born in New York City. He's obviously bright. He's a precocious young man. He's interested in science right from the beginning. Geology of all things. Tell us a little about that, Kai.

Mr. BIRD: Well, his father, who was a German immigrant, took him back to Germany when he was five or six years old and his grandfather happened to give him a collection of rocks. And young Robert was fascinated, took this back to New York and became a rock collector. And began to correspond with the mineralogy experts of New York City who then invited him to come and speak to them. Well, he was only 12 years old.

STASIO: Wha...

Mr. BIRD: He showed up and they had to get a box for him to stand--give his little talk.

STASIO: And what--he was not so much interested in--I'm going to ask you to go ahead, Martin, but I want to know, his interest was not so much in sort of the history and origins of the rocks as the beauty and the organization of the crystals and the structure. Is that right?

Prof. SHERWIN: Yes. And in many ways, that was a reflection of what he became interested in as a physicist, well, first as a chemist and then as a physicist. He was interested in structures. He was interested in how things fit together, how things happened and perhaps why they happened also. One thing about the lecture he gave to the New York Mineralogical Society, he was corresponding with the members of the society using a typewriter, so they had no sense of his...


Prof. SHERWIN: ...handwriting and that's why they invited him.

STASIO: Well, his use of language, too. He was an articulate and charismatic man, certainly in his career. As a young man, was he as charming and charismatic?

Prof. SHERWIN: He was charming to older people, but he was a very awkward young man in terms of his friends and he had a very difficult time growing up. And I think one of the most interesting parts of the research for the book was related to this young person's difficult transition from childhood, teen-agehood, into adulthood. In fact, it was almost tragic. There was a point after he graduated from Harvard where he was on the verge of suicide, he was in such bad shape.

STASIO: Suicide and violent, too. There were these sort of violent outbursts where he was poisoning apples and strangling friends all sort of in unexpected ways and environments. He didn't carry it out, but there were these moments where people were very seriously worried about his emotional health.

Mr. BIRD: Yes. He was very close to sort of a nervous breakdown. And at one point when he was studying in Cambridge, England, physics--experimental physics in the laboratory, he discovered he was just terrible at it. And it was--for the first time in his life, he was faced with failure. And this apparently precipitated an emotional crisis and he, in the so-called poison apple incident, which he confessed to, talked about, he allegedly left a poisoned apple on the desk of his tutor at Cambridge. This was discovered and the university authorities put him on probation and required him to see a psychiatrist--a series of psychiatrists, as it turned out.

Prof. SHERWIN: But it wasn't poisoned to--that would likely kill anybody. It was sort of an apple laced with something that would most likely make someone sick.

Mr. BIRD: It was a mysterious--it was either a prank or something more serious.

Prof. SHERWIN: Yes.

Mr. BIRD: But less serious than attempted murder.

Prof. SHERWIN: Yes.

STASIO: Not quite attempted murder, but a mystery nonetheless. And the other mystery would have been the motivation. It does seem like some sort of jealousy may have been involved and here we get into his love life, particularly early on as a young man. He's having a hard time with this, his love life.

Prof. SHERWIN: Very hard. It was part of the process, again, of transition to adulthood. He not only had social difficulties, how to relate to people of your own age, but--and he had problems relating to himself, how to relate to someone whose ambitions are great but whose skills are so immature, so poorly developed that it looked like he was not going to make it--suicide. And then the whole question of the transition to being in an adult relationship with a woman. He had a very difficult time of it until he actually became a professor at Berkeley--University of California, Berkeley.

STASIO: Some of this, I suppose, could be traced, if we wanted to get Freudian about it, to his relationship with his mother and father. Mother very serious, very studious and that was something that he seemed to want to imitate. His father, much more gregarious, a little more outspoken, and that seemed to be something early on that embarrassed him a bit.

Mr. BIRD: Yes. Yeah. He was a very awkward boy and yet the great story in this book is how he was able to transform himself, repeatedly, I should say. Not only as a young adolescent to a man, a man who discovered quantum physics and fell in love with it, the quantum physics, in effect, sort of rescued him from his emotional crisis. But he was then able to transform himself here in Berkeley from an awkward, inarticulate professor to a dramatically charismatic professor and teacher of students who simply adored him and began to mimic his every motion.

Prof. SHERWIN: You know, and each one of these transitions, Frank, there was always a powerful objective that brought him around. The objective from student to professor was the need to be successful in the classroom. His first couple of years in the classroom were really terrible. But then he became really a very good lecturer and a very good professor. And then he got involved in politics.

STASIO: He met a woman.

Prof. SHERWIN: And he met a woman who got him involved in politics, Jean Tatlock. And that was a very important milestone in his life, both for his sexual life and his maturity, but also for his political life. And then as we move on in the story, there's the need to beat the Germans to the atomic bomb and so on.

STASIO: And at each stage, as you suggest, he grew through this. "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" is the book. The story of Oppenheimer is the topic today on TALK OF THE NATION. Kai Bird is with us, one of the co-authors, along with the other co-author, Martin Sherwin.

You can join the conversation by calling (800) 989-8255. And that's just what Ed has done in La Jolla. Hello, Ed

ED (Caller): Yes. Hi. I'd make some very strident comments. Please don't consider them rude.

STASIO: You've come to the right program.

ED: I'm a physicist. Someone who knew Oppenheimer personally is Professor Overhauser who's still alive in Purdue. I was a student of his. A few things I'd like to point out. Recently, some of the greats have died recently. Hans Bethe died recently.

Prof. SHERWIN: Yes, and Philip Morrison.

ED: Philip Morrison. But there's a very interesting article by Eugene Wigner, who was the assistant to Oppenheimer running Los Alamos, but he worked at the metallurgical lab and the stag field. There's a paper in Journal of Applied Physics, 1946, it's about his recollections of the metallurgy laboratory. What's interesting is Oppenheimer was a hero and the person who was very interested in Oppenheimer as a hero was Eisenhower. Because after Oppenheimer lost his security clearance, he somehow was in touch with Eisenhower and Eisenhower picked up this whole idea of the evil of the military industrial complex from Oppenheimer, who had been basically--excuse my language--screwed by the military industrial complex.

Just continuing on, there's a nice book about this by Laurence Pringle, P-R-I-N-G-L-E, it's called "Nuclear Power: From Physics to Politics." I found it just in the library in Boston for a few dollars, 1979.

Prof. SHERWIN: Uh-huh.


ED: I just--I'm almost done. The--Gregory Wick, the famous quantum theorist, there was a loyalty oath and you see this continuing today what Oppenheimer fought against.

STASIO: Well, I do want to get a comment in, Ed, in your...

ED: Like yesterday, the vice president won in court about the secrecy of his energy negotiations and we have a crazy energy bill going through the Senate right now.

STASIO: Well, thank you very much...

ED: So Oppenheimer is still with us as a hero challenging the authority of secrecy when the Soviet Union and the Chinese haven't existed for a decade.

STASIO: Thank you very much, Ed.

I want to get your comment, especially on the Eisenhower business. Do you think that his military industrial complex speech was informed by Oppenheimer, very briefly?

Mr. BIRD: Yes, briefly. Oppie went over to brief General Eisenhower in 1952 when Eisenhower was then still commander of...


Mr. BIRD: ...NATO and he was trying to persuade him that he didn't need to rely on big bombs, big weapons and that there were coming on line tactical nuclear weapons. Now this is very interesting because it's in the context of the time, just two years after Truman has made the decision to build a hydrogen bomb. And ...(unintelligible) big bomb...

STASIO: We're going to talk more about this and we're going to talk more about the era of McCarthyism, J. Robert Oppenheimer. My guest and your calls on TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

STASIO: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington.

Talking today about J. Robert Oppenheimer, a man of science who became enmeshed in global politics, the creator of the world's most destructive weapon who ended as a pacifist, a patriotic hero, who became the target of red hunts and anti-Semitism. We're taking your questions about this 20th century figure, the "American Prometheus." You're invited to give us a call at (800) 989-TALK or send us an e-mail at totn@npr.org.

My guests, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, authors of the new biography, "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer." And you can read an excerpt of the book at our Web site at npr.org.

Just before the break, we were talking about his relationship with Eisenhower and then Truman. If Eisenhower was somewhat sympathetic, Truman certainly was not and there's a speech--and I want to hear a little piece of that right now--that Oppenheimer gave shortly after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, talking about the possibilities that this opened, possibilities for world peace.

(Soundbite of speech)

Dr. J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: If I return so insistently to the magnitude of the peril, not only to science but to our civilization, it is because I see in that our one great hope. As a further argument against war, like arguments that have always and increasingly existed, that have grown with the gradual growth of modern technology, it is not unique. As a further matter, requiring international consideration, like all other matters that so require it, it is not unique, but is a vast threat and a new one, to all the peoples of the Earth, by its novelty, its terror, its strangely Promethean quality. It has become in the eyes of many of us the unique opportunity.

STASIO: An opportunity. Several months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this is how Oppenheimer sees it. He presents this possibility to Truman and Truman doesn't see it that way.

Prof. SHERWIN: I think that the bomb as peacemaker, which is really what Oppenheimer was talking about there, was a rationalization, but it was really a necessary rationalization. Since the bomb existed, the question was: How could this possibly be used for good? What positive result could come out of such a devastating weapon? And the scientists, led by Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr, believed that because the bomb was so terrible, perhaps the nations of the world would be willing to sacrifice a certain amount of sovereignty, to bring themselves together in a condominium of some sort, to protect the world from a nuclear arms race. That was the great dream and the great possibility after the war and, of course, that never was realized.

STASIO: Part of his vision, too, included not proceeding with the hydrogen bomb, much more devastating than the atomic bomb that they developed at Los Alamos, and sharing the technology with the world so that we'd be on--the world would be on an even footing. And this is what Truman reacted to and called it a hand-wringing--really made it out to be someone who he had no respect for and said that he was some kind of hand-wringing...

Prof. SHERWIN: He called him `a cry baby scientist.'

STASIO: Yeah. Yeah. So there are two very different reactions to his response, to his actions at Los Alamos. How did he feel? Was this a man who went into this with a split mind? He was a patriot; he certainly developed the project, he managed--he attracted many of the scientists to this thing. He was not opposed to the atomic bomb.

Prof. SHERWIN: No, not at all. I mean, during the war, Robert Oppenheimer was the engine that drove the atomic bomb to completion by August of 1945. And that ended up being both a sense of pride and a great burden, a great burden on his humanistic spirit. Because really there were two atomic bomb projects, so to speak, or two phases for the atomic bomb project. The first one, phase one, was to beat the Germans who they thought were also racing for the bomb. But once the war was over on May 8th, 1945, the second phase was to be the--developing the bomb before the war ended and to have it used. And that became a great burden because Robert Oppenheimer learned after the war that the things he had been told about the necessity for the bomb were not necessarily true.

For example, he learned that the invasion was not scheduled till November 1st. He learned that in June of 1945, the Japanese had begun efforts to try to arrange a conditional surrender. He learned that the emperor's status was the critical issue. He learned that the Soviets had promised to come in before August 15th and, in fact, they did. They came in on August 8th. So he was definitely--felt used, so to speak, and in that same speech, there's a phrase where he says, `The atomic bomb was used on an essentially defeated nation.'

STASIO: Hmm. That philosophy and his prior connections with the Communist Party and other progressive movements led to his losing his security clearance in the 1950s. Talk a little bit about that.

Mr. BIRD: Yes. Well, that's why we call the book "American Prometheus," because, of course, Prometheus was the Greek mythical god who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mankind and Zeus then punished him for this by chaining him to the cliff and having a giant eagle peck out his liver for 15 generations. And like Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer gave mankind the fire of the atom and then he was punished just nine years later, brought down by the very government that--whom he had served and was put on trial in a security hearing that turned into a kangaroo court proceeding and he was publicly humiliated. His personal life was dragged through the mud and his security clearance in 1954 was stripped of him and he became an non-entity for a while. University communities disinvited him from speaking engagements. He became the chief celebrity victim of the McCarthy era.

STASIO: We're talking about the life of Robert Oppenheimer with Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, authors of "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer," a conversation that you can join by calling us at (800) 989-8255. And Michael is on the line from San Francisco.


MICHAEL (Caller): Hello.

STASIO: Yeah. You...

MICHAEL: Yes. I'm an artist and I have a work of--a portrait of Edward Teller in the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum collection. I spent a long time trying to figure out if I'd had the strength of my pacifist convictions, would I have been able to say no to building the H-bomb. And so I'm very curious what the authors think Oppenheimer might have accomplished if his security clearance had not been removed, and to what extent did Teller's testimony actually have to do with that removal of his security clearance?

STASIO: Thank you, Michael.

Prof. SHERWIN: Well, the--you know, some of the response to this question can be found on our Web site, which is www.americanprometheus.org or .com. But just to move forward for that, Michael, I'm not sure if you meant the hydrogen bomb or the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer and all of the members of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission came out against building the hydrogen bomb in 1949 as a response to the Soviets' successful test of their first atomic bomb in August of '49. But I think you meant as a pacifist, could you have resisted the idea of building the atomic bomb during World War II. Well, one example, Robert Wilson was a pacifist, but he himself just believed that under the circumstances, that is the possibility that the Nazis would get the atomic bomb first, he had to put aside his pacifist leanings. After the war, he completely got rid of his nuclear security clearance and never dealt with it again. So pacifism was trumped by Nazism during World War II.

STASIO: Another question, though, I guess part of that is: What did the United States lose by essentially exiling Oppenheimer? Had they gotten the best from him? Could they afford to throw him away, as they did, or was there some loss to the scientific community as a result?

Mr. BIRD: Well, it was a terrible tragedy. They lost his--the ability to see the secrets in his mind and the science that he could have developed afterwards. But they also--they did this, the US government did this in 1954, precisely to silence him because he was going public about his attitude towards weapons of mass destruction. And this notion is extremely relevant to our current situation in this so-called war on terrorism where we fear dirty bombs or even the use of a real atomic bomb on an American city.

Ironically, in 1946, '47, in a secret closed hearing before the US Senate, Oppenheimer was called to testify and was asked by a senator, `Well, Dr. Oppenheimer, would it be possible for four or five men to smuggle a small atomic bomb in a suitcase or in a crate, aboard a ship into New York Harbor and destroy New York City?' Oppenheimer replied, `Well, yes, certainly. It'd be easy for them to do this.' And the startled senator replied, `Well, what can we do to prevent this?' And Oppenheimer replied, `Well, you might get a screwdriver and open up every crate and every suitcase and inspect it.'

A few years later, the Atomic Energy Commission actually commissioned a study of this problem of nuclear terrorism and this report, to this day, is still classified, but it's known in the community as the Screwdriver Report.

STASIO: So they took him seriously, but the idea that his--this threat could get out about this weapon that the United States now controlled, seemed to be a threat to the government.

Mr. BIRD: He always understood that this weapon was a weapon of aggression, a weapon of terror and that ultimately it was more of a weapon against us than something that we could ever use to defend America, and therefore it was lunacy to make the atomic bomb or the hydrogen bomb as the centerpiece of our national security. And, indeed, we had a Cold War after the 1954 hearing that lasted for decades in which thousands of these weapons were built and now we're faced with the possibility that some of the remnants of some of these weapons might be smuggled in and used to blow up an American city.

STASIO: We have an e-mail that asks: `Am I mistaken or did Oppenheimer oppose a petition by other scientists to demonstrate the bomb rather than dropping it on Hiroshima?'

Prof. SHERWIN: Good point. Not mistaken. During the war, when Oppenheimer was the director of Los Alamos and the war was coming to the conclusion in phase two and the issue was whether it should be used against Japan, there were a variety of scientists--some from the University of Chicago, like Leo Szilard, some at Los Alamos, like Robert Wilson--who argued that perhaps the bomb should not be used against cities, that perhaps work on the bombs should not even continue. Oppenheimer, as the director of Los Alamos, opposed these petitions, and he made sure that they were not circulated and they did not build up any momentum. That became a tremendous burden after the war for the reasons I had stated earlier.

STASIO: What about his ability to attract other scientists? Did you say he was not only a brilliant scientist himself, but he was the manager of the project and had to, in fact, attract scientists to this project, some who were unwilling to work under military conditions?

Mr. BIRD: That's right. Robert Oppenheimer, until 1943, had never managed more than a dozen graduate students at the University of California, and suddenly, he was chosen as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, and by the end of the war, he was managing 6,000 people in a closed barbwire community, and he did it brilliantly. He was the kind of man who could walk into a room and hear a chemist and an engineer and a physicist arguing about a problem, and he could see all of their points of view and stand up and say, `Well, here, this is what you all agree upon, and this is the solution.' He was a renaissance man, and he was also extremely charismatic. Men and women loved to be around him. He defined leadership and made Los Alamos what it was. The bomb itself would not have been built by the end of the war if it had not been for Robert Oppenheimer.

STASIO: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Frank Stasio, sitting in for Neal Conan. My guests are Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, author of "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer." You can join the conversation by calling (800) 989-8255.

And that's what Dan has done. Dan, welcome to the program.

DAN (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon. I'm here in Antiga aboard a boat where I have been for years, off and on, and I had just a comment.

STASIO: A lucky man.

DAN: As a young 24-year-old student, I met this man.

STASIO: You met this man.

DAN: Yes. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Oppenheimer in 1961. Apparently, he would go from time to time to kind of hide out at St. John's, which is in the US Virgin Island.

Mr. BIRD: That's right.

DAN: And I met with him and some other young people in 1961, in the spring, as I recall. He was a--he appeared to be a very discouraged man, but he was very encouraging to us as young students. I was a young geology student taking a break to work on a boat, and he encouraged us to do the right thing and follow our convictions. I just thought that two cents was worthwhile in here, because obviously he had gone through a lot up until that time.

STASIO: Thanks very much for calling.

Prof. SHERWIN: Yes. Well, I think that's one of the lessons that he learned from his life, that one should follow one's convictions, even more strongly than he did. Kai and I actually visited Oppenheimer's home on St. John and met and interviewed many of the people he hung around with there, and they tell wonderful stories, just like our caller told.

STASIO: You know, you talked about his ability to see all sides of the story and then cut to the heart of the matter. Was that, in a sense, part of the tragedy, the sense that he could not only focus on the mission, which was to create this destructive power, this destructive device, but also see all sides of the issue?

Mr. BIRD: Oh, absolutely.

STASIO: He was a poet, as well as a scientist.

Mr. BIRD: Oh, he loved French poetry and he loved the Bhagavad-Gita and studied Sanskrit so he could read the Gita in the original. But he was a man of ambiguous intellect. I mean, when he was building the bomb, right after the test of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity Site in New Mexico, he was walking to work one day with his secretary, and she hears him suddenly muttering, `Those poor little people, those poor little people.' And she asks, `Who are you talking about?' and he says, `The people who the bomb is going to be used on, the people in Japan.' And this is the very week where he's also instructing the bombardiers exactly how to drop the bomb, at what height to achieve the most maximum destruction. So he understood, you know, in a painful sense, both sides, the necessity as he saw it at the time, and yet, the horrible human consequences of it.

Prof. SHERWIN: You know, one of the questions that's often asked is what's the difference between Edward Teller's ersonality and Robert Oppenheimer's personality? And they're 180 degrees apart. As Kai explained, Oppenheimer was someone who always saw the other side of the question immediately, and he always saw the flaws in the physics that he did, even when it was something as brilliant as coming to understand that there were black holes out there before that could be proved. He wrote the first paper on that in the 1930s, for example.

STASIO: Well, Martin Sherwin, I want to thank you very much, and your co-author, Kai Bird, "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer." You can read an excerpt from "American Prometheus" and see a video of the Trinity atomic bomb test at our Web site at npr.org.

Stay with us.


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