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Professor's Row

Martin J. Sherwin
Melody Ko

Burned by the Sun

The physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb,” was one of the iconic figures of the 20th century: the embodiment of modern man confronting the consequences of scientific progress. His postwar policy dispute with proponents of a massive nuclear buildup was turned into a McCarthy-era loyalty test. Political enemies raised his past associations on the Left to have his security clearance revoked, in a show trial in which it was decreed he could not be trusted with America’s nuclear secrets.

Martin J. Sherwin, Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History at Tufts, and Nation contributing editor Kai Bird have co-authored the first full-scale biography of Oppenheimer in American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf). Exhaustively researched over 25 years, the book is based on thousands of records and letters gathered from archives in America and abroad, on nearly 10,000 pages of FBI files and close to a hundred interviews with friends, relatives, and colleagues.

Sherwin, winner of the Stuart L. Bernath Prize and the American History Book Prize for his book A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (1975), spoke recently with Tufts Magazine on the complicated legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

On witnessing the first atomic blast in New Mexico in 1945, Oppenheimer is said to have recalled a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” How did he feel about having given the world the A-bomb?

Oppenheimer’s response to the atomic bomb was complicated. He came to Los Alamos as the director of the laboratory in 1943 charged-up with enthusiasm to build the bomb. He maintained this enthusiasm throughout the war. But soon after atomic bombs were used, he began to question whether it had been necessary. This was because he came to believe that he had been misinformed about Japan’s situation. He learned after the war that the Japanese had been seeking surrender terms for at least two months and that the Soviets were committed to enter the war against Japan no later than August 15, 1945. Their entry, he learned, assured Japan’s surrender. He also discovered that the emperor was quoted in a message to the Japanese ambassador to Moscow that the refusal of the United States to guarantee the safety of the emperor was “the only barrier to peace.” He came to deeply regret the bomb’s use, but at the same time was hopeful that the destruction of Hiroshima would lead the world’s leaders to a commitment to the international control of atomic energy. That the United States turned instead to stockpiling nuclear weapons was a great blow to his high hopes.

What do you see as the prime legacy of Robert Oppenheimer? What lessons should we draw today from his story? Why should we remember this man and his experience?

This is a string of big questions. In fact, they are the questions that inspired me to begin working on Oppenheimer’s biography more than 25 years ago. Obviously, his prime legacy is the nuclear weapon—and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I say that because it seems clear that atomic bombs would not have been ready in August 1945 if Oppenheimer had not been the director of Los Alamos. Most everyone who worked there during the war agrees that his incredibly effective leadership led to the development of the bomb in the shortest period of time.

There are many lessons to draw from his story. One is that it is dangerous to believe what any organization tells you about your work. Oppenheimer had total faith in the American government’s wisdom with respect to using the atomic bomb, but in the end he felt betrayed. He learned that President Truman had the shallowest understanding of the implications of nuclear weapons. And, then, in 1954, when his policy recommendations conflicted with those of the Eisenhower administration, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, and the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, collaborated in a conspiracy to destroy his political influence. They accused him of being a security risk. They organized a star-chamber trial that was fraught with illegalities. These included the wiretapping of his conversations with his lawyers, to mention only one. The hearing, published by the government, “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” was a great injustice.

Let us stipulate that Oppenheimer hasn’t conclusively been shown to have been anything beyond a “fellow traveler” in his earlier days; that his security clearance was stripped in 1954 following a rigged show trial; and that some of those who brought him down were proceeding on less-than-noble motives.
That said—given what is known of his past Communist associations and of the conflicting stories he gave about being approached for atomic information in 1943, given the threat posed by Stalin, and what is now known of Soviet atomic espionage efforts in the postwar years, might not a serious person in good faith have considered him a security risk?

All the information—and more—that you note above was available to the members of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 when they initially reviewed Oppenheimer’s security file, and most of it was available to General Leslie Groves, the director of the entire Manhattan Project, when he hired Oppenheimer. Whether or not “a serious person in good faith” could consider him a security risk was seriously discussed both during the war and afterward. The conclusion was that he was not a security risk. But once he began to challenge the policies of those who wanted more and bigger bombs, his past associations were used to destroy him. It was politics at its worst, not good–faith judgments.

Did you ever do duck-and-cover drills as a child? How did your own experience growing up during the cold war inform your approach to this book?

Yes, I did duck-and-cover drills. They struck me as both silly and fun. But the experiences that were most likely important in encouraging my interest in the nuclear issue came later. Between my freshman and sophomore years in college I worked in the Lucky Mac uranium mine, located about an hour or two from Riverton, Wyoming. Later, when I was in the U.S. Naval Air Force and stationed in Iwakuni, Japan, I visited Hiroshima. It was a powerful experience. All of the world’s leaders should be required to make a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Also, in October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, as my squadron’s air intelligence officer, I had the job of briefing the senior officers of my squadron on our orders for deployment should nuclear war break out. Talk about duck and cover!

Oppenheimer was a complicated genius who hovered at times at the edge of mental breakdown, who read ancient scriptures in Sanskrit and led thousands of scientists working on the bomb in total secrecy, who could be pretentious and arrogant and was fondly regarded by many as the epitome of the scientist as public servant. Did you like him by the time you’d finished writing the book, and why or why not?

Once I began to “know” Oppenheimer through my research, I developed a complex relationship to him. But I was determined to keep him at a psychological and emotional distance. I neither liked nor disliked him. There are many things about him that I found fascinating and other things that appalled me. For example, he was a fabulous professor, and that I admired. On the other hand, he was an awful parent, and that I certainly did not like. He was at once brilliant and foolish, arrogant and insecure, wise and naive. He was an incredible subject to research and write about. Would I have liked him if I had known him? I have asked myself that question on occasion, but never knew how to answer it. Maybe the answer is buried deep in American Prometheus.