One would be tempted to describe J. Robert Oppenheimer as a tragic figure — that’s certainly how Christopher Nolan portrays him in the biopic Oppenheimer. The father of the atomic bomb who spent the rest of his life agonizing over what he had helped birth; the ultimate insider who was humbled and brought low; the hopeful scientist who started the nuclear arms race. But then, tragic figures don’t generally spend their retirement yachting around the Caribbean. Or maybe he was a tragic figure in the mold of Lord Byron — interestingly dark and mystical, remarkably pretty, and rich as Midas.
Oppenheimer grew up in privilege, and remained swaddled in it for his whole life. His father immigrated to New York with nothing, and rose up to become a wealthy textile company executive. His parents spoiled their little genius. When he started a childhood rock collection, it grew to cover every surface in their apartment, which itself covered an entire floor overlooking the Hudson River. The Oppenheimers had a chauffeur, a French governess, three live-in maids and three van Gogh paintings. He corresponded with the New York Mineralogical Club, but when they invited him to speak they were surprised and delighted when he turned out to be only 12. His 16th birthday present was a 28-foot yacht (to go with the family’s 40-foot Lorelei) which he called Trimethy, after a chemical compound. As Oppenheimer remarked when he bought his first holiday home in New Mexico, the state where he would later spearhead the development of the atomic bomb: “hot dog!”
Oppenheimer was a slightly odd student. He was a nerd at Harvard, excluded for his introversion and, in the intensely antisemitic environment of the 1920s, for his Jewishness. He was a somewhat troubled youth. At Cambridge University, he once left a poisoned apple on his tutor’s desk; on vacation when a friend told him of his engagement, Oppenheimer tried to strangle him; and in Gottingen, where he was a PhD student, his classmates presented a petition to get him to stop interrupting seminars.
However, he began to come out of his shell as a postdoctoral researcher in Leiden and Zurich, and became positively cool when he moved to California in 1929. He cooked nasi goreng — his colleagues called it “nasty gory” — and “eggs a la Oppie,” made with lots of Mexican chiles. He had a house with a Picasso on the wall, New Mexican rugs on the floor and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. He fundraised for Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War and flirted with communism. With his blackboard chalk and his cigarettes, he made significant breakthroughs, inspired his graduate students, and built one of the finest theoretical physics departments in the world. And he was lucky: His father’s fortune was unscathed by the Crash of 1929. Once after a crash of Oppenheimer’s own, speeding in his Chrysler while racing a train and knocking unconscious and almost killing his passenger Natalie Raymond, his dad gave her a Cezanne drawing by way of an apology. Hot dog!
After the war, he got the cushiest job imaginable, as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. As director, he was given the 265-acre Olden Manor, parts of which dated to 1696. He had no teaching responsibilities, and a $120,000 fund to spend on inviting whoever he liked to spend anything from a few months (T.S. Eliot, whose poem “The Wasteland” Oppenheimer is depicted absorbing onscreen) to the rest of their career (the diplomat George Kennan, he of the Cold War containment policy). It sounds like a great gig. And if I had it, I also would have essentially stopped producing research, as Oppenheimer did.
Eventually McCarthyism, red-baiting FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Oppenheimer’s own political mistakes came for him, and he lost his security clearance and his political appointments in 1954, events that serve as the framing device for Nolan’s film. But Oppenheimer remained as director of the institute until his death. The sheer ludicrous unfairness of the Republican show-trial security hearing — puppet-mastered by the banker turned atomic energy adviser Lewis Strauss — made him a martyr, and when the Democrats got back into the White House they gave him a special award. Oppenheimer spent much of the 50s and 60s in his holiday home at Hawksnest Bay on the Caribbean island of Saint John (where he imported champagne by the case) or on his yacht.
By comparison, his brother Frank became a Communist Party member in 1937 while attempting to desegregate his local swimming pool in Pasadena; was an early campaigner at Los Alamos on international arms control; and then was blacklisted from academia, denied a passport, and left to spend a decade as a cattle rancher.
Los Alamos’s camp counselor-in-chief
But the central location in Oppenheimer’s life wasn’t the Upper West Side, the Bay Shore mansion on Long Island, his bachelor pad in California, the manor in Princeton, or his Caribbean island. The central location was Los Alamos. This scientific base was built from scratch, up in the hills of northern New Mexico. It was Oppenheimer’s favorite part of the country; indeed, Los Alamos was a day’s horse ride from his holiday home. It was like locating CERN, the massive intergovernmental particle physics lab, in the pleasant English countryside of the Cotswolds.
Los Alamos during wartime sounds like great fun. Married scientists were permitted to bring their families. There were barn dances or piano recitals on a Saturday night, hikes and horse-riding on a Sunday. It had a local cinema, 15 cents a ticket. It had a local theater group: Oppenheimer even played a corpse in the comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. And it had large quantities of booze — Oppenheimer was famous for mixing very strong, very cold martinis, while the tipple of choice for the less well-heeled bachelor scientists was half lab alcohol and half grapefruit juice, chilled with a chunk of smoking dry ice. The average age was 25. And everyone, in between the work of creating the atom bomb, was apparently having sex: 80 children were born the first year, and 10 a month after that. All in all, it makes for a better war than storming beaches in Normandy or Iwo Jima.
The comforts provided to the scientists and their families have been described as “army socialism.” But the soldiers who emptied the bins and the local Indigenous women who cleaned the houses must have had a pretty clear sense of the pecking order. In the many Manhattan Project memoirs, Los Alamos reminds one far more of the summer camp it was before the war than a top-secret government project to develop a weapon of mass destruction
Oppenheimer’s historic contribution was as scientific director of Los Alamos. But what was the nature of that contribution to the Manhattan Project? Not the science — the real breakthroughs were from Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, who showed nuclear fission was possible, or specialists like Robert Christy, who designed the plutonium implosion “Christy gadget” successfully tested at Trinity Site near Los Alamos, and later dropped on Nagasaki. And not the direction — 90 percent of Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves’s budget went to the Fordist feats of administration, logistics, and industrial engineering that were the Oak Ridge and Hanford production plants, churning out the plutonium and enriched uranium that fueled the atom bombs. Oppenheimer’s chief contribution was as camp counselor of Los Alamos.
Oppenheimer encouraged them on, and his charisma cast a sort of spell over the campers. It is no coincidence that much of the serious thinking about the bomb — morally and politically — happened elsewhere, in Chicago under Leo Szilard or in the giant head of the Danish genius Niels Bohr. Oppenheimer whipped them up with a simple message: we need to get the bomb before Hitler.
As it turns out, this was all mistaken. We now know that the Nazis had decided against a nuclear fission program by 1942. Nazi planners needed raw materials and manpower for armaments production, and Nazi scientists thought a bomb couldn’t be delivered in time to affect the war in Europe, which very much proved to be the case. So the Manhattan Project did not in fact deter, and did not need to deter, Hitler from developing and using the bomb. The scientists were working based on a mistake.
The main effect of the Manhattan Project was to bring forward in time the era of the bomb and the era of the nuclear arms race. The existential risk researcher Toby Ord calls this era “the Precipice”: the first period in which humanity can destroy itself. The US would likely not have “sprinted” to the same extent, spending 0.4 percent of GDP, for a peacetime Manhattan Project. And Oppenheimer’s nemesis Lewis Strauss may have been right, if for the wrong reasons, when he accused Oppenheimer of helping the Soviet nuclear program. Quite simply, it would have taken the Soviets years longer if they couldn’t just copy the secrets of the Manhattan Project. Szilard and Albert Einstein, whose 1939 letter prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to begin the US nuclear program, later described their advocacy for the project as the greatest mistake of their life.
This was not simply an honest mistake. Joseph Rotblat — the only scientist to resign from the Manhattan Project — got a nasty shock in May 1944 when, at a dinner, Groves said, “You realize, of course, that the main purpose of this project is to subdue the Russians.” Later, Groves testified that “there was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this Project, any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy.” It is hard to reconcile this bloodlessness with Matt Damon’s blithe face as Groves in Christopher Nolan’s film.
How complicit was Oppenheimer? David Hawkins, Oppenheimer’s aide and the Manhattan Project’s official historian, claims that Groves told Oppenheimer at the end of 1943 that the Nazis had abandoned their attempt — and Oppenheimer shrugged. Oppenheimer dominated the ethical discussions among scientists in late 1944, as both the war and the race to the atomic bomb were nearing their end stages, arguing that scientists had no right to a louder voice than other citizens, and that if the war ended without nuclear use, the next war would be fought with nuclear weapons. Was Oppenheimer swept up by the same patriotic fervor that prompted him to have a colonel’s uniform tailored for himself? Was the bomb just too “technically sweet” for him to resist? It is unclear. Perhaps the best we can say in his defense was that Oppenheimer was chumped into doing it (to some extent), and inadvertently or not, he chumped the other scientists as well.
“Would you like to wipe your hands?”
Oppenheimer’s complicity did give him prestige and access. However, he squandered that, and lost four key political battles over the use and future of nuclear weapons: on a demonstration attack, on beginning talks at the Potsdam conference, on arms control proposals after the war, and on not racing for the far more powerful hydrogen bomb.
The two key issues on the agenda at the May 31, 1945, meeting of the “Interim Committee,” a government advisory group on atomic research, were how to use the bomb, and how to communicate to the Soviets. Oppenheimer, the vast majority of Los Alamos scientists, and indeed Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, all supported a demonstration attack on an empty island. But Harvard President James Conant instead suggested “a vital war plant … surrounded by workers’ houses.”
At this crucial decision-making meeting, Oppenheimer did not disagree with the targeting of civilians, instead merely noting the visual effect of a bomb and the feasibility of simultaneous strikes. He also stayed quiet when Groves got approval to purge dissenting scientists like Szilard from the project. Oppenheimer thought that he had traded these betrayals for a commitment that the USSR was to be clearly informed of the bomb and its planned use. These discussions would mean that the Soviets would not be blindsided in a frightening manner that would spur an arms race. But instead, in his meeting with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam conference, just after the successful Trinity test, Truman only casually and vaguely mentioned a new weapon, and had no serious discussion with his opposite number. Oppenheimer had lost on both counts.
The first time he met Truman, after the atomic bombings of Japan, out of frustration and passion Oppenheimer blurted out, “There is blood on my hands.” Truman would stew on this for years, retelling and embellishing the anecdote, once claiming he pulled out his handkerchief and said “Well, here, would you like to wipe your hands?” Immediately after he left, Truman called him a “cry baby scientist,” and would never trust him again.
Oppenheimer’s postwar record was just as bad. He was the main intellectual force behind the 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal Report, which proposed a single worldwide Atomic Development Agency with a monopoly over all uranium mines, labs, enrichment facilities, and power plants. Control over nuclear technology would be international, rather than national. However, as Oppenheimer later acknowledged, this was infeasible and naive. Stalin would never have agreed to renunciation of sovereignty, to the inspections, or to the depth of cooperation with the capitalist West the plan would have demanded. Bernard Baruch, proposer of the failed Baruch Plan, was a convenient scapegoat.
When the Soviets exploded their first bomb in 1949, Oppenheimer told David Lilienthal, the first chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, that “we mustn’t muff it this time,” meaning the arms race. But they did muff it, and the US stockpile grew from 50 warheads in 1948 to 300 in 1950. The next fight was on whether to build a “Super” or hydrogen bomb, much more destructive than the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer opposed it on scientific, technical, and moral grounds. But when the decision came to Truman, the president had one question: can the Russians do it? The answer was yes. “In that case,” Truman replied, “we have no choice.” The meeting took 7 minutes. The cry baby scientist’s concerns were completely dismissed.
How Oppenheimer was outplayed
The two most notable facts about Oppenheimer’s life are that he first sped up the creation of nuclear weapons, and then failed utterly to restrict the nuclear arms race he had helped begin. The arms racers used his scientific credibility to support their reckless buildup, and outplayed him in every important political battle. It would take a further 18 years after his 1954 defrocking before the first bilateral arms control agreement on nuclear weapons. This removal of his security clearance can be seen as the final mercy kill of an utterly defanged and defeated political opponent.
It’s hard to overemphasize how much the authors of American Prometheus, the book on which the film is based, are on Team Oppenheimer. One author, Kai Bird, spent 25 years interviewing Oppenheimer’s friends and family. They spend 88 pages on a minute-by-minute account of the mistrial of his hearing. They refer to him frequently as “Oppie.” And even their assessment is that he “won nothing and acquiesced to everything.”
How should we remember Oppenheimer: A tragic martyr? Death, the destroyer of worlds? The “American Prometheus” of the title? Another descriptive phrase comes to mind, one that would be more familiar to one of his father’s employees in a New York textile factory: “What a schmuck.”
Haydn Belfield has been academic project manager at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk for the past six years. He is also an associate fellow at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence.