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american prometheus

21 january 2009

In 1943, J. Robert Oppenheimer was chosen to direct the project to construct an atomic bomb. Anti-Semitism was rife in America; Oppenheimer was a Jew. Paranoia about Communism was rising toward its postwar apogee; Oppenheimer was a self-described "fellow traveller" who carried no card but had given Party causes lots of money. The Los Alamos project involved co-ordinating the work of thousands of temperamental people; Oppenheimer had no administrative experience at all. Why was he even on anyone's shortlist to build the Bomb?

As quoted in Kai Bird & Martin Sherwin's 2005 book American Prometheus, experimental physicist Martin Kamen explains why there was scarcely any alternative to Oppenheimer:

Oppenheimer can certainly figure out what's going on, so the security is nonsense to keep him out of it. Better to have him in. And I imagine that's what finally happened; they said it's easier to monitor him if he's inside the project than outside. (178)
In the mid-1940s, Oppenheimer was the central figure in American theoretical physics, and American theoretical physicists were abuzz with the possibility of constructing a nuclear weapon. As the most widely knowledgeable, the quickest, the best-connected, and the most relentlessly curious of his guild, Oppenheimer essentially knew all the basic atomic secrets anyway. Keeping him outside the security apparatus of the Manhattan Project would have been futile; putting him at its center ensured his fervent cooperation.

Much later, in 1954, Oppenheimer would lose his security clearance after a put-up job of a hearing by the Atomic Energy Commission. There was no new evidence of his disloyalty. In fact, there is no evidence that Oppenheimer was even potentially disloyal. The single connection he had with foreign spies was a feeler from a friend who wondered if Oppenheimer might be willing to pass secrets to the Soviets (then America's allies). Oppenheimer told his friend that the suggestion was treasonous, and later reported it to counter-espionage authorities.

Nor did Oppenheimer's security clearance mean much by 1954. He was only a consultant, and even his consultancy was due to expire. Albert Einstein advised him to resign that consultancy, and refuse to address the hearing panel. But Oppenheimer wanted to have it both ways. He wanted to be a dissident and an insider. And 1954 was the wrong year to pick to be both.

Bird & Sherwin's Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography deals very little with physics, but is rich in detail about Oppenheimer's politics and personal life. In retelling the story of the 1954 hearings, Bird & Sherwin illuminate one of the strange aspects of American science in the postwar period. For the first time in American history, the contents of academic brains became subject to a national surveillance apparatus. Oppenheimer, as Kamen notes, could have figured out how to build an atomic bomb on his own, even if he'd never gone to Los Alamos. In fact, his insight that the secrets of the Bomb were really just the secrets of the Universe itself drove his internationalism. Oppenheimer realized that any competent physics department with access to enough uranium could fabricate a bomb. There was no locking up the atom.

The broadcaster Eric Sevareid noted, "He [Oppenheimer] will no longer have access to secrets in government files, and government, presumably, will no longer have access to secrets that may be born in Oppenheimer's brain." (547)

So Oppenheimer and other leftist physicists were security risks by their very existence. To control them, short of eliminating them altogether, meant denying them teaching jobs, passports, and research careers. The "secrets" that they knew were not things like the combination to the safe at Fort Knox or the location of elements of the 101st Airborne Division. They were the essential nature of the atomic nucleus – and the American state raged at being unable to classify Nature itself.

Bird, Kai, and Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus: The triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. New York: Knopf, 2005.