The Gung-ho Father of the Bomb

In the laughable Paul Newman vehicle Fat Man and Little Boy (1990), in which Newman plays General Leslie Groves, military leader of the Manhattan Project, its head scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, reacts to the project with politically correct disgust. The reality was different.

As “Trinity,” code name of the nuclear bomb’s first detonation, passes its 70th anniversary this week, it is instructive to remember that Oppenheimer approached the project as a purely technical problem. It was only after the experiment worked that he allowed the moral dimension in. His background in literature—the choice of “Trinity” was his, after a John Donne poem that he liked—made Oppenheimer recall a verse from the Hindu bible: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Throughout the project, Oppenheimer was proof that George Orwell was wrong in his assertion that those with a background in humanistic studies reflexively opposed atomic weaponry. Oppenheimer was gung-ho about his assignment, which he called “technically sweet.” So much so that, upon being picked as head scientist, he tried to join the U.S. Army. His chronic cough from chain-smoking (he would die of throat cancer) made him flunk the physical, but this did not dampen his fervor.

There were a lot of physicists and engineers who, upon learning that Nazi Germany did not have an atomic capability, mounted a protest against its use on Japan but Oppenheimer was not of their number. He headed a panel supporting the use of the Bomb against Japan. Before Trinity, he advocated scattering radioactive dust on Japan.

Perhaps this intensity was in some way connected with his anti-fascist past, a past that had him in contact with many people in the orbit of the American Communist Party, including many Party members. (A little-known fact about the Party was that it was as racist toward Japan as any “reactionary” GI Joe.) By his own admission, he fellow-traveled with the Party (his wife and brother were both members) but never formally joined, according to a security questionnaire he answered upon joining the Manhattan Project in 1942. Apolitical until the mid-1930s, Oppenheimer began donating money to the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. As a University of California-Berkeley faculty member, he was in a group that put out newsletters on political events, and he may even have penned the group’s Party-line-compliant 1940 report. (It defended, at that time of Soviet alliance with the Third Reich, the Red Army’s invasion of Finland, and it denounced President Roosevelt as a “counter-revolutionary war-monger” for aiding Britain against Hitler’s Wehrmacht.)

By April 1942, as he was awaiting security clearance to assume leadership of the scientists of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer had apparently stopped contributing funds to the Party or participating in any of its activities. Even so, the FBI put him under 24-hour surveillance, following him to a meeting with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Jean Tatlock, a card-carrying communist.

But the physicist also cooperated with security. In August 1943, he voluntarily told Army intelligence that he had been approached by a scholar friend of his with connections to Soviet intelligence, Haakon Chevalier, and probed for his willingness to pass atomic secrets to Moscow. Reportedly, Oppenheimer told his friend Chevalier that the “world is not what we wanted it to be. It’s different.”

He also told Army intelligence that, when recruiting scientists whose talents were needed but whom he knew had ties to the Communist Party, he asked them to break with the Party because “one always had a question of divided loyalty.” The discipline of the Party was “very severe and not compatible with complete loyalty to the project.”

As the clock ticked on producing the Bomb, Oppenheimer no longer had any illusions about Stalin. By the same token, throwing his loyalty to the side of freedom and his native country did not bring him inner serenity. For his qualms began to multiply as he witnessed at Trinity what he had built.