Review of Jeremy Bernstein's Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma

Culture Watch


Jeremy Bernstein is a physicist and gifted writer who has succeeded admirably in making the history and sociology of science understandable to laymen. His profiles of scientists appeared in the New Yorker for nearly 30 years and his book on Albert Einstein gained a wide audience. Until now, Bernstein never wrote at length about J. Robert Oppenheimer (or "Julius Robert Oppenheimer," as J. Edgar Hoover preferred), who conducted the orchestra of brilliant physicists, chemists and others to develop the atomic bomb during World War II. Bernstein's admiration is transparent: Oppenheimer's "ability in physics" and his "astounding charisma" enabled him to accomplish what probably none other might have done. But Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma is tempered with criticism of the physicist's naivete and his arrogance, which contributed to his tragic public humiliation in 1954 when the government withdrew his security clearance.

Bernstein's engaging and revealing profile is a reminder of the events that so colored and charged Oppenheimer's life but, in the longer run of history, pale when measured against his signature achievements.

At his 1954 hearing, Oppenheimer stated that he had been largely apolitical until the mid-1930s. But his growing concern with the fate of Jews in Germany (for him a rare conscious identification with things Jewish) and the effects of the Depression led him into a flurry of political activity. His new friends included Jean Tatlock, a colleague's daughter who was deeply involved in Communist Party affairs, and his future wife, Kathryn "Kitty" Puening, also a party member and then married to one of Oppenheimer's colleagues. Oppenheimer involved himself in union activities and various anti-fascist and pro-communist causes, but Bernstein flatly rejects any idea that he was a Communist Party member.

Before he was tapped for the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer taught advanced physics at UC Berkeley and Caltech. He was highly regarded as a scientist but hardly known outside academic circles. In 1942, the War Department selected then-Col. Leslie Groves to head the top-secret project. Groves knew nothing about physics and needed a scientist coordinator. Oppenheimer seemed an unlikely choice. He was a theoretical, not an experimental, physicist; he read poetry in several languages; and he had a good deal of left-wing baggage. Bernstein speculates that Oppenheimer's apparent modesty about his work appealed to Groves, who later described the physicist as strictly his subordinate. He acknowledged his dependence on Oppenheimer's scientific advice but kept him compartmentalized from the whole project.

Despite Groves's self-promoting description of himself as the man in charge, Oppenheimer's role is universally conceded to have been indispensable. He had the respect, admiration and affection of the Los Alamos scientists; clearly it was he who marshaled the disparate personnel that shaped America's nuclear future, according to scientists who worked with him.

Oppenheimer worried the higher-ups who were charged with maintaining secrecy and security. The record of his left-wing political attachments was available from the start. Groves's aides Maj. K.D. Nichols and William L. Borden, with assists from Army intelligence and the FBI, made them an issue, but Groves was unimpressed. He had seen FBI reports and knew of Oppenheimer's political involvements, as well as those of his brother, wife and girlfriend. But Groves deemed him "absolutely essential to the project" and insisted on security clearance "without delay, irrespective of the information which you have concerning Mr. Oppenheimer."

At the same time, Oppenheimer encountered a more dangerous adversary in the gifted physicist Edward Teller. Oppenheimer named Hans Bethe to head the theoretical division, a slight the Hungarian-born Teller never forgot. Bethe's efforts to involve Teller in the primary atom bomb work proved futile. Bernstein believes that Oppenheimer had abandoned any hope for Teller to be a productive group member, leaving him to work mostly alone on a hydrogen, or "super" fusion bomb. Teller continued that work and pursued his theories after the war. Only the discoveries made by the Polish-born mathematician Stanislaw Ulam in 1951 and the work of others finally made the hydrogen bomb possible.

The Atomic Energy Commission's General Advisory Committee, which consisted of Oppenheimer and a roster of distinguished scientists, unanimously recommended against a crash program to accelerate development of the super bomb. Oppenheimer's "lack of enthusiasm" was shared by a group that hardly could be surpassed for its expertise. Its 1949 report centered on two points: First, the then-circulating proposals for an H-bomb were based on Teller's yet-unrealized ambitions; second, the H-bomb's potential for far greater destruction than the atomic bomb alarmed committee members, who feared it would become a weapon of genocide.

Bernstein remembers that Oppenheimer once suggested that potential Cold War targets in the Soviet Union and elsewhere were "too small" for a hydrogen weapon. Atomic weapons would have been as effective. "[I]f the hydrogen bomb had never been invented," Bernstein writes, "the nuclear stockpile would have been about the same." But military and scientific enthusiasm for bigger and bolder weaponry proved irresistible. The Soviets had exploded their first atomic device just two months before the committee's report. U.S. scientists' pervasive contempt for Soviet science meant, of course, that they could not have developed it themselves. The United States must have been betrayed from within, and an already-burgeoning fear of subversion broadened into wholesale inquiries of patriotism and loyalty. Oppenheimer became the most famous casualty.

The AEC moved to suspend Oppenheimer's clearance in the spring of 1954. Chairman Lewis Strauss, a longtime adversary and previously an isolated voice on the commission, led the effort, motivated by his personal animus toward the physicist and their fundamental disagreement over weapons development. Strauss handpicked a three-judge panel to conduct a "trial" that in many ways parodied the infamous Soviet purge trials fifteen years earlier. Oppenheimer was only publicly humiliated, not executed. The presiding judge consistently ruled in favor of the government. Oppenheimer's prosecutor had complete access to classified documents, which were denied to Oppenheimer's lawyer.

Why bother to suspend his clearance? Oppenheimer had not been active in weapons development; he was then head of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. His clearance had been scheduled to expire in June 1953, but was extended for another year. With Oppenheimer's allies gone, Strauss, a former investment banker who would later become Eisenhower's commerce secretary, had to rush the proceedings because Oppenheimer would not be subject to AEC jurisdiction after June 30, 1954.

The hearing resurrected Oppenheimer's political involvements and associations of two decades earlier. Particular attention centered on the "Chevalier incident," involving Haakon Chevalier, a UC Berkeley French professor and Communist Party member. Chevalier relayed information in 1943 to Oppenheimer from a friend with contacts to a Soviet spy ring in San Francisco that Soviet scientists were eager to share information with their U.S. counterparts. Oppenheimer failed to report the encounter promptly to security forces, then hesitated before revealing names. Bernstein believes the best that can be said is that Oppenheimer, torn by divided loyalties, made the worst choice. At his hearing, Oppenheimer called himself an "idiot" for his involvement, delighting prosecutors, who were eager to have him as an accomplice to his humiliation.

Panel members had no interest in Borden's charges that Oppenheimer was a spy. After all, what could they do, try him for treason? Espionage? The security charges were old stuff and the irony was that Oppenheimer still was being used by the government as an advisor, notwithstanding the allegations.

Oppenheimer's "lack of enthusiasm" for building more or bigger weapons simply meant that the government had no further use for him. And his enemies were formidable. An Air Force general testified that he believed Oppenheimer loyal but misguided. The Air Force wanted him removed; after all, Oppenheimer had dismissed its pet project for a nuclear-powered aircraft.

Bernstein focuses on the high drama of the conflict between Oppenheimer and Teller. Certainly Teller gave important testimony, affirming Oppenheimer's loyalty while questioning his commitment to further development of nuclear weapons. Teller alone was not decisive; he was not yet the commanding figure of later years. But he did provide legitimacy for the political, military and scientific forces (and Strauss) that demanded accelerated weapons development. Oppenheimer's dubious political past merely nourished prevailing demands for conformity.

Two judges concluded that Oppenheimer's security clearance was not in the country's interests. They said that Oppenheimer's "continuing conduct and associations" showed a dangerous disregard for national security; more to the point, his conduct in the hydrogen bomb debate was "sufficiently disturbing as to raise a doubt to whether his future participation & would be clearly consistent with the best interests of security." The third, Northwestern University chemist Ward V. Evans, dissented, bluntly concluding that "[t]o deny him clearance now for what he was cleared for in 1947, when we must know he is less of a security risk now than he was then, seems hardly the procedure to be adopted in a free country." The Institute for Advanced Study remained free to follow its own course. Oppenheimer offered his resignation, but the trustees unanimously expressed complete confidence in him. Institute trustee Strauss was absent.

In April 1963, the atomic commission announced that Oppenheimer had been selected for the Fermi Prize, which provided a $50,000 stipend. Teller had been the previous winner and, following custom, it was he who recommended Oppenheimer's selection. Bernstein is at a loss for an explanation; perhaps for Teller it was a means of repairing his relations with fellow physicists, many of whom supported Oppenheimer at the time of the hearing. President Kennedy's office announced on Nov. 22, the same day he was assassinated, that he would present the prize. President Johnson decided to go ahead with the ceremony, despite potential criticism from Oppenheimer's critics. Accepting the award, Oppenheimer told Johnson: "I think it is just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today. That would seem a good augury for all our futures." Oppenheimer and Teller shook hands; doing the right thing cost Johnson nothing. The trial belonged to a distant past.

Time and events have eroded the circumstances of Oppenheimer's fall from official grace. Communism is largely a relic of the past, and the Soviet Union is no more; we preoccupy ourselves now with political correctness as ideological attachments have declined. Oppenheimer's formal accusers are mostly forgotten. Nobel laureate Bethe, the sole surviving senior scientist at Los Alamos, has said that Oppenheimer "did a job & that perhaps no one else could have done." Oppenheimer and his incredible team transformed the world of science -- and more. Now, with his enemies on the sidelines of history, J. Robert Oppenheimer's reputation is secure, and his monumental achievement endures.

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Tomas Kaldor - 4/26/2005

I enjoyed Prof. Bernstein's book immensely, and agree with much of its conclusions. There are a few points where I disagree or believe an alternative view is at least as plausible.

In Bernstein's book, it is a mystery why Oppenheimer approached Lt. Johnson when he returned to the Radiation Lab, and revealed the Chevalier pitch after months of silence. It isn't a mystery. He was asked about FAECT by a security officer at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer had helped organize FAECT, and had had an organizational meeting in his own home, with Eltonton present, to organize the workers at the Radiation Lab. It was this questioning about FAECT that prompted Oppenheimer's revelation of the Chevalier pitch.

Bernstein asks whether Oppenheimer's mention of the Soviet Consulate in his followup interview with Col. Pash was just a fabulation. Bernstein doesn't mention that Oppenheimer also mentioned microfilm. It's certainly possible that both the Soviet Consulate connection and microfilm were Oppenheimer embroideries. It's also possible that they reveal the depth of the pitch by Chevalier, only one of several Communists who say that Oppenheimer was a member of a secret cell at Berkeley. The mention of three scientists approached may have been an embroidery, certainly.

Berstein makes much of Hoover's "clearance" of Oppenheimer in 1947. For this, Bernstein relies on Lilienthal, who Berstein describes as hero-worshipping Oppenheimer. Yet, the fact that Lilienthal hero-worshipped Oppenheimer does not occasion any skepticism on the part of Bernstein towards Lilienthal's account. Quite the contrary.

When the AEC was forwarded the FBI file on Oppenheimer, to assist the AEC in its consideration of a clearance for Oppenheimer, Lilienthal, solicited Hoover's opinion.
Bernstein writes:

"To make absolutely sure, Lilienthal contacted Hoover to see if there was additional information that would cause Hoover to recommend against clearance. Hoover said he was troubled only by the incident with Haakon Chevalier (more about this shortly) and the fact that Oppenheimer had not fully reported it in a timely fashion."

Let's be clear here. Lilienthal is asking if there is anything in addition to the file, which already contained the Chevalier incident, that was sufficient to deny a clearance. Hoover responds by pointing out that he is only concerned with Chevalier incident. That isn't exactly responsive to the question, but it does hint at the fact that Hoover might think the Chevalier incident sufficient to deny clearance.

Bernstein then quotes Lilienthal:

"Beyond that there was no further comment about the file. So we left with no suggestion from Hoover that further investigation ought to be carried on or that the file was incomplete, that there were things we didn't know about."

To summarize. Hoover is asked if there is additional information that would cause a denial, and he points back to already included information. He makes no further comment about the file, nor recommends further investigation. On the basis of this, Bernstein, following Liliethal, concludes that Hoover "cleared" Oppenheimer. Nowhere is it contemplated by Bernstein that the 1954 hearings could also be taken as a criticism of Lilienthal's decision in 1947 to grant a clearance to Oppenheimer. That fact would not have escaped Liliethal's attention, though. Bernstein, instead, treats Lilienthal as a faithful narrator, without a personal interest at stake, and draws favorable implications from Hoover's ambiguous remarks.

There are, unfortunately, reasons to believe that Lilienthal was "sahping" his testimony at the 1954 hearings, in favor of Oppenheimer and his own prior decision to grant a clearance. Among those reasons, is the fact that he denied, at the 1954 hearings, that he had asked the White House, through Clark Clifford, to convene a special committee to review the clearance matter. In other words, even with Hoover's supposed "clearing" of Oppenheimer, Lilienthal had seen it as so explosive that he didn't want anything to do with it. The White House refused, and Lilienthal and the other AEC commissioners gave the clearance on their own authority. What is also clear is that Conant and Bush had allowed non-security matters to intrude into their consideration of the matter, as they said it would be hard to recruit scientists if oppenheimer was denied. It was only when confronted with an AEC memo detailing the pitch to Clifford, that Lilienthal "remembered" it. Is that likely? I think not. Lilienthal just can't be trusted as a credible narrator of events.

It is central to Bernstein's interpretation that Oppenheimer was fabulating when he mentioned the Soviet Consulate and microfilm to Col. Pash. For if he wasn't, then for a period of up to seven months, Oppenheimer had allowed a Soviet spy ring to operate, with his knowledge, without informing US authorities. I think that would qualify as an act of disloyalty.

Certainly all this does not imply that security reasons were paramount in the decision to revoke Oppenheimer's clearance. He opposed specific hydrogen bomb designs, and always for perfectly good technical reasons. But his reasons, and those of the the other GAC members, went beyond technical matters, and strayed into strategic concerns, in which they were hopeklessly out of their depth. For instance, the GAC states that "Should they [the Soviet Union] use the weapon [the hydrogen bomb] against us, reprisals by our large stock of atomic bombs would be comparably effective to to the use of a super." That doesn't, of course, contemplate the use of more than one hydrogen bomb by the Soviet Union, which would outstrip our atomic response, and our ability to deliver it.

Even Bernstein's favorite defense has its thorn. He quotes favorably the view of the lone dissenting voice of the 1954 panel, Ward Evans, that having received a clearance in 1947, he hardly deserved to be denied one now for much the same reasons. But even Evans admits that the AEC in 1947 "took a chance".

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/29/2004

I would judt amend the last sentence of the previous post. Teasing out the causal lines is a tricky business. Would Oppie have been knifed if he still directed research, was still indispensable, and if he had supported rapid development of the hydrogen bomb program? That is a point for debate. Would the tenor of the times (McCarthy) have ended Oppie's career were he still indispensable? That too is a debatable notion. The atmosphere of McCarthy might be best viewed as the instrument of destruction used in a bureaucratic fight over direction of research and development in the hydrogen program, now that Oppie was no longer indispensable -- rather than seeing McCarthyism as the prime mover. Or at least that would seem a reasonable thesis open to debate.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/27/2004

As I said, it's been almost 20 years since I had read in this area. Interesting things pop up.

Seems that in his OSRD application for a clearance, Oppie failed to mention his association with the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT). Pinsky, an organizer for the FAECT, credits Oppie with the creation of the Shell FAECT Local (Shell Development Corporation) by hosting a meeting at his house. Oppie then brought the Shell FAECT and Berkeley scientists and technicians together in order to facilitate FAECT organization at Berkeley (Herken p.54), though the meeting broke up when it came out that Oppie hadn't informed Lawrence of his plans.

Herken characterizes the FAECT as a "radical union". One of the Shell FAECT organizers brought to Oppie's house was George Eltenton, a devout Communist who had worked in the Soviet Union, and remained devoutly Communist despite the fact his visa had been revoked during a Stalin purge.

Eltenton was a middleman for recruiting Soviet spies in the US. He worked with two Soviet agents operating out of the San Francisco Soviet Consulate, and it was he who recruited Chevalier to pitch Oppie to spy for the Soviet Union.

Interestingly, when Groves was later interviewed about the connection between Eltenton and Oppie, he refused to cooperate, saying that Oppie had told him about the relationship in confidence. So here you had the guy running the Manhattan project, Groves, running interference for Oppie.

This subject of the FAECT came up during the course of a security interview with Oppie at Los Alamos. You can almost see Oppie's mind working. How much do they know about FAECT and his role? Are they on to Eltenton? Turns out that the FBI had FAECT well penetrated. Oppie returned to the Radiation Lab and offered that he had been pitched by a fellow professor, who he refused to name, and that two or three other professors (who he refused to name) had similarly been pitched -- the middleman to be Eltenton (Oppie served up Eltenton). Oppie went into some detail (even discussing the use of microfilm being mentioned in the pitch), not knowing the conversation was recorded. Chevalier has his own interesting associations -- he tried to get into the OSS through the good offices of Owen Lattimore and Lachlin Currie.

Months later, Groves convinced Oppie to identify the cut-out, Chevalier. Fast forward to 1946, and Oppie changed his story to Chevalier just pitching him. Turns out he had told Groves that Chevalier had also pitched his brother, Felix. Was that just a story to explain the fact that he hadn't reported the pitch for five months? Or were there more Chevalier pitched, who never went discovered, as Oppie never identified the others?

Fast forward to the brink of Oppie's confrontation with the charges -- he was in the dark. A mere days before he is confronted, he goes to Paris to visit the guy who he had told authorities had pitched him to spy for the Soviet Union -- Chevalier!! Unbelievable.

Oppie gets a list of accusations, and decides to appeal his clearance revocation. He hires a lawyer named Garrison, from the ACLU. Garrison himself decides to decline to apply for the clearance that would allow him to see the pertinent classified documents. And guess who shows up to twist the knife? Groves. It wasn't Lilienthal, as my memory had it. Groves says under oath that he would not have granted Oppie a clearance but for the fact that he was indispensable at the time.

Oppie is no longer indispensable. He's not directing research anymore. He's not recruiting scientists to bomb-making. In fact, he's opposing the development of hydrogen bombs. The long knives are out, and the bombs sitting in his file go off, now that they no longer need him. He's confronted with his different versions of the Chevalier affair, and he says he lied in 1943, and that the 1946 version was the truth.

There are other little tidbits floating about. Oppie had offered a job at Alamos to one of his former students, Bernard Peters. Peters was a real hard-core red. When four months later security authorities ask him what he thinks of Peters, Oppie says he's a danger. One gets the impression that Oppie was good at jettisoning those who might bring him down, when push came to shove -- Eltenton, Chevalier, Peters.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/27/2004

I hadn't read up on the Oppenheimer case in 20 years, so naturally my none-too-good memory failed me -- I was off 180 degrees on Lilienthal. It was Strauus who was gunning for Oppie, despite having earlier voted to grant Oppie a Q clearance.

My local library doesn't have Bernstein's book, so I'll have to get it on interlibrary loan. It does have Gregg Herken's book, Brotherhood of the Bomb. It has some interesting points.

Oppie's security problems didn't start with McCarthy. As far back as early 1941, Lawence was warning Oppie that he was having trouble getting him a clearance (Herken, P.55). Conant "grudgingly" agreed to a security clearance for Oppie (p.58).

"By the summer of 1942, Oppenheimer had become all but indispensable to building the atomic bomb, even as OSRD officials dithered about whether to grant him a security clearance." (Herken, p.63)

The Army balked at granting Oppie a clearnce, the OSRD appealed on his behalf, and Oppie was granted another temporary clearance, pending further investigation. (Herken, p.68).

Later (in 1947), when Oppie came up for a clearance at the AEC, Conant and Vannevar Bush warned that denying Oppie a clearance "would have very serious consequences in the attitude of his fellow scientists toward this project." (Herken, p. 178)

Reading between the lines, it seems a reasonable theory that from the start Oppie's indispensability had trumped security concerns -- indispensable in his own right, and indispensable in attracting others to the work. The OSRD had pushed for his clearance over the objections of security professionals, and Groves, in a classic of bureaucratic CYA, wrote a laudatory recommendation for Oppie, while encouraging the AEC to use their independent judgment.

There was nothing really additional to Oppie's file between the time he received a clearance, and when he was stripped of one. The differences were in the outside world. Half of Europe had fallen to the Soviet totalitarian camp, and McCarthy had come to the fore. Oppie lost his clearance to these forces -- a clearance he never should have been granted, if security considerations alone at work.

Richard Henry Morgan - 7/27/2004

I stand corrected on the Lilienthal point, though I'm rather sure that one of the higher-ups so testified -- was it Strauss? I'll look it up and post here, either way. I wasn't aware that privileged communications were bugged -- what a disgrace. You learn something new every day.

I note that it stands unrefuted that Oppie withdrew his accusations against Chevalier, and this goes unmentioned in the review. I find it totally bizarre that lawyers would be present for an administrative hearing since, prior to the '70's, there was no Supreme Court ruling that due process was involved in such matters. Perhaps lawyers were provided for by AEC regs. I don't know. Certainly, any lawyers would have to have the neccesary clearances. Did Oppie's? Interesting question, and certainly an absurd situation if they didn't have access.

HNN - 6/16/2004

As the author of the book in question let me correct a few mistakes in this comment.Oppenheimer did have access to classified material in his hearing. His lawyers did not which resulted in the absurd situation of the lawyers beeing excluded during some of the hearing when Oppenheimer was present. What neither Oppenheimer nor his lawyers knew was that their private conversations were being bugged. Lillinthal never said clearance should not have been granted. Quite the contrary. At the time of the hearing all the information on Chevalier was known to previous reviewers of Oppenheimer's clearance. What had changed was the McCarthy era.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/30/2004

A few points. The word "trial" appears in quotes, but the hearing officers are referred to as judges, without quotes. It is pointed out that Oppie did not have access to classified documents, nor a lawyer, as though he should have. The possession of a clearance is not a right, but a privilege. It is hardly surprising that someone being considered for a revocation of a clearance at an administrative hearing would not have access to classified materials -- all the more so since it wasn't a trial. Indeed, all the more so given that some of the classified materials were surveillance reports, including sources and methods.

I believe it was Lilienthal, originally a witness sympathetic to Oppie, who admitted under examination that Oppie never should have been granted a clearance to start with, given his associations. The fact that he failed to follow regulations and report Chevalier's pitch promptly (he waited 5 months in 1943) only heightened suspicions that he was not altogether up to the standard required for a clearance. Moreover, in 1946, after speaking directly with Chevalier, Oppie retracted his report of the pitch he had made in 1943. That alone makes him unreliable for purposes of a clearance.