KAI BIRD AND MARTIN J. SHERWIN
This J. Robert Oppenheimer biography attempts to tell the physicist’s story and exonerate him completely. I agree with the conclusion: Oppenheimer should not have lost his Clearance for being a security risk.
Most of the book proves otherwise, and the text makes it difficult to understand fully. The number of physicists worldwide capable of doing work on the gadget is small. Yet this book fails to describe this community in the 1920s and 1930s. Readers learn how productive and helpful Oppenheimer was, but a sense of the physicists and their activities is sparse or non-existent.
A sense of the brilliant physicists, as persons, is also not told. Because they are brilliant in one field, does not mean they are at all capable in another, e.g. human behavior, society and politics. Like Oppenheimer they may have knowledge in other disciplines or have a passing acquaintance. That does not mean they fully appreciate politics, ideologies and how they played out in human society. The physicists work and produce in a discipline that begins with inductive reasoning – general to the specific.
Countering espionage and conducting a police probe prize deductive reasoning: collecting many, many facts and putting together pieces of the puzzle: Specific to General. It is the best way to arrive at the truth in human problems. This book tells that Oppenheimer failed to admit facts – sound equipment is recording everything – or nothing bothers him and the investigators should not worry. I don’t know if Oppenheimer’s judgment was correct or not. The rub between investigators and the physicist is making sure the investigators don’t arrive at the wrong judgments based upon partial facts (known to Oppenheimer), jumping to conclusions or thinking Oppenheimer was just plain wrong. Sometimes the investigators could not tell. Oppenheimer seemed to be hiding something.
So what was the world the physicists lived in, a basic approach to life based upon inductive reasoning? They always understood the major premise, the minor premise, but how does one get human beings and their society – apart from a scientific logic – to change and adopt new ways? Physicists may have a crazy thought, consider what is wrong is right, and say completely stupid stuff. Yet, in the end none believed any of it, yet none knew why.
This book tells much of the investigators’ stories without settings. There is no attempt to describe politics in Berkeley or the campus during the 1930s: This is the place Oppenheimer jumped into when he took a professorship there.
On a biological note there seems little set-up and passing thoughts in Oppenheimer that he will return to Berkeley after the War, and go back to physics. He seemed headed to return to physics, but some schools believed he was finished as a Star. Instead, the book says Oppenheimer was entering one side of the military-industrial complex and he was right and righteous. He was Oppenheimer; he had overseen the construction of the gadget. He was entering politics, not physics.
American Prometheus devotes much time to what the physicists thought about the bomb, and how they wanted open, free research, exchanged worldwide. No one working at Los Alamos had become a politician. It is difficult to imagine in 1944, the naiveté of the physicists, the airy, free flow of information. It would be disapproved of today, although I have heard but not seen on the Internet plans showing how-to-build a nuclear weapon. Certainly the Soviet Union fought Germany after June 21, 1941, but before that date the Soviets were buddy-buddy with the Nazis, signing the August 1939 Non-Aggression Pact which let World War Two begin a week later.
Totalitarianism in Stalinist Soviet Union apparently made no impression on physicists. Most people knew or suspected that Stalin was sending millions of citizens to Siberia. There was no reason ever to believe that Western and Soviet science would have a free exchange of information.
When it was clear that Germany would surrender, some physicists stopped working in Los Alamos as early as December 1944, before the Battle of the Bulge. There was their assumption that the bombs would be dropped on Germany, likely Berlin. When Germany surrendered, physicists asked, why use it on Japan. American Prometheus is short on facts, analysis and history. Some American physicists were pining for a perfect world of international agreements and general education before the bomb was used.
This is a shortcoming in this biography, not presenting the historical setting accurately: Note after Hiroshima the Japanese cabinet without the Emperor deadlocked on peace or war. In the War the Japanese lost cities before in fire bombings; they got a report from Japanese physicists that Hiroshima had been hit with an atomic bomb. The Cabinet asked, Can you make one for us? After August 6, 1945 the message from Japan was, Let the American destroy Japanese cities.
Drop the second bomb on Nagasaki. The Emperor of Japan showed up at the cabinet meeting and declared the War should end. He had his people and his nation in his heart. The War that might have ended in 1946, ended in August 1945.
American Prometheus would be better if its authors had put Oppenheimer’s flying blind while proposing nuclear this or that into a historical context. Oppenheimer met Truman in the White House, and was gravely disappointed that the President did not snatch up his International Control of the bomb, some physicists wanted. Oppenheimer was horribly naive, a position the authors hold out as commendable. Yet, it is no wonder why Americans having different slates of facts did not trust Oppenheimer.