A Man of Wide Culture and Delicate Mind

I look at the photos of J. Robert Oppenheimer and I read snippets about his life and I always want to know more. What an exceptional person. What a gifted person. What a sensitive and morally conflicted person.

When I heard about Kai Bird’s and Martin Sherwin’s biography of Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, and when I learned how exhaustive and meticulous it was and, indeed that it took more than 25 years to complete, I could not resist reading it. It was one of those hard-to-put-down-books. No wonder it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Books Critics award for 2006.

The “triumph and tragedy” of J. Robert Oppenheimer has been told many times and it has been skillfully and exhaustively retold in this volume, including 90 concluding pages of documentation. Oppenheimer’s delicate and rich inner life interested me most. The range of his knowledge was enormous. He studied science at Harvard and read literary fiction from Dostoyevsky to Proust. Bird and Sherwin write:

“…Reading it [Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu] in the evening by flashlight during his walking tour of Corsica, he later claimed…was one of the great experiences of his life. It snapped him out of his depression.”

He loved and wrote poetry; he painted landscapes and studied the Bhagavid Gita in the original Sanskrit; and he was also said to be competent in Latin, Greek, French, German, Dutch, Italian and some Chinese. Someone once asked him a question in Latin and he answered in Greek. Bird and Sherwin comment,

“…despite his preoccupation with atomic physics, he has kept up his Latin and Greek, is widely read in general history, and he collects pictures. He is altogether a most extraordinary combination of science and the humanities.”

David Lilienthal, the first chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, said Oppenheimer “is worth living a lifetime just to know that mankind has been able to produce such a being.” A colleague described a widely felt experience, “In his presence, I became more intelligent, more vocal, more intense, more prescient, more poetic myself.” What a privilege it would have been to know him.

Oppenheimer was also said to be lighthearted, eloquent and tender. And a few moments later, “na├»ve, bewildered, self-demeaning” or depressed. There was this remarkable blend of conflicting elements, a person of great charm and unresolved conflicts. After completing the task set before him at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, he moved on, remarking that his work in physics “now seems irrelevant.”

Under his direction Los Alamos had become a center for research and discovery where one colleague said, “he found a spirit of Athens, of Plato, of an ideal republic.” Yet one commentator reminded us it was “All in the service of mass death.

He left Los Alamos immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima, in what must have been a state of enormous guilt, “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world….a thing that by all the standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing.” In a review of American Prometheus, James Glieck reports that in a private meeting with President Truman, he confessed “that he felt he had blood on his hands.”

Bird and Sherwin also describe at some length his youth, his many friends and activities while he was teaching at Berkeley (subsequently leading to a myriad of problems), and the Atomic Energy Commission hearings (“that three week Orwellian travesty”) that resulted in the denial of his security clearance.

He had been one of the most famous men in the world, one of the most admired, quoted, photographed, consulted, glorified, well-nigh deified as the fabulous and fascinating archetype of a brand new kind of hero, the hero of science and intellect, originator and living symbol of the new atomic age. Then, suddenly, all the glory was gone and he was gone, too…”

Rarely do I read a biographical volume of this magnitude. How can we ever know another person? But in reading American Prometheus, I felt that I had come a little closer to knowing J. Robert Oppenheimer and what it must have been like to be so gifted and finely tuned.

In eulogizing Oppenheimer, George Kennan wrote, “On no one did there ever rest with greater cruelty the dilemmas evoked by the recent conquest by human beings of a power over nature out of all proportion to their moral strength.”