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The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Written by Kai BirdAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kai Bird and Martin J. SherwinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Martin J. Sherwin

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 784 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42473-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

J. Robert Oppenheimer is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, a brilliant physicist who led the effort to build the atomic bomb for his country in a time of war, and who later found himself confronting the moral consequences of scientific progress. In this magisterial, acclaimed biography twenty-five years in the making, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin capture Oppenheimer’s life and times, from his early career to his central role in the Cold War. This is biography and history at its finest, riveting and deeply informative.

Excerpt

Chapter 1
In the first decade of the twentieth century, science initiated a second American revolution. A nation on horseback was soon transformed by the internal combustion engine, manned flight and a multitude of other inventions. These technological innovations quickly changed the lives of ordinary men and women. But simultaneously an esoteric band of scientists was creating an even more fundamental revolution. Theoretical physicists across the globe were beginning to alter the way we understand space and time. Radioactivity was discovered on March 1, 1896, by the French physicist Henri Becquerel. Max Planck, Marie Curie and Pierre Curie and others provided further insights into the nature of the atom. And then, in 1905, Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity. Suddenly, the universe appeared to have changed.

Around the globe, scientists were soon to be celebrated as a new kind of hero, promising to usher in a renaissance of rationality, prosperity and social meritocracy. In America, reform movements were challenging the old order. Theodore Roosevelt was using the bully pulpit of the White House to argue that good government in alliance with science and applied technology could forge an enlightened new Progressive Era.

Into this world of promise was born J. Robert Oppenheimer, on April 22, 1904. He came from a family of first- and second-generation German immigrants striving to be American. Ethnically and culturally Jewish, the Oppenheimers of New York belonged to no synagogue. Without rejecting their Jewishness they chose to shape their identity within a uniquely American offshoot of Judaism—the Ethical Culture Society—that celebrated rationalism and a progressive brand of secular humanism. This was at the same time an innovative approach to the quandaries any immigrant to America faced—and yet for Robert Oppenheimer it reinforced a lifelong ambivalence about his Jewish identity.

As its name suggests, Ethical Culture was not a religion but a way of life that promoted social justice over self-aggrandizement. It was no accident that the young boy who would become known as the father of the atomic era was reared in a culture that valued independent inquiry, empirical exploration and the free-thinking mind—in short, the values of science. And yet, it was the irony of Robert Oppenheimer’s odyssey that a life devoted to social justice, rationality and science would become a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud.

Robert’s father, Julius Oppenheimer, was born on May 12, 1871, in the German town of Hanau, just east of Frankfurt. Julius’ father, Benjamin Pinhas Oppenheimer, was an untutored peasant and grain trader who had been raised in a hovel in “an almost medieval German village,” Robert later reported. Julius had two brothers and three sisters. In 1870, two of Benjamin’s cousins by marriage emigrated to New York. Within a few years these two young men—named Sigmund and Solomon Rothfeld—joined another relative, J. H. Stern, to start a small company to import men’s suit linings. The company did extremely well serving the city’s flourishing new trade in ready-made clothing. In the late 1880s, the Rothfelds sent word to Benjamin Oppenheimer that there was room in the business for his sons.

Julius arrived in New York in the spring of 1888, several years after his older brother Emil. A tall, thin-limbed, awkward young man, he was put to work in the company warehouse, sorting bolts of cloth. Although he brought no monetary assets to the firm and spoke not a word of English, he was determined to remake himself. He had an eye for color and in time acquired a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable “fabrics” men in the city. Emil and Julius rode out the recession of 1893, and by the turn of the century Julius was a full partner in the firm of Rothfeld, Stern & Company. He dressed to fit the part, always adorned in a white high-collared shirt, a conservative tie and a dark business suit. His manners were as immaculate as his dress. From all accounts, Julius was an extremely likeable young man. “You have a way with you that just invites confidence to the highest degree,” wrote his future wife in 1903, “and for the best and finest reasons.” By the time he turned thirty, he spoke remarkably good English, and, though completely self-taught, he had read widely in American and European history. A lover of art, he spent his free hours on weekends roaming New York’s numerous art galleries.

It may have been on one such occasion that he was introduced to a young painter, Ella Friedman, “an exquisitely beautiful” brunette with finely chiseled features, “expressive gray-blue eyes and long black lashes,” a slender figure—and a congenitally unformed left hand. To hide this deformity, Ella always wore long sleeves and a pair of chamois gloves. The glove covering her left hand contained a primitive prosthetic device with a spring attached to an artificial thumb. Julius fell in love with her. The Friedmans, of Bavarian Jewish extraction, had settled in Baltimore in the 1840s. Ella was born in 1869. A family friend once described her as “a gentle, exquisite, slim, tallish, blue-eyed woman, terribly sensitive, extremely polite; she was always thinking what would make people comfortable or happy.” In her twenties, she spent a year in Paris studying the early Impressionist painters. Upon her return she taught art at Barnard College. By the time she met Julius, she was an accomplished enough painter to have her own students and a private rooftop studio in a New York apartment building.

All this was unusual enough for a woman at the turn of the century, but Ella was a powerful personality in many respects. Her formal, elegant demeanor struck some people upon first acquaintance as haughty coolness. Her drive and discipline in the studio and at home seemed excessive in a woman so blessed with material comforts. Julius worshipped her, and she returned his love. Just days before their marriage, Ella wrote to her fiancé: “I do so want you to be able to enjoy life in its best and fullest sense, and you will help me take care of you? To take care of someone whom one really loves has an indescribable sweetness of which a whole lifetime cannot rob me. Good-night, dearest.”

On March 23, 1903, Julius and Ella were married and moved into a sharp-gabled stone house at 250 West 94th Street. A year later, in the midst of the coldest spring on record, Ella, thirty-four years old, gave birth to a son after a difficult pregnancy. Julius had already settled on naming his firstborn Robert; but at the last moment, according to family lore, he decided to add a first initial, “J,” in front of “Robert.” Actually, the boy’s birth certificate reads “Julius Robert Oppenheimer,” evidence that Julius had decided to name the boy after himself. This would be unremarkable—except that naming a baby after any living relative is contrary to European Jewish tradition. In any case, the boy would always be called Robert and, curiously, he in turn always insisted that his first initial stood for nothing at all. Apparently, Jewish traditions played no role in the Oppenheimer household.

Sometime after Robert’s arrival, Julius moved his family to a spacious eleventh-floor apartment at 155 Riverside Drive, overlooking the Hudson River at West 88th Street. The apartment, occupying an entire floor, was exquisitely decorated with fine European furniture. Over the years, the Oppenheimers also acquired a remarkable collection of French Postimpressionist and Fauvist paintings chosen by Ella. By the time Robert was a young man, the collection included a 1901 “blue period” painting by Pablo Picasso entitled Mother and Child, a Rembrandt etching, and paintings by Edouard Vuillard, André Derain and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Three Vincent Van Gogh paintings—Enclosed Field with Rising Sun (Saint-Remy, 1889), First Steps (After Millet) (Saint-Remy, 1889) and Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (Auvers-sur-Oise, 1890)—dominated a living room wallpapered in gold gilt. Sometime later they acquired a drawing by Paul Cézanne and a painting by Maurice de Vlaminck. A head by the French sculptor Charles Despiau rounded out this exquisite collection.*

Ella ran the household to exacting standards. “Excellence and purpose” was a constant refrain in young Robert’s ears. Three live-in maids kept the apartment spotless. Robert had a Catholic Irish nursemaid named Nellie Connolly, and later, a French governess who taught him a little French. German, on the other hand, was not spoken at home. “My mother didn’t talk it well,” Robert recalled, “[and] my father didn’t believe in talking it.” Robert would learn German in school.

On weekends, the family would go for drives in the countryside in their Packard, driven by a gray-uniformed chauffeur. When Robert was eleven or twelve, Julius bought a substantial summer home at Bay Shore, Long Island, where Robert learned to sail. At the pier below the house, Julius moored a forty-foot sailing yacht, christened the Lorelei, a luxurious craft outfitted with all the amenities. “It was lovely on that bay,” Robert’s brother, Frank, would later recall fondly. “It was seven acres . . . a big vegetable garden and lots and lots of flowers.” As a family friend later observed, “Robert was doted on by his parents. . . . He had everything he wanted; you might say he was brought up in luxury.” But despite this, none of his childhood friends thought him spoiled. “He was extremely generous with money and material things,” recalled Harold Cherniss. “He was not a spoiled child in any sense.”

By 1914, when World War I broke out in Europe, Julius Oppenheimer was a very prosperous businessman. His net worth certainly totaled more than several hundred thousand dollars—which made him the equivalent of a multimillionaire in current dollars. By all accounts, the Oppenheimer marriage was a loving partnership. But Robert’s friends were always struck by their contrasting personalities. “He [Julius] was jolly German-Jewish,” recalled Francis Fergusson, one of Robert’s closest friends. “Extremely likeable. I was surprised that Robert’s mother had married him because he seemed such a hearty and laughing kind of person. But she was very fond of him and handled him beautifully. They were very fond of each other. It was an excellent marriage.”

Julius was a conversationalist and extrovert. He loved art and music and thought Beethoven’s Eroica symphony “one of the great masterpieces.” A family friend, the anthropologist George Boas, later recalled that Julius “had all the sensitiveness of both his sons.” Boas thought him “one of the kindest men I ever knew.” But sometimes, to the embarrassment of his sons, Julius would burst out singing at the dinner table. He enjoyed a good argument. Ella, by contrast, sat quietly and never joined in the banter. “She [Ella] was a very delicate person,” another friend of Robert’s, the distinguished writer Paul Horgan, observed, “. . . highly attenuated emotionally, and she always presided with a great delicacy and grace at the table and other events, but [she was] a mournful person.”

Four years after Robert’s birth, Ella bore another son, Lewis Frank Oppenheimer, but the infant soon died, a victim of stenosis of the pylorus, a congenital obstruction of the opening from the stomach to the small intestine. In her grief, Ella thereafter always seemed physically more fragile. Because young Robert himself was frequently ill as a child, Ella became overly protective. Fearing germs, she kept Robert apart from other children. He was never allowed to buy food from street vendors, and instead of taking him to get a haircut in a barber shop Ella had a barber come to the apartment.

Introspective by nature and never athletic, Robert spent his early childhood in the comfortable loneliness of his mother’s nest on Riverside Drive. The relationship between mother and son was always intense. Ella encouraged Robert to paint—he did landscapes—but he gave it up when he went to college. Robert worshipped his mother. But Ella could be quietly demanding. “This was a woman,” recalled a family friend, “who would never allow anything unpleasant to be mentioned at the table.”

Robert quickly sensed that his mother disapproved of the people in her husband’s world of trade and commerce. Most of Julius’s business colleagues, of course, were first-generation Jews, and Ella made it clear to her son that she felt ill-at-ease with their “obtrusive manners.” More than most boys, Robert grew up feeling torn between his mother’s strict standards and his father’s gregarious behavior. At times, he felt ashamed of his father’s spontaneity—and at the same time he would feel guilty that he felt ashamed. “Julius’s articulate and sometimes noisy pride in Robert annoyed him greatly,” recalled a childhood friend. As an adult, Robert gave his friend and former teacher Herbert Smith a handsome engraving of the scene in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus where the hero is unclasping his mother’s hand and throwing her to the ground. Smith was sure that Robert was sending him a message, acknowledging how difficult it had been for him to separate from his own mother.

When he was only five or six, Ella insisted that he take piano lessons. Robert dutifully practiced every day, hating it all the while. About a year later, he fell sick and his mother characteristically suspected the worst, perhaps a case of infantile paralysis. Nursing him back to health, she kept asking him how he felt until one day he looked up from his sickbed and grumbled, “Just as I do when I have to take piano lessons.” Ella relented, and the lessons ended.

In 1909, when Robert was only five, Julius took him on the first of four transatlantic crossings to visit his grandfather Benjamin in Germany. They made the trip again two years later; by then Grandfather Benjamin was

seventy-five years old, but he left an indelible impression on his grandson. “It was clear,” Robert recalled, “that one of the great joys in life for him was reading, but he had probably hardly been to school.” One day, while watching Robert play with some wooden blocks, Benjamin decided to give him an encyclopedia of architecture. He also gave him a “perfectly conventional” rock collection consisting of a box with perhaps two dozen rock samples labeled in German. “From then on,” Robert later recounted, “I became, in a completely childish way, an ardent mineral collector.” Back home in New York, he persuaded his father to take him on rock-hunting expeditions along the Palisades. Soon the apartment on Riverside Drive was crammed with Robert’s rocks, each neatly labeled with its scientific name. Julius encouraged his son in this solitary hobby, plying him with books on the subject. Long afterward, Robert recounted that he had no interest in the geological origins of his rocks, but was fascinated by the structure of crystals and polarized light.

From the ages of seven through twelve, Robert had three solitary but all-consuming passions: minerals, writing and reading poetry, and building with blocks. Later he would recall that he occupied his time with these activities “not because they were something I had companionship in or because they had any relation to school—but just for the hell of it.” By the age of twelve, he was using the family typewriter to correspond with a number of well-known local geologists about the rock formations he had studied in Central Park.


From the Hardcover edition.
Kai Bird|Martin J. Sherwin|Author Q&A

About Kai Bird

Kai Bird - American Prometheus

Photo © Claudio Vazquez

Kai Bird is the author of The Chairman: John J. McCloy, The Making of the American Establishment and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms. He coedited with Lawrence Lifschultz Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy. A contributing editor of The Nation, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

About Martin J. Sherwin

Martin J. Sherwin - American Prometheus

Photo © Claudio Vazquez

Martin J. Sherwin is the Walter S. Dickson Professor of English and American History at Tufts University and author of A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies, which won the Stuart L. Bernath Prize, as well as the American History Book Prize. He and his wife live in Boston and Washington, D.C.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with
KAI BIRD & MARTIN SHERWIN

authors of
AMERICAN PROMETHEUS
The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer


Q: What is the “triumph” in Robert Oppenheimer’s life?

A: Oppenheimer’s greatest triumph was mixed with tragedy. He was both the “father” of the atomic bomb and its midwife. He directed the lab that built it, and without him–without his charismatic leadership, his intelligence, and the breadth of his scientific interests–it would not have been ready for use during the war. He made Hiroshima and Nagasaki possible. That was at first a triumph, a matter of great pride that was soon transformed into a heavy psychological burden when he realized that he had been misled about the need to use the bomb.

Q: What do you mean when you say that “he was misled about the need to use the bomb?” Wasn’t it necessary to end the war?

A: Whether atomic bombs needed to be used to end the war without an invasion is one of the great debates surrounding US policy and strategy during WWII. There are very good reasons to believe that the war would have ended in August 1945 even if we had not used atomic bombs. But that is a long discussion. To stay focused on Oppenheimer: he came to believe that he had been misled by the Truman administration. For example, he was not told during the war that the Japanese government had been trying to surrender since June on the condition that the emperor’s life and the institution of the emperorship be preserved. That’s how it turned out after all, and Oppenheimer was troubled that at least 225,000 Japanese–mostly civilians, mostly women and children–had been killed by the invention he guided and whose use he had supported.

Q: Were there other tragedies in his life?

A: Another tragedy was how our country treated him during the McCarthy period. He was a genuine American hero, a patriot whose country repaid him by putting him through

a kangaroo trial in 1954. The FBI wiretapped his home and office and monitored his every move. And though they found nothing that was actionable, his political enemies still branded him a security risk and humiliated him before the entire world. That was the country’s tragedy too.

Q: What was the background to Oppenheimer’s security hearing? How did such a travesty happen?

A: A great debate over the role of nuclear weapons in American strategic and diplomatic policy broke out in the fall of 1949 after the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb in August. The first part of the debate was over whether the US should respond by building a hydrogen bomb–a nuclear weapon with absolutely no physical limit to its power.

Oppenheimer and all the other members of the General Advisory Committee to the AEC believed it was a genocidal weapon that was unnecessary for our security and he and they opposed its development. A few years later, Oppenheimer proposed that the government be more open about the nuclear decisions. He called this “operation Candor” and wrote about it in Foreign Affairs. He believed that too much secrecy was dangerous for a democracy in general and for the intelligent discussion of nuclear issues in particular.

He also opposed the plans of the Strategic Air Command whose intention it was to kill over two hundred million Soviet citizens should war occur. This was genocide not war, he argued.

Those who favored the policies that Oppenheimer opposed considered him dangerous and when the Eisenhower administration came into office in 1953 some of those people were in a position to destroy Oppenheimer’s influence. That was the background.

Q: And how did the hearing come about?

A: Lewis Strauss, a conservative Republican, was appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in July 1953. He and Oppenheimer had been on opposite sides of nuclear policy questions since 1948. Strauss had come to understand that Oppenheimer would always be opposed to the hydrogen bomb and other nuclear weapons, and therefore he distrusted him. We have discovered that between July and December 1953 Strauss orchestrated a conspiracy with the assistance of J. Edgar Hoover and several others to have Oppenheimer charged with being a security risk.

Furthermore, and this is important too, he orchestrated Oppenheimer’s security hearing and its review by the AEC commissioners to be sure that Oppenheimer was found unfit to hold a security clearance.

Q: What evidence did they have that he was a security risk?

A: They didn't have anything that could be called evidence. They wanted to silence him and so they turned molehills into mountains. Aside from their political charge that he had opposed the hydrogen bomb–which was so outrageous that it was dropped by the AEC commissioners who reviewed the hearing verdict–there was the so-called “Chevalier affair.” Oppenheimer’s Berkeley friend, Haakon Chevalier, came to him in early 1943 and passed on to him a proposal to funnel scientific information to the Soviets. Oppie firmly rejected the notion–but to protect Chevalier he failed to tell his security officer about the approach until 4 months later and then he reported what he later called “a cock and bull story” to divert attention from Chevalier who he believed was an innocent conduit. This has truly been a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and we are confident that we have solved it.

Q: You suggest in your book that there are grounds for overturning the hearing board’s verdict. What are those grounds?

A: We believe we have uncovered legal grounds to overturn the verdict in Oppenheimer’s security hearing.

We show that the FBI illegally wiretapped Oppenheimer’s lawyer’s phone, thus violating the lawyer client relationship. This information was passed to Lewis Strauss and to the AEC prosecutor (Roger Robb) who used this illegally obtained information against Oppenheimer.

Furthermore, during the hearing itself, Robb violated Federal Regulations that govern the conduct of security hearings. For example, he showed Edward Teller some of Oppenheimer’s confidential testimony before Teller testified. He did this to be sure Teller testified against Oppenheimer.

Also, we have evidence that suggests that Strauss virtually bribed one of the Atomic Energy Commissioners to swing his vote against Oppenheimer. The whole proceeding was—as the dissenting member of the hearing board wrote—“a black mark on the escutcheon of our country.”

Q: What advice did Oppenheimer offer about nuclear weapons?

A: He always regarded the bomb as a weapon of terror. In 1946 he was asked in a closed Senate hearing room “whether three or four men couldn’t smuggle units of an [atomic] bomb in New York and blow up the whole city.” Oppenheimer said, “Of course it could be done, and people could destroy New York.”

Oppenheimer urged us to do everything possible to minimize our reliance on nuclear weapons and to work toward eliminating them. He understood that the world is better off –safer really–without nuclear weapons. He believed that we should work for the international control of all forms of atomic energy, as he did in the postwar period. He saw that unilateralism was not in America’s interest.

In 1946 he proposed what became known as the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan (it was really the Oppenheimer plan) which proposed the creation of an international atomic authority with sovereign control over all aspects of the nuclear industry. A small part of this plan has been put in place—he International Atomic Energy Authority with headquarters in Vienna, Austria. But the heart of the plan, which would eliminate nuclear weapons, has obviously been neglected.

Q: Are there any ironies in his life?

A: Here was a life devoted to social justice, rationality and science that would nevertheless someday become a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud. That is the great irony in Robert Oppenheimer’s odyssey.

Q: I understand that this book was 25 years in the making. Why did it take you so long to write this book?

A: [Sherwin] There are many reasons. The first is that Oppenheimer’s life, his pre-public life especially, was hidden and complicated. I started this book in 1979 and worked steadily collecting material, conducting interviews and reading broadly. Then I got involved in academic administration. I founded Tufts’ Nuclear Age History and Humanities Center in 1985/86 just as the writing was seriously underway. Then in 1988 I organized a joint teaching venture between Soviet universities in Moscow and Tufts around the history of the nuclear arms race. Our classes were linked 4 times a year by satellite TV and simultaneous interpretation. Oppenheimer would have liked that; it brought operation Candor and Glasnost together. I was in Moscow 4-5 times a year. Then in 1993 I returned to my alma mater, Dartmouth College, to take over the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. By 1995-96, I knew I had to do something dramatic to re-start and complete this Oppenheimer biography. I made the decision to invite Kai Bird to be the co-author. And he made the brilliant decision to agree to my proposal.

A: [Bird] Almost any biography takes years to research and write. But Oppenheimer’s life is filled with numerous, seemingly impenetrable mysteries. Everyone who has tried to write about him in the past has concluded that he was “unknowable.” He was like the “Black Holes”—the existence of which he so famously predicted in 1939—no light could escape the magnetic draw of his personality. We felt that way for a time.

Q: How did the two of you end up collaborating?

We first met in the early 1980s. Kai had started his first book, a biography of John J. McCloy, and Marty was already buried in thousands of pages of FBI documents. And then in 1995 we collaborated on several articles related to the controversy at the Smithsonian Museum about the ill-fated Enola Gay exhibit. Five years ago we teamed up to finish this book. It has been a great collaboration.

Q: So what are some of the mysteries in Oppenheimer’s life?

A: His early life was known in outline, but not in detail and there we have been pretty good detectives. Our experience is somewhat like the experience that Lincoln scholars appear to be going through now. They are discovering a “new” Lincoln by discovering the early Lincoln. We have done our best to reveal and understand the young Robert Oppenheimer who is at the core of the complex and sometimes enigmatic “father of the atomic bomb.”

Q: What surprises did you encounter?

A: In 1926, at the age of 22, Oppenheimer was put on probation at Cambridge and required to see a Freudian analyst–all because of a so-called “poison apple” incident. That year he suffered a series of psychological crises. We explain what happened and show how his behavior in this crisis explains his oddly defensive behavior during his 1954 ordeal.

Q: What was “the poison apple” incident?

A: He apparently laced an apple with a toxic substance and left it on the desk of his Cambridge University tutor, P.M.S. Blackett, who was a distinguished scientist who later won a Nobel prize. Oppenheimer tried to retrieve the apple, but in some way what he had done was discovered and he was almost expelled.

Q: What made him do such a peculiar thing?

A: That, of course, is the interesting question and a clue to his troubled state at the time. It was his first year of postgraduate studies and he was studying something for which he was completely ill-suited–intellectually, emotionally and physically. He was studying experimental physics and he had neither the manual aptitude nor the interest in the physical challenges of laboratory work. He even contemplated suicide during that year. His whole life seemed to be coming apart. Blackett, an experimentalist, was a symbol of the source of his agony and he irrationally struck out at him. Perhaps it was a desperate effort to make him understand how deeply unhappy and forlorn he (Oppenheimer) was.

Q: Who were the women in his life?

A: He had many relationships and several great love affairs, all with smart, strong-willed women. His first love, Jean Tatlock, turns out to have been struggling with her bisexuality–and later committed suicide. Our book has the first detailed account of her suicide and the mystery that surrounds it.

He married Kitty Harrison in 1940 after a whirlwind love affair. She was married at the time, but divorced her husband and married “Oppie” all within the space of little more than 6 months. They did not have an easy marriage, but they stuck with each other through some very tough sledding that we discuss in detail in the book.

Oppenheimer was not a philanderer but he did have a very caring and sweet affair with Ruth Tolman, the wife of one of his friends, the physicist Richard Tolman. To his enemies this was scandalous. But “Oppie’s” friends (all his students and closest friends called him Oppie) and Ruth’s friends supported and protected them.

Q: Tell us more about his wife.

A: His wife, Katherine “Kitty” Pruening Oppenheimer, was a pretty, vivacious, mercurial woman. Truly worthy of a biography of her own. Oppie was Kitty’s fourth husband–her second husband was a Communist, Joe Dallet, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War. For a time in the 1930s she was an active Communist. But after marrying Oppie when she was 28 years old, she made him her life. Tough-minded, she was an anchor for him during the 1954 trial. Sharp-tongued and high-spirited, Kitty intimidated everyone. Sadly, she became one of those high-functioning alcoholics. And a terrible parent to her two children.

Q: Was Oppenheimer a Communist?

A: No. Other historians have said yes, but they have not produced any compelling evidence. Oppenheimer was never a member of the Communist Party, he never submitted himself to Party discipline, he never paid dues. But he was closer to the Party than he ever admitted, and gave thousands of dollars to causes–especially the Republican government in the Spanish Civil War–which were supporting the fight against Franco’s Fascists.

Q: What happened to him after the 1954 security hearing?

A: Well, to begin with, that summer he took his family to St. John in the Virgin Islands. Hilariously, the FBI feared a Soviet submarine might surface off the coastline and spirit Oppenheimer off behind the Iron Curtain. Actually, Oppenheimer fell in love with the island and eventually built a rustic cottage on the beach. He spent a few months every year for the rest of his life on St. John. (Our chapter about his life on St. John is totally new to the literature.) Otherwise, he continued his work as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Q: So he was in effect Albert Einstein’s “boss” at the Institute?

A: Yes, in the sense that Oppenheimer was director of the Institute and Einstein was a faculty member. They were respectful colleagues, never really friends. They disagreed about physics and they approached life differently. Oppenheimer was a disciple of Niels Bohr’s brand of quantum physics–and Einstein was always skeptical about quantum physics, believing, he once said, that “God doesn’t play dice with the world.”

Q: When did Oppenheimer die?

A: Oppie was a chain-smoker. That’s one reason why we put an Alfred Eisenstadt photograph of him on the cover of our book. He’s dangling a cigarette from his lips, wearing his trademark pork-pie hat and looking very much like Humphrey Bogart. It is a stunning photo. But it was his smoking and throat cancer that killed him in 1967. He was only sixty-three years old. Kitty herself died in 1972. His daughter Toni died young in St. John in 1977, and his son Peter still lives in New Mexico and owns the ranch Oppie bought in the 1940s.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“The definitive biography. . . . Oppenheimer’s life doesn’t influence us. It haunts us.” –Newsweek“A masterful account of Oppenheimer’s rise and fall, set in the context of the turbulent decades of America’s own transformation. It is a tour de force.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review“A work of voluminous scholarship and lucid insight, unifying its multifaceted portrait with a keen grasp of Oppenheimer’s essential nature. . . . It succeeds in deeply fathoming his most damaging, self-contradictory behavior.” –The New York Times“There have been numerous books about Oppenheimer but they can't touch this extraordinary book's impressive breadth and scope.” –The Miami Herald“The first biography to give full due to Oppenheimer’s extraordinary complexity . . . Stands as an Everest among the mountains of books on the bomb project and Oppenheimer, and is an achievement not likely to be surpassed or equaled.”–The Boston Globe

Awards

WINNER National Book Critics Circle Awards
FINALIST 2006 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize
WINNER 2006 Pulitzer Prize
Kai Bird

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A personal message: