Oppenheimer’s Oddest Quote

by Alex Wellerstein, published November 21st, 2011

J. Robert Oppenheimer is what we historians often call a “complicated” figure. One of my advisors once pressed me as to what one was supposed to mean by that term that we often apply to, well, any human being. To me it means that they are a difficult person to fit into a traditional narrative — they are neither hero nor anti-hero, neither tragic nor comic, neither romantic nor satiric. Sure, we can write people in each of these roles or voices, but we always know something is missing from that description.1

Two frames from a 1961 photo session with Ulli Steltzer. On the photo series, Steltzer told me via e-mail: "He was shy of the camera and I never got more than 12 shots. It is hard to say which expression is most typical."

Or, to put it another way, our subject is a “real” person. As T.H. White put in The Once and Future King:

One explanation of Guenever, for what it is worth, is that she was what they used to call a “real” person. She was not the kind who can be fitted away safely under some label or other, as “loyal” or “disloyal” or “self-sacrificing” or “jealous.” Sometimes she was loyal and sometimes she was disloyal. She behaved like herself. And there must have been something in this self, some sincerity of heart, or she would not have held two people like Arthur and Lancelot. Like likes like, they say — and at least they are certain that her men were generous. She must have been generous too. It is difficult to write about a real person.

When I read the above paragraph (not too long ago), I thought, yes, it is difficult to write about a real person. That’s exactly the problem with someone like Oppenheimer.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of this, which I’ve never seen printed anywhere.

We all know Oppenheimer opposed a “crash” program on the hydrogen bomb in 1949 and 1950. He did so for a number of reasons — some of them more dovish than others, some of them more hawkish than others. But in 1950, he gave some pretty unusual testimony with regards to his opinions on the matter.

Some context: as most people reading a blog of this sort probably know, Oppenheimer was the chairman of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) when they issued their recommendation against building the H-bomb in October 1949. The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE), the Congressional committee with oversight powers over the AEC, was pretty unhappy about this when they saw it in early January 1950. They read the GAC report out loud, in an Executive (secret) session, making snide comments about it:

Sen. McMahon: [reading] “We are somewhat divided as to the nature of the commitment not to develop the weapon. The majority feel that this should be an unqualified commitment. Others feel that it should be made conditional on the response of the Soviet government to a proposal to renounce such a development.”

Sen. Knowland: Would you read that again?

Sen. McMahon:  That is certainly a joke. Suppose they did? Who the hell would believe them?

The Senators and Representatives on the JCAE were not dummies, though they were pretty dead-set on developing the H-bomb. They found the moral aspects of the GAC argument to be laughable, especially since they were counted by the idea that regular fission weapons would serve as an effective deterrent even if the Soviets had H-bombs first.

Sen. Tydings: Did I get that right? In other words, they don’t mind killing the same number of people by using 100 bombs, but they object to killing the same number of people by using one bomb, is that right?

Sen. McMahon: That is right.

The hard-right Sen. Bourke Hickenlooper concluded that the GAC “have indulged in a discussion of the morals and not the thing that they are set up to discuss.” But for Hickenlooper, it was important to get someone from the GAC in front of the JCAE and explain their recommendation, “to give their views pro and con on the thing, and then amplify this a little bit and maybe subject themselves to some questions.”

So on January 30, 1950, Oppenheimer appeared before the JCAE in an secret session (“Top Secret,” technically). His defense of the GAC position is usually on message. When asked what would happen if the USSR had an H-bomb but the US did not, Oppenheimer gives one of his trademarked clever responses: “If the Russians have the weapon and we don’t, we will be badly off. And if the Russians have the weapon and we do, we will still be badly off.”

They could not, Oppenheimer argued, probably do much to stop the Soviets from making an H-bomb, but it was worth a try. Certainly if the US did rush along to make one, it would “accelerate and insure” the development of a similar weapon by the Soviets.

And then he goes to a weird place:

Oppenheimer: I agree with you that if I knew the Russians had six super bombs, I would urge everybody in this country to be sure to have some, too. I don’t know why, and I don’t know what we would do with them. We would plaster Moscow with one of them, but I would do that just because it is the natural thing to do.2

Um, what? It’s a bit hard to make sense, from the transcript alone, what the intended tone or delivery was. Presumably it is a joke? Maybe Oppenheimer is trying to shake off some nervous tension?

I’ve no clue. It’s a weird quote. It’s not one you’ll find in your standard list of Oppenheimer quotations (and, as of this moment, it doesn’t have any hits on Google at all). It’s an odd moment in the middle of a long testimony. Is it significant? I’m unsure. But it is interesting. Perhaps, even, complicated.

  1. I’m not much of a narratologist, but one particular article has helped me quite a bit in thinking about the sorts of narratives we tell in the history of science: William Clark, “Narratology and the History of Science,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 26, no. 1 (1995): 1-71. []
  2. Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Executive Session (January 30, 1950), p. 13. []

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6 Responses to “Oppenheimer’s Oddest Quote”

  1. […] Lastly, Teller claims that Oppenheimer “telephoned him at Princeton and was nice enough to invite Teller to cocktails at his house.” (Note to self: Oppenheimer always gets a lot of credit for his cocktails. You invent the atomic bomb, and everyone remembers you for your martinis. I must learn how to make better martinis.) “At this time, Dr. Oppenheimer discussed the possible use of H-bombs in Korea. Sometime later, Dr. Oppenheimer called Dr. Teller on the long-distance ‘phone and stated that he had presented this idea at the Pentagon and that the suggestion went through channels other than Dr. Oppenheimer to General Eisenhower.” True? I’m a little skeptical. It’s not strictly impossible — and as we’ve already seen on here before, Oppenheimer was a complicated figure who issued some contradictory opinions over the years. […]

  2. […] above were pretty interesting. I like the idea that someone of Oppenheimer’s richness — sometimes one thing, sometimes another — defies the static notion of the photograph, and perhaps a static notion of a narrative […]

  3. µ says:

    First of all thank you for this very interesting article. In my opinion Oppenheimers attitude can be best described as of of a kynical actor. German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk describes this “tactic” as follows:
    “a kynical actor actually embodies the message he/she is trying to convey. The goal here is typically a false regression that mocks authority — especially authority that the kynical actor considers corrupt, suspect or unworthy”

  4. Nate says:

    I don’t actually find that quotation confusing at all. Perhaps I’m missing something, but to me I read it as: “I agree that if the Russians had six super bombs, the USA should have several too. I don’t know how useful they would be militarily – just one super bomb would be enough to plaster Moscow – but matching the Russian stockpile would be the natural thing to do.”

    Ie, the subject of “I would do that” isn’t “plaster Moscow” but “get some too”.

    So he’s not saying that he’d personally like to nuke Moscow. He’s saying that as a military weapon, the H-bomb is overkill and pretty clumsy, but that he agrees that there are psychological / national-prestige reasons for owning the things. Which seems like a sensible evaluation of the situation.

  5. […] nuclear war with the Soviet Union? It’s not impossible — his views in the 1950s could be all over the place, something that makes him a difficult figure to fit into neat boxes. In retrospect, we have made […]