The latest episode of Manhattan (Ep. 204) pivoted on the internal conflicts of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The standard, popular version of Oppenheimer as Los Alamos Director is one of infinite competence, confidence, and charm. The reality of Oppenheimer as a whole, much less Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, is a far more complex one.
Early on in my education, one of my advisors warned me against careless labeling of historical actors as “complex” or “complicated” without explaining what exactly I meant by that. In this sense, I think what it means is, this is a person who acts in contradictory, not-always-predictable ways — a person who breaks the standard narrative arc we might want to tell about their life. Oppenheimer is someone whose close examination refuses to fit into a simple narrative of heroism, tragedy, or comedy. In other words, he was a real person. And as T.H. White put it: “It is difficult to write about a real person.”
Oppenheimer’s longtime friend, the physicist I.I. Rabi, later said that the core conflict of Oppenheimer’s personality was a search for identity. It was a perceptive remark. As to which of the many visible Oppenheimers was the “real” one, he suggested that, “Robert doesn’t know himself.” Oppenheimer was, Rabi would later put it, “a man who was put together of many bright shining splinters.”1
Consider the oft-told Oppenheimer biographical details in this light. Oppenheimer grew up on the Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in a family of wealthy, secular, German-Jewish immigrants. This, in and of itself, seems to have driven a lot of Oppenheimer’s initial search for a new identity. He apparently was embarrassed by his father’s hands-on approach to wealth (he was a textile merchant, so nouveau riche of a sort), embarrassed by his father’s approach to secularism (his enthusiastic embrace of Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture philosophy), and simultaneously embarrassed by his Jewishness. He went to Harvard during one of its peak moments of anti-Semitism (the year he started was marked with embroiled public discussions about Harvard’s Jewish quotas), and found himself a socially-awkward exile among blue-bloods from old-American families.
His escape from the identity he was born into was to embrace something entirely different. He found friends who to him represented what a “true American” intellectual might look like — rugged, earthy, wealthy men from New Mexico. Hence Oppenheimer’s great Southwestern obsession, the one that led to the Los Alamos laboratory being situated where it was. What is more of an antonym to “rich Manhattan Jewish German immigrant” than “rugged Southwestern cowboy”? His interest in Hinduism, Sanskrit, and the Bhagavad-Gita might be filed under this antonymic approach to identity as well: leaving behind both the traditional sacred of his heritage (Jewishness) and the Western secularism of his upbringing (Ethical Culture) by embracing the oriental mysticism of Far Eastern philosophy.
One of the more puzzling episodes in Oppenheimer’s life is related to ones of these identity crises. After graduating from Harvard, Oppenheimer went abroad to continue his physics education as a graduate student. He choose his initial venue poorly: he went to Cambridge, in England, where the kind of physics they were interested in was not to his liking (he was doing experimental physics, and he was terrible at it), and he found British class culture even more exclusive and stifling than Harvard’s had been. Oppenheimer experienced a series of crises and failures. The culmination of one of these involved him rushing back to Cambridge, telling his friends that he had laid a “poisoned apple” on the desk of the physicist P.M.S. Blackett. Blackett represented everything Oppenheimer could not be in England: successful experimentalist, movie-star handsome, and well-integrated into British class society. Was this “poison” real, imagined, or metaphorical? Nobody is quite sure — Blackett apparently suffered no physical ill, in any case.
Oppenheimer overcame this crisis and found a way forward, eventually by leaving England and studying instead on the European continent. There he learned the new theoretical physics (quantum mechanics), which he excelled at and emerged as an admired wunderkind. It was in this period, on the continent, that the character of “Oppie” (originally “Opje” in Dutch) was created: mathematically and physically adventurous, confident, quick-witted, eccentric, intellectually ambidextrous.
This trying-on of identities can help explain some of Oppenheimer’s wartime behaviors as well. Oppenheimer-as-Scientific-Director was on of his most successful costume changes, in retrospect, but it was a daring risk for him. General Groves gave him the job despite the fact that Oppenheimer lacked any real administrative experience, much less any practical experience in building anything. Oppenheimer also had extreme liabilities in his past and present: one of his identities in the 1930s had been of a “fellow traveler” to many Communists and Communist-associates in his life, including, but not limited to, his wife (Kitty), his brother (Frank), his friends (Haakon Chevalier), his girlfriend and later mistress (Jean Tatlock — more on her in a future post), and his graduate students.
These liabilities were known by Groves and others in the Manhattan Project security apparatus. They may have been one of the reasons Oppenheimer was an appealing choice for the job — he was moldable, he was relatively compliant, and these liabilities gave them leverage, should they need it. Oppenheimer worked so hard to be successful at this newest identity (creator of weapons of mass destruction for the U.S. government) that he overcame his past hang-up of leaving scientific investigations half-finished. He did have such doubts at times that he considered resigning, but he was talked out of the notion by his friends. He cut his hair, and got the job done.
The only trade-off was that in order to assume this new role, he had to prove his loyalties, and he did that by selling out his friends and colleagues. In many of the lengthy FBI files on his students and friends, one can find, very early in the file, an account of how they got on the radar of the anti-Communist agents of the United States government: they were alerted by J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. To be sure, Oppenheimer usually prefaced his denunciations by saying that these people were harmless, but he named names nonetheless.2
Ultimately it was this conflict of identities, I think, that snared Oppenheimer himself, in the end. His own well-documented downfall in the mid-1950s was in part the conflict of two of his identities. One of them was an eccentric, politically left-leaning intellectual who could be friends with anyone and dared to think and say whatever came to mind. The other was the head of a government weapons laboratory and later top-advisor in the area of nuclear arms. For a brief moment during the Manhattan Project, these two identities could overlap. By the 1950s, they could not — they were mutually exclusive, as distinct as a wave and a particle. Oppenheimer’s attempts to embody both of these at the same time, a sort of Complementarity-of-the-self, resulted in his selling out of the ideals of the former, and being rejected by the fears of the latter.
- These quotes are from Charles Thorpe’s Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 16. Thorpe’s book devotes much of its study of Oppenheimer to his quest for identity, and I owe many of my thoughts here to Thorpe’s work. [↩]
- To put this into perspective for my students, I tell them to replace the label “Communism” with “terrorist,” and imagine how it would go over with the FBI today if you told them that a friend of yours was a little bit of a terrorist in the past, but had seen the error of their ways and was fine now. Would the FBI be comforted? Of course not. [↩]