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Oppenheimer’s Deadly Toy

If it can be done, it will be done ...

“How can I save my little boy / From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?” sang Sting, in a perhaps regrettable moment. Before writing The Heat of the Sun, I knew little about J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), known to history as the “father” of the atomic bomb. When the needs of the story took my characters to Los Alamos, New Mexico, epicentre of the Manhattan Project, I had to repair my ignorance. Oppenheimer makes only a cameo appearance in the novel, but his strangeness and his contradictions, for me, loom behind the story as a haunting presence.

Oppenheimer, a rare instance of a man who combined in one person the celebrated “two cultures” of C. P. Snow (art and science), grew up in leisured wealth in New York City, in a vast apartment on Riverside Drive with Van Goghs on the wall. As a young man he travelled widely and dabbled in literature and mysticism before settling on a career in theoretical physics. Rapidly, he proved himself a genius. Enamoured of the beauty (note: the beauty) of quantum theory, that radical new science for a new century, he sought out the secrets of matter itself: atoms, protons, electrons. Before the war he was a physics professor at Berkeley and Caltech.

Oppenheimer, for all his gifts, seemed an unlikely choice to run a secret military establishment. In California he had earned a certain local notoriety, not least from an entourage of college boys who appeared to worship him, and whom he entertained lavishly. In 1939 he married and became suddenly respectable. Harder to quell were rumours that he had been a communist. During the war, there were claims that he was still a communist, although the driven, determined administrator of Los Alamos had little in common with the bohemian he had once been.

Some said Oppenheimer was a creature of ambition, casting aside his principles for the chance of power and fame. Some said he was flattered, as a Jew, to be invited to the high table of American power. At his peak, with the Manhattan Project crowned in triumph, Oppenheimer moved in the most exalted circles of Washington, DC. He became a national hero. The Bomb (so the story went) had brought an early end to the war, saving a million American GIs, and this was the man who had made it happen. Yet after the war, Oppenheimer was among the first to try, and fail, to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, speaking out against the development of the hydrogen bomb. He said to President Truman: “Mr President, I have blood on my hands.” Truman was grossly offended. Oppenheimer had only built the bomb; Truman had authorised its use.

In the hysterical years of the early 1950s, after the Russians had detonated their own nuclear bombs and the threat of communism seemed to loom from every corner, Oppenheimer plummeted from national hero to national scapegoat. Busily, the agents of Senator McCarthy scrambled in the recesses of Oppenheimer’s past. It was not difficult to present him as a traitor. Hadn’t he tried to block the development of new weapons, vital to the nation’s defence?

Oppenheimer never went to prison; he never lost his academic post. He was humiliated, that was all: he fell from grace with the government and his security clearance was withdrawn. In vain attempts to hold on to his power he gave out the names of other suspected communists. Many were ruined, including some of his own former acolytes. Oppenheimer was lucky, perhaps disgracefully so; but he was destroyed all the same. Perhaps the very fact that he built the bomb fuelled the hatred against him, as if there were a secret, collective longing to punish the man who had brought the world into so terrible a bondage.

In later years Oppenheimer expressed no guilt: “A scientist cannot hold back progress because of fears of what the world will do with his discoveries,” he said, as if Los Alamos had been a disinterested research institute. Yet this was a man who professed a lifelong interest in Eastern mysticism and claimed that the Bhagavad-gita had been the biggest influence on his life. After the first test of the atomic bomb, he quoted Vishnu: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds …” In pictures, he possesses an ethereal, almost ascetic beauty: a suggestion of holiness. He had called the first atomic bomb test “Trinity” after one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God …”

It would be comforting to condemn Oppenheimer as if he were a mad scientist, a lone renegade who should have been stopped. In truth, there are no mad scientists: only a mad science that proceeds, in the end, with the assent of us all. Los Alamos shows how it works: scientists in bureaucratic teams of thousands, labouring like drones in a hive towards a common end. The lesson is simple: If it can be done, it will be done. When war broke out, physicists knew already that an atomic bomb was possible. The Germans knew it; the Russians knew it; the British knew it; the Japanese knew it. It was only a matter of building it: only a matter of time. It was Oppenheimer’s tragedy that his genius showed the way.

 

Notable biographies of Oppenheimer include Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2009), David C. Cassidy’s J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century (2005), and Peter Goodchild’s J. Robert Oppenheimer: ‘Shatterer of Worlds’ (1980), which was based on a British TV series and is illustrated copiously; Oppenheimer is, memorably, the subject of John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic (2005).