However, it is my judgment in these things that when you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.1 —J. Robert Oppenheimer, April 13, 1954
In the preface to his 1969 edited collection of essays entitled On Intellectuals, Philip Rieff declared that “The clergy has had no successor. America is without a culture elite.”2 At that time, a secular generation of intellectuals had taken the mantle of cultural elites for most of the twentieth century. Yet, in Rieff’s view, they had failed to replace the clergy because they did not to offer a compelling understanding of the academic vocation.
In the wake of secular intellectuals’ failure, Rieff contended that the United States found itself susceptible to the possibility of its culture elite being transferred to other elements of culture that may prove to be nothing less than barbaric. One might think Rieff’s argument is a reaction to the sense of upheaval that American higher education (and American society as a whole) was undergoing in the late 1960s. Perhaps Rieff’s argument also was formed in relation to the final figure which he himself explored in his edited collection—J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Rieff’s exploration of Oppenheimer was in many ways just the beginning. The latter portion of the twentieth century saw numerous book-length explorations of this theoretical physicist. As noted in Part I, the two years (2005 & 2006) clustered around the sixtieth anniversary of the explosion of the first atomic bomb witnessed more book-length explorations than any previous or subsequent epoch.3 One could summarize that through Oppenheimer these authors offer us nothing less than an autopsy of the American academic vocation. While no singular figure can fully embody the call to a particular profession, Oppenheimer provides us with a fascinating means through which to view the crisis that occurred amongst intellectuals.
As a result, we offer in the following posts a critical overview of these important works and the themes present within them related to the larger notion of the academic vocation. We argue this crisis is the result of an inadequate secularized understanding of such avocation in a liberal democracy. By inadequate, we mean an understanding of the academic vocation, which not only makes a distinction between religious creed and ethical values but also between those values and scientific facts. In essence, what unfolds is a cautionary tale offered to all scholars whose identities are defined first and foremost by Christian commitment.
We begin by providing some general comments about the six biographies of J. Robert Oppenheimer published during those years including American Prometheus, the volume which inspired Christopher Nolan’s film. Each of the works contains more detailed information and analysis than we can offer. While we will only provide a few general statements about the individual books, such information may be sufficient for any interested party to begin to study Oppenheimer’s life and how such a life speaks to larger issues concerning the academic vocation. The first two books focus specifically on a particular timeframe in Oppenheimer’s life, while the others attempt to be more full-fledged biographies. However, the final book relates the biographical details offered in the other texts but does so from the perspective of Oppenheimer’s particular call to the academic vocation.4
Jennet Conant’s 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos gives one a feel for working at the Los Alamos Laboratory. In addition, this book looks into the unique challenges Oppenheimer faced while trying to assemble and manage some of the brightest scientists of the world—many of whom moved with their families to a desert location for an indefinite period of time with unique restrictions concerning their contacts with the outside world and within the Los Alamos community itself.
Additionally, many of these scientists knew little more than their particular area of responsibility because it was considered necessary for security reasons to limit the number of individuals with knowledge of the overall objective and what progress towards reaching the goal was being made. Conant offers a great amount of detail concerning how Oppenheimer created an atmosphere that made each one of these scientists feel a part of the larger effort and that their particular contribution was valuable.
Conant tells this story from the perspective of Dorothy McKibbin, who was hired by Oppenheimer at the beginning of the Los Alamos Laboratory. Anyone entering Los Alamos had to stop by McKibbin’s office in Santa Fe at 109 East Palace to obtain a security pass and transportation to Los Alamos. Conant manages to paint a vivid picture of this Los Alamos community and highlights many of the dimensions of how the scientists understood their work in the light of their vocation. In addition, through McKibbin, Conant gives us a picture of Oppenheimer not just as a scientist or as an intellectual, nor even simply as the Scientific Director of the Laboratory, but rather as a human being—his character, his interactions with scientists and non-scientists, his sharp mind, and his unique talents.
The book provides a very readable introduction to the highly complex endeavor of the Los Alamos Laboratory. However, Conant’s book also highlights the tension which emerged between Oppenheimer’s call to theoretical physics and his call to serve the wartime needs of the United States. In the end, Conant quotes Einstein’s remark where he offers that “The trouble with Oppenheimer is that he loves a woman who doesn’t love him—the United States Government.”5
While Conant’s book highlights the period of Oppenheimer’s life he spent at Los Alamos, Priscilla J. McMillan’s The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race focuses on the period of Oppenheimer’s life in the 1950s which was consumed by security hearings. Highlighting the role of Oppenheimer’s prime interlocutor, Lewis Strauss, McMillan paints a picture of jealousy, revenge, and the willful distortion of truth in an attempt to get one’s way. McMillan offers that “the story I tell is an old one, the story of what happens when some institution—a church, say, or a government—decides to rid itself of someone who has become anathema to it, or when it wants to change course without saying so openly.”6
In addition to the detail she shares in relation to the security hearings, McMillan also goes to great lengths to explore the relationship Oppenheimer shared with Edward Teller, arguably the father of the hydrogen bomb. On one level, Oppenheimer’s resistance to the development of such a weapon prompted Teller and others such as Lewis Strauss to pursue him. On another level, McMillan offers that Oppenheimer was responsible for some of his own problems. She states that “sometimes, for no discernable reason, [Oppenheimer] would lash out at a student, a colleague, even a powerful official, with an acerbity bound to humiliate.”7 He would become “rude beyond belief”8 and “his propensity for destroying an adversary led to his downfall.”9
Abraham Pais’ J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life is greatly influenced by Pais’ personal impressions of Oppenheimer. Most of these impressions stem from the post-World War II period when Pais and Oppenheimer were colleagues and when Oppenheimer was Director of the Institute for Advanced Study. Pais acknowledges up front that Oppenheimer was, for the most part, either loved or hated by those who knew him and that his own feelings toward Oppenheimer were ambivalent. However, Pais states that after writing this biography he feels more “compassion for a man who could never find enough satisfaction with his signal achievements, who forever was compelled to reach for more.”10 Pais offers particular recognition of Oppenheimer’s role in bringing first-rate theoretical physics to the United States in the 1930s. Prior to that point in time, the best theoretical physics was being done in Europe.
Unfortunately, Pais also draws quite a bit of attention to himself in this book and thereby reports selectively the key events and the resulting impressions of Oppenheimer’s reputation as seen by others. Also, perhaps, Pais includes too many lengthy quotes from other writings, including several Government reports. However, he does a significant job in places, telling the story of Oppenheimer’s rise to prominence not only as a theoretical physicist but also as a leader. Oppenheimer is quoted as stating that in the 1920s and early 1930s, he never read a newspaper or listened to the radio. By contrast, he read very widely from the classics—novels, plays, and poetry. In particular, Pais quotes Oppenheimer as saying that “I was interested in man and his experience; I was deeply interested in my science; but I had no understanding of the relations of man to his society.”11
Pais also claims that many of those impressions changed in Oppenheimer’s life after he led successful efforts to develop the first atomic bomb. Pais quotes Oppenheimer as saying in 1946 that “I find that physics and the teaching of physics, which is my life, now seems irrelevant.”12 World War II changed similar commitments for many academics, both in the United States and in Europe. In the end, Pais offers that Oppenheimer envisioned that the next phase of his life was to serve as the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study and led to its development as an “Intellectual Hotel.”13
When guests checked into such a hotel, one is left to wonder what the end or the purpose of their stay was. What vision governed their understanding of the academic vocation beyond their ability to follow where mere curiosity may lead them? Tomorrow, we’ll explore the rest of what these biographies have to offer including the magisterial effort by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin that proved so fundamental to Christopher Nolan and Nolan’s forthcoming film.
* A version of parts two through five was originally published as Todd C. Ream and Willem P. Van de Merwe. “J. Robert Oppenheimer: An Autopsy of the American Academic Vocation.” Christian Scholar’s Review, 36:3 (2007), pp. 349-363.
- United States Atomic Energy Commission, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing before Personnel Security Board (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1954), 81.
- Philip Rieff, On Intellectuals: Theoretical Studies, Case Studies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1969), viii.
- The six books we will explore in this essay are: Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005); David C. Cassidy. J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century. New York: Pi Press, 2005); Jennet Conant. 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005); Priscilla J. McMillan. The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race (New York: Viking, 2005); Abraham Pais. J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Charles Thorpe. Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).
- Two edited collections of essays concerning J. Robert Oppenheimer which we did not consider in this review essay include Carson, Cathryn, and David A. Hollinger, eds., Reappraising Oppenheimer: Centennial Studies and Reflections, Berkeley Papers in the History of Science, Volume 21 (Berkeley, CA: Office for History of Science Technology at the University of California Berkeley, 2005), and Cynthia C. Kelly, ed., Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project (Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific, 2006).
- Jennet Conant, 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 389.
- Priscilla J. McMillan, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race (New York, NY: Viking, 2005), 14.
- McMillan, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 10.
- McMillan, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 153.
- McMillan, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 166.
- Abraham Pais, J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), xxii.
- Pais, J. Robert Oppenheimer, 35.
- Pais, J. Robert Oppenheimer, 154.
- Pais, J. Robert Oppenheimer, 90.