As recounted in the previous post, Oppenheimer fixated on a rather limited view of the academic vocation. While limited in scope, such a view allowed him to pursue noteworthy excellence. He experienced an especially triumphant phase between the time he accepted his joint appointment at UC Berkeley and Cal Tech and the time he resigned as the Scientific Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory. As a young professor, Oppenheimer was initially unaware of the issues facing the larger world. For example, the majority of Oppenheimer’s biographers note that a considerable period passed before Oppenheimer became aware of the stock market crash of 1929. However, the lessons of his time at the Ethical Culture School began to come to fruition in the 1930s as Oppenheimer sought to develop a more active social conscience.
Domestically speaking, such an awakening occurred partly because of his realization that many of his students were undergoing significant financial hardships. Internationally speaking, such an awakening occurred partly because of his realization that many physicists, particularly in places such as Nazi Germany, were undergoing significant hardships and even oppression. As a result, Thorpe notes that “Oppenheimer’s search for moral meaning beyond [Judaism and Christianity] could be seen as continuous with Adler’s universalistic ideal.”1 Oppenheimer’s search would eventually lead him to modest levels of interest in both Hinduism and communism. Conant notes that “for a scientist, his search for wisdom in religion, philosophy, and politics was so unusual as to be considered ‘bohemian.’”2 As Pais notes, “satisfaction with self was not given him, however.”3
All of these authors agree that Oppenheimer’s connection to the communist party was, at best, that of a sympathizer or a fellow traveler. To her credit, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm confirmed such an understanding shortly before the first trailer of Nolan’s Oppenheimer was released. Although such an interest was of concern to officials such as General Leslie Groves, who selected Oppenheimer to direct the Los Alamos Laboratory, it did not preclude them from making Oppenheimer their choice. Bird and Sherwin even offer that “precisely because Oppenheimer came with left-wing political baggage, Groves thought he could use Oppie’s [(Oppenheimer’s)] past to control him.”4
Regardless, as the leader of the Los Alamos Laboratory, Thorpe offers that Oppenheimer sold involvement in this project to himself and his fellow physicists as “an opportunity to make manifest the truth and power of the new physics, and a way to connect their vocation as physicists with the global struggle against Fascism.”5 At this time, the Soviets were an ally in the fight against the oppressive regimes in nations such as Germany, Spain, Italy, and Japan.
Through the eyes of Dorothy McKibbin, Conant notes that as the leader of the assembly of scientists which had come to Los Alamos, Oppenheimer “hold[s] the sun in new and streamlined machines on the old worn plateau.”6 Cassidy offers that among the scientists assembled at Los Alamos “there was a universal feeling that this was a very special time in their lives—all presided over and masterfully steered in the right direction by the articulate, diplomatic, and highly adept Dr. Oppenheimer.”7
Nothing in Oppenheimer’s past would lead someone such as Leslie Groves to think that he would develop into a charismatic leader. In fact, many of these biographers speculate that Groves chose Oppenheimer because of his unstable selfhood. Regardless of whom they chose, the military knew that they needed a Scientific Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory who would at least tolerate their inclination toward the compartmentalization of knowledge and how such an inclination aided with secrecy. In essence, everyone knew a great deal about their respective part but only a few knew what would come of the sum of the parts. Cassidy offers that “eager to please the general, the obedient director found himself alone in defending Groves.”8 Oppenheimer did his best to contend with Groves’ demand for compartmentalization on his own as the director and thus allow for greater freedom for the scientists he employed.
While such a burden born by Oppenheimer made the conditions at Los Alamos tolerable, Conant notes that “Groves was willing to be far more flexible on the subject of security than army intelligence would have preferred.”9 In the end, the triumph of Oppenheimer’s career came with mixed feelings. Several of Oppenheimer’s biographers note that the culmination of the Los Alamos Laboratory came on July 16, 1945, with the first atomic detonation. Several of them also record Oppenheimer’s famous description of the scene as related by a quote he offered from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”10
Finally, if the triumphant phase of Oppenheimer’s academic vocation came while he served as the head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the tragic phase (borrowing from Bird and Sherwin’s language again) came in the ensuing years during the 1950s. The mixed feelings which Oppenheimer offered about the first atomic detonation would quickly move to feelings of great concern over the future of a world capable of unleashing nuclear energy. The literal and figurative weight of what Oppenheimer witnessed in the desert of New Mexico propelled him to confront not only the federal government’s practice of compartmentalization but also an understanding of the academic vocation which had previously failed to challenge such a practice.
Bird and Sherwin note that in December of 1945, “[Isador] Rabi and Oppenheimer proposed an international atomic authority that would have real clout because it would control both the bomb and peaceful uses of atomic energy.”11 While Rabi would always contend that this idea originated with him, several of Oppenheimer’s biographers note that such an idea originated with the philosophy of Niels Bohr. Deeply rooted in Bohr’s beliefs concerning both physics and philosophy, McMillan offers that Bohr and then Oppenheimer believed “that the capacity to make atomic weapons should be controlled not by a single nation but by a consortium.”12 Such an understanding would eventually run contrary to the notion of compartmentalization that Oppenheimer experienced while serving as the leader of the Los Alamos Laboratory.
Oppenheimer’s commitment to complementarity and subsequently to the establishment of a consortium that would control the production of nuclear weapons proved not only to defy the notion of compartmentalization but also proved to be at the heart of the security hearings that Oppenheimer would face. As the tensions of the Cold War increased, lobbying for such a consortium was perceived to be disloyal. All of Oppenheimer’s biographers offer some detail in terms of this tragic phase of his life with McMillan offering the greatest detail.
They also note that the decision resulting from these hearings to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance was an injustice. Thorpe claims that “the justifications in the final report for the withdrawal of [Oppenheimer’s] clearance were contradictory and confusing.”13 McMillan notes that the rulings made by Gordon Gray, the chair of the Gray Board, “were tilted harshly against the defense, so harshly that a reader of the transcript might get the impression that he had had no training in the law and very little notion what due process was.”14
Several of these biographers also note that Oppenheimer was as much his own enemy as were individuals such as Gordon Gray. Oppenheimer’s inability to serve himself well in his defense came in moments when his unstable sense of selfhood proved to be most evident. Conant notes that “the Gray Board had clearly been stacked against Oppenheimer, but in the end, he was his own worst enemy.”15 Cassidy offers that under the pressure of his interrogators, Oppenheimer became “a vulnerable creature bereft of his sense of self and self-confidence.”16
However, Oppenheimer’s dilemma had ramifications for intellectuals beyond himself alone. Pais shares that the prosecuting attorney “[Roger] Robb was challenging, in effect, not only Oppenheimer’s authority to address social issues such as military policy but that of any scientist. This challenge went unanswered.”17 Thorpe expands this cycle of concern even further when he remarks that “struggles over the nature and extent of scientific authority and the relationship between science and liberal democracy converged on the personal role of Oppenheimer and the question of whether his example was to be emulated or repudiated.”18 One is left wondering if the Jewish faith of Oppenheimer’s ancestors in the face of such an understanding of democracy and the academic vocation would, in fact, have made a difference.
According to David Cassidy, [Isador] “Rabi once remarked: ‘I have said of him that he would have been a much better physicist if he had studied the Talmud rather than Sanskrit . . . It would have given him a greater sense of himself.”19 In fairness to Oppenheimer, the formation of his understanding of the academic vocation as presented in the volumes considered for these posts also unveiled the presence of other forces at work. In essence, the propensity of the scientific and political vocations of which he was a part to forge a distinction between facts and values wove itself into Oppenheimer’s own life and thus his understanding of the academic vocation.
While religion is invariably more than values, Adler’s vision for the Ethical Culture School reduced creed to deed. Oppenheimer’s experiences in higher education may have cultivated within him an understanding of his calling to theoretical physics. However, it failed to expose him to any larger metaphysical commitments which may have yielded a sense of purpose and meaning to him and his chosen field.
In particular, Oppenheimer’s time at Harvard exposed him to the face of discrimination. Oppenheimer’s time at UC-Berkeley may have awoken within him an awareness of the significance of deed but the closest he came to a creed was in studying Sanskrit and the Bhagavad Gita. Regardless, none of his biographers indicate that Oppenheimer’s interests in Hinduism rose to anything approaching a creed.20
As a result of these experiences, Oppenheimer was perhaps left defenseless in the face of a liberal democracy that demanded compartmentalization and a scientific vocation that encouraged a self-serving distinction between facts and values. The technically sweet dimensions of working on the first atomic bomb may have allowed Oppenheimer initially to be at peace with such a distinction. However, the weight of what he observed with the detonation of the first atomic bomb propelled him to consider the significance of what he and his colleagues had created even after they achieved technical success.
The liberal democracy they served at that time was not one inclined to tolerate such questions from scientists. On one level, the results of the Gray Board brought about the removal of Oppenheimer’s security clearance. On another level, the results of the Gray Board warned those called to the academic vocation that attempts to mend distinctions between facts and values through a particular vision of the good could come with the charge of disloyalty. One can only imagine what result may have come in response to an Oppenheimer who could mend a distinction between creed and deed. For Oppenheimer, the best he could do in the face of what he saw on the morning of July 16, 1945, was to grapple with any distinction between facts and values absent any professional formation that prepared him to do so. As a result, he spent the remainder of his life vacillating back and forth between an acceptance of the demand for compartmentalization and a rejection of it.
By their nature, Christian scholars should not only see a seamless relationship shared by facts and values but also by creed and deed. The failure to do so in the case of Oppenheimer allowed more barbaric forces to become established amongst the culture elite. If nothing else, those of us who are scholars defined by our Christian commitments are charged with offering a form of resistance to those barbaric forces even if the end result is that we meet a fate comparable to that which met J. Robert Oppenheimer.21
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer will undoubtedly initiate conversations concerning any number of pressing matters in the coming days. May the relationships shared by facts and values, creed and deed, and the costs associated with them be amongst the conversations initiated by Christians called to the academic vocation.
- Thorpe, Oppenheimer, 53.
- Conant, 109 East Palace, 26.
- Pais, J. Robert Oppenheimer, 33.
- Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, 224.
- Thorpe, Oppenheimer, 67.
- Conant, 109 East Palace, 97.
- Cassidy, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century, 234.
- Cassidy, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century, 232.
- Conant, 109 East Palace, 102.
- Conant, 109 East Palace, 308.
- Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, 339.
- McMillan, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race, 59.
- Thorpe, Oppenheimer, 234.
- McMillan, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race, 225.
- Conant, 109 East Palace, 387.
- Cassidy, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century, 317.
- Pais, J. Robert Oppenheimer, 247.
- Thorpe, Oppenheimer, 234-5.
- Cassidy, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century, 150.
- For a different view of Oppenheimer’s interest in and commitment to Hinduism, see James A. Hijiya, “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 144:2 (2000): 123-167.
- A special thanks to individuals who read drafts of these posts and offered valuable insights including Brian C. Clark, Nathan L. Herring, Jerry Pattengale, and Sara C. Ream.