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Oppenheimer Biography Garners Pulitzer Prize

April 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Oppenheimer lived an extraordinary 20th-century life of both triumph and tragedy, bound up in science, war, and Cold War politics.

He was born in 1904 to a well-off family in New York, studied physics at Harvard and in Germany, and then taught it in California. In 1942, Oppenheimer was made director of the Manhattan Project’s secret laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. His leadership culminated in the first nuclear explosion in July 1945.

Three weeks later, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the years after the war, while serving as a government adviser, Oppenheimer questioned the wisdom of relying on nuclear weapons.

And in 1949, he opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb. His views angered many nuclear weapon supporters.

And in 1954, during the McCarthy era, his prewar, left-wing activities led his opponents to charge him with being a security risk. His security clearance was stripped and his official advisory role ended.

Oppenheimer served as director of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study until 1966 and died the next year of throat cancer at age 62. [Editor’ Note: the Institute for Advanced Study is an independent academic institution located in Princeton, N.J.]

His story is told in “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

And co-authors Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin join me now. Welcome to you, both, and congratulations.

KAI BIRD, Co-Author, “American Prometheus:” Thank you.

MARTIN SHERWIN, Co-author, “American Prometheus”: Pleasure to be here, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Sherwin, it’s a fascinating, troubling figure you’re writing about. There has been a lot written about him. What were you trying to do?

MARTIN SHERWIN: Well, I hope it doesn’t sound inappropriate, but we were trying to do what we ended up doing: writing a full-scale biography, trying to understand the man and relationship between the man and his policies.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re looking at a very public life and trying to reveal the private man here. So, Mr. Bird, was there some key insight that you found that helps explain how this man could have gone through both the triumphs and the tragedies we talked about?

KAI BIRD: Well, yes. Part of it is in his childhood. And we made — well, Marty did interviews with any number of his high school buddies and college buddies, and we discovered that this man had a very fragile personality.

He was a child prodigy, but he was also extremely fragile psychologically. He actually went through a nervous breakdown at the age of 22.

And, yet, he was able to transform himself. He was able, just a year later, to enter into the world of quantum physics, right on the cutting edge. And throughout his life, he was able to do this, transform himself from being a professor of physics to the director of a secret project to build the atomic bomb. It was an amazing ability of transformation.

JEFFREY BROWN: How was he able to do that, specifically to marshal the people, ideas, resources to get the bomb built?

MARTIN SHERWIN: He had a great deal of willpower, and determination, and an ability to exert his personality for the kinds of roles that he had to play.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when he had misgivings, personal and then public, did he have them always and he set them aside to get the job done, or did something happen to change his mind, Mr. Bird?

KAI BIRD: He was a very enigmatic personality. And when the bomb happened, as it was — just two weeks after it was tested in the desert of New Mexico, he already began to have misgivings about how it was going to be used.

He muttered to his secretary, “Oh, those poor little people, those poor little people,” referring to the Japanese civilians who were about to be on the receiving end of this weapon of mass destruction.

And yet, you know, he had been told that it was necessary to end the war. And within weeks of Hiroshima, he plunged into a deep depression, and he tried thereafter for the rest of his life to persuade the powers that be in Washington and the American people that it would be very dangerous to rely on this weapon for our national security.

MARTIN SHERWIN: You know, I think you put your finger on one of the key things about his personality: He always had misgivings.

The question is always asked, why did someone so brilliant not win a Nobel Prize? And one of the answers that his closest friends gave was that he always saw the downside of everything he achieved.

And it was both a problem for him, but it was also something that made him an extraordinarily interesting individual and gave him the sense that arrogance is not the attitude to take to something as incredibly important as nuclear weapons.

JEFFREY BROWN: We have a short audio clip from 1945. Tell us what this is?

MARTIN SHERWIN: From November 16th, I believe, 1945, he was speaking to the American Philosophical Society. It was one of his first public lectures.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Let’s listen to that.

J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER, Manhattan Project Leader: The pattern of the use of atomic weapons was set at Hiroshima. They are weapons of aggression, of surprise, and of terror.

If they are ever used again, it may be by the thousands or perhaps by the tens of thousands. Their method of delivery may well be different and may reflect new possibilities of interception and new efforts to outwit them.

And the strategy of their use may well be different than it was against an essentially defeated enemy. But it is a weapon for aggressors, and the elements of surprise and of terror are as intrinsic to it as artifissionable nuclei (ph).

JEFFREY BROWN: The turn that happened in these postwar years, a kind of stunning turn for the man who had been the father of the atomic bomb, and his clearance being taken away. How do you characterize it for us? How do we see it? Is it all part of Cold War politics?

KAI BIRD: Well, he became the chief celebrity victim of the McCarthy era. And he was chosen for this role because he began to go public with his opposition to building the hydrogen bomb and to relying on these weapons, because he understood — I mean, it’s very relevant today.

He warned against nuclear terrorism, against suitcase bombs, and he argued that there was no defense against them, that really the only defense was abolition of these weapons under an international regime.

But, ironically, you know, his advice was not only ignored, they went out to silence him in the 1954 trial, and humiliate him, and they took away his security clearance in a secret, kangaroo-like court atmosphere, and then leaked the results of the so-called trial, and publicly humiliated a man who had been America’s most famous scientist, other than Einstein.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the evidence that you found was that he was never a communist, but I think you said he was closer to the party than he had ever admitted.

MARTIN SHERWIN: He was very close to the party, and he actually admitted being very, very close to the party.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this would have been in what year? This would have been in the ’30s…

MARTIN SHERWIN: Between 1936 and 1941 or so. He was a professor at Berkeley, also at Cal-Tech.

He fell in love with a woman named Jean Tatlock, who was a communist. She introduced him to her communist friends, and he was very actively involved with a lot of the issues that the communist party was supporting at that time, which were basically New Deal issues: workers’ rights, labor unions, the Spanish civil war, and so on, and so forth.

But he was not a joiner. His brother was; his brother was a member of the party; his brother’s wife was a member of the party. But the FBI tried for many, many years, tapping his phone, looking at his mail, following him around, interviewing other people. They were never able to prove that he was a member of the party, and he wasn’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: I gather that the two of you are now involved in an effort to try to overturn this revocation of his security clearance?

KAI BIRD: Well, when the book came out, a number of lawyers here in town in Washington read it, and now lawyers from the firm of Arnold and Porter are doing the research to try to investigate whether there are grounds for somehow formally overturning or nullifying the verdict in 1954.

MARTIN SHERWIN: Not on the basis that it was the wrong verdict; on the basis that there were a host of illegal government activities that controlled the outcome of the verdict.

For example, the FBI tapped Oppenheimer’s lawyers’ telephone and sent transcripts of their discussions to the Atomic Energy Commission prosecutor during the hearing. There was witness tampering. The prosecutor, Roger Robb, informed Edward Teller before his testimony, for example, what Oppenheimer had said in the secret hearings. It was just blatantly illegal actions.

JEFFREY BROWN: I just have to ask you — we only have about 30 seconds here — but I understand this book was 25 years in the making. You, Mr. Bird, came in about five years ago.

KAI BIRD: Five years.

JEFFREY BROWN: How did you — you won an award now here — but how did you maintain the interest, the passion, the stick-to-it-iveness to complete it?

MARTIN SHERWIN: Well, you had to go in and out of it, and you had to realize that this was something that was — it was a Sisyphusian operation.

KAI BIRD: I feel cheated. I wish I would have had a few more years on it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You only had five.

MARTIN SHERWIN: It was a great project. It was a lot of fun to write.

KAI BIRD: And we had a five-year running seminar that is probably the most exciting intellectual experience I’ve had.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, congratulations again, Kai Bird, Martin Sherwin, thanks a lot.