PBS in the last week aired a new documentary, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, that captures well the great importance of Oppenheimer’s life in recent history, and how his story reflected the history of the world around him.
Oppenheimer’s story is one of the great parables of 20th century history. He grew up in an environment that encouraged careful consideration of morality and ethics. He breezed through school, struggling only in the laboratories of Cambridge, and became a respected academic as a professor at Berkeley and Cal Tech. He read widely in philosophy and eastern religion, but was involved in politics mainly as a sympathizer with various “causes” of the time. Then, during the war, he was scientific director of the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb, and advocated for its use in the war. After the war, he became a respected advisor to the government on nuclear and scientific issues. But, when he advocated diplomacy with the Soviets to regulate development of the “super” or hydrogen bomb, the H-bomb’s supporters dug up incidents from his past to paint him as a Communist, and drove him out of the government. I can think of no other biography that so clearly illustrates the hazards of attempting to live a life based on nuanced convictions; and the danger to society of losing its greatest potential leaders if we allow zealots and partisans of any kind to villify the advocates of a carefully chosen middle path.
Compared to the biography American Prometheus, one of whose authors is interviewed in the film, The Trials is naturally not as complete, since two hours of television can’t possibly deliver the same depth as a 600 page book. The documentary also puts substantially more emphasis on the difficulties of Oppenheimer’s personality, his vicious verbal put-downs of fellow academics and clumsy relations with women, all perhaps rooted in a hidden lack of confidence. The television film is also less sympathetic to Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, who is descibed as “an additional burden” during their years at Los Alamos.
The documentary does well at compressing the story of Oppenheimer’s youth, and detailing his early scientific life. It also gives a clear account of the reasons for his choice as Los Alamos lab director. In explaining the details of Oppenheimer’s feud with Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss, the film is somewhat less than detailed about Oppenheimer’s position in relation to H-bomb development and diplomatic alternatives to maintain a balance of power with the Soviets without creating the super-weapon. Strauss’s and Teller’s enmity in the end led to his losing his security clearance and thus his position as advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission.
In addition to American Prometheus, there are of course many other biographies available, and in fact the transcript of the hearings that led to Oppenheimer’s dismissal from government was also published by the Atomic Energy Commission. Probably one of my dumbest shopping moves ever was not buying the transcripts when I saw them at BookBuyers used books in Mountain View. However, if you don’t have time for a book, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer is an excellent introduction into one of the most important stories in history, and highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of science, World War II, or the cold war.