The fa­ther of the atomic bomb was a tragic ge­nius, writes Peter Craven In­side the Cen­tre: The Life of J. Robert Op­pen­heimer

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

COMETH the hour, cometh the per­son? If you have a ma­lig­nant mes­meriser such as Hitler, there’s some chance you will have a Churchill with a match­ing rhetoric and a finest hour. That Stalin’s mur­der of mil­lions will have some kind of op­po­site in Roo­sevelt and the New Deal that dragged the US out of the De­pres­sion and set up the supremacy it en­joyed for the next half-cen­tury.

Yes, but if we are go­ing to play this game of mix-and-match, do we think the Holo­caust had its nec­es­sary com­ple­ment in Hiroshima? In­side the Cen­tre, a new and riv­et­ing life of Robert Op­pen­heimer, the fa­ther of the atomic bomb, makes you won­der but of­fers lit­tle con­so­la­tion.

The day af­ter ‘‘ Lit­tle Boy’’ was dropped on Hiroshima in Au­gust 1945, Op­pen­heimer — as bril­liant a fig­ure as Amer­ica has ever pro­duced with as su­perla­tive a lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­ity as a sci­en­tific one — said to his com­rades at Los Alamos that his ‘‘ only re­gret’’ was that ‘‘ we hadn’t devel­oped the bomb in time to use it against the Ger­mans’’.

Those words re­main chill­ing and so does the fact that when Op­pen­heimer said years later in a lec­ture that he would do it again, a voice in the au­di­ence called, ‘‘ Even af­ter Hiroshima?’’, and he an­swered: ‘‘ Yes.’’

This is the man who can be seen on old tele­vi­sion footage say­ing in his beau­ti­ful voice how when the mush­room cloud ap­peared above a test bomb and they knew the thing worked he thought of Vishnu, the many-armed god, in the as­pect of Kr­ishna the Lord: ‘‘ Now I am be­come death, the de­stroyer of worlds.’’

Well, Op­pen­heimer was in some sense to be de­stroyed him­self dur­ing the McCarthy era when the House Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee de­nied him a se­cu­rity clear­ance and went a long way to­wards dis­cred­it­ing him as a dan­ger­ous lefty.

It was grossly un­fair, though Ray Monk in By Ray Monk Jonathan Cape, 830pp, $65 (HB) this de­tailed bi­og­ra­phy says Op­pen­heimer sowed the seeds of his down­fall — and that of many of his friends — be­cause of the lies he told the au­thor­i­ties dur­ing the war, think­ing he was shoring up his pa­tri­otic cre­den­tials.

The con­text was the cli­mate of left­ism that dom­i­nated Amer­i­can in­tel­lec­tual cir­cles in the 1930s and later made some peo­ple think — as did the traitor Klaus Fuchs — that nu­clear se­crets should be shared with the Rus­sians. Op­pen­heimer was ap­proached apro­pos of this, ten­ta­tively at one point, by his friend Haakon Che­va­lier, an au­thor and pro­fes­sor of French lit­er­a­ture, but he re­fused the very hy­po­thet­i­cal sug­ges­tion and noth­ing came of it. How­ever, he told his fiercely loyal mil­i­tary as­so­ciate Gen­eral Les­lie Groves and the FBI that Che­va­lier had ap­proached a num­ber of peo­ple, which was not true.

The be­trayal of Che­va­lier was bizarre given the two men com­mu­ni­cated with an ex­tra­or­di­nary elo­quence and med­i­tated sen­si­tiv­ity. It was Che­va­lier who said to Op­pen­heimer re­gard­ing the bomb: ‘‘ There is a weight in such a ven­ture which few men in his­tory have had to bear. I know that with your love of men it is no light thing to have had a part, and a great part, in a di­a­bol­i­cal con­trivance for de­stroy­ing them.’’ To which Op­pen­heimer replied, just as gravely: ‘‘ The thing had to be done, Haakon. Cir­cum­stances are heavy with mis­giv­ing and far, far more dif­fi­cult than they should be, had we the power to re­make the world to be as we think it.’’

Che­va­lier had loved Op­pen­heimer and could not be­lieve ‘‘ what the mind had con­ceived and to what the heart con­sented’’. Op­pen­heimer said in a late let­ter to Che­va­lier, ‘‘ It is not nearly as clear to me as it ap­pears to be to you how much, in the past, at present, or in the fu­ture the shadow of my cock-and-bull story lies over you.’’ Che­va­lier said de­spite his in­ten­tions, Op­pen­heimer’s ac­tions had been ‘‘ in­cal­cu­la­bly dis­as­trous both to me and your­self’’ and by ‘‘ your un­fath­omable folly you and I are linked to­gether in a cloudy le­gend which no truth will ever un­make or un­ravel’’. He went on to write a novel about Op­pen­heimer called The Man Who Would Be God.

Op­pen­heimer was the kind of man who was a liv­ing myth to his clos­est as­so­ci­ates. A nat­u­rally princely char­ac­ter, a man­i­fest ge­nius in a Cocteau-like sense, he was said to make ev­ery­one fall in love with him. Moody, in­can­des­cent, han­ker­ing af­ter wis­dom and of­ten close to mad­ness, he seems to have been a bit like Ham­let.

Op­pen­heimer was born in 1904 to the pur­ple of the Ger­man New York Jews who cul­ti­vated sec­u­lar­ism like a scrip­ture. He went to Bri­tain, to Cam­bridge Univer­sity, to study un­der Ernest Rutherford, fresh from his re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of the atom. The man Op­pen­heimer most ad­mired was the great Dane Niels Bohr with his first-phase quantum me­chan­ics.

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