THE THING HAD TO BE DONE’
The father of the atomic bomb was a tragic genius, writes Peter Craven Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer
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.