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Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy - page 2 / 3





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Oppie’s personal history. Its research and documentation is truly impressive – virtually every quotation

and reference to incidents is exhaustively documented in the endnotes. In addition, the authors personally

interviewed over one hundred former friends, colleagues, and students of Oppenheimer, all of

whom are listed. It is no surprise to me, after having read the book, that it was twenty-five years in the

making. Still, there are some peripheral items that could have easily been omitted. An example: the

description of Joe Dallet, who was Kitty Oppenheimer’s first husband. There is a four-page digression

concerning his life and communist activities (he was killed in the Spanish Civil War). Although interesting,

for the purposes of the present volume all of this could have been eliminated and replaced by

one sentence:“Kitty Oppenheimer’s first husband was a communist who was killed in Spain.”There are

other digressions that are more appropriate, most notably a good deal of information about his brother

Frank, to whom he remained very close all of his life. Physicists with long memories will recall that

he was summarily fired from the University of Minnesota faculty after he was caught in a lie concerning

his membership in the Communist Party while testifying before the House Un-American Activities

Committee. As a digression of my own, I might add that Frank Oppeneimer’s subsequent career as

founder and long-term director of the famous San Francisco Exploratorium was probably even more

lustrous than the one he would have had as a professor at Minnesota.

This book is also the place to learn about the many students of Oppenheimer who became

enmeshed in the McCarthy morass – you can learn about such physicists as David Bohm, Robert Serber,

Joseph Weinberg, Phil Morrison, and a slew of his other graduate students at Berkeley who flirted,

to one extent or another, with the radical movement, all of whom paid some sort of price for these idealistic

commitments to one extent or another.

This is also the place to obtain a fine exposition of the Chevalier affair. This was the case that, in

the end, was probably more responsible than anything else for Oppie’s “downfall,” for want of a better

word. It was not only that he did not immediately report a feeler made by Chevalier to the effect that

it might help the war effort were the Russians apprised of important military research going on at

Berkeley, but also because he somehow managed to dig himself a deeper hole by inventing some fictional

additional contacts. He was skewered on the witness stand at his security hearing over these

transgressions, and he never recovered. In the end, after both the three-man Gray board and the AEC

General Advisory Committee had rejected the specious charge that his opposition to conducting

research on the hydrogen bomb was somehow suggestive of disloyalty (even though this claim

appeared prominently in the charges that inspired the hearing), these two acts, indisputable as they

were, formed the basis of the final decision for denial of clearance.

The most instructive primary source for the Sherwin-Bird volume was the famous transcript of the

security hearing, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing before Personnel Security

Board,Washington,D.C. April 12, 1954, through May 6, 1954, published immediately by the United

States Government Printing Office (and republished by The MIT Press in 1970). It is the full transcript,

992 pages long, containing absolutely everything that transpired during the hearing, including even

bathroom breaks of the participants and a number of transcription errors resulting from mistakes made

by the reporters.While it may be too much for an interested but casual reader to study in its entirety,

it is so riveting and compelling that I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning

how government can go askew under the right, unfortunate set of circumstances, a lesson we should not

forget to this day. Sherwin and Bird (and Bernstein, with equal effectiveness) take great pains to expose

the sleazy and occasionally downright dishonest manipulations of the AEC’s attorneys without any

regard for notions of fairness:Witnesses were coached in secrecy, Oppeneimer’s early love affairs were

exposed in public; documents were introduced without notice to the defense; the list of transgressions

was endless. The excuse offered by the Committee was that the hearing was “informal”; it was not a

trial, so ordinary rules of procedure did not have to be followed. And behind the scenes lurked the

vengeful Chair of the AEC, Lewis Strauss, an avowed enemy of Oppenheimer. Sherwin and Bird carefully

explore the reasons for the adversarial relation between these two upper-class Jews, in itself almost

a classic metaphor for the conflict between conservatives and liberals taken to the extreme. It was truly

amazing to see how such hatred, on Strauss’s part, can develop from what amounted to a cultural clash

(although Oppenheimer did not help matters by acting with characteristic devastating sarcasm in countering

some of Strauss’s ideas concerning atomic weapons’ policy). Bernstein, in his book, notes that he

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