Jackson Lears reviews Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk: Reasonable men can dream monstrous dreams. It is the lesson of the 20th century: a lesson articulated from various perspectives since Adorno and Horkheimer wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment amid the wreckage of World War Two. Defenders of the Enlightenment can cogently argue (and many have) that Nazi science was a grotesque caricature, that the Holocaust was a betrayal of the Enlightenment rather than a fulfilment of its fatal dialectic. But it is harder to make that case with respect to the development of nuclear weapons. Indeed the subject seems designed to lay bare the contradictions at the core of Enlightenment culture by revealing them at work in the subculture of professional physicists bent to the needs of government power. Few social laboratories could more clearly reveal the tensions between chauvinist impulses and humanist aspirations, or between careerist plotting and disinterested service, or – perhaps most important – between the Enlightenment ideal of intellectual openness and the demands for secrecy made by the national security state.
The history of nuclear weapons began in an atmosphere of creative ferment and international trade in ideas. This was the world of Knaben3physik (‘boy physics’) in the 1920s and 1930s, when young men who had not been shaving for more than a few years were excitedly reading one another’s papers and poring over the results of experiments in Cambridge, Göttingen, Copenhagen and (eventually) Berkeley. This was how Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others created the foundations of quantum physics. Yet within less than a decade this moment had passed. Olympian conversations were drowned out by fascist chants. Jewish physicists, led by Einstein, fled to America; Heisenberg stayed in Germany; Bohr stayed out of sight in occupied Denmark. The concentration of research effort shifted westwards across the Atlantic. But it was research with a new, pragmatic mission: to build an atomic bomb before Hitler did. Theories conceived in open exchange were harnessed to secret purposes, and illuminating ideas were pressed into the service of mass death. No wonder some of the atomic scientists felt remorse, or at least ambivalence, about their achievement; no wonder some began to glimpse the darker dimensions of Enlightenment when the blinding flash of the first atomic explosion revealed their labours had not been in vain.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist in charge of the Manhattan Project and hence ‘father of the atomic bomb’, was never openly remorseful. But he was nothing if not ambivalent, as Ray Monk makes clear in his superb biography. When the fireball burst Oppenheimer remembered the words from Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita: ‘I am become death, destroyer of worlds.’ It was his own idiosyncratic translation, and it became his most famous remark. The next day, though, his mood was anything but sombre as he jumped out of a jeep at Los Alamos base camp. His friend and fellow physicist Isidor Rabi said: ‘I’ll never forget the way he stepped out of the car … his walk was like High Noon … this kind of strut. He had done it.’ His colleague Enrico Fermi ‘seemed shrunken and aged, made of old parchment’ by comparison. Yet his euphoria passed, and he sank into second thoughts, despondent about the calamitous consequences awaiting the Japanese. He walked the corridors mournfully, muttering: ‘I just keep thinking about all those poor little people.’ Racial condescension aside, he meant what he said, and during the days following the test his secretary said he looked as though he were thinking: ‘Oh God, what have we done!’ [Continue reading…]