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109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamosby Jennet Conant
Standing a few feet away in the lobby of La Fonda, Oppenheimer's twenty-three-year-old secretary, Priscilla Greene, watched him work his magic on Dorothy McKibbin. The meeting could not have lasted more than a few minutes, but she had no doubt of the outcome. Dorothy appeared to be bright, lively, and intelligent, with rosy cheeks and fine-boned features topped by a mass of curls. She had an engaging manner, a gentle, assured way about her that was very attractive. Oppenheimer would like her, and there was no question of her liking him. In the short time she had worked for him, Greene had observed that it was the rare individual who was not beguiled by his Byronic looks, quick mind, and grave, courteous manner. "I don't think he really interviewed her. He just offered her the job," she recalled, "and she didn't hesitate for a minute to accept."
Priscilla Greene understood this all too well. She had fallen for Oppenheimer almost as quickly as Dorothy McKibbin had. Scarcely a year earlier, in February 1942, Greene had landed a job working for Ernest Lawrence, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the University of California at Berkeley. Not long after she had started, Lawrence had doubled her workload by loaning her out on a part-time basis to his good friend "Oppie," yet another tall, handsome, flirtatious physicist. Oppenheimer (who had picked up the nickname "Opje" during a postdoctoral stint in Europe and would sign personal letters that way for the rest of his life, though the nickname eventually became Americanized as "Oppie") was head of Berkeley's theoretical physics department and had an office in Le Conte Hall, the same administrative building where Lawrence worked. Oppenheimer had been asked to hold a special wartime science conference that summer and needed a hand getting it organized. As it turned out, he had needed a lot of help, and Greene was delighted to find herself in the employ of such a dynamic figure.
At the time, Oppenheimer was thirty-seven, and had a reputation on Berkeley's campus as an inspiring lecturer. He was also known to be impatient, arrogant, and possessed of a razor-sharp tongue — and as a young teacher had been infamous for terrorizing anyone in his classroom he found plodding, dull-witted, or in any way crass. He was considered one of the very best interpreters of mathematical theory, and study with him guaranteed the ambitious a fast-track career in theoretical physics. Many people were intimidated by him, though those who knew him better claimed that he had mellowed in the decade since he had come to Berkeley in 1929 after a sojourn in Europe, where he had studied with a small colony of world-class physicists, including James Franck and Einstein's friend Paul Ehrenfast, and been a recognized participant in the quantum theory revolution. But there was always the sense with Oppenheimer that the mediocre offended him and that he did not regard the denizens of a West Coast university as quite his equals. John Manley, a refreshingly low-key experimental physicist at the University of Illinois whom Compton assigned to assist Oppie on the wartime physics project, recalled that when he met Oppenheimer for the first time, he was "somewhat frightened of his evident erudition" and "air of detachment from the affairs of ordinary mortals."
Oppenheimer could also be dismissive to the point of rudeness. He had a habit of interrupting people mid-sentence by nodding and saying quickly, in a slightly affected Germanic accent, "Ja, ja, ja," as though he understood exactly what they were thinking and where their argument was headed — an argument that he would then proceed to rip apart in brutal fashion. After witnessing one such performance, Enrico Fermi, who was every bit as agile if not more so, observed that Oppie's cleverness sometimes allowed him to sound far more knowledgeable about a subject than he might be in practice. But with his magnetic presence, astonishing quickness of mind, and wide range of intellectual interests, Oppenheimer was an exciting figure to be around, and students and colleagues were drawn to him as much by his great capacity as a physicist as by his immense charm. "We were all completely under his spell," said Philip Morrison, one of the brightest of the young physicists who studied with him. "He was enormously impressive. There was no one like him."
His allure extended well beyond the lecture hall. Oppenheimer had the powerful charisma of those who know from birth that they are especially gifted. He expected to dazzle — the implacable blue eyes said as much in a glance. It was his mind that burned so brightly, with an intensity that he brought into every room, every relationship, every conversation, so that he somehow managed to invest even an offhand gesture or remark with some extra meaning or significance. Everyone wanted to be initiated into his inner circle. Even his younger brother, an astute observer of the Oppie effect, was not immune. "He wanted everything and everyone to be special and his enthusiasms communicated themselves and made these people feel special," said Frank, who was eight years his junior and idolized his talented brother, following him into physics even though he knew he would never be in the same league. "He couldn't be humdrum. He would even work up those enthusiasms for a brand of cigarettes, even elevating them to something special. His sunsets were always the best."
What drew people to Oppenheimer was that he was so very serious and he took those he collected around him so seriously, endowing them with rare qualities and facets they did not know they possessed. He would focus on them suddenly and relentlessly, showering them with phone calls, letters, favors, and unexpected, generous gifts. His attention could be unnerving, but at the same time exhilarating and gratifying. He was far from perfect, but his flaws, like his dark moods and savage sarcasm, were part of his fascination. He liked to show off, but the performance disguised a deep well of melancholy and self-loathing he carried with him from his cosseted New York childhood. It was the loneliness of a prodigy. He was named for his father, Julius Oppenheimer, a wealthy textile importer, but was always known simply as Robert or Bob until his early twenties, when he felt compelled to embellish his name, perhaps in the belief that "J. Robert Oppenheimer" sounded more distinguished. He suffered from serious bouts of depression as a student first at Harvard, and then later at Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge, England, and even flirted with the idea of suicide. After failing to find satisfaction in psychiatry — one high-priced London doctor diagnosed his condition as "dementia praecox" and a "hopeless case" — he immersed himself in Eastern mysticism and became a fervent admirer of the Bhagavad Gita, the seven-hundred-stanza Hindu devotional poem, which he read in the original, after studying Sanskrit for that purpose. For a scientist, his search for wisdom in religion, philosophy, and politics was so unusual as to be considered "bohemian." While it got him into trouble at Caltech (the California Institute of Technology), where he also taught, and the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan refused him a promotion on the grounds he was too much of a dilettante, at Berkeley it only added to his appeal.
His style was to be the tormented genius, and his spare frame and angular face reflected his ascetic character, as if his desire to engage every moment fully and completely were consuming his inner resources. He had been a delicate child, and when he pushed himself too hard, he became almost skeletal, resembling a fifteenth-century portrait of a saint with eyes peering out of a hollowed face. There was something terribly vulnerable about him — a certain innocence, an idealized view of life that was only saved from being adolescent by the sheer force of his intellect — that touched both sexes. His students all adored him, and he inspired the kind of devoted following which led some jealous colleagues to sneer that it was more a cult of personality, that Oppenheimer was the high priest of his own posse. He was trailed everywhere by a tight, talented group of graduate students, the stars of their class, and Greene learned to easily identify them by their pompous attempts to imitate Oppenheimer's elegant speech, gestures, and highbrow allusions. She sometimes had the impression that Oppie was conscious of his ability to enthrall. It was no accident that people wanted to help him and would go to extraordinary lengths to earn his approbation.
Greene, who had graduated from Berkeley the previous year and still wore her long, blond hair loose on her shoulders like a schoolgirl, found him "unbelievably charming and gracious." His voice was one of the most mesmerizing things about him. When he singled her out for attention, he was "so warm and enveloping," he made her feel like the most pleasing guest at the party. "When he came into a room, my most characteristic memory of him is [his] coming across to shake your hand, with a slight tilt and a marvelous smile," she said. "And what secretary wasn't going to be absolutely overwhelmed by somebody who, in the middle of a letter — we all smoked in those days — whipped his lighter out of his pocket and lighted your cigarette while you were taking dictation and he was talking."
Compared to Ernest Lawrence, Oppenheimer was a person of enormous culture and education. Lawrence was celebrated for his invention of the cyclotron, the powerful atom smasher, but was proletarian in his pursuits outside of physics. Oppie was from a wealthy New York family, wore good suits, and tooled around campus in a Packard roadster he nicknamed "Garuda," in honor of the Sanskrit messenger to the gods. He spoke six languages, quoted poetry in the course of everyday conversation, and could be snobbish about music and art. "Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were acceptable," noted his protégé, Robert Serber. "Ditto the Impressionists." He had fierce opinions when it came to food and wine. "Martinis had to be strong. Coffee had to be black...Steak had to be rare," listed the British physicist Rudolf Peierls. Once, Oppenheimer took Peierls and a group of graduate students out to a steak restaurant for dinner. He proceeded to order his entrée rare, and this was echoed by everyone in turn until the last student at the table requested his, "Well done." Oppie looked at him for a moment and said, "Why don't you have fish?"
He spent a great deal of time cultivating people and interests that had nothing to do with science, and even Greene could not help being struck by the wide variety of his correspondence. One of the first things he asked her to do was take down a letter to a San Francisco museum to which he was planning to give a painting by Van Gogh, which he had inherited from his father. He had pronounced the artist's name in the guttural German style with lots of breath — "Van Gaaaccchhh" — which was beyond her, and in the end he had had to spell it. "The people he thought about, wrote about, and talked to, he had such a wonderful feeling for, that you really wanted to be part of whatever he was doing," she said. "It was very hard to resist him."
His personal life was equally flamboyant, and subject of much comment. Two years earlier in 1940, he had shocked friends and colleagues by marrying Kitty Puening after a whirlwind romance, and their son Peter had been born so soon afterward that Oppie had attempted to jokingly defuse the scandal by dubbing him "Pronto." Kitty was dramatic, dark-haired, and petite; claimed to be a German princess; and was prone to putting on airs. She had also been married three times before the age of twenty-nine and had been with her previous husband for less than a year when Oppie met her at a Pasadena garden party. It was characteristic of Oppie that he would fall for someone so exotic, utterly unsuitable, and beyond reach as Kitty, who, among her many problems, was at the time another man's wife. Oppenheimer, who was besotted, called her "Golden." His close-knit circle was less charitable, considering the poetic young wunderkind — who was so bereft after his mother's death in 1930 that he described himself to a friend as "the loneliest man in the world" — easy prey for a calculating woman. The faculty wives who had doted on Oppie, who was known for bringing flowers to dinner, took an instant dislike to her. After his marriage, many of his peers felt he became more socially ambitious than ever, as though seeking to remove himself from the dreary confines of academic life, and came to regard him with a mixture of envy and resentment. To Greene, however, he seemed even more of a romantic figure. While she would never have admitted it at the time, she was, she said, "more than a little in love" with her boss.
Back in the spring of 1942, Oppenheimer had been summoned to the office of Arthur Compton, the director of the new Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) at the University of Chicago, and briefed on what was unofficially becoming known among physicists as the country's "bomb headquarters." Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Compton decided that America was moving far too slowly in its atomic bomb research and that the country needed to drastically step up its efforts if a weapon were to be developed in time to be used in the current war. Ever since December 1938, when the German and Austrian scientists Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner first reported their startling discovery that uranium atoms fissioned upon impact by neutrons, physicists in laboratories around the world had been working on how the process of fission, in which a large quantity of energy was released, along with neutrons, could possibly make a chain reaction — and a nuclear explosion. By the summer of 1939, with the drums of war beating in Europe, the Hungarian refugee scientist Leo Szilard had become so alarmed about reports that the Germans were working on a powerful new weapon that he prevailed upon Albert Einstein to write to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt warning him about the military application of nuclear fission. The president had approved the formation of a uranium-research committee, and $6,000 had been appropriated, but there was so much confusion about the new science of fission that little had been accomplished.
Impatient with the committee's progress, Compton decided to centralize all the different teams at the Met Lab — the misleading name was meant to disguise its main purpose — to make a concentrated push to develop a method for making a fission explosive. He told Oppenheimer that even as they spoke, the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi was secretly at work in a squash court, tucked under the west stands of the university's football field, to achieve the first chain reaction in a graphite pile. With all signs indicating that Fermi's pile would work, Compton needed Oppenheimer, whom he regarded as having a brilliant mind, to take charge of a division of the Met Lab and organize a group to study the physics of an explosive chain reaction — or bomb. It was going to be an extraordinarily difficult task, but Compton thought Oppenheimer, despite his rather flamboyant personality, might be just the man to do it.
As Oppenheimer commuted back and forth between Chicago and Berkeley organizing the conference on bomb development, Greene noticed a change in his attitude, a tenseness and excitement that alerted her to its importance. It was May 1942, six months after Pearl Harbor, and everyone involved in war work had a heightened sense of purpose. Many of his close colleagues had already been called on to do defense research. Lawrence was doing double duty at Berkeley and a radar lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Oppie had felt left behind and stuck with a heavier teaching load than usual because of all the absences. He had only been asked to step in and supervise the special summer conference because his predecessor, Gregory Breit, had succeeded in alienating almost everyone with his unreasonable demands and obsession with secrecy. Oppenheimer had been chafing on the sidelines, and he seized the chance to lead a brainy group exploring the possibilities of designing a nuclear bomb. At the same time, he knew that he had inherited a difficult position and that managing so many egotistical scientists, from such widely varied countries of origin, was not going to be an easy task.
In June, Oppenheimer gathered the top theoretical physicists in the country, and they met in two attic rooms at Le Conte Hall. He had assembled a high-powered group, among them the Hungarian physicist Edward Teller, the German physicist Hans Bethe, the leading Swiss physicist Felix Bloch, Richard Tolman, and Oppie's former student Robert Serber. Their meetings were veiled in secrecy, and the university had taken unusual measures to safeguard their privacy, including securing the windows and small balcony with heavy wire fencing and fitting the door with a special lock with a solitary key that was kept by Oppenheimer himself. Among the refugee scientists, there was a palpable anxiety to get under way immediately, amid worried conjecture about how far ahead the Germans might be and how much the strain of fighting a war might have slowed the Nazi weapons program.
Greene had discerned this was defense-related work from the official letters she had typed, but when she walked into the room across the hall from the office one afternoon and saw what was on the blackboard, she realized for the first time what all the security precautions were for. "Somebody had drawn a spherical shape and, from the various scribbles, well, it was obviously a bomb," she said. "So I knew then. I was glad to know what we were doing. Almost immediately after that, everyone started calling it 'the gadget.' "
The goal of the special summer session was for Oppenheimer and his team to calculate to the best of their ability the exact specifications for the design of an atomic bomb. What was known to date was fairly rudimentary — the British had done some preliminary work — and the most they could do was make an educated guess at the force an atomic fission bomb could exert. So they had to begin with the basics, such as the size and structure of the bomb, work up an estimated critical mass, figure out how it might be made to explode, and then begin to try to address the practical problems entailed in assembling such a device, and ultimately detonating it. Oppie delegated teams to research different problems, and they met regularly to exchange information and ideas. Teller, who hardly knew Oppenheimer prior to the Berkeley conference and had only a moderate opinion of his abilities as a theoretical physicist, was impressed by his "sure, informal touch," by his ability to motivate and guide the various participants, and by how much work was getting accomplished. "I don't know how he had acquired this facility for handling people," he said later. "Those who knew him well were really surprised."
By the end of July, after they had been meeting regularly for almost two months, Oppie called everyone to a meeting at Le Conte Hall to review their progress. After a discussion of the critical mass calculations presented by Serber's group, and some consideration of the potential damage from the blast, neutrons, and radioactivity, it was decided that the goal looked feasible. Oppie became almost chipper, and the theorists continued to settle important questions about the plant design, to offer predictions and suggestions about what work would have to be done to make the job a success, and, as far as Greene could tell, to have what to a bunch of physicists was clearly the time of their life.
So the days passed, with the physicists arguing back and forth, and the plans for the fission bomb progressing, until Teller introduced the idea of the Super — a hydrogen bomb based on the possibility of nuclear fusion — and everyone got sidetracked for weeks on end arguing about whether it would work or not and, as Serber put it, "forgot about the A-bomb, as if it were old hat." Oppie was already exasperated that so much valuable time was being wasted on an entirely new and difficult proposal for a hydrogen bomb, with the problems of the atomic bomb still far from settled, when Teller brought the proceedings to a grinding halt by asking if the enormously high temperature of an A-bomb could ignite the earth's atmosphere.
The apocalyptic scenario Teller outlined forced Oppenheimer to abruptly adjourn the conference. They had no choice but to look over his figures and determine what the effects of the fission reaction would be. As Hans Bethe was by far the quickest at calculations — he and Oppie often whipped out their slide rules and raced to see who could run the numbers the fastest — he was assigned to check Teller's work. In the meantime, Oppie had to alert Arthur Compton at the Met Lab.
Oppenheimer immediately phoned Compton and, after numerous frantic calls, finally tracked him down at his summer home in northern Michigan. Talking somewhat awkwardly, as Compton was calling from the tiny Otsego general store, Oppenheimer grimly reported that his group had "found something very disturbing — dangerously disturbing." Oppie explained that he had to see him in person "immediately, without an hour's delay." Oppenheimer caught the first train out. Compton picked him up at the Otsego train station the following morning, and they drove down to the lakefront. Staring out at the empty stretch of beach, Oppie laid out the dangers raised by Teller and his calculations. As Compton recalled in his memoir, these were questions that "could not be passed over lightly":
Was there really any chance that an atomic bomb would trigger the explosion of the nitrogen in the atmosphere or of the hydrogen in the ocean? This would be the ultimate catastrophe. Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind! We agreed there could only be one answer. Oppenheimer's team must go ahead with their calculations. Unless they came up with a firm and reliable conclusion that our atomic bombs could not explode the air or the sea, these bombs must never be made.
During the last sultry weeks of July, the Berkeley conference limped to a close, and the group went their separate ways. Bethe had reached the "reliable conclusion" that there was a flaw in Teller's theory, and while nitrogen and hydrogen were unstable, it was highly improbable that an atomic explosion would create the conditions to set them off. It was safe, at least as far as the atmosphere was concerned, to proceed with the atomic bomb. That fall, Oppenheimer continued to supervise bomb theory studies at Berkeley. As for Teller's Super bomb, Compton decided that the idea be kept a closely guarded secret, and it was shelved for the time being. But the lingering effects of that summer's tension with Teller would surface again and again. "Oppie had trouble with Teller in the summer of '42," said Greene. "After that, he [Oppie] always tried to keep him at arm's length."
By the time General Leslie R. Groves paid his first visit to Berkeley on October 8, Oppenheimer's plans for building an atomic weapon were in good order. Groves, however, wanted to satisfy himself that the many hurdles he foresaw had been addressed and that he and Oppenheimer were thinking along the same lines. A professional soldier and trained engineer, who had attended MIT and West Point and had just completed the construction of the Pentagon, a massive project that had included the building of everything from airfields and ports to factories, Groves was appointed by the Army Corps of Engineers to take charge of the entire atomic bomb project, known as the "Manhattan Engineer District" (and later as the "Manhattan Project") because Groves' predecessor had been based in New York City.
Oppenheimer was aware, as were many of the top nuclear physicists and chemists at the time, that the Manhattan Project had already been under way for more than a year. In June 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had formed the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) to organize all of the various uranium and fission research projects in the country that could help lead to the achievement of a sustained chain reaction. The OSRD was run by Vannevar Bush, the former head of MIT and the Carnegie Institution, and his deputy, Harvard president James B. Conant. They were asked to form a new committee, code-named "S-1," which would be responsible for organizing and accelerating the atomic weapons research and for making sure authorized objectives were accomplished. Once S-1 delegated the bomb project to Groves, he would direct the development of the bomb and all the related projects, backed by a Military Policy Committee, which included Bush and Conant among others. This sent a clear signal that the scientists and army officers would have to put aside their natural suspicions and work together. Under Groves, the scientists would have to accept life under a military regime, with army representatives becoming a constant presence in their lives, laboratories, and meetings.
While some scientists had initially greeted this proposal with open hostility, the heat of the battle against the Nazis had an ameliorating effect. The idea that the Germans might have nuclear weapons before the Allies was a constant threat. There was also no arguing the fact that the army was better at procurement and would undoubtedly run such a large-scale building and engineering operation more efficiently than the scientists themselves or, for that matter, a building full of bureaucrats in Washington. As Groves made clear when he was introduced to some of the research leaders at an October 5 meeting at the Met Lab, time was of the essence. He demanded results, and fast. Although a number of the scientists objected to Groves' bullying tone, which Serber recalled as "You're working for me now so you'd better toe the line," there was not much they could do about it. Both groups recognized that it was vital to the success of the bomb project that they work smoothly together, and this hinged on a relationship of trust and understanding between the key players.
An unlikelier pair than Oppenheimer and Groves could not have been found, and it did not seem to bode well for their partnership. Where Oppenheimer was tall, trim, and elegant, the general was bulky and square, his unwieldy frame threatening to burst from the constraints of his tightly belted pants, his rumpled appearance comically at odds with his rank. But in character, Groves was all spit and polish, a perfectionist who expected discipline and absolute devotion to the task at hand. He obsessed over the smallest details and labored exhaustively to achieve his objectives. His military aide, Colonel Kenneth Nichols, who was appointed to work with Groves on the bomb project, later described him as "the biggest S.O.B." he had ever worked for: "He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic." Nichols also conceded that he would opt to have Groves as his boss again, because he was "one of the most capable individuals."
Even Bush, who was a hard-nosed Yankee with a flinty manner when pressed, was left flustered by their first encounter. He found Groves "abrupt and lacking in tact" and was so pessimistic about how the general would get on with the physicists on the project that, he worried to Conant in a letter, "I fear we are in the soup." Compared with the subtle, soft-spoken Oppenheimer, Groves was a blunt and ruthless taskmaster, and few would have predicted that their first meeting would go well. Groves wasted no time in enlisting Oppenheimer in a detailed discussion of exactly what kind of bomb laboratory he envisioned. He not only wanted to take his measure of the man, he needed to see if the erudite theorist had a practical bone in his body and could possibly make a go of the weapons project. The general, raising his concerns about the assembly of the bomb, security, and other precautions he considered vital to the planning of the project, fired question after question at Oppenheimer. Oppie, who had always excelled as a teacher, patiently addressed each technical and organizational obstacle, so that the tough-minded Groves later reported to Compton that he was "strongly impressed by Oppenheimer's intelligence and quick grasp of the problem."
Groves reportedly made an equally strong impression on Oppenheimer, when on their subsequent meeting the general marched directly into his Berkeley office trailed by Colonel Nichols, immediately unbuttoned his jacket, handed it to his subordinate, and barked, "Find a tailor or dry cleaner and get this pressed!" According to Serber, who was working with Oppie in his office at the time, the colonel took the coat and walked out without a word, leaving the civilians in the room with a lasting impression of what Groves expected when he issued an order, petty or otherwise. "Treating a colonel like an errand boy," said Serber. "That was Groves's way." Greene formed an impression of Groves as harsh, ill-tempered, and more than a little terrifying. But she marveled that Oppie was not in the least cowed by Groves' brusque manner and immense command of power, and she watched as the two men quickly established a good rapport.
Groves had met dozens of physicists since taking charge of the bomb project on September 23, 1942, and much to his dismay, he had found any number of them thoroughly objectionable — he loathed the eccentric Hungarian Leo Szilard almost on sight and thought him completely unsuitable for such a monumental task. He worried that "none of them were go-getters; they preferred to move at a pipe-smoking, academic pace." So relieved was he at having found Oppenheimer, a man whom he felt had a big brain but was capable of the kind of vigilant thinking he admired, that he immediately asked to meet with him again in a week's time. Groves requested that Oppie accompany him, Colonel Nichols, and another aide on their train trip back to New York from Chicago so they could talk at greater length. Given his marching orders, Oppie flew from Berkeley to Chicago and caught the Twentieth Century Limited, the high-speed passenger express, where he joined the three military men for dinner in the first-class dining car.
As the train sped into the night, Oppie and Groves discussed the plans for the new bomb laboratory and the high-level security measures the military considered necessary to safeguard their research. Sitting almost knee to knee in the tiny compartment, Oppenheimer voiced his reservations about Groves' plan to have scientists at various sites around the country working on separate projects, pointing out that it would be extremely difficult to coordinate the different groups.
In a bold move, or a moment of unguarded honesty, Oppenheimer had confided to Groves in an earlier meeting that he was less than happy with the progress of the scattered small groups assigned to work on the bomb project. Forced to work under the constraints of "compartmentalization," which mandated that every group work on a need-to-know basis with only a handful of senior people being fully informed, and which he knew to be Groves' particular innovation, "the little laboratories suffered from their isolation." Oppie expanded on his earlier complaint, arguing that work was being duplicated, the physicists were confused about what was being done elsewhere and had no sense of direction or hope. Looking to the future, communication between the projects would be extremely difficult. They could not relay classified material over the telephone, and teletype was tricky. As the bomb work accelerated, it would necessitate constant travel for all the project leaders that would be inevitably delaying. Oppenheimer was also afraid that morale would suffer over the long haul if the scientists were walled off from one another and not permitted to know the magnitude of what they were working on.
Few people knew how to argue their case as winningly as Oppie, and he now employed those skills to his full advantage. Aware by now that Groves was not sympathetic to amorphous pleas for free and open scientific discourse, he carefully anchored his argument to more practical concerns. Appealing directly to Groves' obsession with security, Oppie proposed that all the research be consolidated in a single laboratory, located in an isolated region, where the scientists could converse freely among themselves and secrecy could still be maintained. Oppenheimer argued that if they picked a site that was smaller than Lawrence's operation at Oak Ridge, in Tennessee, where large numbers of workers came and went every day, and was far removed from any population center, the lab could be completely protected from outsiders and enemy spies.
Groves was quick to recognize the merits of Oppie's plan. The idea of rounding up the troublesome scientists and keeping them in one guarded camp had a logic he understood. It was a compromise, but one Groves could live with and make work. If he could not keep the scientists from talking to one another, then at least he could make sure they did not talk to anyone else. He dispatched Lieutenant Colonel John H. Dudley to conduct a preliminary investigation of possible sites for this central facility. Now, with the question of where the lab would be located well on the way to being settled, all that was left to do was pick the right man to run it. Compton had the right background, but could not be spared from the Met Lab in Chicago and its important work on chain reactions and fast neutrons. And although Compton had appointed Oppenheimer to head the design and fabrication phase of the project, Groves did not feel committed to him, especially since "no one with whom [he] talked showed any great enthusiasm about Oppenheimer as a possible director."
Despite Oppenheimer's technical competence and delicate handling of the prickly egos at the Berkeley seminar, it is doubtful that he would have been chosen to head the bomb project had Ernest Lawrence been available. Not only was Lawrence a Nobel laureate who was highly regarded by both his peers and the Washington establishment, he was the country's foremost experimental physicist, with a long record of success at building large machines. Groves had immediately hit it off with the enthusiastic, down-to-earth Lawrence, and he certainly would have been Groves' first choice had it not been for the fact that Lawrence was desperately needed to oversee the magnetic separation process at Oak Ridge that was to produce the uranium 235 for the atomic bomb. They could not risk distracting Lawrence or upsetting the Oak Ridge operation in any way. It is also unlikely that Lawrence would have been easily persuaded to leave his own laboratory to go off and collaborate on such a questionable venture under quasi-military auspices. Instead, Lawrence recommended one of his protégés, Edwin McMillan, who was an outstanding theorist but a somewhat reticent person and not the sort of commanding figure Groves had in mind. Teller favored his close friend Hans Bethe, who, he argued, was "unquestionably a superior theoretician," not to mention considerably more popular than Oppenheimer. But as Bethe was a foreign national, Groves, of course, considered him out of the question.
The selection process continued, with Groves meeting with small groups to talk over a short list of names. As the end of October drew near, Oppenheimer clearly emerged as his candidate to head the new laboratory. It promised to be an extraordinarily difficult job, and as Compton and Groves concurred, one that required unique qualifications. There were not only the massive scientific and technical challenges to consider, but as Compton looked ahead, extremely difficult experiments would have to be conducted under conditions of "almost unprecedented seclusion." What's more, the leader of this enterprise would have to be "a person of such human understanding that he could keep a group of high-strung specialists working smoothly together while largely separated from the outside world." Not only was Oppenheimer a specialist in the problems of nuclear physics, but in Compton's view, "he was one of the very best interpreters of the mathematical theories to those of us who were working more directly with the experiments."
Both Compton and Groves were well aware of Oppenheimer's left-wing sympathies, including his attendance at a number of Communist Party meetings and anti-fascist rallies, and his Teachers' Union work. They had also reviewed the thick FBI file enumerating his many "pink" associations, including a former fiancée, Jean Tatlock, who had encouraged his nascent political activism and remained a close friend and confidante; his new wife, Kitty, who had joined the Communist Party in solidarity with her second husband, a party organizer; and his brother Frank and Frank's Canadian wife, Jacquenette (Jackie) Quann, both of whom had joined the party in the late 1930s. Many of Oppenheimer's Berkeley protégés had similar ties to leftist politics, including Robert Serber, whose wife, Charlotte, was the daughter of Morris Leof, a Russian Jew and prominent Philadelphia physician who ran a sort of liberal political-literary salon whose habitués included the playwright Clifford Odets and the journalist I. F. Stone. Compton knew firsthand of Oppie's participation in "certain Communist activities" in the late 1930s but, after talking those over with him, was satisfied by Oppie's explanation that they had only been attempts to educate himself. "He felt that a responsible citizen ought to have reliable knowledge of this growing new movement," Compton recalled in his memoir, and he gave Compton reason to believe he had come to regard it as "dangerous."
Despite people's expressed concerns about Oppenheimer's past radicalism, Lawrence had vouched for him in the embryonic days of the atomic program and had insisted on his being included in top-level meetings. Oppenheimer was, in a sense, his man, and in the end, Lawrence backed him, with the condition that the new laboratory be an administrative extension of the University of California, which also presided over Lawrence's lab. By 1942, Compton had also come to the conclusion that Oppie was far too knowledgeable to allow himself to be entangled in the "Communist net." "The important matter now," Oppenheimer had assured him, "is the nation's defense. I'm cutting off all my Communist connections. For if I don't the government will find it difficult to use me. I don't want to let anything interfere with my usefulness to the government." Oppie did not succeed in silencing the FBI's doubts about him, however, and the close surveillance that was kept up throughout the war years would later come back to haunt him.
From the very outset, Oppenheimer was regarded as a complex, problematic, and controversial character. Even as a scientist, he was an unlikely choice. As Manley had earlier pointed out to Compton, one of his principal reservations about Oppenheimer was that he "had essentially zero laboratory experience" and although "he did understand laboratory techniques, almost anybody would have had more experimental experience." He lacked the stature, the administrative skills, and, given his previous lack of interest in mundane affairs, possibly even the temperament for the job. There was nothing in his background or résumé to indicate that he was suited for a position of such awesome responsibility. He was second-best by any measure, but according to Groves, by then it had become apparent that they "were not going to find a better man." With few alternatives left to him by the end of that October, Groves named Oppenheimer director of the bomb project.
Given the prevailing sentiment at the time about Oppie's weaknesses, the general's decision did not inspire confidence. "To most physicists it came as a great surprise," said Isidor I. Rabi, the formidable Columbia University physicist who was, at the ripe old age of forty-four, regarded as an elder statesman by the young researchers he worked with on the radar project, adding that he considered Oppenheimer to be "a most improbable appointment."
Years later, when asked why he was chosen as director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer would say simply, "By default." He would add that it was not a job anyone wanted. "The truth is, that the obvious people were already taken and that the project had a bad name."
In that moment, pressed to make a decision, Groves must have glimpsed some potential in Oppie — the same innate authority he had observed time and again in men who had taken an unruly group of soldiers and molded them into a disciplined unit — that would ultimately prove invaluable in bringing the atomic task to successful completion. He may also have thought he saw in Oppie something of himself. There was, after all, the same intense ambition, the same presumption of excellence — from themselves above all, and by extension anyone associated with them — that made them both demanding and compelling leaders. Oppenheimer, like Groves, did not suffer fools gladly, and both men had made their share of enemies in the course of their careers. Perhaps as a consequence, in spite of strong records and impressive credentials, neither had advanced to the highest level of his profession. Oppenheimer had majored in chemistry in college and had specialized in mathematical theory late in his training. He had made important contributions in the 1930s in the field of cosmic rays and stellar objects — later known as neutron stars and black holes — but was too diverse in his interests to mine one narrow band of research. He was already past his prime as a theoretician and was generally regarded as a better critic than original thinker. Groves had lingered too long at the rank of lieutenant and, at forty-six, was considered long in the tooth for an army colonel. Now that his overdue promotion to brigadier general had finally come through, it was pegged to what he regarded as a minor administrative post, another desk job, and not to the overseas combat assignment, and glory, he desired.
Here was an opportunity for both men to prove themselves and, in doing so, make a significant contribution to the war. The atomic weapons project was a highly risky proposition, and failure would certainly end their careers. But in their own ways, both Groves and Oppenheimer realized that in working together to build the bomb, they might achieve the greatness that had eluded them thus far. "They recognized in each other the absolute commitment to making the thing work, and a broad commitment to winning the war," said Morrison, who in the early days of the war served as a technical advisor to Groves and knew both men well. "So they had to give in on matters of style. You have to understand that nobody believed in the project, and besides, they couldn't tell anybody about it. Groves was a hard guy to work for, and he was mean, but he made things happen. He had to be tough, and he was very tough. But Robert handled him very well. He called him 'His Nibs' because he always had a colonel carrying his briefcase."
Copyright © 2005 by Jennet Conant
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