Sunday, December 08, 2013

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF RAY MONK'S ROBERT OPPENHEIMER

This is a good, vigorously written biography by an author who is sympathetic with his subject, but it suffers from faults which exclude it from true excellence or being regarded as a definitive life.

First, the author is fixated - a strong word, but appropriate here - by notions around Jewish identity, an odd focus for a biographer of Oppenheimer, a man who was raised in a secular environment at home and at school and who seems to have given very little thought to Jewish culture. Indeed, Oppenheimer, with his piercing blue eyes and tall thin figure, almost certainly was of mixed ethnic background, but even here the author assures us, his rather ethereal mother, the dominant parent in contributing to his looks and temperament, was as Jewish as his hearty German Jewish father.

The author more or less accuses Oppenheimer of ignoring cultural roots to his peril, regarding the act of having done so almost as a character flaw and as an explanatory variable in his personality. Monk makes himself a bit silly in this because countless migrants to the United States from scores of ethnic backgrounds, including my own paternal grandfather, did things like change the spelling of family names or adopt English-sounding first names or nick-names, and many gave up traditional customs. They wanted a fresh start in a brave new world, and no one would sensibly assert they were flawed in doing so.

Monk starts the book by quoting the physicist Rabi, generally a brilliant observer, on the something which seemed to be missing in Oppenheimer’s personality, and from there weaves the theme of missing Jewishness. Actually I think Rabi (whose view here, it should be noted, would have been influenced by his being an old country Orthodox man) got this observation wrong because it is very likely that Oppenheimer was something of an autistic, perhaps the milder form called Asperger’s Syndrome, which explains his extreme awkwardness with other people and difficulty seeking or making friends. Combined with his rather ethereal character plus other personality quirks, Oppenheimer undoubtedly communicated a sense of undefined otherness. Missing ethnic roots is not on the mark for analysis.    

A good deal of attention is given over to rising anti-Semitism in the United States, something which had had no long-term history but seems to have arisen after the stock market crash of 1873. The rude turning away of Joseph Seligman from the Grand Hotel at Saratoga in 1877 was a watershed event which other hotels and institutions soon began to copy, if for no other reason than not wishing to lose their customers to those who catered to prejudice. This, of course, is relevant to the life of a man like Oppenheimer, but coming along, as it does in this book, with all of the author’s emphasis on the theme of Jewishness and anti-Semitism, it becomes a bit wearying. Oppenheimer went only to the best schools and received magnificent appointment after magnificent appointment during his career, so the relevance of anti-Semitism to his life seems marginal if not obscure, and as we know from glancing at a list of Nobel-winning physicists, being Jewish was no bar.

Monk’s worst excess is introducing virtually every scientific figure to whom a descriptive epithet may apply as “Jewish Dutch” or “half Jewish” or “German Jew,” etc. This not only contributes nothing to the story, its repetition many times communicates a sense almost of reverse prejudice. The ethnic origin of any scientist surely is irrelevant except where it may have a special bearing, as in someone’s escape from Hitler’s Germany.

Contributing to the sense of a man with a missing center was Oppenheimer’s true tragic flaw: he is almost a case study of the exceptionally brilliant man who does not achieve top recognition in his chosen field. Yes, the world community of theoretical physicists certainly came to have his name on their tongues, but while Bohr, Dirac, Rutherford, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Born, and others made historic contributions in the revolutionary scientific period of Oppenheimer’s early life, and received Nobel prizes in recognition, Oppenheimer did not. Oppenheimer, despite all his cleverness and literally tireless efforts to keep on top of theoretical and experimental work in his life as an active physicist, gained his position in history for what was essentially a management job, heading up the scientific teams of Los Alamos in building the atomic bomb.

What’s more, having as his great achievement the construction of a terrible weapon which shortly was used brutally to extinguish tens of thousands of souls simply had to conflict with Oppenheimer’s acute aesthetic, poetic sensibilities. The author tells us that Oppenheimer never regretted his work on the bomb, but if that is so it goes to the same tragic flaw of needing to achieve and accomplish and impress yet not quite being able to do so in his field of pure science. 

As Monk informs us with many interesting anecdotes, Oppenheimer in his twenties could be something of a terror with his sharp tongue and his incessant desire to demonstrate he knew more than others, even during other scientists’ presentations which he would interrupt many times. I tend to think that these acts too demonstrate Oppenheimer’s tragic flaw: he almost knew or feared he might not achieve what many of them had achieved, yet he felt impelled to make an indelible impression on them with questions, anecdotes, and witticisms. 

So too Oppenheimer’s two half-hearted attempts at killing male friends in his academic years, both involving friends whom he admired but likely felt over-shadowed by in grace and attractiveness and success. The incidents may well also have reflected frustrated sexuality in a man who had a hard time relating to people and whose actual sexual identity may have not been strongly fixed: more than a few hostile observers regarded him as homosexual. These violent acts are anecdotes of which I was not aware – in one case leaving a poisoned apple on the intended victim’s desk - and they speak strongly to Oppenheimer’s odd personality. He did also suffer from severe depressions and was once diagnosed as schizophrenic. On the subject of his personal life, I think it fair to say the author does a less than adequate job with, for example, the nature of his strange marriage to Kitty barely touched upon.

During the unpleasant period of hearings over Oppenheimer’s security clearance, the author depends too much on transcripts, always in my view a questionable approach. It would be much more interesting to learn more about how this affected Oppenheimer’s private life. In this sequence of events, there is Oppenheimer’s own terrible mistake of having previously called into question the political reliability of others, particularly that of his old friend Chevalier. The author gives us Chevalier’s exchange of letters with Oppenheimer, and I believe we see in this yet another aspect of Oppenheimer’s true tragic flaw. It was almost as though Oppenheimer were once again poisoning an apple to be left for a friend. He destroyed Chevalier’s career and never expressed regret for having done so.   

Monk seems to regard the possibility of Oppenheimer’s having served Soviet interests as almost impossible. He cites as proof Oppenheimer’s deep affection for America, as for the geography of the Southwest or his determination to show Europeans that America could build its own school of theoretical physics, but those kinds of feelings are simply not proof against the possibility of espionage. Kim Philby, one of the legendary British spies for Russia in the 1950s, in his sad Soviet exile, relished receiving the Times of London from the KGB and reading such utterly banal English things as cricket scores. Anyway, Oppenheimer worked in a cesspool of McCarthyite insanity, the very thing which in part motivated the British Cambridge Five and other spies for fear America might launch a nuclear attack on a yet unequal Russia. Indeed, the author neglects communicating the well-developed plans and advocacies in Washington for a massive, pre-emptive strike on Russia.

The fact remains that Sudoplatov, in his memoir, tells us that Oppenheimer did serve as a spy. I know full well that spy memoirs are frequently riddled with disinformation, but Sudoplatov’s claim is a rather large thing which any biographer pretending to comprehensiveness cannot ignore. I say this without believing the claim, but, if the claim were true, it would not outrage me the way I suspect it would Mr. Monk. I have always regarded the acts of the period’s British spies as a healthy antidote to the nuclear-armed insanity of early 1950s America. If extreme measures are regarded as needed to defend freedom, as they so frequently are in America, how much more so to defend masses of humanity from insane attack?

This is a book well worth reading, and it moves along at a good pace, but its shortcomings should be kept in mind and its claims judged against the observations of other biographers.  In a sense, the book is as tragically flawed as its subject, quite interesting but missing some important elements.

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