Get ready for the summer movie by joining Oppenheimer biographer Kai Bird (author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer) as he discusses Oppie's life and science.
In this episode, you will be able to:
- Explore the fascinating life and political involvements of Oppenheimer after the Manhattan Project.
- Delve into the ethical dilemmas surrounding the creation of atomic weapons.
- Uncover the unjust treatment faced during Oppenheimer's security hearing.
- Understand the subsequent chilling effect on scientists' public participation and policy debates.
00:00:03 - Kai Bird
Neither of us would really be interested in Oppenheimer as a big biographical subject if it had not been for what he did after Hiroshima. The arc of the story is just fascinating in that in 1945, he celebrated as America's most famous scientist. Just nine years later, he's humiliated in this kangaroo court. So that makes his life and the arc of the story really mysterious and interesting.
00:00:40 - Shelly (Host)
Welcome to My Nuclear Life. I'm Shelly Lesher. There has been much buzz around Robert Oppenheimer lately as movie director Christopher Nolan is preparing to release a major motion picture on his life this summer. That film is based on the book American Prometheus the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, written by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin in 2005. Among other prizes, it won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography. I suggest you start reading or listening to it now to prepare yourself for the movie release at the end of July. On today's podcast, I'm speaking to Kai Bird, one of the authors of this book. It's a great conversation as he answers so many of the questions I have always had about Abby. We pick up the conversation speaking about why the book American Prometheus was only just now made into a movie when it was written back in 2005.
00:01:48 - Shelly (Host)
Why do you think it was of interest now? You wrote the book so long ago.
00:01:53 - Kai Bird
You know, the subject is timeless. And why the movie now? I think it just it's just all good damn luck. Christopher Nolan just happened to get a copy put in his hands of the book in the spring of 21. He read it and obviously liked it, and he then spent the rest of the summer writing a script. Then the first I heard of it was I get a phone call from one of his producers and said that Nolan would like to talk to me. And Marty and I had a meeting with him up in September of 21 in New York. But Marty, by that time, was so ill that he couldn't accompany me to New York. And then two weeks later, Marty died, literally days before the official announcement went out by Nolan and Universal Studios that they were doing this. So Marty died knowing that the project was on track, but he didn't get a chance to meet with Nolan or see the script.
00:03:03 - Shelly (Host)
Did you have a say in any of the casting?
00:03:06 - Kai Bird
00:03:08 - Shelly (Host)
So does the movie focus more on Oppenheimer's Trinity days or does it span the whole length of the book?
00:03:14 - Kai Bird
You know, Shelly, I am sworn to secrecy. Nolan allowed me to read the script, but in return, I had to agree to keep it all confidential. But as I said, I can tell you that I think it's a brilliant script and really well written and crafted, and I think it's going to be regarded as unusually historically accurate for a Hollywood feature film.
00:03:45 - Shelly (Host)
I look forward to seeing it in July. So what I'm really interested in is the time of Oppenheimer after Los Alamos. He's such an interesting guy, and not just in his science, but the way that he was involved in Washington and in policy after the Manhattan Project, which ultimately was his downfall.
00:04:12 - Kai Bird
Exactly. No, I'll tell you, when I joined Marty on this biography project, it was in the year 2000, and by that time, he'd already worked on the book for 20 years.
00:04:26 - Shelly (Host)
00:04:27 - Kai Bird
And he explained to me that neither of us would really be interested in Oppenheimer as a big biographical subject if it had not been for what he did after Hiroshima. And the arc of the story is just fascinating in that in 1945, he's celebrated as America's most famous scientist, except for perhaps Einstein. And nine years later, just nine years later, he's humiliated in this kangaroo court. So that makes his life and the arc of the story really mysterious and interesting. He's not just the father of the atomic bomb that part of his life. While Hiroshima and the building of the bomb is a fascinating story. Oppenheimer himself said that there was no physics done during World War II. There were no breakthroughs in physics. There were no breakthroughs in science. By that time, they understood quantum, and they understood that fission was possible as early as 1939. And then it became just a huge engineering project and very complicated and expensive, and there were all sorts of problems, but they were not problems of the quantum physics that young Oppenheimer was as a young physicist in the was on the cutting edge of. So what makes his life really interesting is what America, what his country did to him after he became a celebrity, a hero. And that's a compelling story and an extremely important story, even for our own time.
00:06:15 - Shelly (Host)
I agree. Yeah, absolutely. When did Oppenheimer first become interested in kind of political issues?
00:06:23 - Kai Bird
Well, he was a polymath. He fell into theoretical physics after failing as an experimental physicist in the laboratory in Cambridge, England. But he was always a polymath. He loved French literature and poetry and Hemingway novels, and he loved New Mexico horseback riding. And he was not just a physics nerd, but he wasn't particularly political in the 20s, arrives back from Germany and ends up at Berkeley to teach quantum physics to a handful of graduate students. He was interested in Sanskrit at one point to such an extent that he found the only professor of Sanskrit at Berkeley who could tutor him in the language so that he could read the gita and the original.
00:07:15 - Shelly (Host)
00:07:16 - Kai Bird
But he did become involved politically in the 30s through a woman, Jean Tatlock, who became the love of his life throughout the 1930s and whom he repeatedly offered tried to get her to marry him, and she repeatedly turned him down. But she was a member of the Communist Party and was constantly nagging him to become more politically involved and aware of politics. And after all, this is in the midst of the depths of the Depression. Times are tough. So Oppenheimer, by 19 36 37, he was becoming politically active, attending meetings, political rallies. And he was close to the Communist Party because Gene Tatlock was a member. And eventually Robert's younger brother Frank was also a member and Frank's wife was a member. But he became involved not as a Communist. We argue, Marty and I argue that he never became a party member, but he began giving contributions to the party as much as $400 a year, which is quite a lot of money in those years. But it was because of issues like desegregating the public swimming pool in Berkeley or farm worker rights in California farms, racial justice, and most prominently, the cause of the Spanish Republic. The Civil War in Spain started in 1936, and it was really a run up to World War II. And he became heavily involved in that issue and raised money, for instance, to send an ambulance to help the Spanish Republican cause. And then, you know, in 1940, he meets Kitty, kitty Pruning, who by that time is onto her third marriage, although she's only 27.
00:09:32 - Shelly (Host)
That doesn't seem normal for the time.
00:09:35 - Kai Bird
She was a firecracker. She takes on a big role in American Prometheus. She's a very interesting character.
00:09:43 - Shelly (Host)
Yes. So just a question. Was belonging to the Communist Party, or was kind of these ideas that Oppenheimer was interested in, was that common at the time?
00:09:55 - Kai Bird
00:09:56 - Shelly (Host)
Not the Communist Party that we knew in the 50s or sixty s. But supporting the Spanish Civil War and farmers rights.
00:10:04 - Kai Bird
Yeah. It was not uncommon at all for university professor or students to be interested in and drawn to the issues that the Communist Party was working on sort of as a cutting edge. Racial integration, civil rights, the Spanish Republic. These were issues that the Communist Party took on when the Democratic Party or the Republican Party were too reluctant to walk in that dangerous political territory.
00:10:38 - Shelly (Host)
Were they considered radical issues?
00:10:41 - Kai Bird
Yeah, I think they were considered radical issues. But these were radical times, too. Again, in the midst of the Depression, capitalism seemed to be falling apart and not working. Ideas of socialism were being talked about not only on university campuses, but in union halls. Yeah. So it wasn't uncommon at all. And at the same time, it was risqué to be associated with the Communist Party. And the party did impose party discipline on its members. You were required to attend meetings. You were required to pay dues. You were issued a card. And as I said, Oppenheimer's brother Frank did that. And Kitty Oppenheimer, whom Opie eventually married, had been a party member herself and married to an ardent party member who actually died in the Spanish Civil War. But Opie himself was not someone, we thought, who would subject himself to party discipline. He was too much of a free thinker. He resented authority. While Gene Tatlock and then later Kitty, encouraged him to be politically active and concerned about the downtrodden and such. He was not the kind of guy who would submit to party discipline. At least that's our take in the biography.
00:12:14 - Shelly (Host)
Well, and no one could prove that he was a card carrying member.
00:12:17 - Kai Bird
Right. This is one of the issues we really dug into when we were researching the book. We were open to the notion that maybe he was a party member, and we looked for the evidence, and most of the documentary evidence on this issue can be found in his FBI file, which eventually ran to some 8000 pages. So there's no smoking gun there. So if the FBI couldn't prove it and all that you see in the FBI file is sort of innuendo and gossip and well, he attended this meeting. He had many students and friends who were members of the party, including his brother and other relatives. But that's all sort of hearsay, and if you step back and take a larger look at the picture, it's just not believable, at least according to Marty and our account of Oppenheimer's life, that he would have subjected himself to party discipline. It would have been too boring for him.
00:13:23 - Shelly (Host)
So that's interesting, because when he gets to Los Alamos and Groves mentions that he wants the scientist to be part of the military, he was okay with that.
00:13:35 - Kai Bird
He was. And oddly, he even got himself a uniform and tailored it.
00:13:42 - Shelly (Host)
But that seems to be a lot of discipline.
00:13:44 - Kai Bird
Absolutely. So it's a curious thing. He was by 1941,42, when he's being appointed to the scientific director of the Los Alamos Laboratory. He's motivated as a patriotic American to do what he can for the war effort. And it's his ardent fear that the Germans are ahead in this race to build a weapon of mass destruction, a device, a gadget, as they called it, an atomic bomb. He had this fear because he had studied with the German physicists in the 1920s in Germany, and he knew that they were perfectly as capable and smart as he was to be able to do this. And they probably started before the Americans and British. And so he was eager to join the war effort, and he thought this meant putting on an army uniform. But when he was recruited, it's a very improbable selection that he would have been recruited as scientific director. He was 38 years old. He'd never administered anything except a handful of graduate students at Berkeley. But Leslie Groves, general Leslie Groves, was appointed to be the director of the Manhattan Project and to get this thing built. And when he went around the country touring universities and various labs, looking to recruit people and to recruit a scientific director of the project, one of his last interviews, really, he got out to California finally. And there was Oppenheimer, who was very eager to talk to the general, knew what it was all about, and Opie turned on his charm, and he understood that the general was looking for a secure atmosphere in which to build this weapon and that secrecy was necessary. So he came up with the brilliant notion which he presented to General Groves as well. Instead of having laboratories all over the country connected to various universities, let's say, you, what you really ought to do is recruit all the people you need and put them in one place behind barbed wire. And I have the perfect place, by the way. It's 40 miles down the road from my ranch in New Mexico, which I love. And Opie had always told his friends and Frank, his brother, that his ambition in life was somehow to combine his passion for physics with his passion for New Mexico. And so this is the way he was doing it, suggesting to Groves that he should build this secret city in Los Alamos. And initially, they didn't think that they would need more than a couple of hundred scientists. Opie showed Groves, they went on a trip down to New Mexico, and he showed Groves the area, and they drove specifically to Los Alamos, to the Los Alamos Boys School, which is a small boarding school for East Coast elite. And there was a small auditorium, fuller lodge, and a few homes for the teachers and the barracks for the boys to live in. It was a very spartan thing, but it was the beginnings of a small lab, and Groves was sold on the idea. This is perfect. Opie made it clear as Los Alamos was built was that the trade off was that the scientists brought, recruited to Los Alamos would live behind barbed wire, work behind barbed wire, but they would be able to freely talk to each other and have open conversations about how to build this gadget. And Oppenheimer understood that this was the best way to solve problems in a scientific fashion. You needed to be able to have free and open talk, but at the same time, because of the barbed wire and the concentration of everyone in the middle of nowhere, it really is in.
00:18:02 - Shelly (Host)
The middle of nowhere.
00:18:03 - Kai Bird
Yeah, it still is.
00:18:04 - Shelly (Host)
So I want to jump ahead a little bit until after the bomb works, after Trinity, Oppenheimer is actually pulled into the political world a bit by being asked to serve on committees where he's asked to weigh in on military targets. So even while he's director, he's asked to help make these kind of big decisions. How did that weigh on him?
00:18:30 - Kai Bird
Heavily. It weighed heavily. He's a very complicated, mysterious figure. I said earlier that he was a polymath, and he loved French poetry and philosophy and the Gita, and he was a very sensitive soul. Now he is recruited to be the scientific director at Los Alamos. He works very hard, brilliantly, over the next two and a half years to build the Gadget. And he knows what it's going to be used for. He knows its power. At one point in the story we tell about how his last secretary, who worked for him one day in the summer of 45, is walking to work with Opie. This is a woman named Anne Wilson, and she hears him muttering under his breath, those poor little people. Those poor little people. And Anne stops him and says, zappi, what are you talking about? I think she called him Robert. And Robert says, well, Trinity has happened. We know it works. This is three weeks before Hiroshima. He knows this weapon is going to be dropped on one or two Japanese cities. And he knows that the victims are going to be women and children and civilians. I mean, it's going to be a whole city because the weapon is so large, there's no target for it other than a city, and that means civilians. So those poor little people. And yet, that same week, we documented he was meeting with a contingent of the bombardiers who are going to be on the airplanes and drop these atomic weapons. And he instructed them at exactly at what altitude? At 10,000ft, they should be detonated and on the center of the city to have the most explosive impact, destruction. So he could do both things. He could have pity for the victims, and he could be determined and resolute about making sure the Gadget worked and worked in a really devastating way. So you ask about why he got involved politically after the war, after Hiroshima, and he read about the results of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He actually plunged into a deep depression. We have this according to letters that his wife Kitty, wrote to friends that summer, late in August of 45. And he's deeply worried about whether mankind can survive this. He knows that these weapons can take out whole cities. He knows that these weapons can be built to be even larger. And his hope, his only hope, one of his rationales, was that maybe humankind would understand the power of these weapons and realize that we could no longer fight total wars, that the threat of nuclear war would be such that it would end the possibility of all war. But he did not want, in the post war period to America to rely on these weapons. He wanted to demonstrate it. He thought it was necessary to end World War II with a demonstration of the power of these weapons precisely in order that the next war would not be fought with these. So he was concerned after the war that we adopt a policy of openness and candor and policy of trying to place international controls over the weapons. So he became one of the co authors of what's called the Oppenheimer Lilienthal Plan for Nuclear Disarmament. It was a very simple idea, an idea that is still relevant to this day. The notion was that we should create an International Atomic Energy Authority that would have sovereign control over all things nuclear and would be able to have the right to inspect any laboratory or factory anywhere in the world sovereign powers to go anywhere and make sure that atomic technology was not being used to build weapons. Well, of course, America in the beginning of the Cold War went in an entirely different direction and started building more of these weapons to build up their own atomic arsenal. We tell this incredible story where OPI goes in to see President Harry Truman in October of 1945, just three months after Hiroshima, and this is his big chance to explain to President Truman why it's necessary to put international controls over this devastating technology. And he begins to make his argument, and Harry Truman interrupts him and says, well, Dr. Oppenheimer, let me ask you, when do you think the Russians are going to be able to get such a weapon? Robert answers, Well, I'm not sure, but in the near future, perhaps. Truman interrupts and says, Well, I know never. And Oppenheimer understands in that moment that Truman understands nothing. He doesn't understand that there are no secrets. And literally, Opie says this in a speech in Philadelphia in November. A month later, he says, any nation, anywhere, however poor or small, that decides that it wants to acquire this nuclear weapons could do so. There are no secrets. It's an engineering problem. And if you put the resources to bear on it, it's now known that it exists and you'll do it. So we're faced with a world today where countries like Pakistan and North Korea and Iran and Israel have weapons or are in the process of getting them, and it's a very dangerous why did.
00:25:01 - Shelly (Host)
Truman think that the Russians would never get the bomb?
00:25:04 - Kai Bird
He had this notion that America was special, extraordinary, American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism, that only America could have done this, that American scientists are the best, and that it was too complicated and too expensive for anyone else to do. And the Russians just don't have the.
00:25:29 - Shelly (Host)
The first time is the hardest, but once people know it can be done, it's much easier.
00:25:34 - Kai Bird
Exactly. Yeah. There are no secrets to it.
00:25:37 - Shelly (Host)
Once Fuchs was discovered and once the Soviets did get the bomb, how did the discourse in Washington change? Were people as open to Oppenheimer's ideas as before?
00:25:50 - Kai Bird
No. It was the beginning of the McCarthy era, the witch hunts. The fact is that even if Fuchs had not engaged in a little atomic spine, Fuchs, Klaus Fuchs was a German refugee from Nazi Germany who fled to England, and then as a young physicist, was recruited and became part of the British team that came to Los Alamos. He had access to secrets, and he thought that he was a member of the Communist Party secretly, and he thought that what he was working on was something that the Russians should have as well, because after all, they're in the forefront of the fight against Nazism. But even if Fuchs had not existed, if there had been no atomic spine, the Russians had as soon as Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened, they started their own bomb program and they were going to build a weapon.
00:26:46 - Shelly (Host)
00:26:47 - Kai Bird
Spies are no spies. But in the atmosphere of Washington in 1949, they were shocked. Truman was shocked that the Russians had a nuclear test in 1949, just four years after the Americans. It created a sort of hysteria, oh, we have to build up more. We have to get bigger and better bombs. Truman immediately his response to the Soviet atomic test in 1949 was to authorize a program to build an even bigger bomb, an H bomb, a hydrogen bomb, which Oppenheimer thought was completely unnecessary, and there was no target for an even bigger weapon. Hydrogen bomb would be hundreds of times as powerful as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima or could be. He was opposed to it, and he started speaking out against it, publishing articles against building a super. And this created for him many political enemies in the national security bureaucracy and the Defense Department.
00:27:54 - Shelly (Host)
So a lot of the scientists were agreeable to work on the Manhattan Project to work on developing the A bomb. Was Oppenheimer the only physicist that worked at the Manhattan Project to speak out against the H-Bomb? Did everyone go back to work on the H-Bomb?
00:28:10 - Kai Bird
Oh, no. There were many physicists who were willing to work on such a weapons program at Los Alamos during World War II because they feared the Nazis were going to get it. But after Hiroshima, most of them walked away. Robert Wilson, young, brilliant physicist, refused to ever work again on a bomb project. Now, Edward Teller took a different path. And Teller, who had worked at Los Alamos, was keen to build an H-Bomb, and he worked in the weapons laboratories. As soon as the war was over, he was still working in weapons laboratories, but Opie did not want to do that. And many of the physicists whom he had recruited at Los Alamos took his path and not Tellers.
00:29:02 - Shelly (Host)
So this was not a controversial stand.
00:29:06 - Kai Bird
Not in the scientific community.
00:29:08 - Shelly (Host)
Oppenheimer had a couple of really kind of nemesis, right? And one kind of was Teller. Teller was kind of out to get him.
00:29:16 - Kai Bird
Well, Teller came from Hungary. His family was a victim of the communist inspired uprising of 1918 1919 in Hungary. He was a fervent, dedicated anti communist in his politics. So he came from a whole different worldview than Oppenheimer, who in the 1930s, as we've been discussing, was close to the Communist Party on their social issues. So Teller is recruited to Los Alamos by Oppenheimer because he's a brilliant physicist, but he immediately becomes troublemaker and constantly is nagging Opie that we shouldn't be working on this atomic bomb business. We should actually be working on an hydrogen bomb. He understood, even in 1943, that the hydrogen bomb was something that was possible. And Opie pointed out to him that, well, to trigger that kind of weapon, weren't you going to need to trigger it with an atomic fission weapon? So shouldn't we build the first one? And he became such an annoyance, interrupting meetings and a real problem, that Opie finally took him aside and said, okay, Edward, I will let you work on the hydrogen. You alone. You can do whatever you want, and you can come and meet with me and have 20 minutes of my time once a week.
00:30:58 - Shelly (Host)
But just don't come to anything else. Just leave everyone else alone.
00:31:02 - Kai Bird
He could have just gotten rid of Teller, but he bent over backwards to try to accommodate Edward Teller. And then nine years later, in 1954, teller is recruited to come and testify against Oppenheimer and does so and really stabs him in the back and suggests that he should never have gotten a security clearance. And he was unreliable politically.
00:31:28 - Shelly (Host)
So that's the story that I always heard, that those in the scientific community just never forgave Teller, that there were a lot of physicists that just snubbed him the rest of his life after that.
00:31:40 - Kai Bird
Right. They wouldn't shake his hand. They would snub him.
00:31:43 - Shelly (Host)
So he was kind of after that, I think, really had to stay in the security world because no one else wanted him.
00:31:50 - Kai Bird
00:31:52 - Shelly (Host)
So at this point so Oppenheimer is getting involved in politics. He's really talking about, basically arms control, which is not very popular in Washington. He is advocating against building the super. And in comes another kind of nemesis of Oppenheimer's who eventually does bring him down, which is Lewis Strauss.
00:32:18 - Kai Bird
00:32:18 - Shelly (Host)
So what is their history, and why does Lewis Strauss have such a dislike for Oppenheimer?
00:32:27 - Kai Bird
Well, Lewis liked to pronounce his last name as Straws.
00:32:32 - Shelly (Host)
Oh, sorry, Straws.
00:32:35 - Kai Bird
It was very peculiar because, of course, it was Strauss, but he came from the south. He grew up in Georgia and of modest circumstances. He was a door to door salesman. But he was a bright, ambitious young man. And he sort of clawed his way into the American establishment largely because after working with Herbert Hoover during World War I on his food aid project for providing food to refugees in World War I, and Straws became very well, politically connected in Republican Party circles, and he became a wealthy man. He somehow got himself appointed an admiral during World War II on honorary admiral and had some knowledge about the Manhattan Project during the war. And then after the war, he eventually becomes close to Dwight Eisenhower, who becomes president in 53, and Ike appoints him to be chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Now, at the same time, Straws was appointed chairman of the trustees of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where Oppenheimer eventually became director in 1947. Ostensibly, Oppenheimer had to report to Strauss, meet with him to talk about institute business. And they were completely different personalities, bad chemistry. Oppenheimer was of Jewish ancestry, but he was raised in the Ethical Culture Society and didn't really consider himself to be Jewish. He wasn't observant. Lewis Straws, on the other hand, was a very observant Jew, a member of a conservative temple, and he took his Jewishness very seriously. He couldn't understand why API seemed to be in denial about his Jewishness. So that was an issue. And Opie was the kind of person who, even as a young man, as a teacher, he could be extremely patient and gentle and sweet with students and the average citizen he encountered, or with people below him in station, but with figures of authority, and particularly people who claim to have knowledge. Like Truman claiming that the Russians could never get the atomic bomb, Opie had a tendency to dismiss such people and to be abrasive and even rude. So when Truman told him all the Russians will never get it, Opie's reaction was to say exactly the wrong thing. He says, Well, Mr. President, you don't understand. We have blood on our hands, which was true, but not the kind of thing you wanted to point out to the President of the United States, who had made the decision to drop two bombs on two Japanese cities. And he did the same thing to Lewis Straws. He was dismissive of his knowledge of things nuclear. And there was a famous incident in which OPI testified at a Senate hearing about whether it was dangerous or not to export medical isotopes abroad for research and medical purposes. And Lewis Straws had testified that day that this was a very dangerous thing and a danger to national security. And Oppenheimer just made fun of anyone who thought that. And there was another incident at a cocktail party in Princeton where Straws was trying to introduce his daughter in law to the great atomic scientist, and Opie just brushed them off. So Straws had it in for Oppenheimer, and in 1953, when he became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, he had access to his classified documents, including Oppenheimer's FBI file, which showed his communist affiliations and associations. And he knew of his public opposition to building the hydrogen bomb. And he thought that maybe that Opie was a spy or certainly a national security risk. And so Straws then orchestrates a campaign in conjunction with J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, to bring Oppenheimer down, to defrock him in his own church and to strip him of his security clearance. And this all leads to sort of an indictment as such a letter that is handed to Oppenheimer in late in December of 1953, in which he's given the choice to sort of give up his security clearance and walk away and not respond to the charges or contest the charges. And. Oppenheimer decides he has to contest the charges, he has to prove his loyalty and can't let this stand. And that sets it up for the security hearing that happens in April of 54.
00:38:12 - Shelly (Host)
So there's a couple of interesting things here. Is that the indictment he was actually charged with not working on the H-Bomb and for discouraging others not to work on it.
00:38:24 - Kai Bird
Well, that was true.
00:38:25 - Shelly (Host)
It was, but how is that a charge? Okay, so the Red Scare is going on and, okay, you're charged with, oh, perhaps you're a security risk. But at the time, wasn't he just a he was just a consultant. So couldn't they just not use him? Like you just don't call on him for consulting.
00:38:43 - Kai Bird
Right, exactly. No, but Straws and Oppenheimer's other enemies in the Defense Department at this point, he was arguing against investing all this money in the hydrogen weapons program, that the Air Force wanted to have a larger budget. So Opie was a big threat to their defense budget ambitions. They found in Straws a useful ally who was willing to really go after Oppenheimer in a almost conspiratorial fashion.
00:39:20 - Shelly (Host)
So at the time the McCarthy trials were going on, why didn't they just let Senator McCarthy deal with him?
00:39:26 - Kai Bird
Well, McCarthy and Roy Cohn, whom I'm actually now just engaged on a biography of Roy Cohn, so I'm going to learn more about this.
00:39:36 - Shelly (Host)
I actually thought for a second there you were going to say you are Facebook friends.
00:39:42 - Kai Bird
No, Roy Cohn died in 1986, so.
00:39:46 - Shelly (Host)
It'd be hard to be hard.
00:39:47 - Kai Bird
But he's a fascinating figure and he was chief counsel to Joe McCarthy for 18 months in 53. 54. And yeah, Roy Cohn and Joe McCarthy wanted to go after Oppenheimer for the same reason that Straws did. That here was the father of the atomic bomb talking about how we should have candor about our nuclear weapons program and we should tell the Russians how many weapons we have and what our intentions are and international control, and we should share this technology.
00:40:24 - Shelly (Host)
That seems also reasonable.
00:40:26 - Kai Bird
Yes, well, but this is the height of the Cold War. The Korean War had just been fought. We Americans were extremely paranoid about Russian intentions, Russian military capabilities to invade Western Europe. Dwight Eisenhower came in as a former general hero of World War II, the commander of the Normandy invasion, and he was himself skeptical of the defense establishment and skeptical of building up a massive army. So he looked at nuclear weapons as a cheap defense. He thought, well, we need to just have lots of hundreds, thousands of these weapons and then the Russians will not be able that will deter the Russians from using their conventional superiority on the ground in terms of armies.
00:41:27 - Shelly (Host)
Wow, if only he knew now how much those cheap nuclear weapons cost us.
00:41:33 - Kai Bird
Yes, exactly. It was a big miscalculation on Eisenhower's part, but nevertheless, that was his sort of worldview. And the Russians were regarded as a threat, and world international communism was regarded as something that was sweeping the world and particularly the developing world. So Oppenheimer argument that we should not rely on these weapons was politically a threat to the American establishment at this.
00:42:05 - Shelly (Host)
Time, especially because he was respected by so many.
00:42:10 - Kai Bird
00:42:11 - Shelly (Host)
So a lot of the security hearing revolves around something called the what is it?
00:42:18 - Kai Bird
The chevalier. The Chevrolet chevalier affair. Hakan Chevalier was a Frenchman who taught French literature at Berkeley and was one of Oppenheimer's closest friends. In the 1930s, Chevalier was himself a member of the Communist Party, probably, almost certainly. But they were good friends, good drinking buddies. They shared gin martinis together and mini meals. And one day, in, I think, 1942 or 43, Chevalier visits Oppenheimer in his Berkeley home and informs him that he has a friend named George Eltonton, a young British immigrant who has connections to the Soviet consulate in San Francisco and could be a conduit for helping the Russians with gaining some knowledge about this new technology. That's how Chevrolet pitched it.
00:43:23 - Shelly (Host)
How did he even know there was new technology?
00:43:25 - Kai Bird
You know, believe it or not, there were articles in the press about fission and the experiment in 1939 in Chicago, where we first had a fission experiment, and there were rumors, and Chevrolet knew that Opie had been recruited for some big project of some scientific nature. So he assumed that there was.
00:43:50 - Shelly (Host)
So smart people put two and two together.
00:43:53 - Kai Bird
Yeah, it wasn't very hard. So Chevrolet said, if you want to, we could share some information with. And Opie's immediate reaction, according to Chevrolet and according to Oppenheimer, was he told his good friend Hakan, well, that would be treason. And he got very upset and remonstrated with Chevrolet, and that was the end of it.
00:44:17 - Shelly (Host)
00:44:17 - Kai Bird
But six months later, Arthur Nimer is in a room being interviewed, as he periodically was, by a security officer, and he's asked about any security threats. And so Oppenheimer offers volunteers the information that, well, you know, there's maybe I don't know there's this guy, George Eltonton that I've heard of, this British fellow in San Francisco who has connections to the Soviet consulate. And I think he's trying to get information about, essentially, the Manhattan Project, and you ought to look after him. Well, immediately, the next question from the security officer is, well, how do you know this? And so Opie has gotten himself in a fix. He's cornered, and he does not want to name his good friend Hakan Chevalier. And so he makes up when he's interviewed in the security hearing in 1954, he says, I made up a cock and bowl story. And I said, oh, I think there were I can't name the names, but I think there were three approaches that were attempted by various people, and it was all very vague. And that just got him into more hot water, because three approaches are worse than one, and he's refusing to name names. So for three months, he's sort of pressed. And finally, General Groves arrives on a visit and orders him to give him the name of the person who talked to him about this fellow George Eltonton. And Oppenheimer gives him the name of Chevrolet, and you'd think that would be the end of it. But all of this goes into his security file.
00:46:08 - Shelly (Host)
So it was investigated at that time in the early forty s and dismissed in 43. Okay.
00:46:14 - Kai Bird
They put George Elton and Chevrolet under surveillance, and that was the end of it. They never passed any atomic secrets. Oppenheimer never passed any secrets to either hawk on Chevrolet. I don't think he ever even met George Eltonton.
00:46:31 - Shelly (Host)
And in fact, he was quite adamant that he wouldn't.
00:46:34 - Kai Bird
Right. That this would be treason. But this all entered into his FBI file eventually, and this is what Lewis Straws read. And so the Chevalier incident becomes a big bone of contention during the security hearing in 1954. And the argument was, you lied. You lied to your security officer. So therefore, why did you lie? Maybe because you have dual loyalties. Maybe you're a Communist, maybe you're a spy.
00:47:05 - Shelly (Host)
But it was already settled. Okay? So the whole time that I knew Oppenheimer well, before reading your book, I never really felt like I could relate to him. Right. He has this really rich Upper East Side background being raised. He's this brilliant physicist, but you talk about how he doesn't do well under pressure. Like, he says these weird things when he's under pressure by people that I can relate to. So finally, I have something in common with him. I would have done something like that. I would have just, like, totally did something stupid. Yeah.
00:47:41 - Kai Bird
It's a very human reaction under pressure. You make up a story, you don't think it through, say something stupid.
00:47:50 - Shelly (Host)
So thank you for allowing me to find some sort of common thread with this genius, right?
00:47:57 - Kai Bird
Well, no, he was a genius, but he was a very human genius.
00:48:01 - Shelly (Host)
He really was. You do such a good job describing him in the book. Do you think that Oppenheimer had any chance of maintaining his security clearance, of winning kind of the Security Court?
00:48:14 - Kai Bird
No. The security bureaucracy apparatus was such in 1954 that everything was weighted against him. They were determined to silence him. Lewis Straws was determined to make him a pariah. Edward Teller talked about how it was necessary to defrock Oppenheimer in his own church. And Oppenheimer didn't understand. There was a sort of naivete to him. He was very idealistic in some ways. He made a point of going to visit Albert Einstein just before the six week trial happened in the spring of 54. And he explains to Albert that he is going to be down in Washington for some weeks and will be gone from the Institute. And he explains why that they're putting him on trial, essentially. Einstein argues with him, and he says, Robert, why are you going through this? Why put yourself through this? They don't want you. Walk away. And Oppenheimer explains, no, Albert, you don't understand. If I don't have my security clearance and I'm not allowed to participate in discussions, I'm not allowed to give the government advice. I'm no longer a player in the policy world. I can't give that up. So he walks away, and Einstein turns to his secretary and says, rather impishly, there goes anar, the Yiddish word for fool. And it's true. OPI could have walked away. He could have had a press conference and announced, I have many political enemies in Washington. This is why I've advised against the hydrogen bomb, and now they don't want to extend my security clearance, which was actually expiring in a few weeks anyway.
00:50:16 - Shelly (Host)
So there was no point. There was no point in doing it.
00:50:19 - Kai Bird
Instead, he subjected himself to this kangaroo court, and it was a terrible experience where his private life was put on public display with his wife sitting there. He had to listen and acknowledge his relationship with Gene Tatlock and the fact that he had continued his relationship with Gene Tatlock and had visited her in 1943, that this visit had been documented by the FBI agents who had put him under surveillance. And they dredged up all this innuendo from the FBI reports that were sitting there classified. But his own lawyer couldn't look at those reports because they had denied him a security clearance. It was a completely unfair proceeding. And then they leaked the whole thing. It was supposed to be secret. And then Straws made sure that The New York Times got a copy of the whole transcript, thinking that this would really be the end of Oppenheimer's career, that his name would be dragged through the mud and he would be associated with Communists.
00:51:26 - Shelly (Host)
Please tell me that Louis Straws got what was coming to him in the end.
00:51:31 - Kai Bird
Well, ironically, in 1959, Eisenhower nominated him to become Commerce Secretary.
00:51:40 - Shelly (Host)
That does not sound like yeah, okay. Sounds like he's falling up.
00:51:44 - Kai Bird
He's still a player in Washington. He's still an ambitious fixer. Eisenhower nominates him for the Commerce position, and he has to go through a confirmation hearing in the Senate, and he is asked about what he had done to Oppenheimer. It was very clear in 1954 when the transcript was leaked to The New York Times how outrageously unfair this whole proceeding had been, but there was nothing to be done. And in 1959, sitting on that Senate confirmation committee was a young senator named John F. Kennedy. And one of Kennedy's close friends was McGeorge Bundy, the former dean of Harvard. And Bundy was a close friend and admirer of Oppenheimer's, and he persuaded Kennedy to ask a lot of tough questions, and he advised Kennedy to vote against the confirmation of Strauss because of what he had done to Oppenheimer. And indeed, to the surprise of many, Kennedy voted against the nomination, and it was defeated. And Straws was rather publicly humiliated in the same kind of Washington proceeding that he had orchestrated against Oppenheimer. So in a small way, justice was done.
00:53:08 - Shelly (Host)
So in December of 2022, so very recently, the Biden administration reversed the Security Council's removal of Oppenheimer's security clearance.
00:53:21 - Kai Bird
What they did was they vacated the decision, nullified it.
00:53:25 - Shelly (Host)
Okay. Why do you think now what was the reason? And kind of what was that statement.
00:53:30 - Kai Bird
About, well, why now? I mean, it should have been done in 1955. It should have been done in 1959. And John F. Kennedy, actually, as president in 1963, one of his last decisions was to give the Fermi Prize to Oppenheimer a $50,000 award. Very substantial thing. And this was noted, and he was then assassinated. And Lyndon Baines Johnson, as the newly minted president, had one of his first decisions, was whether he should continue with this ceremony. And he did indeed invite Oppenheimer to the White House and gave him the medal and the $50,000 check. And Edward Teller was there oh, God.
00:54:20 - Shelly (Host)
He's like a bad penny.
00:54:21 - Kai Bird
Who had received the Fermi Prize the year before. And Teller was invited. And there's this very awkward moment in which a photo is taken of Oppenheimer sort of reluctantly offering to shake hands with Teller. And Kitty is standing there frowning in disgust.
00:54:41 - Shelly (Host)
I like Kitty.
00:54:42 - Kai Bird
Anyway, you ask why this was done in 2022. The reason is that when American Prometheus was published in 2005, shortly after that, Marty Sherwin and I thought, well, you know, maybe we should explore legal options to overturning this 1954 decision. So we found some pro bono lawyers to explore this. And they told us a few months later that this was not going to be possible, that there was no legal avenue for doing that, that the only action you could take would be an executive order by the president or the Department of Energy that had inherited the Atomic Energy. And so we began lobbying. We wrote a letter to Obama, but it was very late in his administration and nothing happened. And his energy secretary, actually, Ernest Moniz, turned down our overtures on the grounds that Oppenheimer had lied to the security hearing, lied to a security officer, and that this would set a bad precedent if we overturned the 1954 decision. Moniz didn't understand. We didn't have a chance to get a meeting with him. And then Donald Trump was elected, and we gave up all hope. Then Biden was elected in 2020, and by this time, very smart aide to Senator Leahy of Vermont, Tim Rezer, had taken on this issue. And during the Obama administration, he had gotten four senators to sign a letter urging nullification. But it never went anywhere. Whether this got to Obama's desk, we're not quite sure. But in any case, nothing happened. But when Biden became president, Tim Rezer and his boss, Senator Leahy, took up this issue again, and this time, Tim Reeser got 43 senators to sign a letter urging nullification, including four Republicans.
00:56:54 - Shelly (Host)
00:56:55 - Kai Bird
We did all sorts of lobbying. We got the Oppenheimer Memorial Committee and the Los Alamos Historical Association to sign letters. And then last spring, I was out in New Mexico, invited by Christopher Nolan to be on the movie set for a couple of hours. So I was in Los Alamos and Tim Rezer arranged for me to have a meeting with the director of the weapons lab at Los Alamos, Tom Mason. Mason, to my surprise, was very open to the notion. He was a little unsure whether it could be done. But eventually he wrote his own letter urging nullification, and he got all the former living directors of the Los Alamos Weapons Lab to sign the letter.
00:57:47 - Shelly (Host)
00:57:48 - Kai Bird
So here this is extraordinary. This is the real tipping point, I think. When the director of the Los Alamos Weapons Lab, which Oppenheimer had founded, when the current director is signing a letter saying to the Secretary of Energy that you should really nullify this 1954 decision because it was unfair and it violated the Atomic Energy Commission's own procedures for such a security hearing, that was a very powerful argument. Anyway, I signed a letter. And Richard Rhodes and the biographer of Leslie Groves also signed a letter. Stan Norris. So this was the result of a large and very improbable lobbying campaign by a group of private citizens to set the historical record straight.
00:58:43 - Shelly (Host)
Wow. And what was the reason they gave to reverse the decision?
00:58:49 - Kai Bird
The reason was the fact that they had violated their own procedures and that it was an unfair proceeding and that this sent the wrong message to working scientists. For the integrity of the security system itself, it was necessary to overturn this injustice that had been done to Robert Oppenheimer. Also, the bottom line is it's an important message to scientists everywhere that you shouldn't be afraid to speak out as a public intellectual and to participate in policy debates, and you shouldn't be afraid that if you say something unpopular or politically unpopular, that you will be penalized for offering your scientific expertise.
00:59:42 - Shelly (Host)
Do you think scientists felt that way after the security hearing? Do you think it did?
00:59:46 - Kai Bird
Stifle oh, what happened to Oppenheimer sent a message to scientists everywhere. Beware, do not get off the reservation. Do not pretend that you can speak about political issues. Don't try to become a public intellectual, because that can be dangerous. You can be made of pariah. After 1954, Oppenheimer was stripped of the security clearance so he could no longer get classified information. Universities around the country disinvited him from giving speeches that had already been scheduled.
01:00:22 - Shelly (Host)
Oh, wow. Okay.
01:00:23 - Kai Bird
I mean, he became a pariah. He became a nobody. He retreated to the Virgin Islands later that summer and fell in love with St. John and eventually bought a small piece of property there and built a cabin, and he would spend several months every winter down there and go sailing, hiding from the rest of the world.
01:00:45 - Shelly (Host)
And I'm not sure that the security hearing is so well known, because people in general ask me, like, why aren't scientists as outspoken as the Manhattan Project scientists were? Why aren't you as outspoken as Oppenheimer was?
01:01:02 - Kai Bird
01:01:03 - Shelly (Host)
And I think we know the answer. After the security hearing, it kind of set to precedence, and generations after that kind of stayed in their lane.
01:01:12 - Kai Bird
Yeah. And it feeds into a culture of distrust of science, distrust of expertise. I mean, just look what we've gone through during the pandemic, you know, where poor Dr. Anthony Fauci is, his integrity is being questioned. It's ironic that this is we live in a modern world where we're drenched with technology and science and quantum physics, and yet we don't understand it. And the common citizen is often bewildered by it. And the scientists who know most about the science and technology are sort of distrusted. It's not kosher for politicians to listen to scientists. That's a terrible position for a society that is dependent on understanding the scientific world to be in. And I would argue that much of this cultural distrust of the scientific world comes back to what was done to the chief celebrity victim of the McCarthy era, Robert Oppenheimer.
01:02:25 - Shelly (Host)
Thank you for listening. And remember, the movie Oppenheimer is released in the United States on July 21, 2023. And as you heard, Kai Bird gives it his endorsement to support our podcast. Please rate or review on your podcast app and tell a friend. Until next time, I'm Shelly Lesher, and this has been my nuclear life.