Robert Oppenheimer lives in the American imagination as a symbol of the power, the glory and the (surprisingly) humbling experience of doing Big Science. The child of national needs, funded by taxpayers and born often in the fog of war, Big Science blends science and engineering, entrepreneurship and raw ambition. The classic instance is the making of the atomic bomb, the outcome of the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer, as the scientific director of the project, played perhaps the decisive role in delivering a working atomic weapon, which President Harry Truman ordered to be used, with devastating effects, against two Japanese cities.
Oppenheimer never objected to the use of the atomic bomb, nor did he ever regret his pre-eminent role in creating the most terrifying weapon the world had ever known. This patriotic American's tragedy was to support a delay, if not an outright ban, on the next generation of nuclear weapons, the so-called hydrogen bomb. Immensely more destructive than an A-bomb, the H-bomb was more difficult to create and, in 1949, when Oppenheimer led a secret and successful campaign to halt development of the H-bomb, was impossible to build.
Overruled by his president, Oppenheimer then watched as his archrival, fellow physicist Edward Teller, pressed ahead and, with the help of others, built the weapon that by the end of the 1950s would sit at the heart of an American "doomsday machine," a network of bombers and missiles that, if exhausted, would bring about the "mutual assured destruction" not only of the Soviet Union, America's Cold War enemy, but also perhaps the entire planet.
Had Oppenheimer gone quietly into the night after losing the fight over the H-bomb, Ray Monk would not have written a splendid, if at times derivative, biography of him. Oppenheimer instead chose to wage a low-intensity campaign against the deployment of the H-bomb. In this, he was spectacularly unsuccessful, so much so that his influential opponents, notably Teller, managed to engineer his humiliation in the form of his expulsion from the "classified" inner circle of wise men and super-scientists that for 50 years defined U.S. nuclear strategy and tactics.
Oppenheimer's disgrace was partly his own doing. He would have avoided a painful and probing security hearing had he simply agreed to walk away from government secrets. But as Monk amply documents, Oppenheimer possessed an outsize need to be close to the center of power.
In death, which came to Oppenheimer in 1967 at age 62, he has received what he was denied in life: the standing of genuine American hero, albeit one with tragic flaws. In 1981, Jon Else, a professor at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, directed the stunning documentary "The Day After Trinity," which persuasively made the case that Oppenheimer's demise resulted from the misguided and corrosive embrace by the government of anti-Communism. While Oppenheimer knew members of the American Communist Party, he always insisted he was never a party member.
Monk, while repeating familiar claims that Oppenheimer lied about his associations with Communist Party members, concludes along with many others that he never held formal membership.
A far better introduction to Oppenheimer is the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of him by historians Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, American Prometheus. Monk, a British philosopher best known for his revelatory biography of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, insists that a new biography is needed to capture Oppenheimer's underappreciated contributions to physics. Monk admirably describes these, which he claims should have won Oppenheimer a Nobel Prize for physics. Alas, they did not, and Monk's biography thus depends more on his ability to capture Oppenheimer's frustratingly contradictory personality.
An enigma to many of his contemporaries, Oppenheimer made enemies as easily as friends. Monk is at his best when teasing apart Oppenheimer's confusing inner life, finding in his "enigmatic elusiveness" and "his inability to make ordinary close contact" with others the source of his acknowledged genius in leading the Manhattan Project.
Torn between national duty and his love of pure science, Oppenheimer spoke for many when he said that making weapons "is not the natural business of the scientist" and that in doing so physicists had "known sin." Yet, as Monk rightly concludes, because "Oppenheimer was determined to resist the idea that he was opposed to his own country," he was destined for trouble when he broke ranks with the "super-hawks" who dominated the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies.
As Monk reminds us, it was Albert Einstein who perhaps summed up Oppenheimer's dilemma as well as anyone. "The trouble with Oppenheimer," Einstein once said, "is that he loves a woman who doesn't love him the U.S. government."