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Sound thinking

A frail, fedora-wearing Prometheus

Roger Shattuck on the moral confusion of J. Robert Oppenheimer

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

A frail, fedora-wearing Prometheus

“Albert Einstein’s letter in 1939 to President Roosevelt on the need to construct an atomic bomb was written in the face of an unprecedented attack on civilization from within our combined Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman heritage. Einstein’s reluctant yet urgent call to action (prompted by Leo Szilard) led to a collaboration of science, technology, and entrepreneurship that bears comparison with the construction of the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, and the Panama Canal. More concentrated than those undertakings because of the urgency and the secrecy of its mission, the Manhattan Project was carried out within stark Aristotelian unities of time, action, and character. That drama presents us with a tragic hero who succeeded brilliantly in his assigned task, yet who ultimately saw himself as having betrayed the trust of his high calling — a frail, fedora-wearing Prometheus, a chastened Frankenstein.

“J. Robert Oppenheimer was a respected theoretical physicist, an organizer-director who earned the loyalty of hundreds of scientists, technicians, and military personnel, and a troubled philosopher of the responsibilities of his mission. In retrospect, Oppenheimer appears to have been typecast to express the rival convictions that grew up within the project. The work of those involved would help defend democracy and human decency against a new form of state barbarism. Their work would also unleash a force so destructive that only fears that the enemy might discover it first justified the effort. We know the crucial roles played by Einstein and Fermi and other scientists, by Roosevelt, General Groves, and Truman. But in our minds, we have projected upon Oppenheimer the responsibility to answer two distinct questions: ‘Shall we manufacture the bomb? Shall we employ the bomb?’ Oppenheimer became both hero and scapegoat for having answered the two questions in the affirmative. In June 1945, he rejected the scientists’ Franck Report, which opposed any unannounced use of the bomb. After Hiroshima, he changed his mind. He is our Hamlet. Later public questionings of his loyalty and denial of his security clearance only enhance the portrait of a person racked by the disputes of his time.

“Just two years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer was invited to deliver a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He gave it the neutral title ‘Physics in the Contemporary World.’ Everyone was highly conscious in 1947 of Oppenheimer’s appearing as the ex-director of the Manhattan Project before an audience of scientists at a historic moment as the world emerged from World War II. He had composed a subtle and highly personal manifesto in defense of science. After affirming that ‘physics is booming’ especially in the field of elementary particle research, he applied the elusive principle of complementarity to science itself. In other words, he described two conflicting interpretations and affirmed the truth of both. They complement each other as partial, not exhaustive, truths. On the one hand, the value of science lies in its fruits, in its effects, more good than bad, on our lives. On the other hand, the value of science lies in its robust way of life dedicated to truth, disinterested discovery, and experiment. The practicing scientist feels a greater kinship with the second principle; he is at best ‘ineffective’ when he tries ‘to assume responsibility for the fruits of his work.’ That task is properly assumed, Oppenheimer declared, by statesmen and political leaders. One wonders if he had read Frankenstein along with the Bhagavad-Gita.

“In this context of affirming scientific research, the most widely quoted passage in the talk seems surprisingly out of place, as if Oppenheimer could not bring himself to exclude it from an otherwise-affirmative statement of the strengths of the scientific approach to knowledge. The passage must have jarred his listeners in 1947 even more than it jars a reader today. After mentioning ‘a legacy of concern’ left by World War II and the development of the atomic bomb, he inserted this alien paragraph.

“Despite the vision and the far-seeing wisdom of our war time heads of state, the physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for  achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.

“At the center of Oppenheimer’s encouragement to young physicists squats an ominous monster of guilt. He refused with impatience any distortion or dismissal of it by nervous joking or excessive breast-beating. This nonreligious scientist could not have found a stronger word than sin to express a conviction about complicity with evil. He had not opposed the policy decisions that led to immense destruction of civilians at Hiroshima and at Nagasaki. The ‘knowledge’ referred to in the last sentence is of a different order from that of scientific knowledge. Oppenheimer meant moral knowledge. He appeared to be on the verge of propounding a Hippocratic oath for scientists.”

— from Roger Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (St. Martin’s Press, 1996) 

The Friday Feature released on July 21, 2023 included an interview from 1997 with Roger Shattuck about this book, along with a reading of these paragraphs.