Oh God, What Have We Done?


Jackson Lears reviews Ray Monk's Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer in the LRB:

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist in charge of the Manhattan Project and hence ‘father of the atomic bomb’, was never openly remorseful. But he was nothing if not ambivalent, as Ray Monk makes clear in his superb biography. When the fireball burst Oppenheimer remembered the words from Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita: ‘I am become death, destroyer of worlds.’ It was his own idiosyncratic translation, and it became his most famous remark. The next day, though, his mood was anything but sombre as he jumped out of a jeep at Los Alamos base camp. His friend and fellow physicist Isidor Rabi said: ‘I’ll never forget the way he stepped out of the car … his walk was like High Noon … this kind of strut. He had done it.’ His colleague Enrico Fermi ‘seemed shrunken and aged, made of old parchment’ by comparison. Yet his euphoria passed, and he sank into second thoughts, despondent about the calamitous consequences awaiting the Japanese. He walked the corridors mournfully, muttering: ‘I just keep thinking about all those poor little people.’ Racial condescension aside, he meant what he said, and during the days following the test his secretary said he looked as though he were thinking: ‘Oh God, what have we done!’

He was a brilliant physicist, a charismatic leader and a skilful administrator; he was also a deeply reflective and troubled man, sensitive enough to question the conventional wisdom of the powerful even as he struggled to maintain his influence among them. Monk ably captures all these dimensions, in part through sheer accretion of detail. But he does have a central theme, expressed in his title, Inside the Centre. Whatever else Oppenheimer wanted, he always longed to be at the centre of every important theoretical debate and policy discussion he could manage to enter; a child of wealthy and assimilated German Jews on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he was the quintessential outsider as insider – yet never quite the insider he aimed to be, in part due to his own contrarian instincts. Committed to Enlightenment ideals of open inquiry, he submitted to regimes of suspicion and secrecy though without ever giving up his own doubts.