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A movie “based on” the life of a real person is a tricky proposition, especially when that person is already the subject of much historical study. How can the ambiguities, contradictions, ironies, paradoxes, and other complexities—not to mention sheer unknowability—of a person be fitted into narrative coherence? Entertainment, story, spectacle, and celebrity/star power have often taken precedence over historically verifiable facts.

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A “biographical picture” or biopic is supposed to be distinct from a documentary. Documentaries purport to be nonfictional, but they may include dramatized recreations. Biopics are fictional but purport to avowedly dramatize real lives, or at least parts of lives. Do an internet search for “biopic lawsuits” to get a taste of the resulting controversies, going back to, at least, Lawrence of Arabia (1962)—individuals and relatives have taken serious exception to their cinematic portrayals.

Just as the movie version of a classic novel may be a bad way of studying for an English literature exam, biopics may not be the best biographical sources. This is not to suggest that these can’t be good movies. Last year’s Napoleon isn’t a good example, as it’s made with what seems complete contempt for biography and history. Oppenheimer is a better example: it’s relatively accurate. Critics have generally been affirmative. The box office has been especially boffo. Thirteen Academy Award nominations, including for all the major awards, highlight the industry’s own approval.

Oppenheimer is a rich, complex, impressive entertainment that whets the appetite for more: more biography, more history. I doubt I was the only one wondering about Lewis Strauss (pronounced “straws”), who is played by Robert Downey Jr. Luckily, there’s a much more about Oppenheimer and his times to dig into.

If you haven’t seen the movie, this is your SPOILER ALERT. Of course, history is nothing but spoilers, giving real impetus to the proverb “forewarned is forearmed”…

An iconic twentieth-century figure celebrated and damned as the “father of the atomic bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–67) has often been described as a Hamlet-like enigma torn between his pride and guilt over the A-bomb, his celebrity, and his governmental humiliation. This clearly presents a challenge to historians, biographers, and dramatists.

Take physicist and popular science writer Jeremy Bernstein, who worked with Oppenheimer. This excerpt from Bernstein’s Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (2004) details Oppenheimer’s early years. The section starts with Isidor Isaac Rabi (1898–1988; Nobel in Physics 1944), who first met Oppenheimer in Europe in the late 1920s, reporting that

we got along very well. We were friends until his last day. I enjoyed things about him that some people disliked. It’s true you carried on a charade with him. He lived a charade, and you went along with it. It was fine—matching wits and so on—and I took him for what he was. I understood his problem.

Bernstein asked Rabi what this problem was. “Identity,” answered Rabi.

Perhaps nobody could play Oppenheimer like Oppenheimer, but he was already being dramatized by others while he still lived. Oppenheimer’s security clearance “trial” was turned into theater by Heinar Kipphardt, whose In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (title as translated to English) was first performed in West Germany in 1964. The play inspired two TV versions: a documentary in West Germany (1964) and a drama in Finland (1967). The drama had its American premiere in 1968, the year after Oppenheimer’s death. Since Oppenheimer’s death, there have been other stage plays, a TV miniseries (1980), an opera (2005), documentaries, various fiction films, and a lot of books.

Oppenheimer’s screenplay, written by director Christopher Nolan, is based on one of those books: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The book won a Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle Award, and other accolades. Prometheus was the wisenheimer of Greek myth who gave humans fire and was sentenced to eternal punished for his transgression by the gods.

Written by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, American Prometheus was published during the sixtieth anniversary of the first atom bomb test at the Trinity Site in New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto desert. The Spanish name for the place is too evocative: it means “dead man’s route” or “dead man’s journey.” The military called the area the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range before renaming—whitewashing?—the site that included the Range as the White Sands Proving Ground just days before the “gadget’s” detonation on July 16, 1945.

That sixtieth anniversary of the nuclear terror also saw the publication of three other major biographies of Oppenheimer. In discussing these biographies, which vacillate between the poles of “desert saint” and “destroyer of worlds,” Lindsey Michael Banco remarks that Oppenheimer has rivaled Einstein and Newton “for his attractiveness to biographers.”

American Prometheus had something of an edge on its 2005 competitors because Sherwin had already done an enormous amount of research for an uncompleted Oppenheimer bio in the 1970s. Some of the 100-plus people he interviewed then were no longer around when he teamed up with Bird, known for his work on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to complete the book.

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904, in New York City to a German Jewish immigrant father and an American-born German Jewish mother. He was raised in the Ethical Culture movement, which describes itself as a “humanist community dedicated to ethical relationships, social justice, and democracy.” The family was very well off. Jeremy Bernstein recalls seeing one of the family Van Goghs in Oppenheimer’s house in 1957.

Oppenheimer went to Harvard when he was eighteen, graduated in three years, and then went to the University of Cambridge and the University of Göttingen, where he completed his doctorate. “Oppie” was a wunderkind. Historian Barton J. Bernstein, who has been writing about Oppenheimer and his times for four decades, ranks him “as one of the best native-born American physicists of his generation and possibly the top young theoretician.” Returning to the US in 1929, Oppenheimer alternated semesters teaching at University of California, Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology. He helped bring modern physics to the American academy.

Although Oppenheimer once wrote that he voted in his first presidential election in 1936, he got heavily involved in left politics in the mid-1930s. Two of his lovers were communists. He married one of them, Katherine Puening (1910–1972), one of whose earlier husbands died in the Spanish Civil War. Oppenheimer’s younger brother and his sister-in-law were Communist Party members. Oppenheimer supported labor, the Popular Front, and the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War—just about every left-wing or Communist-front cause on the West Coast, he said himself—but said he was never a Communist Party member himself. All of these associations, and more, would come back to haunt him.

Oppenheimer was, as the FBI later put it in a curious turn-of-phrase, a “premature anti-fascist,” politically shaped by the Spanish Civil War and wary of Western appeasement of a strengthening Germany. In August 1939, a few physicists, some of whom had fled turmoil in Europe, warned President Roosevelt in August 1939 that the Germans could develop atomic bombs, weapons unprecedented in human history. Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of the day, added the weight of his name by signing the letter. Combined with the British MAUD Committee report on the feasibility of building an extraordinary powerful bomb, all this set the US on a crash course to build one before the Nazis did.

In spite of questions about his politics, Oppenheimer was put in charge of the New Mexico component of this atom bomb project. Stanley Goldberg explores the relationship between Oppenheimer and Leslie R. Groves (1896–1970), the general given command of the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) in September 1942. Prior to this appointment, Groves had managed many Army projects, including the building of the Pentagon in 1940–1941, as deputy to the Chief of Construction in the Army Corps of Engineers.

Named for its regional office, as per standard US Army Corps of Engineers procedure, the MED is today better known as the Manhattan Project. The effort would grow to employ approximately 130,000 people in the US, Canada, and the UK at its peak. (It would have been remarkable if there had not been any spies among all these people.) Los Alamos, New Mexico, was Oppenheimer’s domain. It was built from the ground up in 1942–1943. By war’s end in the radioactive desolation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Los Alamos’s population was 8,000. (The Oppenheimer’s second child, Toni, was born there in 1944.) The price tag for the Project was around $2 billion, equal to nearly twenty times that amount today.

“One of the most-cited and least-interpreted quotations from the history of the atomic age,” writes James A. Hijiya, “is what J. Robert Oppenheimer claimed to have thought when he witnessed the world’s first nuclear explosion: ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’” (Another version found in the literature has the perhaps more powerful “shatterer” instead of “destroyer.”) The line is from the Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita. The movie has Oppenheimer quoting it in bed with his lover, Jean Tatlock. This combination of scripture and sex predictably riled up fundamentalists, with Hindu nationalists in India expressing rage at the scene and vowing punishment.

Hijiya argues Oppenheimer “understood the Gita and other Sanskrit texts well enough to formulate a code for living.” This “homemade Hinduism” is key, Hijiya argues, to understanding Oppenheimer’s complexity—such as his fear that he would fail at Los Alamos and his fear that he would succeed at Los Alamos. Curtis W. Hart also essays a “faith development portrait” of Oppenheimer, noting that Oppenheimer wasn’t conventionally religious, but that his “life and thought were permeated with themes and ideas of a religious and ethical nature.”

David K. Hecht explores how Oppenheimer became a heroic figure in the immediate aftermath of the war, presenting himself as a humanist and philosopher. At first dismissive of the dangers of radioactivity for the Japanese (not to mention residents of the American Southwest), Oppenheimer grew tormented by the notion that he had, as he said, “blood on his hands.” He first approved of the Super or hydrogen bomb, then became one of the most prominent voices against it in the debate over the H-bomb in the late 1940s—one of the things that enraged Lewis Strauss.

Oppenheimer’s “present” is 1959. The former head of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Rear Admiral Lewis L. Strauss (1896–1974) is up for what would normally be a pro forma Senate confirmation hearing about his nomination as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Commerce. Strauss had already been serving as acting Secretary for more than half a year. It seemed as if it would be a shoo-in, the nomination appearing to receive universal acclaim. But it wasn’t. Strauss had enemies in the Senate and among scientists. The latter remembered Strauss’s treatment of Oppenheimer in the now notorious hearing that had stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance in 1954, thus removing him from government work.

Strauss designed the security review as a method of entrapping and ridding himself of Oppenheimer. In his critical review of No Sacrifice Too Great: The Life of Lewis L. Strauss, Barton J. Bernstein reveals that Strauss was no stranger to dirty tricks: in 1930 he teamed up with a Hoover administration operative to burgle a Hoover critic. Politics was a blood sport for Oppenheimer’s nemesis. But Strauss learned that others could play that way, too. He would be rejected by the Senate.

In “The Oppenheimer Loyalty-Security Case Reconsidered,” (cited above), Bernstein also examines Oppenheimer’s 1954 security hearing in depth. (Bernstein would, as we will see, have reason to update his thinking about the hearing.) The three-man Personnel Security Board picked by Strauss unanimously found that Oppenheimer was loyal, but, on a two-to-one vote, they nevertheless found him a security risk. The Board would not restore his security clearance. Oppenheimer appealed to the five commissioners of the AEC itself. They voted four-to-one in favor of his loyalty and also four-to-one in favor of his being a security risk.

Bernstein notes the irony of the AEC’s decisions on this loyal security risk: it was “handed down on June 29, 1954, just one day before Oppenheimer’s AEC consultantship would have automatically expired and the issue of his need-to-know security clearance would have become moot.”

The security review didn’t, in short, have to happen. Oppenheimer could have been eased out. The movie’s Strauss knows that Oppenheimer’s pride and arrogance mean he will challenge the lifting of his security clearance, bringing about his own downfall. Essentially, Oppenheimer was living on borrowed time in the belly of the national security state.

“The case was ultimately the triumph of McCarthyism—really without McCarthy himself,” writes Bernstein. We call it McCarthyism, named after the demagogic career of the alcoholic Republican Senator from Wisconsin, but it was the Democratic Truman administration (1945–1953) that set the panic, purges, and paranoia in motion. In the midst of the Republican Eisenhower administration (1953–1961), there couldn’t have been anybody at more risk than Oppenheimer of being purged by Red-hunters.

The AEC’s three-man Personnel Security Board was chaired by University of North Carolina President Gordon Gray. As Jeffrey J. Crow describes him, Gray was a good choice for Strauss. The son of the chairman of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Gray had been instrumental in setting up North Carolina’s right-to-work law, so his anti-labor—and anti-communist, since to the South’s elites these were the same thing—bona fides were impeccable. He had also served as Truman’s Secretary of the Army and been the first director of the Psychological Strategy Board, set up to coordinate psychological operations (psy-ops). After the hearing, Gray joined the Eisenhower administration and ended up as Eisenhower’s last National Security Advisor.

Though stripped of his security clearance and hence his insider status, Oppenheimer nevertheless continued on as head of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study until 1966. (Prometheus suffered from his liver being plucked at and eaten every day, so perhaps the mythic analogy is a bit much, after all.) President Kennedy had pressed for Oppenheimer’s rehabilitation via the granting of the Enrico Fermi Award, but he was assassinated before he could present it. President Johnson gave Oppenheimer the award in December 1963. This speech by Oppenheimer on the communication and comprehension of scientific knowledge, a subject just as important today, was published that same month.

A chain smoker, Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 1965. He died on February 18, 1967, at the age of sixty-two. His wife Kitty died in 1972. She was also sixty-two. They had two children, Peter (b. 1941) and Katherine, better known as Toni (1944–1977). In 1969, Toni Oppenheimer was refused a security clearance by the FBI to work as a translator for the UN. Less than ten years later, she ended her own life.

In addition to other awards and honors, J. Robert Oppenheimer had an asteroid and a crater on the Moon named after him. In 2022, Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy (a successor to the AEC), vacated the 1954 security review decision, calling it a “flawed process that violated the Commission’s own regulations.”

As Barton J. Bernstein notes, Secretary Granholm made no mention of new information, some of it only revealed this century, that suggests that Oppenheimer had been, in fact, a Communist Party member circa 1939–1941. Bernstein finds the material convincing, writing:

That rather new evidence also leads to a reassessment, and thus taking far more seriously, much negative evidence on Oppenheimer, dating back to the 1940s, that many historians (including myself), often unwisely in about the 1970s–2002 period, minimized or disregarded.

In anticipation of the Oppenheimer movie in July 2023, Bernstein concluded that

It is no longer possible, or reasonable, to comfortably conclude, as had many liberal interpreters (including myself), that Oppenheimer in the 1954 hearing was candidly forthcoming about his late 1930s and early 1940s politics. He was not. He lied, and he sought to deceive.

You won’t leave Christopher Nolan’s movie knowing this, but it certainly stirs up the Oppenheimer biography pot. Again.

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