Jeremy Bernstein



Not a typical biography

There has been much interest in the life of Robert Oppenheimer, for instance the recent play The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Carson Kreitzer .The Manhattan project was a classic example of a project where good leadership was vital to build the bomb within the timescale required. So how come a few years later the director was humiliated, seemingly because it was felt he was delaying further progress in the area? If you're looking for the answer to such questions then you'll find this book very useful. However you may find it something of a disappointment if you are looking for a normal biography of Oppenheimer. That was what I assumed it was when I started reading, and there were a few things which I found a bit irritating. Firstly, the book departs significantly from the chronological order of things. I realise that biographies don't have to slavishly follow the actual order of events, but my preference is for biographers to try to put information into this form. Secondly, Bernstein himself seems to pop up in the text from time to time, which I found intrusive, especially as sometimes it was in relation to someone else, not Oppenheimer.

As I got further into the book, I realised that it was a mistake to think of it as a typical biography, and after that I was happier with the way it was written. It provides some useful insights into the goings on in the US establishment during the early stages of the development of nuclear weapons, and into the nature of the McCarthyite era.


To a large extent the book is a set of anecdotes concerning Oppenheimer. However, that would give the impression that it is unstructured, which isn't true. Its just that it is structured to lead up to the hearing, rather than to construct a picture of Oppenheimer himself. The reader is shown that Oppenheimer behaved in ways that are hard to understand in hindsight. On the one hand he tried to be open with the authorities about possible security problems, but he also didn't want to incriminate colleagues by linking them with the communist party. This lead to contorted explanations, which naturally put suspicion on Oppenheimer as well as the colleagues he was trying to help. I would have liked more of an understanding of why Oppenheimer behaved in such ways. Then again for a book written nearly 40 years after Oppenheimer's death, I suppose any such explanation would be the invention of the writer to some extent, so it may be better as it is. Possibly the real explanation is that all of us would be hard pressed to explain all of our earlier actions if the details were brought up at a hearing years later. Bernstein points out the absurdity of the effort expended by the security serivices in keeping track of the details of many people's lives, while the real espionage went totally undetected.

The Trial

The central part of the book is the 1954 hearing on the question of whether Oppenheimer should be allowed to keep his Q clearance. Of course this is not a trial in the normal sense, and indeed Bernstein tells of many things which happened which would not have been permitted in a normal court of law. The testimony of Edward Teller was a major part of the evidence against Oppenheimer, and many people see this as Teller gaining favour with the authorities. However, to some extent it seems to be another example of the way that people reinterpret what has happened. Since so much seemed to go on behind the scenes, it is in fact difficult to be sure what Teller was actually saying. Was it that Oppenheimer deserved to lose clearance because he was a negative influence on the weapons development. Or was it that his past (the details of which had been supplied to Teller by the prosecution) was incompatible with Q clearance.

Although some people say that the hearing was devastating for Oppenheimer, I do wonder why this was so. Many people came out of the McCarthy era much worse. All it meant was that he was no longer allowed to work on nuclear weapons - most people wouldn't see this as so bad. He still retained a prestigious position as the director of the Institute for Advanced Study.


The last chapter of the book tells of Oppenheimer's life following the hearing, as director of the institute. Bernstein studied at the institute, and so has first hand knowledge of Oppenheimer at this time. In particular Bernstein attended many talks and conference sessions which were chaired by Oppenheimer. The result sometimes isn't very flattering - Oppenheimer seemed to think it was acceptable to interrupt speakers, often in an insulting way, any one is left with the impression of someone trying to show how smart he is. Here again, the reader doesn't really get a complete picture of Oppenheimer, this seems to be Bernstein's story as well as Oppenheimer's. There's nothing wrong with that of course, its interesting to hear about how a young researcher is influenced by the presence of famous people. (Another book which shows this is 'Some time with Feynman' by Leonard Mlodinow).


If you are interested in the life of Robert Oppenheimer then you will find this book to be a valuable resource, especially for information on the hearing at which he lost his security clearance. This work seems more open ended than similar works - although Bernstein supplies insights into why Oppenheimer behaved in the way he did, there is still the question of what was at the root of this behaviour. The book is well worth reading although if you want a fuller story of Oppenheimer's life you should read other biographies as well. Bernstein is a skilled writer, and although his main focus is on the hearing, he keeps the readers interest, rather than getting bogged down in technicalities - which many writers would tend to do. Although Bernstein was as a physicist, there is very little of the theory of physics. As such the book will appeal to a wide audience - anyone interested in that strange interaction between the US government and the scientific community in the middle of the 20th century.