- Reviewed by
The saying goes that one should never loan money to or write about one's friends, and Jeremy Bernstein has done the latter—which is both the strength and the weakness of this engagingly written little book. Bernstein knew and admired J. Robert Oppenheimer when both of them were at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Studies in the late 1950s and Oppenheimer was the Institute's director. Bernstein had earlier intended to write a profile of the late physicist for The New Yorker, where he was a staff writer until 1993, but he decided to wait—perhaps because he was still too close to his subject. As such, Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma is essentially an homage and a belated defense of "Oppie" against all enemies, real and imagined. This reviewer is evidently included in that list, for reasons that will be noted later.
In one sense, Bernstein was the perfect choice to write a book about Oppenheimer insofar as both men were theoretical physicists and teachers: Oppenheimer at the University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology and Bernstein at Harvard University and the Stevens Institute of Technology. Not surprisingly, Bernstein's account of Oppenheimer's contribution to physics is the real strength of the book. In prose that is always accessible and sometime almost lyrical, Bernstein explains how Oppenheimer's pioneering work in stellar evolution might well have led to a much earlier discovery of black holes—had not the nuclear bomb and the Second World War gotten in the way. Bernstein's description of how a hydrogen bomb actually works is likewise the first time that I—an informed layperson, but not a scientist—have read an explanation of the bomb's inner workings that is both understandable and technically right. (Note to al Qaeda: this explanation will do you no good.)
Bernstein's book, however, is much less solid when it leaves science behind and gets into politics and history. His approach to historical research seems to consist of asking his famous friends—who were also Oppenheimer's friends—what they remember. The obvious limitations of this approach are fully evident in Oppenheimer.
For example, Bernstein's description of the so-called Chevalier incident, an admittedly complex episode in Oppenheimer's life that would later have fateful consequences, is factually wrong. Declassified documents show that Oppenheimer actually gave three different and conflicting versions of what happened in the kitchen of his Berkeley home one evening in late 1942 or early 1943. Bernstein mentions only the two versions that Oppenheimer acknowledged at his 1954 security hearing, thereby [End Page 98] omitting a point that was key to the outcome of the hearing; namely, that the prosecution could count on Oppenheimer's willingness to sacrifice himself to protect his brother.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that Bernstein's account and my own recent book, Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2002) part company on the subject of Oppenheimer at this point, which is evidently why Bernstein has included me on the Oppenheimer enemies list. Specifically, Bernstein and I disagree about whether Oppenheimer was a member of the Communist Party (or, at least, about how to define what it meant to be a "Communist") and about whether Oppenheimer had an affair with Ruth Tolman, the wife of a colleague at Caltech. On the first question, Bernstein does not mention the recently discovered unpublished memoir by a former Berkeley history professor, Gordon Griffiths, who confirms that Oppenheimer and his friend Haakon Chevalier belonged to a closed unit of the Communist Party's professional section in the Bay Area from 1938 to 1942. In fairness, Bernstein may not have had access to this document prior to his book's publication. On the second question, although Bernstein is gracious enough to thank me for providing copies of the letters between Oppenheimer and Ruth Tolman that he quotes in the book, his reason for denying that an...