(Swans - July 15, 2013) Occasionally, after someone who knows I once worked on underground nuclear testing reads about J. Robert Oppenheimer, I am asked for my assessment of the man. Even though I cannot improve on what I have already written about Oppenheimer (Swans, October 22, 2012), I wrote what follows in response to another of those occasional inquiries.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was very farsighted compared to the people around him, whether at universities in the U.S. or Europe, or in government and the military, and certainly in the general public, and most definitely the authoritarian pea-brains in the FBI and security forces. That is why he was indispensable. In academia, he was able to help others solve difficult problems because he could guide or seduce the intellects and emotions around him, so the individuals in such groups would then be receptive to gaining insights. He would be able to perceive the "right questions" to ask in any discussion, seminar, or meeting, to spark useful thinking on problems that seemed barriers to those assembled.
Oppenheimer was far too sophisticated intellectually to be driven by simple vanity, which unimaginative critics ascribe to him in their failures to understand him. I think his motivation was more like that of the fictional Sherlock Holmes. He was possessed of a penetrating mind that delighted in solving problems and mysteries, and arriving at previously unrecognized realities, so he needed a regular supply of problems in the sense of questions to feed that personal hunger for perceiving, and its social form in the teaching and enlightening of fellow enthusiasts of the subject matter at hand.
Also, Oppenheimer was possessed of a strong social conscience as regards the economic and justice issues current during the Great Depression and the advance of fascism, and as regards the situation of Jews under threat by that fascism. This is not surprising as many great minds of the time were equally committed to socialism (from the New Deal to Communism) and anti-fascism (especially after 1932).
Anyone who truly wants to understand the roots of Oppenheimer's view of life, both his private personal life and his public social-political life, has to read and absorb the Bhagavad Gita. The philosophy in this jewel of Indian literature was Oppenheimer's map for charting his life through a Franz Kafka world of sequential disasters and dystopias: from World War I, the 1920s, the Great Depression, ascendant fascism, World War II, the Korean War, the emergence of the US security state with its attendant Communist witch hunts and the Cold War nuclear arms race, to his children's generation of an unthinking and self-absorbed consumer and welfare society ignoring the reality of the imperialism that sustained it while the economy was booming.
A sympathetic elitist view of Oppenheimer would be that he was a socially committed individual -- naturally attuned to a scholarly and contemplative life but thrust by circumstances into a very public and frenetic role -- trying to serve and save a nominally democratic government and society populated by nincompoops. Naturally, he would have to be a little shifty at times for their own good.
Similarly, Oppenheimer could see a larger picture and deeper truths beyond the conventional morality of the non-contemplative, the unquestioningly conditioned and indoctrinated, so he did not always feel bound by their social conventions and popular hypocrisies. In this regard with others he was always seductive, not oppressive.
All his qualities made Oppenheimer a superior individual in many ways, but conversely they could not combine into making him an apparatchik bull terrier and heavy-weight political mud wrestler capable of resisting the right-wing military-industrial economic build-up and political takeover during the Truman administration (the birth of the permanent war economy, from 1947 through the Korean War). The distribution of American political power is not based on an intellectual meritocracy.
Given who he was, his time in history, and the United States in which he had to live out his life and make his career, it is amazing that Oppenheimer was so influential for so long. Oppenheimer was a man of ideas and conscience. To total up a meaningful score on Oppenheimer's life, one has to count up his intellectual successes, many of which include psychological astuteness in making them intellectual successes of community and in the public interest. Oppenheimer's life will remain enigmatic to those who value simple-minded commercial success scored in dollars, and obvious political success scored in temporal power and fleeting fame.
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)