Book Review: Social Scientist

Like many of the scientists associated with the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer concluded after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the atomic bomb had made future wars unthinkable and that arms control had to be an ultimate goal, but not one that ordinary scientists were responsible for effecting. In 1965 he rephrased his famous comment, made in a 1947 lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that physicists have known sin. He said that he had meant that scientists have known the sin of pride and of thinking they knew what was good for man: “This is not the natural business of a scientist” (p. 286). In Thorpe’s view, Oppenheimer offered to weep for the world but not to help change it.

Finally, like many other Oppenheimer biographers, Thorpe places the rise and fall of Oppenheimer within the framework of Cold War politics and the new status of science as a vital resource of state violence and power. Following the war, with the exception of his initial resistance to development of the hydrogen bomb within the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the AEC, Oppenheimer largely cooperated with government committees on matters of atomic policy and national security, including anti-Communism investigations. His own affiliations with left-wing and Communist-linked organizations in the 1930s had long placed him under FBI and Army Security surveillance, but Oppenheimer had left all this behind by 1941.

After he had been eased out of some government committees and had resigned from the GAC in 1952, Oppenheimer published an article in July 1953 in Foreign Affairs criticizing the over-reliance of the United States on nuclear weapons and a strategy of mass destruction that could end civilization. Like Bird and Sherwin, Thorpe sees in the Foreign Affairs article a red flag that warned the Eisenhower administration that Oppenheimer, when he no longer served as a political insider in atomic-policy deliberations, might become an external critic to whom the public attributed insider status. This was another reason to distrust him.

In the end the AEC revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954, on the stated grounds of character defects that were allegedly proven in the course of the hearings. For the broader public, in Thorpe’s view, a key lesson in the hearings’ outcome was that scientists’ authority within the American polity should be strictly limited. If Oppenheimer had expressed moral or political qualms about the development of the hydrogen bomb, he should not have done so nor should he have been asked to do so. His alleged moral defects of character only confirmed the general conviction among the public of scientists’ inability and unsuitability to address questions outside their special areas of technical expertise. For Thorpe, then, the tragedy of Oppenheimer was a tragedy both for the American political system and for the American scientific community; scientists were instructed that their role was not to be one of the public intellectual concerned with transcendent moral and political questions. They were but technical experts. The independent cultural authority of science, in Thorpe’s view, was to be sacrificed to the requirements of the science- and technology-based national security state.

Mary Jo Nye is professor emeritus of history at Oregon State University. She is author of Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the 20th Century and is currently writing a book on the life and times of physical chemist Michael Polanyi.