By JOHN BARTLIT
Our town eagerly awaits the release of the movie “Oppenheimer” in the U.K. and U.S. July 21. Townsfolk know that Oppenheimer’s genius fit well with the different genius of General Leslie Groves, played by Matt Damon in the film. Many of us wonder which parts of the story the film will tell. Full disclosure: My wife Nancy chaired the committee whose work resulted in the life-size bronze statues of Oppenheimer and Groves engaging in Los Alamos life since 2011. See the two at work and “Oppie” at his April birthday below.
Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the wartime laboratory at Los Alamos where designs of an atomic bomb using new materials were conceived, developed, lab tested, built and field tested. General Leslie R. Groves was the overall director of the nation’s vast secret project to produce the nuclear materials and win the uncertain race to produce an atomic weapon in wartime. A phrase comes to mind that describes the two men—“extreme opposites”.
An obvious difference shows in photos of their statues. One was rail thin; the other was on the pudgy side. Their vaster differences were harder to see. Their few, yet crucial, similarities were the hardest of all to see, so are mostly missed.
Oppenheimer’s father had come to the U.S. from Prussia in 1888 a poor, Jewish teenager who soon found a place in the textile import business. By the time Oppenheimer was born in 1904, the Oppenheimers were a wealthy family thriving in Manhattan, NYC. Groves’s father was a U.S. Army chaplain, which took the family to many homes at army bases far and wide. Yet, each was well raised in an able family.
Oppenheimer was a versatile scholar of wide-ranging subjects, who completed multiple courses towards degrees at Harvard, at Cambridge in England, and at the University of Göttingen in Germany, tending towards theoretical physics. Groves graduated fourth in his class at West Point and chose the Army Corps of Engineers.
Oppenheimer was not athletic, save for a love of horseback riding he acquired in boyhood stays in New Mexico. Groves was the second-string center on the West Point football team. Oppenheimer moved on to teaching physics at Caltech and U. of California at Berkeley. Groves moved on to managing larger and larger army construction projects here and abroad. In August 1941, Groves took charge of construction of the Pentagon.
Events that followed from Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, would join the fates and the extraordinary skill sets of these two standouts. Groves was an obvious choice to lead the widespread secret project. Oppenheimer was far from Groves’s obvious choice to lead the weapons design laboratory. Oppenheimer sorted with the world’s top physicists, but he had no experience in leading large projects, he lacked laboratory skills, and he had allies sympathetic to the Communist Party, including his wife and brother.
But Groves judged Oppenheimer based on the pros and cons. In the 1930s in Germany, Hitler had begun actions to take away teaching posts from all Jewish professors. Then worse. Many fled elsewhere, at a key time. The war would bring some with crucial skills to America’s secret project.
In October 1942, Oppenheimer, Groves, and Groves’s deputy took a long train ride together. The personal insights gained on the long trip convinced Groves that Oppenheimer was the best and only man to run the laboratory.
Groves’s reasons were specific: Oppenheimer showed a rare breadth of knowledge that Groves knew would be vital to an interdisciplinary project involving physics, chemistry, metallurgy, ordnance, and engineering. Oppenheimer was masterful at asking the right questions. Groves also detected in Oppenheimer what many others did not—an “overweening ambition”, which Groves reckoned would supply the drive necessary to push the project to an urgent, successful conclusion.
Against powerful objections, Groves personally waived the security requirements and issued Oppenheimer a clearance on 20 July 1943. Asked years later why Groves chose him, Oppenheimer replied that the general “had a fatal weakness for good men.” Physicist Dr. Isidor Rabi considered the appointment “a real stroke of genius on the part of General Groves, who was not generally considered to be a genius.”
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‘Two men at work’. Courtesy/John Bartlit
Oppie ‘celebrates’ his birthday in April. Courtesy/John Bartlit