The received story of the building of the atomic bomb is a well-known narrative of triumphant scientific advancement. But there is another story about the moral and psychological complexities that confounded the (mostly) Jewish scientists who built the bomb and the heavy price they paid for their exhausting labor in a confused political environment, a story steeped in the mythological and religious symbolism of their Jewish culture. It is the personal story of the men who built the bomb, their passions, the clashes of their immense personalities, their naivete, their sense of power, their arrogance, their ambition and their despair, the messy, chaotic understory of scientific achievement, which was in fact a runaway train of human calamity.
My Girlfriend is a Red
He was at a gathering in Berkeley at the spartan home of a man named Peters. The cigarette smoke was mixed with alcohol and the hot breath of conversation. Peters was a physician who had escaped from Dachau. He had seen things. He chose not to speak of it unless someone was being particularly pigheaded or willfully ignorant or smugly uncaring, and then he spoke in such detail that he commanded the room with the authority of a Greek messenger. “I am come from Thebes with news I dare not speak.” “Speak, man, and you shall not be harmed, I vow.” He spoke of men thrust in cages so small they died of shock in agony, their cries of rage and pain filling the air for days if they were strong. He spoke of bodies broken in tortures so severe the details entered one’s dreams, of public rapes, whippings, hangings, of bodies dropping where they stood. A young woman listening on the floor with her knees clasped in her hands wept quietly. She got up, unsteady, and made her way out onto the porch where she was sick. He brought her a towel, a drink and a pillow with something decorative stitched into it because it seemed like a useful thing to bring. Clumps of grass and weeds thrust themselves through the cracks in the sidewalk. The oak tree rustled in the breeze.
“Are you okay?” he asked as quietly as he could.
“Oh no, please don’t look at me.” She turned away and folded up as he crouched down clumsily.
“I don’t want anyone to see me like this.”
“I shall avert my eyes.”
“You don’t have to do that. I’m not God.”
“I didn’t think you were.”
“But I’m not a little girl.” She turned to him so quickly she must have seen his surprise at the intense beauty of her face. “I don’t go around crying like that. I know what makes the world go round, but he caught me by surprise.”
“He’s seen a lot.”
“Yes, my god. I’m ashamed of myself.”
“Here, take this.” He offered her the towel.
“It’s wet,” she said.
“It’s for your forehead.”
She placed it to her forehead with her palms. “Oh that’s nice.” She glanced at him again. She was maybe not a god but very nearly so.
“And this,” he said, offering her the scotch. “For the taste in your mouth.”
She swilled it and then she spat it out. She swilled it again and then she drank it. “I didn’t know they did those things. The cages, the rapes, the torture.”
She was trembling. He handed her the pillow. She didn’t seem to get it.
“That’s for you to sit on.” She considered the pillow carefully. “No?”
“It’s embroidered,” she said, and he understood it was not for sitting on. She had manners, you know. “You’re what’s-his-name. The physics department. Right?”
“Graduate Physics department.” That was not necessary. Why did he say that?
Sounds of emphatic conversation filled the brief silences, the bluster of a trombone, a shriek of laughter.
“I’m supposed to know your name. Everybody seems to know you.”
“Yes, hi, I’m Robert Oppenheimer.”
“Oh yes, they call you Oppie.”
“I’m Jean. Jean Tatlock. I’m a medical student.”
She offered him her hand from where she sat. Was he supposed to kiss it, to go down on one knee before her? How strange. What an odd unlikely thought. He had no idea what to say next. That was more typical. He felt himself about to withdraw. She must have seen it in his manner.
“Aren’t you going to walk me home?”
He looked down the street into the quiet dark.
“Yes? You want me to walk you home?” He fought to keep a grin from his face. He didn’t want to surrender just yet. But he did want to walk through the streets of Berkeley with her. Who wouldn’t? Perhaps a keener man, one who could see farther down the road.
“I do,” she said.
A bit smug that. A bit, “Come on fellow. Can’t you see who you’re dealing with here?”
“You think I’m quaint? A bit stuffy? I’ll be entertaining?” The night was becoming, warm and windy. You didn’t get this kind of weather in Manhattan. The low stodgy houses were looking at them. They had seen it all before.
“I bet he doesn’t know which end is up with women?”
He was enjoying this exercise in obvious but not too obvious. This was easier than eigenvalues and matrix mechanics, but the results were more far-reaching. He pointed to her forehead. “This end is up but right now it’s down.”
They walked a while in silence. He was aware of her hand. She stopped under a street lamp. A car with a bad muffler limped along the street.
“Yes. Good. I think we can work with you.”
He didn’t get that “we.” “Do you really?” The night was very clear. The stars lit the sky in long ago light. He knew he would succumb.
“We have to crush them, Robert. They do not belong on this earth.”
She was looking him straight in the eye again and it hit him. “You’re a Party member.”
“Of course, I am.”
He leaned against the lamppost and laughed at himself. “Was that a Party meeting?”
“Of course it was. You went to a Party meeting, and you didn’t know it was a Party meeting?“
“Well now, come on. Somebody said they were raising money for Spain.”
“Robert. Put two and two together.”
“Ohhhhh. Right.” She could scold and charm at the same time.
“You don’t approve? You have scruples about the Party?”
He did. Of course he did. Perhaps he had a scruple about her. For some damn reason he said, “In Buddhism, there is a principle of harmlessness, ahimsa in Sanskrit. Do no harm. That is the highest goal.” That was not the right thing to say even though it was exactly the right thing to say. His words drifted up and away he knew not where. The night seemed to wrap itself around them giving them comfort but also protection.
“Ohhhh,” she said. “Is that supposed to be wise and elderly, good counsel from your vantage point of hard-won detachment?” She grinned. She would play with him yet.
“It’s my starting point. As opposed to your dialectical materialism.”
“Maybe that was okay for India two thousand years ago. They didn’t have the Nazi Party wreaking havoc.”
“It’s a very old principle from the Bhagavad Gita.”
“If you have no social conscience you are worse than useless. You have to be incensed and outraged. And if you’re not, you have to learn how.”
Was anybody listening to anybody here?
She stopped in front of what seemed to be her house. She looked at the door. She looked at him. She took out her keys. He felt the clock counting down. Time for the old heave-ho, the old flea-flicker, the old end around. That was the extent of his football lingo.
“If you’re going to hang around with me, you do.”
“Do you see us hanging around together? I’m a fussbudget professor of Physics.”
“But you brought me an embroidered pillow. So you’ve got a good heart. If you’ve got a good heart, the rest comes naturally.”
“So you think you can give me a good social conscience?”
“I can give you a run for your money, Professor.”
“You think I’m worth the trouble?”
“I think you might be interesting.”
“Oh, I can be very interesting.”
“So interest me, Mr. Oppenheimer of the Graduate Physics Department. Join the Party.
“Yes. I do. That is exactly what I mean. Do some harm, Robert. Now. For the greater good. Save your harmlessness for the workers’ paradise.”
“I believe Marx says the workers’ paradise is an ideal that is never actually achieved.”
“I believe harmlessness is too.”
She took his hand gently, and then she firmly shook it as in job well done.
As she closed the door behind her, he was thinking to himself, what if that pillow hadn’t been embroidered?
One night they found themselves on opposite ends of a couch at a party high on a hill in San Francisco, watching each other converse with their neighbors. It was late summer which was never as warm as it should be. They were only half talking about the War in Spain and the despicable corruption of the waterfront racketeers. She watched him smoke the last of his cigarettes. He watched her smoke the last of hers, lit with a flourish by some guy whose name escaped them both. He liked that no one could tell his attention was fixed on her and hers on him. The quick glance, the brief grin, the mouthed syllable. The air was filled with conversation and cigarette smoke, but also the sweeter smoke of pipe tobacco, the tang of a cigar somewhere or other and the scent of ladies’ perfume. Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven was playing on the record player if you could only hear the man. The tall Victorian windows were thrust open to the damp air. Crickets thrummed. Breezes blew in. She stood up and gave him a look. He rose to meet her. Looking up into his eyes, she spoke so intimately he had to read her lips.
“Let’s take the car up the coast.” She had a two-seater and she loved to drive by night.
“Where do you want to go?”
“I just want to go.”
“There’s an old mission in Santa Cruz.”
She hiked up her skirt and stepped over the door to the driver’s seat. Oh god, her knees. They were perfect. They were cruelly perfect. How dare she have such knees. How do you go through life hiding those knees from the world? How did he go through life looking for those knees, knowing they are there beneath such skirts? There was a half-moon setting into the Pacific at midnight as they crossed the Golden Gate. As they neared the mission, a jackrabbit darted out onto Route One. She gasped and swerved to avoid it. Hands shaking, she pulled off the asphalt into the narrow strip of dirt that ran alongside the tall grass. A bobcat stared at them, his eyes all glass in the darkness.
“Oh my god, Oppie. Look at that beautiful thing.”
“He was probably after the jackrabbit.”
They held hands and sat in the silence of the empty road. The bobcat purred hypnotically, its sound so low it was also a growl.
“What were you saying to that woman in the green dress? She did not look pleased,” she said.
“We were talking about the dockworkers' strike. ‘These men,’ she said like they were a personal affront to her, ‘these men sit around doing nothing all day, five of them doing the work of one.’ Like they were personally going to bankrupt the shipping companies. I said, ‘You’re worried about five guys making five dollars an hour? What about the owners who sit around all day mismanaging their companies, doing business in cash so they can avoid paying income tax, taking kickbacks, stiffing customers? Why don’t you point your finger at them?’”
“You sound like a communist, Mr. Oppenheimer.”
“Maybe I am. How does one tell if one is a communist?”
“Well. The telltale sign of a communist is often his girlfriend.”
“Oh, then I am because my girlfriend is a Red.”
“How do you know this?”
“Because she takes me to parties for the Popular Front.”
“Ohhhh. I see. There are other telltale signs of a man with communist sympathies.”
“He has read Das Kapital.”
“Oh no! I have read it cover to cover and I can tell you it is endless. It is as endless as the Russian steppes.”
“Ha! And he has read Lenin.”
“I read the Collected Works on the Twentieth Century Limited. Somewhere near South Bend I nearly heaved it out the window, but I didn’t. I finished it somewhere between Syracuse and Albany as I recall, and then I offered it to the Ethical Culture School on Central Park West, but they already had a copy so I gave it to the Christian Science Reading Room which is just up the block.”
“And he gives money to causes like the Spanish Relief.”
“Who told you I give money to Spanish Relief?”
“You give them a thousand dollars a year.”
“Who told you this?”
“You did. Under duress.”
“I am always under duress when I’m with you. I think it’s your knees.”
“They torture me.”
“Would you like to see my knees?” She tugged on her skirt and rearranged herself in the driver’s seat. “You may touch them if you like.”
“Is this what they taught you at Vassar?”
“Do you know what Dorothy Parker says about Vassar girls? ‘If all the girls at Vassar were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.’” He blushed. “Oh look at you, Oppie. I’ve made you blush.”
“Who is this Dorothy Parker?”
“A well-known communist.” He laughed for the first time all day. “There I’ve made you laugh.”
He pulled a woolen blanket out of the boot and spread it over them. She put his hand on her knee. “Come on, let’s get this over with. They’re not magical. They’re just my knees.” He found he couldn’t look her in the eye. The bobcat went silent. The moon was gone beneath the sea, the stars slowly sinking with it. She took his hand and placed it all the way up between her thighs. “It gets very wet up there. There, now you know everything, lucky boy. Okay, that’s enough of that.” She took his hand away and kissed him.”
“You really are a communist, aren’t you?” he said and she beamed.
“I have no use for the rules and regulations. I have no use for middle-class pretension and propriety. Am I shocking you?”
“Only a little.” But that was a lie. Everything about her was contrived to shock. To amaze. To dumbfound.
She infiltrated a hand into his crotch. “Oh look at you. Hard as a rock.” He pressed her hand tightly then moved it away because that’s what gentlemen do, and he was apparently a gentleman although her hand made a powerful case to the contrary. “See now we are truly alive, Oppie. This is what it means to be alive. The stars, that bobcat, the cold air, sex. Maybe even love.”
“You’ve got me all confused,” he said at some point. He had no idea how long he’d been lost in thought.
“Good, that’s good. Abandon your head. That is not the way out.”
“Out of what?”
“Well, if you have to ask…”
“Oh, I see. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna we are not born and we do not die. So we’re already out.”
“That’s lovely, Oppie.” And then after a moment. “Who is this Krishna?” He laughed again. It struck him she was the only one who could make him laugh so quickly and so smartly. He could laugh with the boys, but this was something deeper than they knew. “I said love, Oppie. Did you hear me?”
“You said, “Maybe even love.”
“So you heard me.”
“And what is your response?”
“My response is somewhere between panic and joy.”
“That covers a lot of territory.”
“I know. I’m being cagey.”
“We sound like one of those movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy.”
“We should write this stuff down. We could make a lot of money in Hollywood.”
“Oppie,” she suddenly spoke fiercely. “There are things I care so passionately about I sometimes cannot keep polite company. Do you understand?”
He could only guess.
“Things I want to do and be and see and become, succeed at, fail at, win, lose!” She leaped out of the car with the blanket as her cape. She stood in the middle of the road and raised her arms to the sky. “I want more!” she shouted and she began to run. “I want more and more and more!” He stood up slowly not sure what he was seeing. He ran after her.
“Jean, Jean! Hang on!”
“You hang on. Hang on to me, Oppie! Hang on for dear life.”
When he caught up with her, he could see some kind of barely contained glee in her wide-open eyes and a touch of something manic in her smile. She bristled with it. The bobcat snarled and hissed from the roadside grass.
“Uh oh, come on, slowly, Jean. Let’s get back to the car.”
“No,” she said, “I want to see him. I want to see his handsome face. Here kitty kitty kitty.”
“Jean, come on, back to the car.”
“Tell me the name of every star you know, Oppie. Do you know them all? Which one is that?”
“You can’t be serious,” he said.
“No, you’re right, I can’t!” She whooped and howled.
She was spinning out of control, he could feel it. She ran towards the sounds of the bobcat. The cat leapt out of the grass into the road. She shrieked. He grabbed her arm to place himself between her and the cat. The bobcat stood in the road glaring at them with his bright eyes. And then it sauntered off across the road.
“Oh, what a magnificent wild thing. I want to be like that. That is my wish.”
He stood there with her on high alert.
“I felt his soul. Did you feel it?”
“I only feel your soul,” he said. “That’s wild enough for me.”
They walked slowly back to the roadster arm in arm. He could feel her winding down.
“So we’re all made of protons and neutrons and electrons, are we?” she said out of nowhere. Everything good about her seemed to come out of nowhere.
“You’re not,” he said. “This is where the theory breaks down.”
“Where does it break down?” A bit coy, that.
“It all breaks down in the vicinity of you. You do not have a neutron in you.”
Oh, she liked the way this was going. “What do I have in me?
“You are made of Atman and Brahman.”
“Is that good?” She knew it was good.
“It is neither good nor bad. It is true.”
“You can be a very frustrating lover, Oppie.”
“Am I not doing it right?”
“You are doing just fine.”
“I thought I was.”
“You drive,” she said. “I’m exhausted. As he pulled carefully onto the road, he saw she was asleep.
A week later she threw a drink at someone, walked out of a meeting of the Spanish War Committee in some grimy little apartment and sat in her car and seethed. She would not speak. She drove him home in silence, dropped him off and sped away. A week later he met her in a café near Berkeley Square. He kissed her cheek and she recoiled but grabbed his sleeve in apology.
“I’m not myself,” she said. “Or maybe this is who I really am. Who knows? I wake up wondering who will I be today.” She could scarcely meet his gaze. Her eyes were lost to him in darkness. They drank coffee in silence. When she spoke, her voice was deadened, her esses hissed.
Finally he said, “Have you seen a doctor?”
“I do not need a diagnosis, Robert. It’s nothing new.” She lifted her eyes to his. It was a warning. “I just need you.”
He saw her every few days in silence somewhere out of the way where they wouldn’t run into anyone. They drove Route One in silences as long as the coastline. Every few days became a week. A week became ten days, two weeks. He wondered how this would end. Then one night she was back at the Peters’ for cocktails. She was glowing. She flashed him a smile that nearly blinded him.
“I’m back,” she said, “you see?”
“Jean,” he said,” and kissed her nonchalantly. “How good to see you.”
“I’m trouble, Oppie. Now you know.”
Now he knew so many things, including the words to the Internationale, the politics of the dockworkers’ strike, the history of the brutal prison system in San Francisco, the plight of the Republican sympathizers in revolutionary Spain.
Like Schrödinger’s cat who was and was not dead, he was and was not a member of the Communist Party. But unlike the celebrated cat in the shoebox, he was hidden in a political box. Like the cat’s biological life, his political life was held in abeyance by a political event that had and had not happened. For the cat, an atom of uranium sits next to the box. If it emits radiation, a Geiger counter detects it, shatters a vial of poison in the box and the cat dies. If the Geiger counter does not detect radiation, the cat lives. But the radiation is only a statistical probability. So the atom emits and does not emit radiation. That cat is dead and not dead. Until someone opens the box and then the cat is alive or dead but no longer both. Similarly, for Robert, he was and was not a member of the Communist Party. While he was in his box, no one knew for sure; it was only a statistical probability. He had joined and not joined the Party. Communism was political poison and it was this heady, brilliant, truthful, hopeful thing that Jean had introduced him to. The die was cast and not cast. Politically he was safely alive and at the same time most violently, publicly and shamefully dead. And like the cat, he had no idea of his peril.
But unlike Schrödinger’s cat, he was most definitely in love.
Start at the beginning and read Chapter One: The End Of The World in Russell Square, published in the November 2022 issue.