The rehabilitation of the “destroyer of the worlds” Robert Oppenheimer

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“What is wrong with trying to judge Oppenheimer for his betrayals?” Nicknamed “The father of the atomic bomb”, the American physicist Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) was the scientific director of the Manhattan project from which the first atomic bombs produced in the laboratory of Los Alamos, in New Mexico, were produced. On August 6 and 9, 1945, bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They caused the deaths of more than 200,000 people when the war was almost over and Germany had surrendered. Robert Oppenheimer therefore had reason to appear before judges; he himself felt that he had blood on his hands: “I have become death, the destroyer of the worlds.” He said these words after the test which took place, at his request, on July 16, 1945 in the desert of New Mexico. “Trinity” is the name from which he baptized this essay. It’s also the title that the American Louisa Hall gives to her novel, a composite and post-mortem portrait of Robert Oppenheimer. She establishes it from the fictitious testimonies of seven people who would have approached the scientist: a private detective, his secretary at the time when he directed the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton, a journalist, etc.

“Safety hearings”

This discontinuous, kaleidoscopic, chaotic form, similar to the fire released by a bomb, draws an Oppenheimer in progress. The architecture of the novel also echoes the unofficial trial to which Robert Oppenheimer had to submit: in April 1954, his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb, his preference for the transparency of nuclear tests and his former proximity to members of the Communist Party earned him three weeks of“Safety hearings” from the United States Atomic Energy Commission. McCarthy America suspected him of being a spy in the pay of the Soviets. His secret defense privilege was revoked. This episode deeply affected Robert Oppenheimer. By adding testimonies of which it is never specified which authority requires them, if not that of the author, Trinity takes place a kind of appeal trial, which leads to the rehabilitation of Robert Oppenheimer.

Who was he ? The gifted son of a prosperous and cultivated German Jew and American woman. Robert Oppenheimer enjoyed listening to Bach and collecting minerals. At 17, cured of tuberculosis, he left New York to spend his convalescence in New Mexico, in the desert of Jornada del Muerto. This landscape appeals to him. When he returns to develop the bomb, he travels there in an old Jeep and in jeans. He wears the same hat as that of Robert De Niro in Mean Streets and moves forward as “Hanging on a string”. Trinity scattered this biographical information in small doses in each testimony. They mingle with the story of the witness’ own life. For everyone, everyday life is chaos. Some are more interesting than others, but the high quality of the set allows to overcome some weaknesses.

“Frail, and slaughtered”

In 1943, Oppenheimer was hired for the Manhattan project. His surveillance by the FBI begins at the same time. He is the star of the laboratory. One day, he leaves the base to visit his mistress, Jean Tatlock, who lives in San Francisco. Trinity opens with the story of this reckless runaway observed by a private detective. Six months later, Tatlock, psychiatrist and communist, committed suicide.

The last chapter, the best, is the one in which Louisa Hall takes the most distance and height. There she spoke to a journalist who met Oppenheimer in 1966, a few weeks before he died of cancer. It is “Frail and downed”. The woman first shows herself as a joker. Oppenheimer still made the A-bomb and accused his former German student, Bernard Peters, of being a communist sympathizer before the Atomic Commission. Then the reporter softens, she notes the “Melancholy patience” of Oppenheimer and realizes that “He too lived in this same uncertain world, he had always lived there, including when he developed these weapons, thinking he had control of their destinies, not yet knowing that it would not be up to him to decide where and when army would use it […] for what reason and for what purpose. ” She adds : “A story always has holes from which it draws its strength.” Louisa Hall does not aim for the beatification of Oppenheimer, but by departing from the fashion of the Inquisition, she pleads for a presumption of complexity. She behaves like a writer.

Virginie Bloch-Lainé

Louisa Hall Trinity Translated from English (United States)

by Hélène Papot. Gallimard, 336 pp., € 21 (ebook: € 14.99).



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