General Leslie Groves may have been the Manhattan Project’s “indispensable man,” but one could also make a strong case for J. Robert Oppenheimer. Despite having almost no administrative experience, Oppie proved to be an outstanding director of the scientific laboratory at Los Alamos. “Oppenheimer commanded not just the loyalty but the deep respect of everybody who was at Los Alamos, and I cannot think of anyone else who would have succeeded as he did in that sense,” recalled scientist Roy Glauber. Episode four of season two of Manhattan illustrates Oppenheimer’s importance to the Manhattan Project.
In focusing so much attention on a real person, Manhattan has to walk, as Jennifer Ouellette at io9 observes, a “thin line between historical fact and fictional dramatization.” The show does an excellent job in representing some details, but as with many historical dramas, it fictionalizes some events and compresses timelines. (To learn more about Oppenheimer’s life and his relationship with Jean Tatlock, we recommend reading Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus). So how does Manhattan’s portrayal of Oppie in this episode compare to the real Oppie?
This episode is set on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Allied forces are landing in France. With Oppenheimer ostensibly in Washington (but actually visiting Jean in San Francisco), Charlie Isaacs feels overwhelmed. “Oppenheimer keeps the trains running with salesmanship and charm,” Colonel Darrow reminds him, after Charlie exhibits neither of those qualities in dealing with a local judge. “There isn't a physicist on God's earth who could replace him.”
Many of the real Oppenheimer’s colleagues felt similarly. “I was appealed to by his great grasp of everything,” Groves recalled. “I was impressed by his capacity. Immediately. You could not help it.” Groves stayed firm in his conviction that Oppenheimer was the right man to direct the Los Alamos Laboratory.
Oppenheimer could have an almost mesmerizing effect on scientists at Los Alamos. “We were all completely under his spell," physicist Phillip Morrison remembered.
Oppie was particularly effective at getting the project’s scientists to work together. “Everybody had a feeling with Oppenheimer that this was somebody who really cared…Scientists are just as vain as anybody else, and you have all these brilliant scientists, each one of whom is sure he’s smarter than any of the others,” Los Alamos physicist Ben Diven recounted. “But he was very, very good at getting all these people to work together instead of squabbling among each other.”
On Manhattan, Oppenheimer has a crisis of confidence after his visit with Jean, and considers abandoning the project and his wife, Kitty, who is giving birth to their second child (in actuality, Kitty gave birth to their daughter, Toni, in December of 1944). Charlie confronts him and refuses Oppenheimer’s offer to take over the project.
“Without Oppenheimer, his connections, the game's over,” Charlie confides to Abby. How can they persuade Oppenheimer to stay?
Meanwhile, Liza Winter’s visit to Albert Einstein has paid off: after a call from Eleanor Roosevelt (who “handles the lost causes,” Liza says), Frank is finally released from prison. Liza has arranged for them to move back to New Jersey, but to her horror, he insists on returning to Los Alamos. “Have you ever wondered why you're always the only man for the job?” Liza asks. She agrees to take him to the foot of the Hill, but no further. As they approach, Frank changes tack, and asks her to decide between Los Alamos and Princeton.
Back on the Hill, Charlie visits Kitty in the hospital. “You want me to reason with him?” Kitty asks. She tells Charlie that Oppenheimer once tried to kill his physics tutor using a poisoned apple. Historians have debated the truth of this story. If it really occurred, it took place during a difficult period of Oppenheimer’s life, when he was struggling with depression. Bird and Sherwin cite an interview with one of Oppenheimer’s friends, whom Oppie had told about the incident: “'I always assumed it was probably true,’” the friend recalled. "'But I don’t know. He was doing all sorts of crazy things then.’”
Charlie then goes to Colonel Darrow, and suggests the military find a way to get rid of Jean. “I'm just telling you that there's a job to be done. Frank Winter was a problem. We made him disappear."
Meanwhile, Abby, on duty as a telephone operator, calls Jean, pretending to be conducting a survey. When Jean realizes the reason for her increasingly personal questions, Abby poses as Kitty and insults her. “He's about to have another child, and you want to rip him away from his family. He doesn't love you. You're just a rag. You are nothing. And you will never see my husband again.”
Soon, Abby listens in on another call between Oppenheimer and Jean. But this time, it is not Jean who picks up, but the San Francisco Police Department. Jean is dead. The camera lingers over a piece of paper that includes text from her actual suicide note: “I wanted to live and to give and I got paralyzed somehow.”
How closely does this episode reflect reality? As historian and Manhattan consultant Alex Wellerstein told io9, Oppenheimer did consider quitting the project on several occasions, but never did. Manhattan has depicted an Oppenheimer who is chillier than most people remember him, but it has effectively captured the pressures he faced.
Oppenheimer did have a relationship with Jean Tatlock, although Manhattan changes the chronology of their romance. The two first met in 1936, when he was a professor and she was a medical student. Like Oppenheimer, Tatlock was vibrant, extremely intelligent, and loved literature. She also had a history of depression.
While the two broke off their relationship in 1939 (before Oppenheimer married Kitty), he visited her as late as 1943, when Jean was a pediatric psychiatrist at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco. Tatlock had been a member of the Communist Party, although Bird and Sherwin describe her as having “on-again, off-again ardor” for Communism. Oppie’s relationship with Tatlock would be used against him at his infamous security hearing in 1954.
Jean was found dead on January 5, 1944, five months before D-Day. Some have suggested foul play was the cause (as the show may hint at in the scene between Charlie and Colonel Darrow), but Bird and Sherwin conclude her death was most likely a suicide.
Regardless, as Manhattan shows, Tatlock’s death deeply affected Oppenheimer. He liked to recite poetry, and his choice for the name of the site where the atomic bomb would be tested, Trinity, may have come from the John Donne poem that Jean quotes at the beginning of the episode: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.”
The episode ends on a cliffhanger: as Charlie and Abby grapple with the consequences of their actions, Charlie finds an unexpected visitor inside his house.
“I thought you were dead,” Charlie blurts out.
“They lied,” Frank says.
How will the show continue to depict Oppie? Will Frank be welcomed back on the project? Will Liza return to the Hill as well? We will recap the next episode of Manhattan next week!
For more information about the history of the Manhattan Project, check out our online store, which includes “A Guide to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico” and our bestselling anthology, “The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians.”