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The Chess Master & the Checkers Players

by Michael Shermer, Jan 26 2009

The following is a review of The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a film by David Grubin, airing on PBS January 26, 2009 for the American Experience series, in association with the BBC.

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election between John Kerry and George W. Bush, I appeared as a guest on comedian and social commentator Dennis Miller’s television talk show on CNBC, during which he made the following comparison: John Kerry is like a wickedly smart chess player, capable of looking ahead many moves, anticipating what his opponent might do and carefully weighing all his options before arriving at a rational decision. By contrast, George W. Bush is more like a checkers player, moving by instinct and glancing around the board for an easy way to king his men. In this world of good and evil, Miller explained, simple black-and-white thinking based on unwavering principles of absolute right and wrong trumps the drawn-out consideration of the nuanced thinker. In other words, with evil empires and malevolent terrorists on the loose, Miller would prefer a checkers player over a chess master.

I was thinking about this comparison of cognitive styles while previewing the documentary film The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, produced by David Grubin and airing Monday on PBS. The film includes archival footage and photographs with voice-over commentary, along with a reenactment of the government’s security hearing concerning Oppenheimer’s alleged security breaches, in which actor David Strathairn plays Oppenheimer so effectively that docu and drama blend seamlessly into each other. 

Oppenheimer was a chess grand master in a game of checkers. He was looking to checkmate the other guy’s king by trapping his queen, maneuvering around his bishops and sidestepping his knights, while his opponent was merely planning to jump his pieces and have himself kinged. For most of his political and military (and to a lesser extent scientific) colleagues, building the atomic bomb and dropping it on the enemy was a moral no-brainer. Oppenheimer was tormented by the bomb’s moral complexities, particularly its postwar expansion into an arms race. It’s not that the other leaders of the Manhattan Project had not carefully thought through their decisions; it is that once they made their decisions they moved forward without compunction. What ultimately brought down Oppenheimer was that the government prosecutors in the 1954 hearings trapped him in what they considered to be blatant lies that were, for Oppenheimer, difficult moral choices that caused him to change his positions on people (whom he associated with before or during the Manhattan Project  —  an ex-lover and a Communist sympathizer) and decisions (to share or not to share atomic secrets after the war). 

Grubin’s film relies heavily on Tufts University historian Martin Sherwin’s on-camera commentary that is based on his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography (co-authored with Kai Bird) American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005), along with his important earlier book, A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies (Vintage, 1987). Also appearing on camera with added gravitas is Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1986) a remarkably gripping narrative that reads like a novel. Rhodes quotes Oppenheimer’s physics colleague Emilio Segrè, who characterized Oppenheimer as “the fastest thinker I’ve ever met with an iron memory … brilliance and solid merits,” but with some “grave defects,” including “occasional arrogance … [that] stung scientific colleagues where they were most sensitive.” Physicist Hans Bethe, who was no fool, once noted that “Robert could make people feel they were fools.” The military director of the Manhattan Project, Leslie R. Groves, said of his scientist charge: “He’s a genius, a real genius. While [Ernst] Lawrence is very bright he’s not a genius, just a good hard worker. Why, Oppenheimer knows about everything. He can talk to you about anything you bring up.” One division leader at Los Alamos said this of Oppie:

He understood immediately when he heard anything, and fitted it into the general scheme of things and drew the right conclusions. There was just nobody else in that laboratory who came even close to him. There was human warmth as well. Everybody certainly had the impression that Oppenheimer cared what each particular person was doing.

And yet, after the “gadget” was successfully tested in the New Mexico desert, Oppenheimer’s moral qualms kicked in, as he recalled (in the now famous on-camera interview included in the film):

We waited until the blast had passed, walked out of the shelter and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him he takes on his multiarmed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

Oppenheimer truly was an American Prometheus: “When it went off … we thought of Alfred Nobel, and his hope, his vain hope, that dynamite would put an end to wars. We thought of the legend of Prometheus, of that deep sense of guilt in man’s new powers, that reflects his recognition of evil, and his long knowledge of it.”

After the bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, Groves called Oppenheimer to congratulate him. In this conversation you can hear the difference in their game strategies:

Groves: I think one of the wisest things I ever did was when I selected [you] the director of Los Alamos.
Oppenheimer: Well, I have my doubts, General Groves.
Groves: Well, you know I’ve never concurred with those doubts at any time.

Indeed, Rhodes quotes one observer’s summary of Groves as:

… the biggest sonovabitch I’ve ever met in my life, but also one of the most capable individuals. He had an ego second to none, he had tireless energy — he was a big man, a heavy man but he never seemed to tire. He had absolute confidence in his decisions and he was absolutely ruthless in how he approached a problem to get it done. But that was the beauty of working for him — that he never had to worry about the decision being made or what it meant. 

In like manner, Groves’s scientific counterpart in this checkers diplomacy was Edward Teller, the “father of the H bomb” (what he called “the super”), whose morality was sharply focused on the long-term consequences of dropping the bomb without compunction:

I do not feel that there is any chance to outlaw any one weapon. If we have a slim chance of survival, it lies in the possibility to get rid of wars. The more decisive the weapon is the more surely it will be used in any real conflicts and no agreements will help. Our only hope is in getting the facts of our results before the people. This might help to convince everybody that the next war would be fatal. For this purpose actual combat-use might even be the best thing.

Teller’s pre-Hiroshima argument eventually transmogrified into the strategy of mutual assured destruction, in which peace is preserved through the threat of thermonuclear extinction. 

As the Cold War boundaries solidified around the globe, and the moral distinctions between good and evil crystallized in the 1950s, Oppenheimer’s chess diplomacy landed him in trouble with the security agencies in search of Communist witches, and his testimony in the hearing cost him his security clearance, and with that his place on the world stage as a player. Chain-smoking his way through the lecture circuit and a stint as director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., Oppenheimer penned a final statement on his vision of a postnuclear world based on an open society (reprinted in Atom and Void: Essays on Science and Community, published posthumously by Princeton University Press in 1989), clearly at odds with the political climate of his time:

The open society, the unrestricted access to knowledge, the unplanned and uninhibited association of men for its furtherance — these are what may make a vast, complex, ever-growing, ever-changing, ever more specialized and expert technological world nevertheless a world of human community.

Oppenheimer was an out-of-place visionary who saw in the unity of science a model for all humanity: “The history of science is rich in example of the fruitfulness of bringing two sets of techniques, two sets of ideas, developed in separate contexts for the pursuit of new truth, into touch with one another.” Why can’t politics be like science, Oppenheimer naively wondered? “Finally, I think we believe that whenever we see an opportunity, we have the duty to work for the growth of the international community of knowledge and understanding … with our colleagues in other lands, with our colleagues in competing, antagonistic, possibly hostile lands, with our colleagues and with others with whom we have any community of interest, any community of professional, of human, or of political concern.” 

Borrowing the concept of “complementarity” from his friend and colleague Niels Bohr — in which two models may be needed to explain a system (physical or political) such that apparently competing ideas may actually complement one another — Oppenheimer reflected on a future without war:

We think of this as our contribution to the making of a world which is varied and cherishes variety, which is free and cherishes freedom, and which is freely changing to adapt to the inevitable needs of change in the twentieth century and all centuries to come, but a world which, with all its variety, freedom, and change, is without nation states armed for war and above all, a world without war.

Q.E.D. by J.R.O.

21 Responses to “The Chess Master & the Checkers Players”

  1. Mastriani says:

    Now that is an article, thank you Dr. Shermer. What else could you possibly want; science, politics, militarism, morality and all the convolutions possible of humans so involved. My brain’s all tingley, I think I’m high on endorphins.

    Oppenheimer was a classical intellect, more at Socratic. I think intellect is, for individual’s of his caliber, a toss up between absolute horror and consummate beauty. His moral sense is interesting. I’ve never read anything about his youth and upbringing, although considering the era, a standard Christian one seems appropriate.

    At the last though there are two things that are relevant, and strangely, both very Machiavellian:

    1. “There are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which apprehends what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, and the third is useless.” Oppenheimer, was obviously of the first order in cognitive ability. Some are in the second class, and most egregiously, the majority are in the third.

    2. “Of humanity we may generally say, they are hypocritical, fickle and greedy of gain.” Although I can understand the desire for a “world without war”, Oppenheimer obviously committed an error of logic. Expecting a personal moral set to be accepted socially and politically, simply has no evidential founding.

    To be human is to lack and constantly strive for want of need, which is the cause of war. Our ability to see the broader perspective, is rarely found, and morality seems to highly selective in utility. Even then, it is always all too temporary. Whether anyone likes it or not, war will remain, as long as humans remain. Perhaps our epitaph will read “If not for war, humanity was not.”

    Again, thank you Dr. Shermer, that was more than well worth the read, well done.

  2. oldebabe says:

    So of course I’m going to watch PBS tonight. Thanks for your review.

  3. Stephen says:

    This is not specific to this post, but how about links at the top that allow going directly to the next blog post. I have to return to my feed consolidator and then select the next post. Richard Wiseman’s blog, for example, has links between postings.

  4. Max says:

    Do chess players really have a different cognitive style than draughts players?

  5. Max says:

    “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”
    -Alfred Nobel

    “I’m proud of my invention, but I’m sad that it is used by terrorists. I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work – for example a lawnmower.”
    -Mikhail Kalashnikov

  6. Stu Shiffman says:

    Thank you for a fascinating review of a fascinating program. Since my wife and I had just seen “Defiance” on the Bielski partisans and “Milk” she was not really up for another gut-wrenching exposition of non-fiction drama, but we were riveted.

    Now she says that she wants the next film or program we see to have lots of fluffy bunnies, no explosions or difficult ethical questions.

  7. Mastriani says:

    I really don’t care if I get banned for this comment:

    The fact that Dr. Shermer’s obvious efforts and success in putting forth an informative piece that receives little to no commentary, is a sign that the noisey herds are mindless and more interested in sensationalist bullshit than actual information.

    Abjectly, lugubriously, insipidly, pathetic.

  8. warmer says:

    I suggest Oppenheimer was trying to “spin” the reactions of the workers at the Trinity test site. Richard Feynman in one of his autobiographical books said that nearly everybody was ecstatic that the test succeeded, with only one of his colleagues (not Oppenheimer) being morose, saying to Feynman something like, “It was a terrible thing that we did.” Maybe the rest, like Oppenheimer, quickly sobered up, but at the time they were happy.

    Sorry I don’t have the book available for direct quoting.

  9. I am NOT a mindless, shallow, herd creature! OK, I am, I am.


    (To be honest I haven’t read it. I thought it was yet another Shermer economics spiel, in which I’ve little interest. Now I’ll read it.)

  10. What an awkward existence Oppy must have had. On the one hand he was well read, and by accounts very humanitarian. On the other, he helped produce the most devastating weapon know to date. Not surprising that he needed to invoke the additional hands of Vishnu to contemplate the consequences for surely the two aspects can not balance. If he considered karma, even as a personal way to balance his impact on others, there is no amount of activity – no amount of breathless diligence – that would set back the scales he’d tipped.

    And how ironic that so many intellectuals who are perhaps capable of great humanitarian ideals don’t see the obvious: Humanity is no more adept at calculus and theoretical physics than it is at altruism and peaceful co-existence.

  11. Clancy Newman says:

    What a disappointment. The program was on Jan 26, I received the announcement on Jan 28.

  12. In this forum of skeptics, who attempt to govern their views by reason, I’d expect more commentary on the morality of nuclear weapons.

    My two cents. Nuclear weapons have no inherent moral properties. Their invention was inevitable at the time Oppenheimer was involved, so the U.S. seems morally justified in developing them ahead of its enemies, the Nazis. Using the weapon against the Japanese is projected to have saved approximately 1 million U.S. soldiers lives, so that seems to have a solid moral basis. Remember, the Japanese leadership knew they were facing inevitable defeat and had the option to surrender in light of this knowledge. The fact that they didn’t surrender after the first bombing tells volumes about the moral failings of Japans leadership at the time. One could further argue that the development of a superior nuclear arsenal by the U.S. led to a long period of relative peace in the world compared to the one hundred years that led up to the nuclear age.

    Oppenheimer seems to have had idealistic, pacifistic views of the world which don’t comport with the current organization of the world. Ethicists can quite easily make a moral case for war, and having the appropriate weapons to defend oneself or to eliminate an enemy in a just war seems to again be a valid moral choice. Those who can’t countenance this line of reasoning simply do not understand the geo-political realities of the world we live in. Whether this willful ignorance of the realties we face is in itself moral I’ll leave to you all to consider.

    • Wrong says:

      I’d disagree that using the Nuclear weapon against the Japanese is morally justifiable. It’s a war crime. It was an attack on two Japanese cities populated by civilians, in an attempt at mass murder forcing the Japanese to surrender: It was an act of what we would today define as Terrorism. And the moral judgement should not be made on the basis that you helped your own nation, but that you didn’t hurt others. Slaughtering civilians is wrong. It would be more moral to send in the soldiers. Sure you would lose many, and kill more, but with the intention of killing those who want to fight, and not indiscriminately commiting mass murder. That would be an evil act.

      Often pragmatic and simple solutions are morally bad. There is no justification for slaughtering civilians. Justifying your own weapons buildups by accusing others of doing the same results in never ending escalation, eventually crippling the USSR and Eastern Europe, and causing war in Afghanistan. It also caused poverty throughout Eastern Europe. Sure, you do need to be able to defend yourself, but that should never descend into Facism, and accumulating weaponry for the sake of weaponry will never end well. Einstein put it best: “I know not with what weapons World War 3 will be fought: But World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones.”.

      Pacifism is good. I would argue that anyone against pacifism is wrong, morally bankrupt, and needs to reconsider morality. War, and killing, are bad, and wrong. Every good soldier should be fighting for peace, not war. I can’t think of any Ethical way to justify starting a war, unless you can decide that the evil that you want to attack them for commiting is bigger than the one you will commit in fighting them (Unless of course, they attack you). I’d say that advocating war would make you Evil by my moral code. Sure, sometimes war is necessary. Fighting the Nazis, necessary, fighting the Germans in World War 1 may also have been necessary. But in the modern world, is there any Nation that America need fear? No. Who did they attack? Backwards arabic societies in the middle east. Come on, that’s not ethically justifiable. If you can justify dropping bombs on innocents, then you’re wrong. It’s that simple.

  13. Max says:

    Freeman Dyson changed his mind about this.

    “I changed my mind about an important historical question: did the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bring World War Two to an end? Until this year I used to say, perhaps. Now, because of new facts, I say no. This question is important, because the myth of the nuclear bombs bringing the war to an end is widely believed.”

    The theory is that Japan surrendered because the Soviets invaded Manchuria.

    • Wrong says:

      Thankyou for this. As someone who has always considered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a war crime, this is very interesting.

  14. Jim Brock says:

    We seem not to bring to bear all of the information that we have regarding Oppenheimer. Didn’t post-thaw investigation reveal that he was a Soviet spy?

  15. LJM says:

    Didn’t post-thaw investigation reveal that he was a Soviet spy?

    I’m not aware of any evidence to support this.

  16. Jim Brock says:

    See this:

    His close association with active communists, and a post-cold war revelation (a code name for a spy that was in all probability a reference to Oppenheimer?) lead me to believe that he was leaking information to the soviets. Dr. Shermer’s love affair with Oppies brainpower may have caused him to overlook serious problems with the man’s patriotism.

  17. Jerry Hesch says:

    Very enjoyable review, wish I had caught the PBS special. There are of course several books on Oppenheimer, though I cannot compare having only read 109 East Palace by Jennet Conant. It is a brilliant work. and if you ever visit 109 East Palace in Santa Fe, you will be in proximity of several fabulous New Mexican resturants. I know nothing else.

  18. Jack Davis says:

    Glenn, I would be a litle skeptical of the claim that a million lives were saved by the atom bombs. Where is the evidence for that? I would suggest everyone here read Freeman Dyson’s essay in What Have You Changed Your Mind About? He points out that the Emperor’s message to his troops calling for surrender references not the atomic bombs, but the Russian troop presence.

  19. Andrew says:

    “All evil is unspectacular and always human/
    it shares your bed and eats at your table.”
    -W.H. Auden