Psychoanalyzing J. Robert Oppenheimer: Historical Typing
I wonder what spirit J. Robert Oppenheimer possessed when he uttered his famous citation from the Bhagavad Gita:
“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
These words were spoken after history’s first atomic bomb was detonated — during the “Trinity” test near Los Alamos.
Some believe that Oppenheimer’s quote is a revelation of his internal pride — “Look at the achievement I have created!” Some perhaps sense a more sophisticated spirit of sobriety mixed with a dash of megalomania — much like those who decide with difficulty that they will choose who gets to live and who gets to die.
And yet some others sense a deep brokenness and the bubbling of the edges that could later bloom into guilt and remorse — with a desire for internal destruction.
I think the secret to understanding Oppenheimer’s internal workings comes from a sober exploration of what Oppenheimer meant when he said that — and what spirit it was said in.
In some ways, it was perhaps Oppenheimer’s last great historical moment, in the denouement of the release of the deadliest technology man had ever possessed.
But I also believe that Oppenheimer’s softness and sensitivity can be better grasped by looking at the years following the Manhattan Project, his slow descent into guilt, and the trials and traps of severe introspection.
In order to grasp the state of Oppenheimer’s spirit during the Trinity test, we must go deep, and far, into the man’s life and into the dark and illuminated recesses of one of history’s most complicated characters.
On the Source: American Prometheus
American Prometheus is the primary source for the information in this article. Most of the quotes I use from the book I cite with page numbers, for those interested in digging deeper.
The Legacy of Oppenheimer
It’s no secret that Oppenheimer’s legacy has been distilled into his famed nickname: “The father of the atomic bomb.” But such a nickname carries danger.
It is a stark reduction of what Oppenheimer actually achieved. Many forget that his brilliance in physics led to other discoveries — such as being a pioneer in the exploration of black holes.
Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson said this of Oppenheimer: His theoretical prediction of black holes was by far his greatest scientific achievement, fundamental to the modern development of relativistic astrophysics, and yet he never showed the slightest interest in following it up.
He was in fact the first (or one of) to predict the existence of a black hole. It may be hard for us to imagine the prolific nature of that discovery in Oppenheimer’s time.
Oppenheimer was also one of the first to conceptualize dark matter — a groundbreaking revelation at the time (p.87).
It was a peculiar and telling trait of Oppenheimer to be fascinated by a wide variety of topics but to only maintain interest through the theoretical.
Robert Serber, a contemporary physicist, claimed that “Oppenheimer was interested in everything, and one subject after another was introduced and coexisted with all the others. In the afternoon, we might discuss electrodynamics, cosmic rays and nuclear physics.” (p.84).
After the creation of the bomb, Oppenheimer became the director at the Institute for Advanced Study — to bring the sharpest, most cutting-edge minds together for the purpose of invention and creative work.
And yet, even here — among the world’s brightest — “scholars from a wide range of disciplines were constantly amazed at the range of Oppenheimer’s interests.” (p.379)
But this wide range of interests was also a continual hurdle to Oppenheimer’s potential larger frame. This occurred when he didn’t see an idea through to the end.
He left a tremendous amount of credit on the table, and at times cut himself off at the legs by conceiving of an idea but not being the one to actually concretize it into a paper or experiment.
Part of this was that “Robert instantly saw the flaws in any idea almost as soon as he had conceived it” (p.90). It was a way of life to dismiss further discovery due to a hyper fixation of a topic’s flaws. His logical awareness was blistering and sharp.
For his legacy, Oppenheimer is responsible for many more breakthroughs and discoveries than he is casually remembered for.
Certainly overseeing the creation of the atomic bond is a monumental achievement. But, like when a great actor gets pigeonholed and typecast, there lurks the crime of reducing Oppenheimer’s legacy to a singular achievement.
Scraps of Oppenheimer’s Character
We could stop here. A skilled eye could discern that all the information presented above is enough to type Robert Oppenheimer correctly. One could discern both his personality type and provide a quality hypothesis of his Octagram.
In this section, we will gather a few more scraps to narrow our search for his personality type.
One of the more noteworthy character traits of Oppenheimer was his patience.
His student, “Leo Nedelsky said, ‘When you took a question to him, he would spend hours — until midnight perhaps — exploring every angle with you.’” (p.84)
This type of patience — echoed over and over again in American Prometheus — reveals Oppenheimer’s capacity to sit and engage with others over interesting topics. With his students, reviewing papers, or discussing with the top, high-status physicists or politicians in the world, Oppenheimer displayed a divine sort of patience and attention. This is evidence that Robert Oppenheimer is an Introverted Sensing user (Si).
It was another renowned trait of Oppenheimer to say what he thought, when he thought it, exactly how (as) he thought it.
While in undergrad, Oppenheimer was invited to his professor’s, Percy Bridgman’s, house. “Bridgman invited him to his home for tea … the professor showed his student a photograph of a temple built, he said, about 400 B.C. in Segesta, Sicily. Oppenheimer quickly disagreed: ‘I judge from the capitals on the columns that it was built about fifty years earlier.’” (p.34)
This was not an unusual show of intellect for Oppenheimer. Correcting others was done without much self-consciousness — if any.
He also wrote that, “Einstein is completely cuckoo.” (p. 64)
Oppenheimer’s intellect was biting and sharp, and though the untamed expression of his thoughts may have been tamed as he aged, his reliance on his own thinking was a signature trait. This reveals a preference for Introverted Thinking (Ti).
Oppenheimer struggled tremendously throughout college to make friends. The Jewish educational community of his youth was a source of stable socialization for Oppenheimer. But moving to college, and away from the roots of familiarity, he struggled mightily with friends.
It was true that “people thought him complicated simply because he was interested in so many things, and knew so much. But on an emotional level, ‘he wanted to be a simple person, simple in the good sense of the word.’ Robert ‘wanted friends very much,’ Cherniss [a friend of Robert’s] said. And yet, despite his tremendous personal charm, ‘he didn’t quite know how to make friends.’” (p.93)
As Oppenheimer aged, his charm grew, and he often entertained many guests. But for some time, his charm was not enough to compel close friendships.
Oppenheimer was also very conscientious of others’ suffering and struggles. Raised in relative affluence, he was affected when comparing his own life to the misfortunes of others. “‘Somehow one always knew he felt guilty about his gifts, about his inherited wealth, about the distance that separated him from others,’ observed Edith Ernestine, a friend of Tatlock’s and a Party member.” (p.124).
Along with the earlier mentioned eschewment of credit and fame, Oppenheimer’s social struggle mixed with guilt reveal a preference for Extraverted Feeling (Fe).
But Oppenheimer’s most revealing moment of this guilt was spoken after the bombs were dropped in Japan. Oppenheimer visited the White House and spoke to Truman, “I feel I have blood on my hands.”
And this guilt extended to his compassion for the Japanese who fell under the bomb’s terrible power.
“Those poor little people, those poor little people he would mutter … He said it with an air of resignation. And deadly knowledge.” (p.314)
He could not divorce himself from the suffering caused by the technology he had created. Robert Oppenheimer was an Extraverted Feeler.
Conscious and Dutiful
It is extremely important to understand Oppenheimer’s relationship with duty to understand him. This importance, in my opinion, speaks to the foundation of his willingness to participate in the Manhattan Project to begin with.
Oppenheimer was not some blind advocate for war and violence. For his time, he was far to the left politically — associated with the anti-war movements — and based on his beliefs alone about government and international affairs, one would likely be surprised that he was involved with the Manhattan Project at all.
He was not blind to the ugly possibilities — and likelihood — of what consequences the atomic weapon would produce.
“His left wing activities in the 1930s in Berkley, combined with his postwar resistance to the Air Force’s plans for massive strategic bombing with nuclear weapons — plans he called genocide — had angered many powerful Washington insiders, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Lewis Strauss.”
Oppenheimer frequently sought solace in the words of the Hindu Scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. He had a special identification with the character Arjuna.
“Oppenheimer was acutely attuned to the consequences of his actions, but, like Arjuna, he was also driven to do his duty. So duty (and ambition) overrode his doubts…” (p.102).
But what was the motive beneath this duty? Oppenheimer had the capacity to suppress his own desires for the sake of his duty. For the Manhattan Project, though the atomic bomb was eventually used on Japan, the project was not convened for that purpose.
From physicist Emilio Segre, “Like almost everyone at Los Alamos, Segre thought that defeating Hitler was the sole justification for working on the ‘gadget.’” (p.291).
That Nazis were still strongly rising to power at the time the Manhattan Project was initiated. For Oppenheimer, despite his political views differing strongly from many of the politicians, military men, and scientists involved, he was a deep patriot of the American cause. And so he agreed to be a part of the bomb’s creation because he believed it was his duty — his duty to a country he loved.
“Damn it, I happen to love this country.”
But attached to this strong sense of duty (a classic Introverted Sensing — Si — trait) was a sharp and careful awareness of consequences. After the creation of the bomb and a successful test, there was a celebration at Los Alamos for the achievement. But even then, amidst the moments of glory and lightness, Oppenheimer experienced heaviness and foresight. As he left Los Alamos he delivered a harrowing short speech.
On the backs of their accomplishment, he congratulated them and said they should regard it with pride, but that “Today that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.” (p.329)
Oppenheimer knew well a glimpse of the cost that the atomic weapon could reap. He was often alone in his concerns, and sharing those concerns seemed to fall on deaf ears. But like many of Oppenheimer’s psychological type, warnings were often given and not heeded …. until it was far too late.
Robert Oppenheimer was an Si/Ne user.
Piecing the Evidence Together
- Oppenheimer was dutiful and consequently aware. He was an Introverted Sensing (& Extraverted Intuition) user.
- He had a biting intellect — with a supreme logical awareness — and an understanding of social consequence and was very prone to carrying guilt. Oppenheimer was an Introverted Thinking and Extraverted Feeling user.
Based on this alone we know that Oppenheimer was a Crusader type — ENTP, ISFJ, ESFJ, or INTP.
- Oppenheimer was an abstract type. His predisposition to only theory — his frequent escape into possibilities — both reveal a strong preference for abstraction. This leaves us with the two NTPs — the ENTP and INTP.
From a merely functional perspective, seeing the responsible (Parental way) Oppenheimer used his Ne pushes against an ENTP conclusion. Both NTPs can be “biting” in their Ti, but it is the INTP who uses their Ne as a warning first, and a search for prosperity second.
The evidence also strongly leans towards Oppenheimer’s introversion. Certainly, he cultivated impressive social skills and carried a legendary “charm” to him. But hours and hours spent alone, thinking, exploring, reading, and learning point again to the INTP conclusion.
But there is an even stronger reason that compels the INTP diagnosis, which we will get to shortly.
Robert Oppenheimer was an INTP.
Oppenheimer’s Cognitive Origin
Discovery. The Cognitive Origin of Discovery (ESFJ + INTP) is written all over Oppenheimer’s life. The desire for exploration, the cutting edge, pioneering, and a constant sense of the novel, was an ever-present drive in Oppenheimer’s life.
Take the quote used at the beginning of the article and consider it again — this time with the final sentence added.
“ ‘Oppenheimer was interested in everything,’ Serber recalled, ‘and one subject after another was introduced and coexisted with all the others. In an afternoon, we might discuss electrodynamics, cosmic rays and nuclear physics.’ By focusing on the unsolved problems in physics, Oppenheimer gave his students a restless sense of standing on the edge of the unknown.” (p.84).
By focusing on the unsolved problems in physics, Oppenheimer gave his students a restless sense of standing on the edge of the unknown.
This is the Cognitive Origin of Discovery.
And his student Leo Nedeskly said of him, “When you took a question, he would spend hours — until midnight perhaps — exploring every angle with you.” (p.84)
But perhaps his most impressive example of Discovery occurred while he was directing the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. He was never a hands-on experimentalist. Oppenheimer’s wheelhouse was always theoretical.
His college professor wrote a letter to a graduate program, saying the following: “His type of mind is analytical, rather than physical, and he is not at home in the manipulations of the laboratory.” (p.39)
“One Berkley scientist remarked, ‘He couldn’t run a hamburger stand.’” (p.186). The wonders of Se Trickster.
But Oppenheimer’s contribution at Los Alamos was sourced much deeper than his intellect and insight. It was a wave that he carried with him.
“‘Vicki’ Weisskopf marveled at how often Oppie seemed to be physically present at each new breakthrough in the project. ‘He was present in the laboratory or in the seminar room when a new effect was measured when a new idea was conceived. … his main influence came from his continuous and intense precedence, which produced a sense of direct participation in all of us.’” (p.277)
“His main influence came from his continuous and intense precedence, which produced a sense of direct participation in all of us.”
If you have listened to the EYF Masterclass, you know that INTPs are producers of Discovery. They help facilitate the Discovery of others. This “direct participation” was Oppenheimer’s natural state of energy that others could feel and be affected by — even though they likely did not understand it.
As an INTP, J. Robert Oppenheimer possessed the Cognitive Origin of Discovery
The dutifulness of Oppenheimer should give us the clue we need to reveal the first part of his Octagram. Servility — the aspirational pole of the ESFJ/INTP Dyad — is an abundance of giving service, loyalty, and care to others. And it is through serving others that these types can obtain discovery. Servility is similar to hitching a ride with another and going wherever the driver wants.
Oppenheimer’s servility reveals an SD — Subconscious Development — Octagram.
There is a tricky part here. Why? For one, I have made the statement before that most INTP inventors (and creators, explorative scientists, writers, etc.) are UD — using their Hedonism pole to lead with their curiosity into invention. And while I maintain this is still true — think Elon Musk and Carl Jung for UD INTPs — Oppenheimer seems to be an exception.
For example, his tacit ability to dig into problems until the idea had been refined and explored — but no real physical leg work had been done — could be attributed to the starter energy of the ESFJ Subconscious. If he was UD, ENTJ developed, much higher importance would be placed on reaching an outcome — and obtaining credit for what was discovered.
But the bigger reason that we believed Oppenheimer is SD lies in the next part of his Octagram. Oppenheimer’s childhood was full and rich and, at times, even a bit luxurious. He was coddled by his mother, with extreme care given to his personal needs and providing the opportunity he would need for growth. His father, Julius Oppenheimer, was a reasonably affluent businessman. Robert’s needs were taken care of.
“As a family friend later observed, ‘Robert was doted on by his parents … He had everything he wanted; you might say he was brought up in luxury.’ But, despite this, none of his childhood friends thought him spoiled. ‘He was extremely generous with money and material things,’ recalled Harold Cherniss. ‘He was not a spoiled child in any sense.’” (p. 12)
In a broad analysis, when someone’s environment supports their needs as is, they are extremely likely to end up Subconscious Developed. Robert was supported enough for his Ego and Subconscious to feel supported.
But, this “dream” of childhood — where Oppenheimer lacked for nothing — was not to last forever. In fact, the source of Oppenheimer’s existential crises — experienced throughout his life, especially in college — and his depression, and other things, may be reasonably linked to the shattering effect he experienced leaving his childhood environment.
As Oppenheimer later recalled: “My life as a child did not prepare me for the fact that the world is full of cruel and bitter things.”
This quote is THE quote that reveals Oppenheimer’s Octagram.
The trope of being enabled and that leading to naïveté — which later produces pain and being caught unprepared — is the path of most SD types. But specifically, what Oppenheimer reveals in this quote is a deep relationship with the SD | UF Octagram variant.
But is Oppenheimer really SD | UF? If he Servile and Gluttonous (SD | UF) or Servile and Generative (SD | SF)? There is a complex and a simple answer to this question. What both answers have in common though is this: Yes.
Examining the SD | UF Variant — Servility + Gluttony
Robert’s penchant for consumption was renowned. Not that he was legendary for over-consumption, but rather that Oppenheimer knew his tastes, and was committed to meeting those tastes when he could.
Oppenheimer was a smoker. He smoked constantly.
“A four- or five-pack-a-day habit” was his norm. “‘I think he only picked up a pipe,’ said one of his secretaries, ‘as an interlude from chain-smoking.’” (p.258)
It was perhaps this habit that greatly contributed to his diagnosis of throat cancer and eventual death in 1967.
Alcohol, too, was a lifestyle consumption for Oppenheimer. He was famous for making — and drinking martinis — that were both extremely cold (he would chill the glasses) and very strong.
And in these tastes, especially alcohol, Oppenheimer loved to share with others. Whatever he enjoyed, he liked to provide that to others too.
“Like his father, Robert was instinctively generous, and he never hesitated to share with his students his fine taste in food and wine.” (p.97)
As those who have seen the EYF masterclass know, when INTPs or ESFJs push their tastes on to others, it’s a sign of Gluttony being pushed on others (revealing an Unconscious Focus preference).
And women, and his multiple affairs over the years, were a sign of Oppenheimer’s need to consume — to consume new experiences with lovers (one of whom was significantly older than him) even while he was in other relationships, or even married.
But perhaps his most pressing need to consume was his appetite for intellect. Oppenheimer was a polymath, “interested in everything,” as Robert Serber recalled. And to be interested in everything is to be to consume everything — to discover, explore, articulate, and know.
Examining the SD | SF Variant — Servility + Generativity
I think the most obvious argument for Oppenheimer being SD | SF is his inventiveness and productivity. Writing papers, writing poetry, and teaching — he was a professor for years — was a regular experience for Oppenheimer.
His willingness to participate, and soon become the director (1943) of the Manhattan Project and later become the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in 1947 point to this Generative Servility.
Oppenheimer went through years of extreme productivity and inventiveness.
The question about which Octagram variant he was is a bit misleading. A person’s mind can move. Their development contains their roots (ENTJ developed or ESFJ developed, for example) but their focus is far more variable. A person can spend some of their life being SF (Subconscious Focused) and other parts of their life being UF (Unconscious Focused). But for most people, one will dominate.
I don’t believe this is the case for Oppenheimer.
From what we know of his childhood, we believe that he was SD | SF for the first several years of his life.
But later, throughout college and into his adulthood, the “rude awakening” (which especially characterizes the SD | UF) was an overwhelming presence in Robert’s life.
But, if we had to pick one, which would it be? There is evidence that much of his life — especially a few years after the Manhattan Project, was spent in decay.
“But after 1950, he never published another scientific paper.” (p.375)
This is not to say Oppenheimer did nothing after 1950. But the evidence shows that what used to excite him no longer could. And it’s likely he fell further into consumption — of various kinds — in order to cope with the pull of his Unconscious.
But, it is during the time of the Manhattan Project itself that a stark insight into Oppenheimer’s psyche was revealed.
To the surprise of many at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer was asked to be the director by General Groves. Groves was one of the only (perhaps the only) people who believed he saw leadership potential in Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer accepted.
Military officials and other scientists were skeptical of his leadership abilities. It is as if they collectively felt, “We answer to this man?” with an almost certain lack of faith. But Oppenheimer restored their faith, and then some.
“He just wasn’t the kind of person that you would think would be an administrator,” Robert Wilson, a young experimental physicist, said.
But these doubts, and the skeptics, were soon changed.
Others were shocked to see, after a few months’ time, Oppenheimer transformed into a vocal, organized, and collaborative leader.
“Wilson was surprised after several months at Los Alamos to see his boss metamorphose into a charismatic and efficient administrator. The once eccentric theoretical physicist, a long haired, left-wing intellectual, was now becoming a first-rate, highly organized leader.” (p.209)
It’s here, at Los Alamos, during the Manhattan project, that Oppenheimer’s ENTJ Shadow (Unconscious) was on full display. He was focused (UF) in his Unconscious during — likely — his entire appointment at Los Alamos.
“ ‘Oppenheimer at Los Alamos,’ Bethe said, ‘was very different from the Oppenheimer I had known. For one thing, the Oppenheimer before the war was somewhat hesitant, diffident. The Oppenheimer at Los Alamos was a decisive executive. … he completely changed to fit the new role.’ ” (p.217)
What more fitting description for the ENTJ shadow than a “decisive executive”? And who is more adaptable at fitting roles than one of the four NP types, with their instinctual mastery of Extraverted Intuition?
It is for this reason, the lasting impact of the Manhattan Project on Oppenheimer’s life, that leads me to conclude that the majority of Robert Oppenheimer’s adult was spent in SD | UF. Especially after 1950, when he never published a scientific paper again, pushing away from Generativity, and into Gluttony. Robert Oppenheimer, the INTP, was primarily SD | UF.
“I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
What was Oppenheimer experiencing when he uttered these fatefully triumphant words?
In Oppenheimer’s famous interview, many years after the Manhattan Project, he recounts the moment when those words were spoken.
I believe that whatever self-adulation or triumph there may have been for Oppenheimer in that moment, it paled in comparison to a sober-minded awareness of what was to come.
Extraverted Intuition Parents (INxPs), especially when well versed in history and with rich personal experience to draw from (Si Child), know — better than any other type — what is to come. Oppenheimer’s quote, then, stands as an opening up to fate and a realization that never before had human beings had such access to the power to destroy the world, and themselves, in the process.
The book title, American Prometheus, fits into Oppenheimer’s legacy on several levels. For one, Oppenheimer’s renowned and legend rivals parts of Prometheus’ own. But like Prometheus, Oppenheimer suffered for giving the power of this “fire” away. He spent many years in the suspicions of the government, tried and even punished for those suspicions.
But where Oppenheimer’s story differs from Prometheus has to be within the two protagonists’ own psyches. I think it would be unwise to go so far as to say Oppenheimer regretted the bomb’s creation. But, he felt the weight of its creation, and the burden of its consequence.
Oppenheimer’s belief that he was responsible for the deaths of so many others — “I feel I have blood on my hands.” — is what separated him from Prometheus. Did Prometheus fight himself over what he had done?
Perhaps Prometheus’s punishment was external, but Oppenheimer’s true punishment was internal. And yet, the world was never the same after J. Robert Oppenheimer catalyzed the discovery of the atomic bomb. We live in the once unexplored territory of a post Oppenheimer world.