J. Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist, best
known for his role as the scientific director of the Manhattan
Project, the World War II effort to develop the first nuclear
weapons, at the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. Known
colloquially as "the father of the atomic bomb", Oppenheimer
lamented the weapon's killing power after it was used to destroy
the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
the war, he was a chief advisor to the newly created Atomic Energy
Commission and used that position to lobby for international control
of atomic energy and to avert the nuclear arms race with the Soviet
Union. After invoking the ire of many politicians and scientists
with his outspoken political opinions during the Red Scare, he
had his security clearance revoked in a much-publicized and politicized
hearing in 1954.
stripped of his direct political influence, Oppenheimer continued
to lecture, write, and work in physics. A decade later, President
John F. Kennedy awarded him the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture
of rehabilitation. As a scientist, Oppenheimer is remembered most
for being a chief founder of the American school of theoretical
physics while at the University of California, Berkeley.
life and education
Robert Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904
to Julius S. Oppenheimer (a wealthy textile importer who had immigrated
to the United States from Germany in 1888) and Ella Friedman,
a painter. He studied at the Ethical Culture Society School (whose
physics laboratory has since been named for him) where, in addition
to mathematics and science, he was exposed to a variety of subjects
ranging from Greek to French literature, and met with success
at the school's particular form of ethical training, based on
the secular Judaism of its founder, Felix Adler (the Oppenheimers
were of Jewish descent but they did not observe the religious
his life, he remained a versatile scholar, proficient in science
as well as the humanities. He entered Harvard University one year
late due to an attack of colitis. During the interim, he went
with a former English teacher to recuperate in New Mexico, where
he fell in love with horseback riding and the mountains and plateau
of the Southwest. He returned reinvigorated, flourishing with
ten courses at once each term in as vast topics beyond science
as Greek, architecture, classics, art, and literature, and made
up for the delay by graduating summa cum laude in just three years
with a major in chemistry.
When at Harvard, after being admitted to graduate standing in
physics in his first year as an undergraduate on the basis of
independent study, Oppenheimer was introduced to experimental
physics during a course on thermodynamics taught by Percy Bridgman,
and was encouraged to go to Europe for future study, as a world-class
education in the subject could not then be obtained in the United
was accepted for postgraduate work at Ernest Rutherford's famed
Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, working under the eminent but
aging J.J. Thomson. Oppenheimer's clumsiness in the laboratory
made it apparent that his forte was theoretical, not experimental,
physics, so he left in 1926 for the University of Göttingen
to study under Max Born. Göttingen was one of the top centers
for theoretical physics in Europe, and Oppenheimer made a number
of friends who would go on to great success, such as Paul Dirac,
Wolfgang Pauli, and Werner Heisenberg, before he obtained his
Ph.D. at the young age of 22.
the oral exam for his Ph.D., the professor administering it is
reported to have said, "Phew, I'm glad that's over. He was
on the point of questioning me." At Göttingen, Oppenheimer
was known for being a quick study. However, he was also known
for being too enthusiastic in discussions, sometimes to the point
of taking over seminar sessions, a fact that used to irritate
a few of Born's pupils.
Göttingen, Oppenheimer published many important contributions
to the then newly developed quantum theory, most notably a famous
paper on the so-called Born-Oppenheimer approximation, which separates
nuclear motion from electronic motion in the mathematical treatment
of molecules. In September 1927, he returned to Harvard as a young
maven of mathematical physics and a National Research Council
Fellow, having published more than a dozen articles, and in early
1928 he studied at the California Institute of Technology.
he received numerous invitations for teaching positions, and accepted
an assistant professorship in physics at the University of California,
Berkeley. In his words, "it was a desert", yet paradoxically
a fertile place of opportunity. He maintained a joint appointment
with Caltech, where he spent every spring term in order to avoid
isolation from mainstream research. At Caltech, Oppenheimer struck
a close friendship with Linus Pauling and they planned to mount
a joint attack on the nature of the chemical bond, a field in
which Pauling was a pioneer—apparently Oppenheimer would
supply the mathematics and Pauling would interpret the results.
this relationship was nipped in the bud when Pauling began to
suspect that the theorist was becoming too close to his wife,
Ava Helen; once when Pauling was at work, Oppenheimer had come
to their place and blurted out an invitation to Ava Helen to join
him on a tryst in Mexico. She flatly refused and reported this
incident to Pauling. This, and her apparent nonchalance about
the incident, disquieted him, and he immediately cut off his relationship
with the Berkeley professor, leading to a coolness between them
that would last their lives, although Oppenheimer did invite Pauling
to be the head of the Chemistry Division of the atomic bomb project
(Pauling refused, saying that he was a pacifist).
the Autumn of 1928, Oppenheimer visited Paul Ehrenfest's institute
at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, where he impressed
those there by giving lectures in Dutch despite his little experience
with the language. There he was given the nickname of "Opje",
which was later Anglicised by his students as "Oppie".
From Leiden he continued on to Zurich, Switzerland, to work with
Wolfgang Pauli on problems relating to quantum theory and the
continuous spectrum, before heading back to the United States.
Oppenheimer highly respected and liked Pauli, and some of his
own style and his critical approach to problems was said to be
inspired by Pauli. His time with both Ehrenfest and Pauli gave
Oppenheimer a chance to polish his mathematical skills.
Before his Berkeley professorship began, Oppenheimer was diagnosed
with a mild case of tuberculosis, and with his brother Frank,
spent some weeks at a ranch in New Mexico, which he leased and
eventually purchased. (When he heard the ranch was available for
lease, he exclaimed, "Hot dog!"—and since it was
in New Mexico, the Oppenheimer brothers named it "Perro Caliente",
the literal Spanish translation of this exclamation.
Oppenheimer used to say that 'physics and desert country' were
his two great loves, loves that would be improbably combined when
he directed the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos in New Mexico.
He recovered from his tuberculosis and returned to Berkeley, where
he prospered as an advisor and collaborator to a generation of
physicists who admired him for his intellectual virtuosity and
broad interests. Nobel Prize winner Hans Bethe later said about
the most important ingredient Oppenheimer brought to his teaching
was his exquisite taste. He always knew what were the important
problems, as shown by his choice of subjects. He truly lived with
those problems, struggling for a solution, and he communicated
his concern to the group.
also worked closely with (and became good friends with) Nobel
Prize winner experimental physicist Ernest O. Lawrence and his
cyclotron pioneers, helping the experimentalists understand the
new data their machines were producing at the Lawrence's Radiation
became credited with being a founding father of the American school
of theoretical physics, and developed a reputation for his erudition
in physics, his eclecticism, his interest in languages and Eastern
philosophy, and the eloquence and clarity with which he thought.
But he was also troubled throughout his life, and professed to
experiencing periods of depression. "I need physics more
than friends," he once informed his brother. A tall, thin
chain smoker who often neglected to eat during periods of intellectual
discomfort and concentration, Oppenheimer was marked by many of
his friends as having a self-destructive tendency, and during
numerous periods of his life worried his colleagues and associates
with his melancholy and insecurity.
he was studying in Cambridge and had taken a vacation to meet
up with his friend Francis Ferguson in Paris, a disturbing event
had taken place. During a conversation in which Oppenheimer was
narrating his frustration with experimental physics to Ferguson,
he had suddenly leapt up and tried to strangle him. Although Ferguson
easily fended off the attack, the episode had convinced Ferguson
of his friend's deep psychological troubles. Oppenheimer developed
numerous affectations, seemingly in an attempt to convince those
around him—or possibly himself—of his self-worth.
was said to be mesmerizing, hypnotic in private interaction but
often frigid in more public settings. His associates fell into
two camps: one which saw him as an aloof and impressive genius
and an aesthete; another which saw him as a pretentious and insecure
poseur. His students almost always fell into the former category,
adopting "Oppie's" affectations, from his way of walking
to talking and beyond — even trying to replicate his inclination
for reading entire texts in their originally transcribed languages.
did important research in theoretical astrophysics (especially
as it relates to general relativity and nuclear theory), nuclear
physics, spectroscopy, and quantum field theory (including its
extension into quantum electrodynamics). The formalism of relativistic
quantum mechanics also attracted his attention. His best-known
contribution, made as a graduate student, is the Born-Oppenheimer
approximation mentioned above.
also made important contributions to the theory of cosmic ray
showers, and did work which led eventually toward descriptions
of quantum tunneling. His work on the Oppenheimer-Phillips process,
involved in artificial radioactivity under bombardment by deuterons,
has served as an important step in nuclear physics. In the late
1930s, he was the first to write papers suggesting the existence
of what we today call black holes. In these papers, he demonstrated
that there was a size limit (the so called Oppenheimer-Volkoff
limit) to stars beyond which they would not remain stable as neutron
stars, and would undergo gravitational collapse.
the Born-Oppenheimer approximation paper, these papers remain
his most cited ones, and they were key in the rejuvenation of
astrophysical research in the United States in the 1950s, mainly
by John Wheeler. As early as 1930, he also wrote a paper essentially
predicting the existence of the positron (which had been postulated
by Paul Dirac), a formulation that he however did not carry to
its natural outcome, because of his skepticism about the validity
of the Dirac equation.
evidenced above, his work predicts many later finds which include,
further, the neutron, meson, and neutron star. Even beyond the
immense abstruseness of the topics he was expert in, Oppenheimer's
papers were considered difficult to understand. Oppenheimer was
very fond of using elegant, if extremely complex, mathematical
techniques to demonstrate physical principles, though he was sometimes
criticized for making mathematical mistakes, presumably out of
people thought that Oppenheimer's discoveries and research were
not commensurate with his inherent abilities and talents. They
still considered him an outstanding physicist, but they did not
place him at the very top rank of theorists who fundamentally
challenged the frontiers of knowledge. One reason for this could
have been his diverse interests, which kept him from completely
focusing on any individual topic for long enough to bring it to
full fruition. His close confidant and colleague, Nobel Prize
winner Isidor Rabi, later gave his own interpretation:
was overeducated in those fields which lie outside the scientific
tradition, such as his interest in religion, in the Hindu religion
in particular, which resulted in a feeling of mystery of the universe
that surrounded him like a fog. He saw physics clearly, looking
toward what had already been done, but at the border he tended
to feel there was much more of the mysterious and novel than there
actually was...he turned away from the hard, crude methods of
theoretical physics into a mystical realm of broad intuition.
spite of this, some people (such as the Nobel Prize winner physicist
Luis Alvarez) have suggested that if he had lived long enough
to see his predictions substantiated by experiment, Oppenheimer
might have won a Nobel Prize for his work on gravitational collapse,
concerning neutron stars and black holes.
During the 1920s, Oppenheimer kept himself aloof of worldly matters,
and claimed to have not learned of the Stock Market Crash of 1929
until some time after the fact (Oppenheimer himself had little
worry regarding financial matters, as his family inheritance provided
him with ample funding). It was not until he became involved with
Jean Tatlock, the daughter of a Berkeley literature professor,
in 1936, that he showed any interest in politics.
many young intellectuals in the 1930s he became a supporter of
Communist ideas, and having much more money than most professors
(he inherited over $300,000, a massive sum at the time, after
his father's death in 1937) was able to bankroll many left-wing
efforts. The majority of his radical work consisted of hosting
fund-raisers for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War
and other anti-Fascist activity.
never openly joined the Communist Party (his brother Frank, however,
did, against Robert's advice), though the historian Gregg Herken
has recently claimed to have evidence that Oppenheimer did interact
with the Communist Party during the 1930s and early 1940s. In
November 1940, he married Katherine Puening Harrison, a radical
Berkeley student, and by May 1941 they had their first child,
When World War II started, Oppenheimer eagerly became involved
in the efforts to develop an atomic bomb which were already taking
up much of the time and facilities of Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory
at Berkeley. In 1941, Lawrence, Vannevar Bush, Arthur Compton,
and James Conant were trying to wrest the bomb project from the
Uranium Committee established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt
in 1939, because they felt it was proceeding too slowly.
was invited to take over work on fast neutron calculations, a
task which he threw himself into with full vigor, renouncing what
he called his "left-wing wanderings" to abandon himself
to his responsibilities (though many of his friends and students
were still quite radical). When the U.S. Army was given jurisdiction
over the bomb effort, now called the Manhattan Project, project
director General Leslie R. Groves (who had just finished directing
the construction of the Pentagon) appointed, to the surprise of
many, Oppenheimer as its scientific director. Groves knew of Oppenheimer's
potential security problems, but thought that Oppenheimer was
the best man to direct a diverse team of scientists and would
be unaffected by his past political leanings.
One of Oppenheimer's first acts was to host a summer school for
bomb theory at his building in Berkeley. The mix of European physicists
and his own students—a group including Robert Serber, Emil
Konopinski, Felix Bloch, Hans Bethe, and Edward Teller—busied
themselves calculating what needed to be done, and in what order,
to make the bomb. When Teller put forward the remote possibility
that the bomb would generate enough heat to ignite the atmosphere
(an event that was soon shown to be impossible by Bethe), Oppenheimer
nevertheless was concerned enough to meet up with Arthur Compton
in Michigan to discuss the situation.
the time, research for the project was going on at many different
universities and laboratories across the country, presenting a
problem for both security and cohesion. Oppenheimer and Groves
decided that they needed a centralized, secret research laboratory.
Scouting for a site, Oppenheimer was drawn to New Mexico, not
far from his ranch. On a flat mesa near Santa Fe, New Mexico,
the Los Alamos laboratory was hastily built, a rag-tag collection
of barracks and mud. There Oppenheimer coaxed and collected a
group of the most brilliant physicists of his day, which he referred
to as the "luminaries", including Enrico Fermi, Richard
Feynman, Robert R. Wilson, and Victor Weisskopf, as well as Bethe
and Teller. His wife gave birth there to their second child, Katherine
(called Toni), in 1944.
was noted for his mastery of all scientific aspects of the project
and for his efforts to control the inevitable cultural conflicts
between scientists and the military. He was an iconic figure to
his fellow scientists, as much a figurehead of what they were
working towards as a scientific director. Victor Weisskopf put
did not direct from the head office. He was intellectually and
even physically present at each decisive step. He was present
in the laboratory or in the seminar rooms, when a new effect was
measured, when a new idea was conceived. It was not that he contributed
so many ideas or suggestions; he did so sometimes, but his main
influence came from something else. It was his continuous and
intense presence, which produced a sense of direct participation
in all of us; it created that unique atmosphere of enthusiasm
and challenge that pervaded the place throughout its time."
the while, Oppenheimer was under investigation by both the FBI
and the Manhattan Project's internal security arm for his past
left-wing associations. He was also followed by an FBI agent during
an unannounced trip to California in 1943 to meet his former girlfriend,
Jean Tatlock. In August 1943, Oppenheimer told Manhattan Project
security agents that three of his students had been solicited
for nuclear secrets by a friend of his with Communist connections.
When pressed on the issue in later interviews with General Groves
and security agents, he identified the friend as Haakon Chevalier,
a Berkeley professor of French literature.
would be asked for interviews related to the "Chevalier incident",
and he often gave contradictory and equivocating statements, telling
Groves that only one person had actually been approached, and
that that person was his brother Frank. But Groves still thought
Oppenheimer too important to the ultimate Allied goals to oust
him over this suspicious behavior.
The joint work of the scientists at Los Alamos resulted in the
first nuclear explosion near Alamogordo on July 16, 1945, the
site of which Oppenheimer named "Trinity", Oppenheimer
later said this name was from one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets.
According to the historian Gregg Herken, this naming could have
been an allusion to Jean Tatlock (who had introduced him to Donne
when they had dated in the 1930s), who had committed suicide a
few months previously. He later recalled that while witnessing
the explosion he thought of a verse from the Hindu holy book,
the Bhagavad Gita:
the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the
sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one...
Years later he would explain that another verse had also entered
his head at that time:
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 takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now, I am become
Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that
one way or another."
According to his brother, at the time he simply exclaimed, "It
worked." News of the successful test was rushed to President
Harry S. Truman, who would try to use it as leverage at the upcoming
Potsdam Conference on the fate of post-war Europe.
Main article: Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Though the initial impetus for the development of the bomb—a
perceived arms race with Nazi Germany—had been shown unnecessary
(when the German program was discovered to be stillborn by the
Manhattan Project's Alsos investigation), Oppenheimer and his
scientists pressed on.
scientist-administrators were divided on whether and how to use
the now-tested weapon. Lawrence initially favored not using the
weapon on a live target, arguing that a demonstration alone would
be enough to convince the Japanese government of the futility
of continuing the war. Oppenheimer and many of the military advisors
strongly disagreed with this assessment. Oppenheimer feared that
if it were announced where such a demonstration might occur, the
enemy might move American POWs or other human shields into the
other physicists, including Teller and Leo Szilard, using the
weapon on a civilian area would be a moral horror. A petition
was circulated at the labs in Los Alamos and Oak Ridge pleading
that use of the bomb against civilians would be immoral and unnecessary.
Oppenheimer opposed the petition and warned Szilard and Teller
not to impede the project. It is uncertain how much stock the
American government and military put in the opinions of the scientists
on the weapon they had created.
August 6, 1945, the "Little Boy" uranium bomb was dropped
on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, the "Fat
Man" plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The bombs killed
tens of thousands of civilians immediately and many more over
time. The bombs hastened the end of the war, which came after
Japanese surrender on August 15. (Allied military casualties of
the planned invasion of Japan, Operation Downfall, were estimated
to number approximately 268,000 by Admiral William D. Leahy in
a June 18, 1945 briefing to President Truman; Japanese military
and civilian deaths would have potentially numbered in the millions,
based on experience with Japanese civilians on Okinawa.)
people, including many of the scientists involved in the bomb
project, were shocked by the devastation that the bombs produced,
reports of which filtered into the United States over time. The
pride which Oppenheimer had felt after the successful "Trinity"
test was soon replaced by guilt and horror. "In some sort
of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement
can quite extinguish," he later famously said, "the
physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they
cannot lose." Los Alamos was awarded the Army-Navy "Excellence"
Award shortly thereafter, and in his acceptance speech for the
lab, Oppenheimer warned that:
atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of
a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for
war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names
of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people of this world must unite
or they will perish."
He never said that he regretted making the weapon. During his
only visit to postwar Japan in 1960, he was asked by a reporter
whether he felt any guilt on developing the bomb. Oppenheimer
quipped, "It's not that I don't feel bad about it. It's just
that I don't feel worse today than what I felt yesterday."
Overnight, Oppenheimer became a national spokesman for science,
and emblematic of a new type of technocratic power. Nuclear physics
became a powerful force as all governments of the world began
to realize the strategic and political power which came with nuclear
weapons and their horrific implications. Like many scientists
of his generation, he felt that security from atomic bombs would
come only from some form of transnational organization (such as
the newly formed United Nations) which could institute a program
to stifle a nuclear arms race.
After the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was created in 1946,
as a civilian agency in control of nuclear research and weapons
issues, Oppenheimer was immediately appointed as the Chairman
of its General Advisory Committee (GAC) and left the directorship
of Los Alamos. From this position he advised on a number of nuclear-related
issues, including project funding, laboratory construction, and
even international policy—though the GAC's advice was not
Baruch Plan of 1946, which called for the internationalization
of atomic energy, was derived in part from his opinions, though
to his dismay it included many additional provisions which made
it clear that its goal was simply to prevent the USSR from gaining
its own bomb, rather than promoting a lasting international mechanism
for control. The plan was rejected by the USSR to no surprise
of observers, and it became clear to Oppenheimer that an arms
race was unavoidable, due to the mutual distrust of the U.S. and
1947, he left Berkeley, citing difficulties with the administration
during the war, and took up the directorship of the Institute
for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey. He later held Albert
Einstein's old position of senior professor of theoretical physics.
still Chairman of the GAC, Oppenheimer lobbied vigorously for
international arms control and funding for basic science, and
attempted to influence policy away from a heated arms race. When
the government questioned whether to pursue a crash program to
develop an atomic weapon based on nuclear fusion—the hydrogen
bomb—Oppenheimer initially recommended against it, though
he had been in favor of developing such a weapon in the early
days of the Manhattan Project.
was motivated partly by ethical concerns, feeling that such a
weapon could only be used strategically against civilian targets,
resulting in millions of deaths. But he was also motivated by
practical concerns; as at the time there was no workable design
for a hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer felt that resources would be
better spent creating a large force of fission weapons. He was
overridden by President Harry Truman, who announced a crash program
after the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb in 1949.
Oppenheimer and other GAC opponents of the project, especially
James Conant, felt personally shunned and considered retiring
from the committee. They stayed on, though their views on the
hydrogen bomb were well known.
1951, however, Edward Teller and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam
developed what became known as the Teller-Ulam design for a hydrogen
bomb. This new design seemed technically feasible, and Oppenheimer
changed his opinion about developing the weapon. As he later recalled:
program we had in 1949 was a tortured thing that you could well
argue did not make a great deal of technical sense. It was therefore
possible to argue that you did not want it even if you could have
it. The program in 1951 was technically so sweet that you could
not argue about that. The issues became purely the military, the
political, and the humane problems of what you were going to do
about it once you had it.“
critics have accused him of equivocating between 1949—when
he opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb—and 1951,
when he supported it, and some have made this a case for reinforcing
their opinions about his moral inconsistency. Historian Priscilla
McMillan has argued, however, that if Oppenheimer has been accused
of being morally inconsistent, then so should Rabi and Fermi,
who had also opposed the program in 1949.
of the GAC members were against a crash hydrogen bomb development
program then, and in fact, Conant, Fermi and Rabi had submitted
even more strongly worded reports against it than Oppenheimer.
McMillan's argument is that because the hydrogen bomb appeared
to be well within reach in 1951, everybody had to assume that
the Russians could also do it, and that was the main reason why
they changed their stance in favour of developing it. Thus this
change in opinion should not be viewed as a change in morality,
but a change in opinions purely based on technical possibilities.
first true hydrogen bomb, dubbed "Ivy Mike", was tested
in 1952 with a yield of 10.4 megatons—more than 650 times
the strength of the weapons developed by Oppenheimer during World
In his role as a political advisor, Oppenheimer made numerous
enemies. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had been following his
activities since before the war, when he showed Communist sympathies
as a radical professor. They were willing to furnish Oppenheimer's
political enemies with incriminating evidence about Communist
ties. These enemies included Lewis Strauss, an AEC commissioner
who had long harbored resentment against Oppenheimer both for
his activity in opposing the hydrogen bomb and for his humiliation
of Strauss before Congress some years earlier.
and Senator Brien McMahon, author of the 1946 Atomic Energy Act,
pushed President Eisenhower to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance.
This came following controversies about whether some of Oppenheimer's
students, including David Bohm, Joseph Weinberg, and Bernard Peters,
had been Communists at the time they had worked with him at Berkeley.
Oppenheimer's brother, Frank Oppenheimer, was forced to testify
in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where
he admitted that he had been a member of the Communist Party in
the 1930s, but he refused to name other members. Frank was subsequently
fired from his university position, could not find work in physics,
and became instead a cattle rancher in Colorado.
1953, Oppenheimer was accused of being a security risk and President
Dwight D. Eisenhower asked him to resign. Oppenheimer refused
and requested a hearing to assess his loyalty, and in the meantime
his security clearance was suspended. The public hearing which
followed focused on Oppenheimer's past Communist ties and his
association during the Manhattan Project with suspected disloyal
or Communist scientists. One of the key elements in this hearing
was Oppenheimer's earlier testimony about his friend Haakon Chevalier,
something which he himself confessed he had fabricated.
fact, Oppenheimer had never told Chevalier about this, and the
testimony had led to Chevalier losing his job. Edward Teller,
with whom Oppenheimer had disagreed on the hydrogen bomb, testified
against him, leading to outrage by the scientific community and
Teller's virtual expulsion from academic science. Many top scientists,
as well as government and military figures, testified on Oppenheimer's
behalf. Inconsistencies in his testimony and his erratic behavior
on the stand convinced some that he was unreliable and a possible
security risk. Oppenheimer's clearance was revoked.
his hearing, Oppenheimer testified willingly on the left-wing
behavior of many of his scientific colleagues. Cornell University
historian Richard Polenberg has speculated that if Oppenheimer's
clearance had not been stripped (it would have expired in a matter
of days anyhow), he would have been remembered as someone who
had "named names" to save his own reputation. As it
happened, Oppenheimer was seen by most of the scientific community
as a martyr to McCarthyism, an eclectic liberal who was unjustly
attacked by warmongering enemies, symbolic of the shift of scientific
creativity from academia into the military.
for Advanced Study
Deprived of political power, Oppenheimer continued to lecture,
write, and work on physics. He toured Europe and Japan, giving
talks about the history of science, the role of science in society,
and the nature of the universe. In 1963, at the urging of many
of Oppenheimer's political friends who had ascended to power,
President John F. Kennedy awarded Oppenheimer the Enrico Fermi
Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation.
Teller, the winner of the previous year's award, had also recommended
Oppenheimer receive it. A little over a week after Kennedy's assassination,
his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, presented Oppenheimer
with the award, "for contributions to theoretical physics
as a teacher and originator of ideas, and for leadership of the
Los Alamos Laboratory and the atomic energy program during critical
told Johnson: "I think it is just possible, Mr. President,
that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make
this award today. That would seem a good augury for all our futures".
The rehabilitation implied by the award was only symbolic, as
Oppenheimer still lacked a security clearance and could have no
effect on official policy, but the award came with a $50,000 stipend.
his final years, Oppenheimer continued his work at the Institute
for Advanced Study, bringing together intellectuals at the height
of their powers and from a variety of disciplines to solve the
most pertinent questions of the current age. His lectures in America,
Europe, and Canada were published in a number of books. Still,
he thought the effort had minimal effect on actual policy.
After the 1954 Security hearings, Oppenheimer is reported to have
been "like a wounded animal", and he started to retreat
to a simpler life. In 1957, he purchased a piece of land on Gibney
Beach in the island of St John in the Virgin Islands. He built
a spartan vacation home on the beach, where he would spend holidays,
usually months at a time, with his wife Kitty. Oppenheimer also
spent a considerable amount of time sailing with his wife.
their death, the property was inherited by their daughter Toni,
who then left it to "the people of St. John for a public
park and recreation area." Today, the Virgin Islands Government
created a Community Center there, which can be rented out. The
beach is colloquially known to this day as "Oppenheimer Beach".
Oppenheimer died of throat cancer in Princeton, New Jersey, in
1967. His funeral was attended by many of his scientific, political,
and military associates. His ashes were spread over the Virgin
Robert Oppenheimer's life is usually seen to highlight a number
of cultural and historical trends in the transformation of science
from the 1920s through the 1950s.
a scientist, Oppenheimer is remembered by his students and colleagues
as being a brilliant researcher and engaging teacher, the founder
of modern theoretical physics in the United States. Many have
asked why Oppenheimer never won a Nobel Prize. Scholars respond
that his scientific attentions often changed rapidly and he never
worked long enough on any one topic to achieve enough headway
to merit the Nobel Prize.
lack of a Prize would not be odd—most scientists do not
win Nobel Prizes—had not so many of his associates (Einstein,
Fermi, Bethe, Lawrence, Dirac, Rabi, Feynman, etc.) won them.
Some scientists and historians have speculated that his investigations
towards black holes may have warranted the Nobel, had he lived
long enough to see them brought into fruition by later astrophysicists.
an advisor, Oppenheimer delineates a shift in the interactions
between science and the military. During World War II, scientists
became involved in military research to an unprecedented degree
(some research of this sort had occurred during World War I, but
it was far smaller in scope). Because of the threat Fascism posed
to Western civilization, scientists volunteered in great numbers
both for technological and organizational assistance to the Allied
effort, resulting in such powerful tools as radar, the proximity
fuze, and operations research.
a cultured, intellectual, theoretical physicist who became a disciplined
military organizer, Oppenheimer represented the shift away from
the idea that scientists had their "head in the clouds"
and that knowledge on such previously esoteric subjects as the
composition of the atomic nucleus had no "real-world"
applications. He also represented for many the new form of technocrat
who would guide the emergence of what later became known as "Big
Science." When Oppenheimer was ejected from his position
of political influence in 1954, he symbolized for many the folly
of scientists thinking they could control how others would use
their research. Oppenheimer has been seen as symbolizing the dilemmas
involving the moral responsibility of the scientist in the nuclear
popular depictions of Oppenheimer, notably German playwright Heinar
Kipphardt's 1964 play on his trial, portray his security struggles
as a confrontation between right-wing militarists (symbolized
by Edward Teller) and left-wing intellectuals (symbolized by Oppenheimer)
over the moral question of weapons of mass destruction. Many historians
have contested this as an over-simplification: the trial, while
very political, was undertaken as much for personal reasons as
any political agenda, and Oppenheimer's opinion on nuclear weapons
was too inconsistent to brand him as a pacifist.
popular moralizations depict Oppenheimer as against the bomb for
moral reasons, a more complete look shows him opposing it primarily
for technical reasons. Once these were resolved, he supported
the bomb, on the grounds that the Soviet Union too would inevitably
Oppenheimer himself had difficulty with this portrayal—after
reading a transcript of Kipphardt's play soon after it began to
be performed, Oppenheimer told an interviewer:
whole damn thing [his security hearing] was a farce, and these
people are trying to make a tragedy out of it. ... I had never
said that I had regretted participating in a responsible way in
the making of the bomb. I said that perhaps he [Kipphardt] had
forgotten Guernica, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Dachau, Warsaw,
and Tokyo; but I had not, and that if he found it so difficult
to understand, he should write a play about something else.
Oppenheimer's apparently remorseful attitudes, Oppenheimer was
a vocal supporter of using the first atomic weapons on "built-up
areas" in the days before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Rather than consistently opposing the "Red-baiting"
of the late 1940s and early 1950s, he had testified against many
of his former colleagues and students, both before and during
his hearing. In one incident, Oppenheimer's damning testimony
against former student Bernard Peters was selectively leaked to
have interpreted this as an attempt by Oppenheimer to please his
colleagues in the government (and perhaps to avert attention from
his own previous left-wing ties and especially from those of his
brother, who had earlier been a target of the anti-Red lobby).
In the end it became a liability: under cross-examination, it
became clear that if Oppenheimer had really doubted Peters' loyalty,
then his recommending him for the Manhattan Project was reckless,
or at least contradictory.
removal of his security clearance was probably as much related
to his inconsistent testimony, and his open admission of telling
lies to intelligence agents, as to the left-wing views he shared
with many intellectuals and scientists in the wake of the Great
Depression and the rise of Fascism. Nevertheless, the trope of
Oppenheimer as a martyr has proven indelible, and to speak of
Oppenheimer has often been to speak of the limits of science and
politics, however more complicated the actual history.
question of the scientists' responsibility towards humanity, so
manifest in the dropping of the atomic bombs and Oppenheimer's
public questioning, inspired Bertolt Brecht's drama Galileo (from
1955), left its imprint on Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Die Physiker,
and is the basis of the opera Doctor Atomic, which portrays Oppenheimer
as a modern Faustus.