Acknowledged as a founding father of the American school of theoretical physics and often referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-67) served as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory and head of its secret weapons project, successfully directing the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb.
Although World War II ended through his efforts when nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 – which arguably saved many millions of lives – Oppenheimer became an object of official suspicion during the Red Scare era and was ultimately stripped of his security clearance.
He was nominated three times for a Nobel Prize but never won, likely because of the controversy involving his communist sympathies and perhaps also due to his arrogance and an acerbic personality that often alienated colleagues and students.
Oppenheimer’s father, a wealthy German textile importer, and his mother, an artist, were secular Jews who spurned Judaism to fully embrace assimilationism. Robert was raised with no ties to anything Jewish, as his parents disdained even occasional synagogue attendance, let alone having a bar mitzvah for their son.
They identified with Ethical Culture, a secular humanist movement based upon rationalism and social justice, and Robert was educated at the private Ethical Culture School. As one commentator cogently described it, the philosophical essence of Ethical Culture was to “leave your Jewish identity.” As such, it is hardly surprising that Oppenheimer had no known involvement with Judaism or with distinctly Jewish causes or interests, and his biographers virtually all agree that he was ambivalent, at best, about his Jewish heritage.
In Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, author Ray Monk argues that the source of Oppenheimer’s many personal problems and conflicts was his denial of his Jewishness, which led directly to significant identity issues. His colleague and close friend at Los Alamos, Isidor Rabi (himself a Jew), observed that it would have been better for Oppenheimer “if he had studied the Talmud rather than Sanskrit…. It would have given him a better sense of himself.”
Many nuclear weapons opponents note the irony and incongruity of an Ethical Culture disciple becoming “a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud.” Oppenheimer was, in fact, deeply troubled by the death and destruction wrought by “his” bombs, starting as early as the first successful “Trinity” atomic test in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, when he ruefully quoted a line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: “I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
His anti-nuclear sensibilities hardened when America dropped the second bomb (on Nagasaki), which he believed lacked military necessity. He traveled to Washington to hand-deliver a letter to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson demanding a nuclear weapons ban and, during a meeting with Truman, he told the president that he felt he had “blood on my hands.” An infuriated president called him a “cry-baby scientist” and told Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson that he never wanted to see Oppenheimer again.
Oppenheimer never regretted building the bomb or recommending that it be used against Japan – in fact, he openly lamented that the weapon had not been developed in time to drop on Nazi Germany – but he feared the future ramifications of the weapon’s killing power, including the possibility of world destruction. Throughout his life, he struggled for internal absolution, but he could never reconcile his inner moral conflict between having saved countless lives and jeopardizing the future lives of countless others.
During the course of the hearings that ultimately led to the revocation of his security clearance, he testified that when he became aware of the treatment of European Jews, he “had a continuing, smoldering fury about the treatment of Jews in Germany,” adding, “I had relatives there and was later to help in extricating them and bringing them to this country.” (Other Oppenheimer family members were murdered during the Holocaust.)
For two years beginning in 1934, he set aside three percent of his salary to support German physicists escaping Nazi Germany. Yet, there do not appear to be any public statements he made in support of the Jewish victims of the Shoah.
Moreover, there is evidence that Oppenheimer was uncomfortable with his Judaism and sought to quash it. As one example, he was very self-conscious about his father’s garment business, which he saw as a traditional “Jewish trade.”
The fact that his father was a respected businessman, that the business was very successful, that his father had the smarts to sell the business before the 1929 stock crash, and that he inherited a fortune upon his father’s death did not seem to lessen his embarrassment about his father being in the Jewish textile business.
As a second example, when Oppenheimer’s Ethical Culture School teacher, Herbert Smith, took his class on a summer trip through the American Southwest (1922), Oppenheimer asked him if he could pose as his younger brother and use the name “Smith.” The teacher, who believed that Oppenheimer’s request was due to his discomfort about his Judaism, refused to go along, and some of his classmates, who knew Oppenheimer well, speculated that he went to New Mexico specifically as a respite and escape from his Jewishness.
In another example, Oppenheimer asked his department head at Berkeley, Raymond Birge, to hire his colleague, Robert Serber, for a position there. When Birge rejected Serber, saying, “One Jew in the department is enough,” Oppenheimer went about his business, notwithstanding his high admiration for his friend and colleague and his abilities as a scientist. (Oppenheimer later appointed Serber to work on the Manhattan Project, where he made important contributions.)
Despite his ambivalence toward Judaism, and though he never expressed any interest in political Zionism – which was an anathema to Ethical Culturists – Oppenheimer was a strong Israel supporter who played an important role in the development of the Jewish state’s nuclear capability. He met with Weizmann as early as 1947 to discuss Israel’s nuclear capacity, and he (along with Edward Teller) later met with Ben-Gurion in 1952 to advise him regarding the best way to develop Israel’s plutonium reserves.
His greatest contribution to Israel’s nuclear program, however, was a later 1958 meeting with Ben-Gurion, who greatly admired him and reported to his Cabinet that he “had the impression that some sort of Jewish spark lit up the man.” Oppenheimer informed Ben-Gurion that he was deeply apprehensive about the threat to Israel presented by Egyptian-Russian relations, and he urged him to do everything possible to ensure that Israel quickly developed an atomic power station.
As a direct result of Oppenheimer’s pleading, Ben-Gurion became obsessed with the nuclear threat against Israel and he quickly prepared a 10-year plan for the development of Israel’s nuclear program.
Oppenheimer, an honorary fellow of the Weizmann Institute of Science who also served as a member of its board of governors, accepted an invitation to speak at the April 1958 inauguration ceremony of the Nuclear Physics Institute at Weizmann. In his address, he and Ben-Gurion emphasized essentially the same idea: that science can be a source of salvation for civilization only if it adopts timeless values of human morality.
Exhibited here is an original April 4, 1958 photograph of Oppenheimer speaking at the ceremony. Pursuant to the notes on the verso (not exhibited here), the occasion marked “his first time leaving the USA since heavy attacks on him by the McCarthy Commission on Un-American Activities for allegedly having been a member of a communist organization.” The notes also state that he would “return to Israel for a lecture tour of six months in 1960.”
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After graduating Harvard University (1925), Oppenheimer conducted research at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, which had an international reputation for its pioneering studies on atomic structure. He later accepted the invitation of Max Born, a leading pioneer of quantum mechanics, to join him at Göttingen University despite a recommendation by his tutor which included an observation that “Oppenheimer is a Jew, but entirely without the usual qualifications of his race.”
At Göttingen, Oppenheimer received his doctorate in theoretical physics (1927) and wrote a renowned paper with Born on molecular structure. Upon his return to the United States to teach physics at Berkeley and Cal Tech, he devoted his efforts to the exploration and development of the new quantum theory and to the application of quantum mechanics to problems involving the nucleus of the atom.
After Hitler’s invasion of Poland and Einstein’s warning about the threat to all humanity were the Nazis to develop a nuclear bomb (1939), Oppenheimer was put in charge of the Manhattan Project and ordered to establish and administer a laboratory to develop an American atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer led the construction of the labs at Los Alamos, enlisted some of the world’s greatest physicists to work on the project, and managed a staff of over 6,000. He was almost universally respected for his mastery of all the myriad scientific disciplines involved in the project, for his superb administrative skills, and for his success in the difficult task of coordinating the efforts of the scientists and the military. Even his detractors generally agree that, absent his determined and inspired leadership, the project could never have succeeded.
Oppenheimer was later appointed Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (1947-52), the civilian agency authorized to exercise control of nuclear research and atomic weapons, in which capacity he advised regarding project funding, lab construction, and international policy. He became a strong voice for policies designed to check the nuclear arms race and, as AEC Chair, he was the author of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, which advocated for the international control of atomic energy.
When the American atomic energy program shifted focus to the development of a hydrogen bomb, he fervently, albeit unsuccessfully, opposed its development along with all thermonuclear weapons. Some, including Edward Teller, alleged that Oppenheimer’s position was directed by his “communist masters.”
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Oppenheimer succeeded Einstein as head of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (1947-66), where he played an important role in promoting quantum physics research. Exhibited here is a very rare Oppenheimer autograph, a check dated April 19, 1955 (one day after Einstein’s death) and endorsed “J. Robert Oppenheimer to the Institute for Advanced Study.” The $25 check was a gift in Einstein’s memory from Howard W. Davis (1885-1959), a member of the California State Assembly for two years who also served on the Los Angeles City Council for 16 years.
Even to date, debate continues regarding Oppenheimer’s involvement with the Communist Party. Although there is no definitive evidence that he was an actual member of the party, it is undisputed that he was an ardent left-wing sympathizer who had relationships with several party members. In any event, great controversy ensued when he received an unfavorable military security report at the height of the McCarthy era (1953). Refusing President Eisenhower’s request that he resign, he insisted upon a hearing.
In the course of a three-week hearing beginning April 12, 1954, eminent scientists, military leaders, and government officials testified on his behalf (though Edward Teller testified against him, thereby earning great enmity from the scientific community). Although the tribunal ultimately determined that Oppenheimer had not betrayed his country, it nonetheless found inconsistencies in his testimony and, concerned about his erratic behavior while testifying, it decided that he was unreliable and not to be trusted with national atomic secrets.
Although his security clearance was revoked, Oppenheimer was viewed by the broader American scientific community as a “martyr to McCarthyism” who had been unjustly attacked by “warmongering enemies,” and he remained popular and highly influential, as he continued to conduct physics research and to lecture and write.
The case aroused great controversy and considerable support for Oppenheimer, particularly in the scientific community, and he became the worldwide symbol of the scientist who, while trying to resolve the moral issues that arise out of scientific discovery, becomes the victim of a witch-hunt.
He dedicated the last years of his life to studying the relationship between science and society.
President Kennedy, as a means to compensate for the wrongs in the Oppenheimer case, awarded him the Enrico Fermi Award. Shortly after JFK’s assassination, President Johnson presented the award to Oppenheimer “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 years.”
Nonetheless, his security clearance was never restored.