Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Oppenheimer, Julius Robert (1904–1967)

Title: J. Robert Oppenheimer
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U.S. scientist who helped develop the atomic bomb. Born in New York City on 22 April 1904, Robert Oppenheimer was a gifted and precocious child. Graduating summa cum laude in three years from Harvard University, he did his graduate work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and at Göttingen under Max Born. A brilliant dissertation on quantum theory confirmed a vocation and his status as a leading theoretical physicist. In 1929, he accepted joint appointments in physics at the University of California, Berkeley and at Caltech.

Ambitious and possessing an incredibly quick and agile mind, Oppenheimer attracted a coterie of stellar students at Berkeley. A chain smoker with a penchant for martinis, he stood six feet and weighed 125 pounds. Economic depression and the rise of fascism piqued his interest in the Communist Party, and he later married a former party member. Yet his left-leaning political stance failed to deter Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves from recruiting him to lead a centralized laboratory for the construction of atomic bombs. Groves recognized Oppenheimer's genius for science, his extensive connections and ability to recruit talent, and, most important, his improvisational and organizational skills and his determination to prove his patriotism. Overriding objections from army counterintelligence, Groves appointed Oppenheimer in October 1942 to lead the laboratory.

Oppenheimer assembled his initial team of approximately 30 scientists at Los Alamos in April 1943. Because Oppenheimer encouraged a sense of community and open communication, the team overcame seemingly intractable difficulties to produce a working nuclear device in just over two years. Despite intellectual assertiveness that bordered on arrogance, Oppenheimer proved to be the indispensable man of the manhattan Project. His unqualified success earned him the Presidential Medal of Merit in 1946.

In 1947, Oppenheimer became director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. Initially entranced by the "technically sweet" challenge of building atomic bombs, he later remarked that, with Hiroshima, physicists "have known sin." His opposition to the hydrogen bomb within the febrile climate of McCarthyism led to hearings in 1954 that stripped him of his security clearance. Rehabilitated by 1963, he received the Enrico Fermi Award. Oppenheimer died at Princeton on 18 February 1967.

William J. Astore


Further Reading
Goodchild, Peter. J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds. New York: Fromm International, 1980, 1985.; Major, John. The Oppenheimer Hearing. New York: Stein and Day, 1971, 1983.; Rummel, Jack. Robert Oppenheimer: Dark Prince. New York: Facts on File, 1992.; Schweber, Silvan S. In the Shadow of the Bomb: Bethe, Oppenheimer, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
 

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