Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Oppenheimer, Julius Robert (1904–1967)

Title: J. Robert Oppenheimer
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U.S. scientist. Born in New York City on 22 April 1904, Julius Robert Oppenheimer attended the Ethical Culture School of New York and Harvard University, graduating from the latter after three years in 1925 with honors and a degree in chemistry. Turning to physics, he spent a year pursuing graduate work at the Cavendish Laboratory and then switched to the University of Göttingen, Germany, and the new field of theoretical quantum physics, receiving his doctorate in March 1927. He pursued postdoctoral studies for two years in the United States, Holland, and Switzerland before accepting a joint appointment at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the University of California, Berkeley. An inspiring teacher, he quickly attracted a generation of enthusiastic graduate students to Caltech and Berkeley, which became leading international centers of quantum physics. Although Oppenheimer published extensively on spectra, particles, neutron stars, and black holes, his personal scientific contribution was less outstanding, and he was never a serious contender for a Nobel Prize.

In October 1941 Oppenheimer began fast-neutron research for the U.S. government in connection with atomic bomb development. One year later he became director of the central laboratory for bomb design and development at Los Alamos, New Mexico, supervising the Manhattan Project. In this enormously demanding position he displayed new self-discipline, and his skillful intellectual leadership, capacity to absorb and process information, concern for the team of 1,500 working under him, and ability to negotiate the often-difficult relationship between individualistic scientists and governmental demands for conformity became legendary. After the 1945 atomic explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the exhausted Oppenheimer, who told President Harry S. Truman that "I feel we have blood on our hands," hoped that the bomb's destructiveness might eventually force nations to abandon war.

Leaving Los Alamos in late 1945, Oppenheimer became director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton two years later and quickly transformed it into the world's leading center for theoretical physics while simultaneously enhancing its existing reputation in humanist studies. As the most prestigious American advisor to the 1945–1946 Acheson-Lilienthal Committee on Nuclear Power and the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), he advocated international control of atomic energy and lectured extensively, seeking to enhance popular scientific understanding.

In 1953 growing domestic McCarthyist, anticommunist sentiment and resentment by some colleagues—notably Edward Teller—of Oppenheimer's earlier reluctance to develop a thermonuclear bomb led the American government to withdraw his security clearance. This was done on the grounds that his wartime evasiveness over potential security problems and prewar left-wing and communist associates, including his brother, a former fiancée, and his wife, had permanently compromised his status. A full-scale inquiry held in 1954 at Oppenheimer's insistence confirmed this verdict. Later evidence revealed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) blatantly infringed Oppenheimer's civil rights by tapping his telephone and providing transcripts of his legal consultations to the inquiry's members. In 1994 retired Soviet spy General Pavel A. Sudoplatov claimed in his memoirs that Oppenheimer had passed atomic secrets to Soviet agents, but major errors in his account led most in the scientific community to doubt this. Although excluded from governmental counsels, Oppenheimer retained his academic position at Princeton until June 1966, publishing several books on science for the educated general reader. He died in Princeton, New Jersey, on 18 February 1967.

Priscilla Roberts


Further Reading
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Herken, Gregg. Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. New York: Henry Holt, 2002.; Kunetka, James W. Oppenheimer: The Years of Risk. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1982.; Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.; Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.; Schweber, S. S. In the Shadow of the Bomb: Bethe, Oppenheimer, and the Moral Responsibility of a Scientist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.; York, Herbert F. The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb. New York: Freeman, 1975.
 

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