By Karen Holt, The Historic Examiner
The son of a German Jewish immigrant, Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904 in New York City. His father, Julius Oppenheimer, immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1888 and made a fortune importing textiles. His mother, Ella Friedman, was born in America and studied art in Paris.
The family moved to an apartment on the eleventh floor of 155 Riverside Drive, near West 88th Street in Manhattan. In 1912, this area was known for luxurious mansions and town houses. The art collection owned by the Oppenheimer family included pieces by Pablo Picasso and Édouard Vuillard, in addition to three original paintings by Vincent van Gogh. (Julius Robert Oppenheimer Photo credit: atomicarchive.com)
Robert attended the Ethical Culture School throughout his primary and secondary years. One who found great interest in foreign languages; Oppenheimer learned Greek, Latin and French, in addition to German and English. In later years, he would learn Dutch in six weeks as he prepared to present a technical speech in the Netherlands.
After completing his primary and secondary education, Oppenheimer enrolled in Harvard University a year late, due to having suffered an attack of colitis while on vacation with his family in Europe. In an effort to help Robert recover from his illness, Julius hired Robert’s English teacher, Herbert Smith, to take him to New Mexico. Here Robert fell in love with horseback riding and the American southwest.
Upon entering Harvard, he studied chemistry, emerging three years later as an experimental physicist. Oppenheimer transferred to Cambridge University where he began working with Ernest Rutherford. In Sweden, Oppenheimer met Nils Bohr and completed his PhD at the University of Göttingen in Germany. Oppenheimer was an intense person with a probing nature. After completing the oral exam for his PhD, the professor who tendered the questions stated, “Phew, I’m glad that’s over. He was on the point of questioning me.”
In 1929, Oppenheimer returned to the United Statesand began working at the University of California at Berkley teaching physics. Here he earned the reputation of being both a research physicist and an outstanding teacher.
Oppenheimer met Jean Tatlock, a member of the American Communist Party, in 1936 and began a relationship with her. He later stated on two occasions they came close enough to marriage that they considered themselves engaged. Oppenheimer himself never joined the Communist Party, but embraced a number of its policies.
Oppenheimer’s interest was highly absorbed by the study of physics, thus he remained distracted regarding the real world around him. However, as the rise of fascism began in the 1930s, it captured his attention and he took a strong stand against it. In 1936, he stated: "I woke up to a recognition that politics was a part of life. I became a real left-winger, joined the Teachers Union, had lots of Communist friends... I'm not ashamed of it; I'm more ashamed of the lateness." When his father died in 1937, Oppenheimer inherited $300,000 and donated a portion of the sum to liberal causes.
Research conducted by Lise Meitner, Leo Szilard and Nils Bohr caught the interest of Oppenheimer. He now began to work on a process to separate uranium-235 from standard uranium and determine its critical mass. Algis Valiunas stated, “Oppenheimer’s style of intelligence was perfectly suited to the seminar room: he possessed a mind quick as a striking cobra, capable of penetrating to the essentials of a new discovery while lesser men were fogged in by the details,recognizing straightaway the practical implications of abstruse theorizing, so thoroughly versed in the various relevant fields that concision and exactitude in explanation came naturally as breathing, and graced with a charm that captivated serious persons and drew the best out of them."
Oppenheimer was introduced to Katherine Harrison in 1939, the former wife of Joe Dallet, a leading figure in the American Communist Party. Oppenheimer ended his relationship with Jean and Katherine divorced her third husband. The couple was married in 1940 and had two children, Peter (1941) and Katharine (1943). Katherine’s influence on her husband was strong enough to convince him to change his style of dress, wear his hair in a crew cut, eat three meals a day and stay up all night only on rare occasions.
In 1939, it was learned through Niels Bohr the Germans had split the atom; thus implying they were on the way to possibly developing an atomic weapon. In 1941, news was gathered by the US that the Nazis had made great progress towards creating their own atomic weapon. Though the US was far behind the Nazis at the time in terms of progress, they feared what might happen if the Nazis succeeded in being the first to complete their project.
President Roosevelt established the Manhattan Project and in June of 1942, Oppenheimer was appointed its director by General Leslie R. Groves, head of the Army Engineers. Working with a number of scientists, the likes of James Chadwick, Otto Frisch and Edward Teller, Oppenheimer now threw himself into the project with both feet. The brilliant scientist also proved to be an exceptional administrator; bringing the best and brightest of America’s scientific minds to Los Alamos, New Mexico. His project staff grew from 30 scientists to 5,000 individuals. Here, three years of research culminated in the development of a small atomic device which was exploded on July 16, 1945, after the surrender of Germany. The blast was comparable to 20,000 tons of dynamite. The results proved the concept worked, so work quickly progressed to build a larger scale model. In less than a month, two atomic bombs had been created and were then dropped on August 6, 1945 over Hiroshima ("Little Boy") and Nagasaki ("Fat Boy"). Japan surrendered on August 10, 1945.
After seeing the results from the explosions, Oppenheimer was troubled by what he had done. In much the same way Japanese Admiral Yamamoto felt Japan had awakened a sleeping giant after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Oppenheimer now felt he too was responsible for awakening a giant of sorts. In 1945, Oppenheimer stated his one major regret with the creation of the bomb was it had not been developed in time to put an end to the Nazis in Germany.
He later met with the American Philosophical Society with a different attitude. Oppenheimer told them, “We have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world . . . a thing that by all standards of the world we grew up in is an evil thing. And by so doing . . . we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man.” To Harry Truman, he stated, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”
By the time he was appointed as chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, Oppenheimer was fully aware of the dangers posed by the level of radioactivity emitted by nuclear explosions. In October 1949, he loudly protested the development of a hydrogen bomb, regarding it as a genocidal weapon, with no other purpose than the destruction of populations numbering in the tens or hundreds of millions. This brought him in conflict with Edward Teller, who felt this weapon would help to stem the growth of communism. Oppenheimer joined Enrico Fermi and other physicists in lobbying Congress to stop the development of the H-bomb.
In 1953, Oppenheimer fell victim to McCarthyism and was accused of being closely associated with the communists during the 1930s and 1940s. His relationship with Jean Tatlock and his marriage to Katherine were added to the list of items submitted into evidence. Though Oppenheimer was declared innocent of treason, it was stated he should no longer have access to military secrets. This resulted in him being removed from the Atomic Energy Commission and his security clearance revoked. With the loss of his security clearance, Oppenheimer's influence on science policy ended. An outcry went up from 493 scientists who had worked with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project and registered a protest to the verdict.
In 1954, Oppenheimer began spending several months each year on the islandof St. Johnin the Virgin Islands. He purchased a 2-acre tract of land on Gibney Beach in 1957 and built a Spartan home.
Oppenheimer moved to Colorado in 1959 and taught physics at the Universityof Colorado. He later designed the Exploratorium Science Museum in San Francisco, Californiaand was forgiven of his left-wing past when he was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award by Lyndon B. Johnson.
A chain smoker from early adulthood, Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 1965. He underwent radiation treatment and chemotherapy, both unsuccessfully. On February 15, 1967, he fell into a coma at his home in Princeton, New Jersey. At the age of 62, Julius Robert Oppenheimer died on February 18, 1967.
A portion of Oppenheimer’s legacy was brought to light when he was ejected from his position of political influence in 1954. The event served to symbolize in the minds of many the folly of scientists who harbor the mindset they control how others will use their research. In addition, Oppenheimer’s experiences have also symbolized the dilemmas scientists face involving their moral responsibility in the nuclear world.
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When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.
Julius Robert Oppenheimer