by AndrewMc | 7/26/2009 01:29:00 PM
We are a week past the anniversary of the detonation of the first atomic bomb, and we are approaching the anniversary of the second and third detonations. Aside from Albert Einstein, the person most responsible for the success of the atomic program was J. Robert Oppenheimer. The anniversary of the tests always brings to my mind the snippet from following interview, which he did in 1965:

That's a powerful quote, as is one from a show that runs on the History Channel from time to time in which one person says something to the effect of "We went from having the ability to kill people to having the ability to kill all people."

But there was another side to Oppenheimer--one that many don't recall. It doesn't often make the history texts, but Robert Oppenheimer was the target of Joseph McCarthy's communist with hunts. It should be said that Oppenheimer had been a radical professor and had expressed support for a wide range of reform programs that would later be branded by McCarthyites as "communist." Many of his friends in the 1930s weer members of the Communist Party.

Those issues combined with Oppenheimer's personality. During his time with the Manhattan Project he made many enemies. He also claimed to have been approached by someone who wanted to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. When he gave contradictory versions of the story, his enemies had the opening they needed. In 1954, after a series of hearings, his security clearance was revoked.

Oppenheimer eventually found his way to Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. At the time it was a haven for physicists and mathematicians. Against strenuous opposition, Oppenheimer pushed to include scholars of the humanities. Although he did not secure them permanent spots during his lifetime, the IAS today includes scholars from many disciplines, including the humanities.

Among the lay public, however, Oppenheimer will probably best be recalled for his words in the clip:

"We 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.'"

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Blogger mark on 7/31/2009 12:34 AM:

Allow me to nitpick some minor points.

You probably meant to write "Joseph McCarthy" and not "Eugene McCarthy", the anti-war Senator who chalenged LBJ for the nomination in 1968 ("Clean for Gene!").

Leo Szilard should get at least as much credit as Oppenheimer. It was Szilard who persuaded Einstein to sign his name to the letter that caused FDR to start the Manhattan Project. Szilard also with Fermi started the first uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction.He was also the first person ( after HG Wells) to conceive of an "atomic bomb" and to call for nuclear disarmament before an arms race could even begin.

Oppenheimer's wife was a Communist and he had, as you noted, many friends in the Stalinist CPUSA. Had he not been Oppenheimer, his security clearance probably would have been revoked faster and even today, he'd never pass the background check. What good the revocation did, considering he just oversaw the building of a nuclear weapon, I'm not sure. It was hardly likely Oppenheimer could have had cause to learn something *more* important than what he already knew better than anyone else.


Blogger AndrewMc on 7/31/2009 7:53 AM:

Thanks for the comment--amazing how often you can read something and not see a simple error. -sigh-

As for Oppenheimer's security clearance, it was due to expire the next day, so having it revoked was purely symbolic.