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You have no idea how repugnant this is—to go over my life. It is impossible to be completely candid. It’s an art and it takes technique, and you have to learn it. If you’ve lived a life that isn’t free and open with people, it’s almost impossible to unsnarl it, to unravel the ball of twine.

So said Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to an interviewer in 1948. Last week Oppenheimer’s life—not merely the pros & cons of the security risk charges against him, but the whole development of his mind and character—became a matter of interest, more than ever before, to those who shared with him an uneasy habitation of the planet.

His contemporaries were already keenly aware of him as a genius of physics, the leader in the making of the Abomb. Less sharply, they understood that he was a leader in another sense, that he had become a symbol of a new mood among physicists (and many other scientists), a mood that alternated between their old self-confidence and profound new doubts. The Oppenheimer who symbolized this mood had become a power in the highest policy councils of the nation, partly because of the national dependence on him and the men for whom he stood, partly by the force of his personality. His genius, perhaps, was not confined to physics. It was more or less publicly known that the star of his influence on policy had been in decline for several years, that he had been on the losing side of several muffled controversies that might decide the destiny of the republic. Then last week came the news that he had been suspended from Government posts, because of doubts cast upon him as a security risk (TIME, April 19).

With that shocking news came an extraordinary document: Oppenheimer’s answer to the Atomic Energy Commission’s letter suspending him. He wrote a 43-page autobiographical sketch, because “the items of so-called ‘derogatory information’ set forth in your letter cannot be fairly understood except in the context of my life and work.” Oppenheimer’s letter shone with literary brilliance; the strength of his personality leaped out from the page. It was especially moving to men and women in the same age bracket as Oppenheimer (he is 50). Many men ten years older or ten years younger did not fully understand him. His letter was an account of a strange period of history, the decades 1920-50—not so much of their strange events but of even stranger states of mind. His story was an extreme example of what had happened in that period to a large body of the world’s intellectuals.

Yet, as Oppenheimer would be the first to admit, no man’s account of himself need or should be taken as the last word.

Drawing heavily upon his letter to the AEC, upon other things he has said and written, upon information from his friends and enemies, upon his record and the record of his time, here is an account of Robert Oppenheimer.

“I was born in New York in 1904,” Oppenheimer wrote to the AEC. “My father had come to this country at the age of 17 from Germany. He was a successful businessman and quite active in community affairs … I attended the Ethical Culture School and Harvard College, which I entered in 1922.” . A classmate recalls that, as a third-or fourth-grader, Robert made one of his infrequent trips to the playground. A child threw a ball out of the lot, and the school director admonished the youngsters, telling them they might have injured a passerby. Robert immediately calculated the probable force with which the ball had struck the sidewalk, demonstrating that its velocity could not have hurt anyone. In high school, he learned calculus. He became interested in Greek, and within three months could read Sophocles without a dictionary.

When he was five, his grandfather had aroused in Robert an interest in minerals. He had a sailboat which he named Trimethy—after trimethylene bichloride, a compound for which he had apparently developed an attachment.

Of his social life at the Ethical Culture School, he once said: “It is characteristic that I don’t remember any of my classmates. I was a somewhat repugnant brat.” Despite the intense intellectual activity of his precollege days, Harvard affected him as an opening of gates to an intellectual paradise. Later, he called his Harvard experience “the most exciting time I’ve ever had in my life. It was like the Goths coming into Rome.” Said he:”I really had a chance to learn. I loved it. I almost came alive. I took more courses than I was supposed to, lived in the stacks, just raided the place intellectually.”

Why did Oppenheimer, who had devoured so much more learning than the typical American Gothic freshman, consider himself, of all people, a Goth? Why did this young man, apparently quivering with life, bless Harvard for bringing him “almost alive”? Did learning somehow cut him off from life instead of doing its normal job of bringing him closer to it? If so, that was not because Oppenheimer concentrated on technical studies. He decided that physics was his first interest, but he did not enter into that austere and noble priesthood, as some did, without exposure to the world of ideas that lay beyond and around it. At Harvard, the youth who had already met Sophocles, and was later to be, bewildered and surprised by the evil in the world, discovered Dante and pored over French literature.

The future leader of men, whose high-school classmates had made no impression on him, made little impression on his college classmates. The class yearbook has a one-line entry on Oppenheimer: “In college three years as undergraduate.”

Robert Oppenheimer continued his studies in the U.S. and abroad. When he returned from Europe in 1929, already recognized as a physicist of great promise, he accepted concurrent appointments at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and the University of California in Berkeley. He knew he did not want to live in New York City, holding it to be not typically American. He loved the West, its distances and its solitudes. He loved to ride horseback in the desert.

At this point, the Gothic strain in him was still strong, but his was obviously not the ignorance of the unlettered and the hard-used. His was the ignorance of channeled, unconnected learning and the false confidence of the overprotected. This peculiar character of the self-made Goth was also in the world around him. Later, Oppenheimer summed it up: “When I got out of school and went ahead, I felt very sympathetic with the nihilist spirit of these times. My life as a child had not prepared me in any way for the fact that there are bitter and cruel things.” Not even Sophocles. If a boy could calculate the velocity of a ball, the ball couldn’t hurt anyone.


In his letter to the AEC. Oppenheimer tells of his life in California: “My friends both in Pasadena and Berkeley were mostly faculty people, scientists, classicists and artists. I studied and read Sanskrit with Arthur Ryder … I was not interested in and did not read about economics or politics. I was almost wholly divorced from the contemporary scene in this country. I never read a newspaper or current magazine … I had no radio, no telephone … I was interested in man and his experience. I was deeply interested in my science, but I had no understanding of the relations of man to his society . . .”

Oppenheimer stresses the negative aspects of his isolation. Even today, he does not express a sense that something positive —in him or his times or both—blinded his restless mind to what has been obvious for ages to every human clod: that man’s experience necessarily includes “the relations of man to his society.”

Yet at this time Oppenheimer was continuing his avid nonscientific reading. Along with the Sanskrit came Roman Catholic exegetical works and Dostoevsky. Some of Oppenheimer’s friends refer to this as his “ivory-tower period.” Yet the communication facilities to that tower were impressive. Dostoevsky could have told him more of what he needed to know about the world of the 1930s than Oppenheimer was likely to have discovered by becoming a subscriber of the telephone company or buying a radio set. But Dostoevsky did not get through; there was some positive interference on the line. When awareness of public evil came, it burst upon him as a thunderclap.

His letter to the AEC says: “Beginning in late 1936, my interests began to change . . . I had had a continuing smoldering fury about the treatment of Jews in Germany … I saw what the Depression was doing to my students … I began to feel the need to participate more fully in the life of the community. But I had no framework of political conviction or experience to give me perspective in these matters . . .

“The matter which most engaged my sympathies and interests was the war in Spain. This was not a matter of understanding and informed convictions. I had never been in Spain; I knew a little of its literature; I knew nothing of its history or politics or contemporary problems. But like a great many other Americans. I was emotionally committed to the Loyalist cause . . . The end of the war and the defeat of the Loyalists caused me great sorrow.

“It was probably through Spanish relief efforts that I met Dr. Thomas Addis … a distinguished medical scientist who became a friend. Addis asked me … to contribute through him to the Spanish cause. He made it clear that this money, unlike that which went to the relief organizations, would go straight to the fighting effort and that it would go through Communist channels. I did so contribute … I did not then regard the Communists as dangerous, and some of their declared objectives seemed to me desirable.

“In time, these contributions came to an end. I went to a big Spanish relief party the night before Pearl Harbor, and the next day, as we heard the news of the outbreak of war, I decided that I had had about enough of the Spanish cause, and that there were other and more pressing crises in the world . . .

“It was in the summer of 1939 in Pasadena that I first met my wife. She was married to Dr. Harrison, who was … on the California Institute of Technology staff. I learned of her earlier marriage to Joe Dallet and of his death fighting in Spain. He had been a Communist Party official, and for a year or two during their brief marriage my wife was a Communist Party member. When I met her, I found in her … a certain disappointment and contempt that the Communist Party was not in fact what she had once thought it was.

“By the time we moved to Los Alamos in early 1943, both as the result of my changed views and of the great pressure of war work, my participation in left-wing organizations and my association with left-wing circles had ceased, and were never to be re-established.”

The story of Oppenheimer’s prewar Communist associations was known to the Government, in its essentials and most of its details (as now stated by the AEC), when Oppenheimer was appointed to head the Los Alamos atomic laboratory in early 1943. There is no question of pro-Communist sympathy on the part of Lieut. General Leslie Groves, who appointed him and who last week reaffirmed his belief in Oppenheimer’s loyalty.

For an understanding of Oppenheimer and his time, the significant point is not that he sided with the Communist faction of the Spanish Loyalists, but that this was the first political position he ever took.

Throughout most of the Western world in the 1930s, the main body of intellectuals were for Communism as the antithesis of fascism. With the confidence of self-made Goths who had cut themselves off from the politics of civilization, they developed an emotional commitment to a political system that called itself scientific. In Germany, as it happened, thousands of the best-educated men, contemptuous of politics in the early 1920s, committed themselves to fascism. The process was the same. What mattered was not which bad side they chose, but that the self-made Goths were so politically ignorant and so powerful inside the gates of civilization.

Oppenheimer’s awakening in the late 1930s brought him within the gates. He had discovered society. His Los Alamos job was by no means merely one of physical theory. He now reviews it for the AEC: “To recruit staff, I traveled all over the country . . . The notion of disappearing into the New Mexico desert for an indeterminate period and under quasi-military auspices disturbed a good many scientists and the families of many more.” But a “sense of excitement, of devotion and of patriotism in the end prevailed. Most of those with whom I talked came to Los Alamos …” Oppenheimer had not only discovered society; he had discovered leadership, and his own unsuspected powers to exercise it.

When on July 16, 1945, the first mushroom cloud rose above Alamogordo’s sands, Oppenheimer awakened to another reality. Said he: “In some crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

In this sense of sin, some of the physicists wallowed inertly. Not Oppenheimer. The man who had been almost unaware of society and politics in 1936 was by 1945 ready to expiate what he thought was sin by trying to change in a most fundamental manner the politics of the world. Writing in Foundations for World Order in 1947, Oppenheimer looked back to the hopes that he and his followers shared in 1945. He wrote: “It seemed to us in this work that here was a magnificent opportunity to exploit such scientific foundations for world order as do appear to exist … In other words, we could get people working together for an organization which was not responsive, in the first instance, to the national will of the sovereign states. . . We not only wanted to start down the path of genuine internationalization, of which the ultimate goal, I suppose, is world government; we wanted also to minimize things which we were sure would in and of themselves not work; the purely negative, repressive measures toward atomic energy which had been .so much talked about—measures like inspections and prohibition and so on.”

The newest Oppenheimer was no man to stop with a mere statement of political aspirations. He moved into the politics of the atom. He had learned Greek in three months, was it impossible for him to learn as quickly how defense policy should be shaped, how international relations should be conducted, how war could be avoided? Whether he really understood his new interest is an open question. But he certainly learned to read the political book without a dictionary.

In the fight for civilian v. military control of the atom, Oppenheimer became a powerful factor. He took his place as chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the AEC. He was the dominant author of the 1946 Acheson-Lilienthal plan for international atomic control. David Lilienthal said of him:

“He is the only authentic genius I know.” Dean Acheson said that the two greatest minds he had ever met were Lord Keynes and Robert Oppenheimer. Those estimates measure his influence in postwar Washington. His most devoted followers and the source of much of his strength were the scientists still caught up in military work. He was their hope, and they were his. He called scientists in general “a limited but magnificent example of a real international fraternity.”


But even this fraternity was not proof against evil and the suspicion of evil. Last week a curious crack in the fraternity of liberal scientists came to light with the publication of an attack upon Oppenheimer made in 1949 by Dr. Edward U. Condon, then head of the National Bureau of Standards. Condon himself was attacked as a security risk and is revered as a martyr by those who consider all security investigations of scientists as “witch hunts.” On June 7, 1949, Oppenheimer testified at a secret session of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Dr. Bernard Peters, a fellow atomic scientist.

Q. Do you recall making a statement to one of the security officers of the Manhattan Project to the effect that Dr. Peters was a dangerous man and quite Red? A. I made that statement to Dr. De Sylva.

Q. And also that his background was full of incidents that would point toward direct action? A. I would not have remembered it in such detail, but I recognize it.

Q. Will you elaborate? A. Dr. Peters was, I think, a German national. He was a member of the German national Communist Party. He was imprisoned by the Nazis and escaped by a miracle … He arrived in California and violently denounced the Communist Party as being a do-nothing party.

Questions from this testimony appeared soon thereafter in the Rochester Times-Union. It brought an extraordinary reaction from Dr. Condon. From Echo Lake Lodge, Colo., Condon wrote his wife in Washington. He began by saying: “I want you to get Martin and Izzy over to the house and let them read this letter. Tell them I will not pass the data on to any other radio or news person. The story that is developing will be one of the biggest of the year if what I suspect is correct.”

Condon’s news, obviously intended to be got into print: because Oppenheimer had testified against a man he thought had been a Communist. he must be losing his mind. Wrote Condon: “I understand that Oppie has been in a very high state of nervous tension in the last few weeks. People from Princeton say that he seems to be in a great state of strain for fear he himself will be attacked. Of course he knows that he has so much of a record of leftist activities … It appears that he is trying to buy personal immunity from attack by turning informer . . . Some think that Fulton J. Sheen may soon announce another distinguished convert . . .

“If Oppie is really becoming unbalanced, it can have very complicated consequences … If he cracks up, it will certainly be a great tragedy. I only hope he does not drag down too many others with him . . .”*

Four days later, Condon wrote Oppenheimer. Said he, in part: “One is tempted to feel that you are so foolish as to think you can buy immunity for yourself by turning informer. I hope that this is not true. You know very well that once these people decide to go into your own dossier and make it public that it will make the revelations that have been made so far look pretty tame.”

On July 5, 1949, Oppenheimer wrote to the Times-Union. Said he: “From the published article, one might conclude that Dr. Peters had advocated the violent overthrow of the constitutional government of the U.S. He has given an eloquent denial of this in his published statement. I believe his statement …

“I wish to make public my profound regret that anything said in that context should have been so misconstrued and abused that it would damage Dr. Peters and threaten his distinguished future career as a scientist . . .”

Condon’s letter, of course, proved nothing against Oppenheimer’s loyalty or integrity. But it did prove that McCarthy has no monopoly of smearing, and that one liberal scientist could impute the basest motives to another member of the great international fraternity.


Oppenheimer’s first really severe setback as the Statesman of the Atom came in the fight over whether to make the H-bomb. Here is how Oppenheimer tells the story in his letter to the AEC: “No serious controversy arose about the Super [the H-bomb] until the Soviet explosion of the atomic bomb in the autumn of 1949. Shortly after that event, in October 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission called a special session of the General Advisory Committee and asked us to consider and advise on two related questions: “First, whether in view of the Soviet success, the commission’s program was adequate, and, if not, in what way it should be altered or increased; second, whether a ‘crash’ program for the development of the Super should be a part of any new program . . .

“The GAC stated its unanimous opposition to the initiation by the U.S. of a crash program of the kind we had been asked to advise on … I think I am correct in asserting that the unanimous opposition we expressed to the crash program was based on the conviction, to which technical considerations as well as others contributed, that because of our overall situation at that time such a program might weaken rather than strengthen the position of the U.S. … I never urged anyone not to work on the hydrogen-bomb project . . .”

The public record contains not nearly enough information to determine whether Oppenheimer’s version or the charge that he tried to block the H-bomb is true; the H-bomb charge would be disputed before the panel headed by former Army Secretary Gordon Gray, which opened hearings last week on the Oppenheimer case. It is known that Oppenheimer was the strongest man in a group whose opposition to the H-bomb was supported by moral and political (as well as technical) arguments. It is also clear that Oppenheimer, in his role as strategist and statesman, powerfully opposed the doctrine of the Strategic Air Command that the main reliance of the U.S., in preventing a war or in winning a war, was the capability of retaliation against Russia with the most effective atomic weapons that can be built.

This doctrine has long been the keystone of U.S. defense policy. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles have clarified it and built around it a firmer U.S. foreign policy.

That he opposes this policy does not mean that Oppenheimer is disloyal. Indeed, the Vice President of the U.S., Richard Nixon, last week went out of his way to express his belief in Oppenheimer’s loyalty. But Oppenheimer’s kind of politics and his peculiar power arouse violent antagonism.

A sense of moral responsibility concerning war is not limited to atomic scientists. Most generals have that sense and so do most nonscientific civilians at the top layers of Government. They do not feel it as “a sense of sin.” Most of them have borne this sense of responsibility as citizens, soldiers or officials for many years. This fact does not make them more right or more loyal than Oppenheimer. Or less so.

It may be that the real basis of the bitter conflict that culminated in the charges against Oppenheimer were laid before the finger of suspicion was pointed at him. His mood in 1945 was one of deep conviction that he and his colleagues had to change the world, that they had to triumph over men who might, through stupidity and immorality, betray society—which Oppenheimer, at least, had only recently discovered, and which had become precious to him, as his salvation from what he considered the sin of Alamogordo.

It is possible—and for thousands of years men have known this—to develop pride out of a sense of guilt. Many of the military and civilian officials whom Oppenheimer opposed sensed in him an arrogant desire to take into his own hands the destiny of society. Perhaps they were wrong to think this of him. Even if they were right, disloyalty may not be the relevant accusation. However he came to his present ordeal, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life is a bitter parable of a bitter time.

* Dr. Condon concluded his letter: “Let me know by wire if you have not received this letter by Sunday.”

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