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Reflections on the Father of the Atomic Bomb

by Jeremy Bernstein

Oppenheimer’s Lives


“That is what novels are about. There is a dramatic moment and the history of the man, what made him act, what he did, and what sort of a person he was. That is what you are really doing here. You are writing a man’s life.”—I. I. Rabi

On Monday April 12, 1954, J. Robert Oppenheimer appeared in Room 2022 in a two-story building near the Washington monument where the Atomic Energy Commission had its quarters. The room had been transformed into a courtroom, and Oppenheimer was subjected to a hearing in which his fitness to have access to classified information—his security clearance—was to be decided. To many of us who had had no previous notice of the event, this was a shock. Apart from anything else, at Los Alamos Oppenheimer had been responsible for creating much of this information, which had led to creation of the atomic bomb. He was a towering figure who had been entrusted with the greatest secret scientific project in the country’s history. He had been hailed as a hero with his picture on the cover of magazines like Time. He was also the teacher of many of our teachers.

It was some time before the full transcript of the hearing was released. It reads like a great play and in fact has been made into plays. In the end, Oppenheimer lost his clearance. People who had known him from earlier days said that he also lost a good deal of his spirit. The cast of characters at his hearing included some of the most important physicists of the time, such as Edward Teller, who testified against Oppenheimer, and I. I. Rabi, who thought the proceedings were a disgrace and said so.

An unlikely individual who figured prominently in the hearing was a professor at Berkeley, where Oppenheimer taught, named Haakon Chevalier. The two met in 1937 when Oppenheimer was thirty-three and already acknowledged to be one of the best theoretical physicists of his generation. He held joint appointments at Berkeley and Cal Tech and had a comfortable private income from his family. Chevalier, who had actually been born in New Jersey of mixed French and Norwegian parents, was teaching French literature at Berkeley. He had written an important book on Anatole France and had translated André Malraux. Later he would write novels. His description of the Oppenheimer of 1937 is written with a novelist’s eye. In it I recognize the Oppenheimer whom I got to know twenty years later.

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