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Black and white photo of several men, some in military uniform, inspecting a pile of ashes
Robert Oppenheimer. at left in hat, and Gen. Leslie Groves, center, at the Trinity Test site, after the first atom bomb explosion. Image courtesy of the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Oppenheimer: The Library’s Collection Chronicles His Life

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Julius Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the Manhattan Project and father of the atomic bomb, is the subject of “Oppenheimer,” due out in theaters tomorrow.

His morally complex, intellectually voracious life has been the subject of an astonishing amount of worldwide scientific, cultural, political and historic interest since 5:29 a.m., July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico, ushering in the nuclear era. The test site was named Trinity and the plutonium device was called Gadget. The scientific director of the project, the American who beat the Germans and the Russians to create the world’s most devastating weapon, was J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Color photo of the world's first atomic explosion, take from a great distance. The fireball, just starting to mushroom, is at the very bottom of the frame. The rest of the sky is a dark red color, likely from exposure adjustments to account for the pre-dawn sky.
The Trinity explosion. Image courtesy of the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Weeks later, the bomb was put to devastating use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So cataclysmic were the bombs that the world was permanently altered by the work Oppenheimer led at what is now known as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

“I think it is true to say that atomic weapons are a peril which affect everyone in the world,” Oppenheimer said in a speech in November 1945, when the atomic age was just a couple of months old.

Black and white photo of a large metal sphere with man electic cables attached
The Gadget, the first atom bomb. Image courtesy of the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Today, the heart of the world’s fascination with Oppenheimer’s life lies in the Manuscript Division of the Library, where his papers are preserved in more than 300 boxes that occupy a line of files that would stretch, if stacked end to end, more than 120 feet. That’s not including more than 70 boxes of research files compiled over 20 years by Martin J. Sherwin for his part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” (Kai Bird shared the Pulitzer as a co-writer.) Those stretch another 27 feet.

It’s a stunningly complete and intellectually dizzying collection.

It’s filled with more than 76,500 items, including handwritten letters, transcripts of illegal FBI wiretaps, brain-busting physics, Nobel Prizes, Red scares, New Deal politics, his own early struggles with his Jewish identity, stormy personal letters and granular detail of lives lived under immense pressure.

Most of all, the files underscore its subject’s staggering intellect. Oppenheimer, a polymath genius, spoke six languages and authored dozens of influential research papers, widely regarded by his peers as a phenom. He was friends with Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and a vast array of world-changing scientists.

He was born in 1904 into a wealthy New York family from the upper East Side and always supported by a trust fund, but seemed uncomfortable with such privileges. He often gave friends extravagant gifts, picked up the tab on group nights out and dressed plainly.

He blew through his studies at Harvard University and the University of Cambridge in the U.K. before obtaining his PH.D. at the University of Göttingen, in Germany. He was a professor in physics at two different California universities by the time he was 25.

He was charismatic and cheerfully eccentric (that ubiquitous porkpie hat), beloved by his students and adored by many of the women who passed through his life. Friends remarked on his empathy, his impeccable manners and his good taste in art, wine and literature.

He was rail thin – standing 5’10”, he often weighed less than 125 pounds – but was an accomplished sailor and horseback rider. After a family vacation in a remote area of New Mexico, bought a bare-bones house in the region, falling in love with the high mesas and the austere desert beauty. He became adept at horseback and hiking expeditions into the mountains that could stretch for more than a week in spartan conditions. Later in life, he bought a remote beachfront property on the north shore of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, building a house there for his family. (It is today known as Oppenheimer Beach.)

Despite his personal wealth and professional fascination with theoretical physics, he was deeply interested in the practical aspects of social injustice.

The civil war in Spain and the rise of Hitler in Germany worried him, as it did many American intellectuals in the 1930s. Domestically, he was active in causes for civil rights for African Americans, wage rights for workers and immigrants, and took leadership roles in union causes. He helped German Jews escape Nazi Germany and joined a campaign to racially integrate San Francisco swimming pools. He was sympathetic to many causes supported by communists, though he apparently never joined the party.

He never second-guessed his work in building the atom bomb, not even after its use on Japan when the war was nearly over, but he did not support nuclear proliferation and specifically opposed building a hydrogen bomb, which caused much suspicion in government circles.

Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves, military director of the Manhattan Project, at the Trinity Site. Image courtesy of the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory

For the rest of his life, he was hounded by federal agents for any real or perceived ties to the communism. This including being followed, his home and work phones being illegally wiretapped and FBI listening devices being placed to capture his private speech. Eventually, the Atomic Energy Commission concluded in 1954 that he was a “loyal” American, but still stripped him of his security clearances. It was, historians have agreed, one of the lowest points of the McCarthy Era.

He spent the remainder of his life leading the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He died in 1967 at the age of 62, felled by throat cancer, a result of his decades of chain-smoking.

He was widely viewed as a victim of McCarthyism excesses. Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy vacated the AEC’s 1954 ruling, saying the process was a “flawed process that violated the Commission’s own regulations.”

The passage of time and the development of research, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm wrote in a statement, had revealed the bias and unfairness of the hearings, “while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed.”

Color photo of stone obelisk with a plaque in the middle.
The Trinity monument. Images courtesy of the National Security Research Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
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Comments (2)

  1. I enjoyed reading this and don’t mean to be rude, but the blog contains a number of typos. If you use it again you might want to proofread more closely — in particular I don’t think “belie” is the correct word to use in the first sentence of the ninth paragraph.

    • Updated, and thanks for the close read!

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