This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.
The 2023 release of the movie Oppenheimer has renewed interest in a man often referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb.” The film chronicles how J. Robert Oppenheimer became a national hero for his role developing the atomic bomb during World War II. It also shows how Oppenheimer’s national loyalties were subsequently questioned, resulting in his being stripped of his security clearance and removed from the Atomic Energy Commission. The J. Robert Oppenheimer collection resides at the Library of Congress, but newspaper articles from Chronicling America also provide an opportunity for students both to deepen their exploration of how Oppenheimer was viewed through multiple perspectives, and to follow debates regarding who should be trusted to make American policy decisions.
For one perspective, ask students to read this 1947 Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) article, “How to be a Scientist.” Focus on the first two paragraphs:
We are not much wiser for the atomic bomb, but we have at least learned that we can no longer entrust our affairs to the conventional triumvirate of the legislator, the businessman and the soldier. We must now pay equal attention to the scientist who understands the dominant scientific facts of our lives.
We are beginning to apply this lesson by making room for scientists in our highest councils, and there is no better example of their growing influence that that provided by the person of Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer.
- When was this article written? What do you know about this period of U.S. history?
- What does the article say about whom we should trust with classified U.S. information and decision making?
Next, show students this 1954 article from the same newspaper, Commissioners Discuss Ban on Access to Secrets. Focus students on the last column, under the heading “An Immaterial Plea:”
It will not do to plead that Dr. Oppenheimer revealed no secrets to the Communists and fellow travelers with whom he chose to associate. What is incompatible with obedience to the laws of security is the associations themselves, however innocent in fact.
There is a further consideration, not unrelated to the foregoing. Those who stand within the security system are not free to refuse their co-operation with the workings of the system, much less to confuse or obstruct them, especially by falsifications and fabrications.
Context for this second paragraph may be found earlier in the article. In order to protect his friend Haakon Chevalier, Oppenheimer delayed in providing Chevalier’s name to security personnel after Chevalier had approached Oppenheimer about passing secrets on, though Oppenheimer promptly refused. Ask students to respond to the same two question prompts as before. What new perspectives are shown in this article? Does the mid-1950s time period provide any context for these differing perspectives?
If time allows, encourage students to explore additional additional perspectives from 1940s and 50s. Students can search Chronicling America using terms such as “Oppenheimer” or “Atomic Bomb” to find still more perspectives to deepen their understandings of this critical period of American history.
To deepen their understanding of Oppenheimer, the Cold War, and the dawn of the atomic age, students can check out these related resources from the Library of Congress:
- The Oppenheimer Collection at the Library of Congress
- Kai Bird, author of American Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
- Panel discussion on: “Building the Bomb, Fearing Its Use: Nuclear Scientists, Social Responsibility and Arms Control”
Let us know what insights your students come up with!
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