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“i Am Become Death…”
The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
But “massive retaliation” was official policy under John Foster Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower, a bigger bang for the buck, and in 1954 Oppenheimer was summoned, and scourged, and thrown down from government and the gates locked behind. Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss, a man whom Oppenheimer had publicly ridiculed at congressional hearings on atomic secrecy a few years before, was immediately responsible for the security review “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” convened in a jerrybuilt World War II building in Washington in March and April of 1954. But behind him were more shadowy figures, the enraged and vengeful generals of the Strategic Air Command first of all.
The security hearing was not a hearing at all but a purge, a trial conducted without the protection of courtroom procedures and in violation of all the usual 81 rules of evidence. The AEC had cleared Oppenheimer of his left-wing escapades and his single wartime indiscretion—temporarily refusing to give Army Counter-intelligence the name of a man who reported to him a Soviet spying probe (the man was his friend Haakon Chevalier)—in 1947. All the old charges were raked up again, and countered by a parade of distinguished witnesses who testified to Oppenheimer’s loyalty, men such as I.I. Rabi, Hans Bethe, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, and even, though more ambiguously, General Leslie R. Groves. But most of the interminable spring days were devoted to Oppenheimer’s opposition to the H-bomb, an opposition the entire GAC had shared, and the witnesses who condemned that opposition, Edward Teller the star among them, were unsparing in voicing their suspicions of him. Oppenheimer defended himself numbly and inadequately, shaken by the viciousness of the attack. When the hearings were finished, not even Lewis Strauss could find solid evidence of security violations. He lifted Oppenheimer’s top-secret “Q” clearance just the same.
No one who objectively studies the record today, two decades later, can come away with any doubt of Oppenheimer’s innocence from wrongdoing except the political wrongdoing of disagreeing on government policy. For that disagreement, in a nation constitutionally pledged to freedom of speech, he was officially destroyed. “Oppenheimer’s life,” writes Nuel Pharr Davis angrily, “can stand inspection down to the last senseless detail. One must, finally, put all this damned nonsense, to use Oppenheimer’s term for the hearings, into its proper, dismally small perspective in order to gain any comprehension of Oppenheimer as a scientist, American, or human being.”
The “damned nonsense” was dismally small, but its effects were not. Oppenheimer went home to Princeton visibly aged. He had turned fifty during the hearings; a former student who saw him afterward in Princeton remarked that he had always looked younger than his years, but now looked older. “Much of his previous spirit and liveliness had left him,” Hans Bethe sadly confirmed. He never complained of it, no more than he had complained of the bullying incident at Camp Koenig thirty-six years before. “I think of this as a major accident,” he told an interviewer,“—much like a train wreck or the collapse of a building. It has no relation or connection with my life. I just happened to be there.” It may have been a major accident for the United States as well, because it deprived the nation of the experience, the intelligence, and the prescience of one of its most able sons.
He lived the last decade of his life in a lonely isolation that he also never complained of and that the honors that came to him did not alleviate. He had been appointed director of the Institute for Advanced Study in 1946; he kept the position until a year before his death, and also assumed Einstein’s old post as senior professor of physics. He was called to speak to the world from Paris, from South America, from England and Japan, and finally from within the United States. John Kennedy invited him to dine at the White House with forty-nine Nobel laureates in 1961, and planned to award him the Enrico Fermi Award, the AEC’s highest honor, on December 2,1963; Lyndon Johnson, in a time of mourning, made the presentation to Oppenheimer in the White House Cabinet Room—a medal, and $50,000 to take home, from an agency that still denied him clearance as a security risk.
He retired from the institute in 1966, when illness weakened him. On his last visit to the institute, writes the physicist Abraham Pais, “He came to participate in a discussion on the selection of the young physicists who would be members of the Institute during the coming academic year. He knew he would not be there to greet them.”
Every thoughtful human being projects, somewhere within himself, a vision of utopia, a vision usually reconstructed from an imagined golden age. That golden age is frequently childhood, but Oppenheimer’s spare childhood would not serve; instead he found his golden age at G’f6ttingen, and constructed his Utopia from the materials there at hand. Because G’f6ttingen was a community of scientists, Oppenheimer’s utopia is more convoluted, and more tragic, than most. It considers not only the possibility of peace and communion among men but also the certainty that the larger universe is fatally inanimate, in basic ways opaque, and ultimately destructive of all human pretension, even the necessary pretension of hope.