The Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

The Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

On February 18, 1967, the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer came to an end. Its history, probed with such agonizing detail in the 1954 AEC Security Board Hearings, dramatizes the dilemma of the American scientist in the twentieth century.

To appreciate this history, we must have a view of Oppenheimer (or Opje, as he was called) before World War II, in those days before the scientists knew sin. There is no disagreement among the many observers: Opje was a brilliant analytical thinker, an intellectual with a striking variety of interests, and a natural leader of men. “. . . my admiration for his intelligence,” writes Haakon Chevalier, “his judgment, and his character had gradually led me to the conviction that a high destiny awaited him.”

It has been suggested that even in this early period Oppenheimer felt a sense of inadequacy as a theoretical physicist because he made “no fundamental contribution to his field, which men like Heisenberg, Fermi, Dirac, Joliot, and a dozen others of his generation had so greatly enriched.” 3 On the whole this suggestion is probably not correct, though Opje undoubtedly must have felt the sense of frustration that is the lot of all theoretical physicists most of the time.