• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

The 25 years with Oppenheimer, however, "was worth it. He was an unusual person; in fact, maybe you'd even say he was unique. There's this wonderful documentary film of Oppenheimer called The Day After Trinity: Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb. And there's an interview with Hans Bethe, who was a great genius of physicists, who says, 'Oppenheimer was just the smartest man I ever met.' He was one of the smartest men anybody has ever met. Bethe was awed by Oppenheimer, who not only understood what everybody was doing in physics, but read French, 18th-century French poetry, the Bhagavad-Gita, and kept up on new good literature. He was on top of everything. For a physicist, he was untypical. He lived comfortably in all of these worlds. The world of art, the world of literature, the world of poetry."


"Yes. Women loved him. But he also was not a..."


"Yes. He had an affair here, affair there, but he wasn't chasing people. Things happened, things happened. I guess."

(In an earlier interview, Mr. Bird and Professor Sherwin noted: "Oppenheimer was not a philanderer, but he did have a caring and sweet affair with Ruth Tolman, the wife of one of his friends, the physicist Richard Tolman. To his enemies this was scandalous. But 'Oppie's' friends -- all his students and closest friends called him Oppie -- and Ruth's friends supported and protected them.")

We talked more about the 1954 security hearing. We agreed that the atmosphere of the '50s, the suspicion of intellectuals and liberals, was not unlike that of today. Oppenheimer, who had never been a Communist Party member, trusted, I said, "in the facts to keep him from having his security clearance lifted."

"Yes. He was trusting in the facts, he believed in rationality, he assumed that there was a fair outcome that was going to take place with respect to the hearing, and all of that was wrong, and the whole strategy that Oppenheimer's defense team promoted was wrong because they incorrectly analyzed the environment they were going into. They thought it was a reasonably fair hearing. And of course it wasn't. It was a hearing that was designed to give the government what it wanted.

"The hearing itself was a star chamber in which a long list of illegal practices were used to be sure that Oppenheimer's security clearance was pulled. The tapping of lawyers, of Oppenheimer's lawyers' telephones, allowing the prosecutor to meet daily and privately with the Hearing board to influence their views, the daily reports from the FBI on illegal wiretap information, the refusal to clear Oppenheimer's lawyer, give him a security clearance so he could adequately prepare the case, and so on and so forth. All of that has led Kai and me to believe that there's a case to have the hearing board's verdict overturned. And on behalf of the family, we're going to try to do something about that."

"The Army-McCarthy hearings were going on at the same time," I said, "as Oppenheimer's security hearings."

"And again, that's part of the relevance of the political scene today. It's not analogous in the sense of being the same thing, but the carelessness, the willingness to push personal liberties and judicial process aside in the hysteria of the moment is something that we're living with today -- trying to guard against it a lot better than we did back in the early 1950s. But this is a story that's a reminder."

"Why would you suggest that young people read American Prometheus?"

"First of all, I'd tell them this is a wonderful read. It's filled with drama and all of the elements of a good novel, and it's true. It has all the elements of a classic Greek tragedy. Oppenheimer had everything going for him and then, there are these little flaws. And he had great enemies, and he had a great battle, which he himself had created.

"It's also about, in part, the effort to control nuclear weapons and prevent the nuclear arms race. And we're still living with that.

"I think it's more likely that we can have a nuclear war now but that it's less likely that within 24 hours of the first weapon going off that all human habitation will be destroyed. So, there's that difference. But, as to the book, I think that it describes what it is to struggle with a problem that is bigger than all of us. And in a sense, a problem that we're still struggling with and with which our children will have to struggle."

"Oppenheimer's story," I said, "is a sad story. It's interesting to me that no matter how many times I have read his story -- and I have read it as written by various authors -- I always hope that life is going to turn out well for Oppenheimer. I always root for him to win, even though I know he will lose."

"Well, it's curious, but again, it's the human spirit at work, and in some ways, in some larger context, you know we have to hope that in the end, he does win out. He was fighting the good fight, and it's hard to win a good fight."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!