Oppenheimer Investigated

By Erwin, Robert | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1994 | Go to article overview

Oppenheimer Investigated


Erwin, Robert, The Wilson Quarterly


Thirty-eight years old when appointed head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-67) became one of the more astute strategic thinkers about the nuclear age he helped to create. After facing charges of disloyalty--charges as groundless as ones recently made in the much-publicized memoirs of a former KGB general--Oppenheimer lost influence in the highest circles of government. But as Robert Erwin shows, this was far less a tragedy for the brilliant "outsider" than it was for the nation he served.

Special Tasks, the recently published memoirs of Pavel Anatolievich Sudoplatov, has once again brought into question the reputation of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The author, an 87-year-old former Stalinist "spymaster," alleges that not only Oppenheimer but also physicists Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, George Gamow, and Leo Szilard passed the "secrets" of the atom bomb to Moscow in the 1940s, purportedly in hopes of creating a balance of power that would discourage nuclear war. No proof is offered in the book. Shortly after its publication, two historians queried by the New York Times described the "revelations"--reprinted in Time last April with no cautionary words from the editors--as hearsay laced with error. More or less the same has since been said by a host of specialists knowledgeable about the period.

If the accusations leveled against Oppenheimer in Special Tasks were the most sensational ever made, they were certainly not the first. Oppenheimer was called many things during his career--pinko, egghead, rulebreaker, brilliant, special breed. Just about the only thing no one ever called him was average. That would have been preposterous.

To begin with, he was born into an enclave set apart from ordinary American values and tastes. His father, Julius, came to New York from Germany in 1888, a gawky 17-year-old who spoke little English. By age 30 he had become a prosperous cloth importer and had married a talented painter, Ella Friedman, from the Baltimore Jewish gentry. Julius's good fortune he had further increased his wealth through wise investments--exemplified one kind of American success story, but, once established, he modeled himself on the liberal, cultivated wing of the European bourgeoisie, who took it for granted that poets and scientists should be depicted on postage stamps in a civilized country. Unlike American patricians such as Theodore Roosevelt, he had no intention of roughing it. Neither was he inclined to carouse, with the Newport set or anybody else. His son's friends remembered him as immaculately dressed, and his employees characterized him as a proper gentleman.

Robert grew up insulated by money from a good deal of ordinary experience and at ease with high culture. At the country house on Long Island a yacht with a captain was kept for the parents, while Robert and his younger brother, Frank, were given a sloop of their own to sail. Cezannes hung on the walls at home in Manhattan, dusted by servants. From his mother, who taught painting in her own studio, Robert acquired an un-American attitude toward the arts. Art was not a classroom frill or an uplifting pastime, but instead something to be relished and absorbed as preparation for works of one's own.

Jewishness likewise put the Oppenheimers at an angle to mainstream America. The parents were not deeply interested in Jewish tradition. They sent Robert to the Ethical Culture School, on whose board Julius sat for several years. Yet they could hardly overlook anti-Semitism, quite open and virulent among much of the populace at that time and more discreet but virtually official among the genteel. The physicist Percy Bridgman, who respected Robert's outstanding record at Harvard and who pushed hard to get him admitted to Cambridge University for graduate study, deemed it necessary in a letter of recommendation to say: "As appears from his name, Oppenheimer is a Jew, but entirely without the usual qualifications of his race.

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