A Nuclear Narrative: Robert Oppenheimer, Autobiography, and Public Authority

By Hecht, David K. | Biography, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

A Nuclear Narrative: Robert Oppenheimer, Autobiography, and Public Authority


Hecht, David K., Biography


April 28th, 1954, was a particularly unfortunate day for Robert Oppenheimer. Already he had spent two-and-a-half weeks in front of a specially convened Personnel Security Board, which aimed to determine whether his security clearance for top-secret government work should be restored. Oppenheimer--the physicist whose work on the Manhattan Project and whose subsequent political and public prominence had earned him cultural status as "the father of the atomic bomb"--had requested the hearing to challenge the suspension of his security clearance several months before. The deck was stacked against him; by 1954, he had acquired powerful enemies. Many of these adversaries, newly influential in the first Republican presidential administration in two decades, were disturbed by the radical politics in Oppenheimer's past, his opposition to the hydrogen bomb, and his continuing reservations about key aspects of nuclear policy.

That day, however, a particularly devastating blow was struck. Edward Teller--himself a veteran of the Manhattan Project and an influential and prominent physicist--testified against Oppenheimer. When asked if he felt his former colleague was a security risk, Teller conceded that Oppenheimer had often acted in ways that were "exceedingly hard to understand." In fact, Teller continued, "I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated. To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of the country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more" (Stern, In the Matter 710). Many of his colleagues in the physics community regarded Teller's testimony as deep betrayal; some refused to shake his hand afterwards (Weart 180). Teller's testimony marks an important rift in science policy advising in the Cold War, which can be seen as a contest between Teller's nuclear enthusiasm and Oppenheimer's more moderate approach. It also provides an important clue about how Americans--inside and outside of political circles--decided what sorts of public figures to trust with the daunting responsibility of nuclear weapons. Teller noted that he would prefer advisors that he could "understand better, and therefore trust more." This is a reasonable enough wish, but its simplicity belies an important reality surrounding nuclear discourse in Cold War America. Not only did Oppenheimer's supporters and Teller's have contrasting views on substantive matters of policy, they also had profound differences in how they legitimated scientific and political authority in the first place.

This essay uses the Oppenheimer hearing to explore the role of personal narrative in establishing understandings of--and therefore trust in--cultural icons, particularly scientific ones. I will focus on a particular personal narrative central to the hearing: Oppenheimer's lengthy self-defense that appeared in the New York Times just as his security hearing was beginning. Formally, this narrative was addressed as a letter in response to a list of charges from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The letter was, however, a full autobiographical sketch; when placed into the official hearing record, it occupied thirteen pages of small, single-spaced type. The text opens with his early life and the beginnings of his professional career, spends much time on his social and intellectual circles as a young man and the radical politics often a part of those associations, and finishes with detailed accounts of his service at Los Alamos and after the war as a technical advisor on nuclear matters. These are not distinct thematic sections, however. Rather, they are woven into a chronological account of his life, together with plentiful detail about family milestones such as his marriage, the death of his father, and friendship with his brother. It is the only autobiographical account that Oppenheimer ever published, which alone renders it of historical interest. However, the letter is also very revealing about the role of personal narrative--as opposed to disaggregated facts, or even other kinds of narratives--in establishing trust. …

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