The article below was a term research paper composed during my Sophomore Year.  I've left it largely as it was at the time with a few minor changes for grammar and flow.  The reflection focuses on Robbert Oppenheimer and his change in posture from the forefront of atomic weapons research to that of a defense industry martyr.  Oppenheimer's tale is a story of a man who did not understand the gravity of his own work.  We live in a world with mad men, but how many of them are beyond saving and how many of them are able to reflect?  In Oppenheimer's case, he was only the latter.

The Paper

What defines a hero?  Is it somebody who comes through in a pinch to save the day, no matter the cost?  Or is it someone who stands up and defends what they think is right?  No doubt that Robert Oppenheimer is a hero in every aspect of the word, and by every definition.  From his works in physics, to the atom bomb, to his ethical objections to war, Robert Oppenheimer is by every means one of the most underappreciated men in American history.

On April 22, 1904, Julius Robert Oppenheimer was born to a German-Jewish family residing in New York City.  His father was a wealthy immigrant textile importer and his mother was a painter.  He also had one brother, Frank Oppenheimer who also went into physics and later began teaching at the University of Colorado.  Robert began his road to the career he’d be remembered for at Harvard University majoring in Chemistry.[1]  He also demonstrated knowledge in the field of physics, and he was admitted to graduate standing in the field as an independent study.  After he graduated from Harvard he went on to study in Europe for a period of time.

Upon Oppenheimer’s return from his studies abroad, he was brought on board as faculty to the California Institute of Technology and Harvard.[2]  He would go on to also profess to classes at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.  After Oppenheimer returned from Europe the second time, he began teaching at Berkeley where he also began working in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  It was there that he worked closely with experimental physicist Ernest Lawrence and his research in particle acceleration and collision.[3]

Oppenheimer contributed to the fields of quantum theory and theoretical astronomy during this time as well, such as the existence of the neutron and the neutron star.  It would not be until some years later that the neutron star would be discovered and proven to be fact.  He would continue research in these fields up until 1954.  Several of those years he would spend working for the United States government as a physicist in the Manhattan Project.

The year was 1941, and the world was on track to descend into chaos.  In Europe, Adolf Hitler was continuing his rampage across the western front.  Numerous new technologies were flooding from the minds of German scientists which made the Luftwaffe more dangerous, and the chances of ally victory grew slimmer by the day.  New technologies, such as the rocket and the jet engine, were being spotted by allies across Europe. With the risk of Germany becoming victorious increasing by the day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the development of a terrifying new weapon: the atom bomb.

On October 9, the United States entered the race for the atom bomb against Germany and Russia.  The project that would later be known as the Manhattan Project was initiated in a remote area in New Mexico.  Los Alamos was selected due to its desert location away from cities and towns, reducing the risk of espionage by Russian spies.  In May of 1942, Robert Oppenheimer joined the Manhattan Project as a lead physicist.

Initially, Oppenheimer’s job on the project was to determine the best method to use to accomplish a desirable yield.  This would eventually lead into the development of a suitable deployment method, and then eventually it would lead to studies over the bomb blast itself.  Oppenheimer’s enthusiasm for deployment and successful development of the bomb during this time was that of a typical young scientist.  He was initially excited over the weapon being used live, a reasonable aspiration to someone of Oppenheimer’s age in his field.

Oppenheimer chose the name Trinity for the testing of the weapon, particularly the detonations of the weapon.  On July 16, 1945, the first successful detonation of the bomb took place.[4]  The race for mastering the atom bomb was over, but many scientists at Los Alamos, including Oppenheimer, were beginning to grow weary of the thought of the future of the world if the bomb were to be deployed.  The initial blast yielded at approximately twenty kilotons of power which was the highest of the predictions for the test.  A yield only slightly smaller would be used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of that year.

The initial detonation took place on a tower with a remote controlled trigger, which was not practical for deployment in the Pacific theater.  By this time, the war in the European theater with Germany had ended leaving only Japan as the last of the Axis Powers.  The main issue then turned to the method of deployment.  Air was considered the most logical, so developing the best aerodynamic design in order to house the device was the next priority.  The end result would be the Little Boy bomb shell and the Fat Man bomb shell.  Both designs would be used against the Japanese.

Despite controversies over the use of the bomb and the ethical questions being proposed by other lead scientists in Los Alamos, Oppenheimer remained optimistic towards the results of a live bomb blast.  On August 6, the first bomb blast occurred over Hiroshima killing upwards of 100,000 people, and injuring thousands more.[5]  The second blast occurred on August 9 and killed over 50,000 people with many more injured.[6]  Altogether, the bombs left a quarter of a million people dead.  Countless other casualties came from radiation and other blast related injuries.  Agriculture was impacted and left soil unusable, entire city infrastructures were destroyed, and physical tolls aside, the psychological tolls were even greater.  The bomb blast was a scene out of a horror movie, and totally destroyed the cities.

The sheer destruction and carnage of the blast left scientists shaken, including Robert Oppenheimer.  Once an enthusiastic physicist in the field of atomic weaponry, he became fearful of what might happen if the bomb continued to evolve.  “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”, Oppenheimer said in an interview, quoting the Bhagavad-Gita.[7] Oppenheimer had indeed become just that, and then some for some Japanese civilians.   He appeared shaken at the destruction that came by a weapon from his hand.  Despite his non-involvement in the actual use of the bomb, he had developed it and thus felt a form of guilt.

Oppenheimer’s fears were quite real, particularly as research on weaponry continued over the course of the next few years.  The risk of a third nuclear blast in Japan was quite real also.  Oppenheimer had adopted a sense of a conscientious objector.  He was horrified at the results of the nuclear blasts in Japan and the results that came from them.  While Oppenheimer had considered the potential of the blast, he had not considered the moral implications that would come with the bomb.  The destruction and the carnage were not on his agenda.

Although Oppenheimer did not see the need for a second bomb to be used against Japan, he did express his dissatisfaction that it was not ready in time to be used in the European theater.  He issued an official statement rallying for nuclear weapons to be banned from use, fearing their existence too sinister to be in the hands of man.  He also proposed that any nuclear arms be managed by the United Nations, effectively stifling the coming arms race.[8]  Shortly after that, he left the Los Alamos Laboratory and returned for a period of time to the California Institute of Technology.

In 1947, Oppenheimer left teaching as he felt his heart was no longer in the world of professing.  He took a job in Princeton, New Jersey where he collected some of the brightest minds in the sciences to research some of the largest questions.  Oppenheimer’s main focus was to direct minds from the research of war to the ideas of the pre-war era.  Ideas such as quantum theory and astrophysics were some of the primary focuses tackled in his institute.[9]

Two years later in 1949, the Russians detonated their first atomic bomb.  The detonation was detected by meteorological devices designed to detect radiation and fallout.  The worry quickly turned to finding out how the Russians developed the device, as many steps had been made to ensure that espionage would not occur.  The American response was to raise suspicions regarding the scientists at Los Alamos.  Oppenheimer was a prime suspect due to his speaking out against the use of nuclear weapons[10], and the eventual pacifist mindset that he had adopted.[11]  He would be accused of not only being a communist sympathizer[12], but selling nuclear secrets to the Russians. His security clearance was revoked in 1954.

His worries would continue, not only was he worried about the morality of using a bomb like this on other humans, but he wondered where science would draw the line.  The hydrogen bomb would become the primarily threat of the arms race after 1949.  New deployment methods had entered development by the early 1950s, and Oppenheimer was involved to a degree with these as well despite his leaving the project in 1945.  The first alternative method was the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and later came the submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM).  The world collectively shook at the power of the hydrogen bomb when on October 30, 1961; the Russians detonated the Tsar Bomba.  The fifty megaton nuclear bomb was so powerful; shockwaves were felt around the Earth three times over.[13]  Oppenheimer’s worst nightmare was just inches from becoming a reality.

In a matter of ten years, Oppenheimer had gone from being an American hero – supposedly saving millions – to being a traitor to his people.  While Oppenheimer was not convicted, he still was stripped of his prestigious status and forced into a quasi-exile.  His trial came shortly after the death of the Rosenberg’s[14], who were also accused of being communist sympathizers at the height of McCarthyism.  In his hearing before the Atomic Energy Commission, he was never found guilty or convicted of these accusations.[15]

His residence during exile was temporarily in St. John, Virgin Islands, and in 1957, he purchased property on Gibney Beach.  For several years Oppenheimer stayed under the radar, mainly spending time with his family.  In 1960 though, he joined with other great scientists such as Albert Einstein to warn the world of the dangers of scientific advancements.  Together with other leading minds, they went on to establish the World Academy of Art and Science.  Despite his arguments against nuclear weapons in the United States, Oppenheimer did not sign petitions openly against nuclear arms.  This is perhaps due to sheer humiliation he faced during the 1954 hearings regarding his active speaking out against the technology.

His lectures did continue well after his dismissal from the Atomic Energy Commission however, and he continued to work to a degree in physics.  Perhaps his approach of enforcing his beliefs on the use of the weapon is similar to how the United States dealt with communism.  Obscure on the outside, but if one looked deeper at the speeches you would find the meaning.  He continuously made arguments stressing the dangers of science crossing the line of human well-being.  He truly had begun to loathe the weapon he sweat and bled to create, his prized accomplishment was an incarnation of death itself, and it was heavy on his mind.

In actuality, there were many Russian spies in and near the Los Alamos base which made communications back to Russia.  Whether or not these spies greatly expedited the development of nuclear arms in Russia is not certain, but it is evident that the information gathered at least contributed to the progress in Russia.  The fact is that there were Russian informants that had made their way into the Manhattan Project under the radar of the government.[16]  The focus however, was directed at Oppenheimer as he was the most outspoken about the terror that nuclear weapons could unleash.  He was also vocal in his protests against war, making him a prime suspect as a communist sympathizer in the Second Red Scare.

After the detonation of the Tsar Bomba in Russia, world leaders and scientists would also begin to adopt Oppenheimer’s point of view against furthering the advancement of the technology.[17]  The bomb was almost three thousand times the explosive power of the Trinity test with a blast area that could have totally liquefied Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and injured the population all the way to Higashihiroshima and Isahaya respectively.  In another way of looking at it, it could liquefy roughly one third of Long Island, and contaminate much further.

Perhaps it was for this reason, amongst others that Oppenheimer would be redeemed by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1963.  Kennedy nominated Oppenheimer for the Enrico Fermi Award, but it would be President Lyndon Johnson who would present it due to Kennedy’s assassination on November 22.  Oppenheimer was presented with the award for contributions to atomic research and leadership at the Los Alamos facility.  Whether or not it was only this, or for his courage to speak out against the increase in nuclear arms when other scientists were not is not clear.  Regardless of whether or not he was presented this award for his scientific contributions or for his moral standards, the fact remains that Oppenheimer’s exile ended at this point.  Sadly, it would not come soon enough, as he would die of throat cancer only four years later on February 18, 1967.

The accusations against Oppenheimer did not end at the presentation of the Enrico Fermi Award, it continued well into the 70s.  In 1977, one of Oppenheimer’s daughters, Katherine “Toni”, attempted to acquire a job as a United Nations translator.  She was denied the security clearance to accept this job due to the charges that had been brought against her father in the 1950s.  The supposed crime of her father, a crime that he was never convicted for, kept her from the job she desired.  She would commit suicide shortly after that.[18]

Oppenheimer’s legacy that he left behind would continue to be primarily in physics, particularly in nuclear theory for at least another twenty years after his death.  The Cold War peaked during Oppenheimer’s life with back and forth nuclear arms tests and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Throughout this time he continued to maintain his anti-nuclear arms ideology.  Testing would continue until the 1970s however, and certain nuclear experimentation in the field of weaponry would continue until the end of the Reagan administration.

One of Oppenheimer’s greatest fears, the technology of nuclear arms falling into the hands of extremists, may still be at large however. Today there are dozens of tactical nuclear devices scattered around the world, and the technology of nuclear arms is spread through many nations.  The threat of nuclear war and terror is just as real now as it was during the Cold War, and the horror that Oppenheimer envisioned is still truly possible today, perhaps even more-so.

Even more sinister delivery methods have since been developed, such as the ship launched cruise missile and the air launched missile.  Weapons can be concealed in suit cases that can level entire city blocks.  Likewise, aircraft that are capable of going on undetected can deliver small nuclear devices leaving many unsuspecting innocent people without any advanced warning.

Despite the grim roles, despite the accusations, Robert Oppenheimer always stood for what he thought was right.  He was not afraid to admit that science had gone too far, and was not ashamed to admit fault for his wrong doings.  He tried to warn the world of the consequences of advancing atomic research in weaponry beyond what mankind could control.  In the end however, the world had to experience and bear witness to the actual sheer power of a weapon of that magnitude to acknowledge that the experiments must stop.  Oppenheimer was not alone in his worries, but he is perhaps one of the most well-known scientists to have these concerns.  Despite paying the price of having his name brought up as a red sympathizer, he stood his ground.  This is what a strong person does, this is what and who a true hero is, and it is why Robert Oppenheimer is one of America’s unsung heroes.


[1] More information on Robert’s early life can be found in Erwin, Robert, Oppenheimer Investigated, (The Wilson Quarterly Volume 18, Issue 4, Autumn 1994), pp 34-35.

[2] Banco, Lindsey M., The Biographies of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Desert Saint or Destroyer of Worlds? (Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly Volume 35, Summer 2012), p 496.

[3] Erwin, Robert, pp 35-36.

[4] Additional information accounting on Oppenheimer’s role in the July 16 test can be found in Lindsey M., p 493.

[5] Robert Johnston, Hiroshima Atomic Bombing, 1945, (October 2005).

[6] Robert Johnston, Nagasaki Atomic Bombing, 1945, (October 2005).


[7] Atomic Archive, Now I Am Become Death…, 1946.

[8] Hecht, David K., “The Atomic Hero: Robert Oppenheimer and the Making of Scientific Icons in the Early Cold War,” Technology and Culture Volume 49, Issue 4 (October 2008): p 945.

[9] Hecht, David K., p 951.

[10] He would share these accusations with physicists such as Enrico Fermi and other scientists.  All were accused of sharing atomic secrets with the Soviet Union in the 1940s.

[11] It was particularly the fact that Russia had detonated a nuclear bomb, and then the hydrogen bomb a few years later that raised the most suspicion against Oppenheimer.  A more in depth look at this specific incident can be found in Deery, Phillip, Running with the Hounds: Academic McCarthyism and New York University, 1952-53 (Cold War History Volume 10, Issue 4, November 2010) pp 479-480.

[12] An in depth look at the entire controversy surrounding Oppenheimer and his actions can be found in Gorelik, Gennady, The Paternity of the H-Bombs: Soviet-American Perspectives (Physics in Perspective Volume 11, Issue 2, June 2009) pp 170-191.


[13] A detailed report can be found on the Tsar Bomba in Adamski, Viktor Borisovich; Smirnov, Iu. N., Moscow’s Biggest Bomb: The 50-Megaton Test of October 1961 (Cold War International History Project Bulletin Issue 4, September 1994) pp 19-20.

[14] One year to be exact.  The connection to his loss of his security clearance can also be found in Schrecker, Ellen, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents, Second Edition (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002), p 41.

[15] More details on the hearing can be found in Hecht, David K., A Nuclear Narrative: Robert Oppenheimer, Autobiography, and Public Authority (Biographies Volume 33, Issue 1, Winter 2010) pp 167-168.

[16] Additional information in regards to KGB spies being present within United States atomic research facilities can be found in Zubok, Vladislav M., Atomic Espionage and It’s Soviet Witnesses (Cold War International History Project Bulletin Issue 4, September 1994) pp 50-54.

[17] The Discovery Channel, Tsar Bomba Detonation, 2012.

[18] Pasachoff, Naomi, “The Many Facets of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Metascience Volume 15, Issue 2 (July 2006): 262.

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