Thursday, March 1, 2018

JFK, Robert Oppenheimer, and the Path to Political Redemption

On the morning of July 16, 1945, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer was at the zenith of his career.  The detonation of Trinity, the atomic “gadget,” represented a scientific milestone, and he was the scientist who directed the work at Los Alamos.  But the post-war years for Oppenheimer were challenging—sometimes because of his actions and sometimes because of vindictiveness.  These difficulties could be characterized as personal, professional, and, most especially, political.  Oppenheimer lost his security clearance after a dramatic hearing in 1954.

The next eight years was Oppenheimer’s period in political purgatory.  He was director at the Institute for Advanced Study, but he was ostracized from participating in the official discussions of the use of atomic energy.  He was a target for conservative critics who saw him as soft on communism—if not worse.

But Oppie had friends in high places in the new administration. Arthur Schlesinger and Dr. Glenn Seaborg, holding high-level positions, were advocating for his redemption.  Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, were invited to the White House for the unparalleled dinner for Nobel Prize winners on April 29, 1962.  Oppenheimer was the most controversial guest at the dinner, but his attendance was approved by President John F. Kennedy.

This was the trial balloon for the next step in Oppenheimer’s political rehabilitation by President Kennedy.  One year later he was chosen by the president as the winner of the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award for contributions in the field of physics.  The previous year the award was given to his nemesis Dr. Edward Teller.  The ceremony was originally scheduled for November 21, 1963, but the president was in Dallas; President Johnson presented the award ten days later. 

In accepting the honor, Oppenheimer said, “I think it just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today.  That would seem to me a good augury for all our futures.”  The courage, however, belonged to Kennedy.

Dr. I. I. Rabi, Oppie’s friend and a fellow guest at the Nobel dinner, said that the award “is a righting of a great wrong done to him and to the American people.  We can rejoice, for the significance of this act is the restoration of sanity and understanding by people of importance.”  Oppenheimer was asked by Seaborg at the Nobel dinner whether he wanted to work to get his security clearance restored, but he declined.  The security clearance was no long important, but the lifting of the cloud was. 

There were some who still questioned the loyalty of the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” and resented him, but Oppenheimer’s position in history was now more reflective of his great achievements.  A year before Oppie died in 1967, Arthur Schlesinger wrote to him: “You have faced more terrible things than most men in this terrible age, and you have provided all of us with an example of moral courage, purpose and discipline—you probably are not aware of the meaning your life has had for my generation.”

The Oppenheimer saga is just one of the fascinating stories associated with the Nobel 1962 dinner, which is profiled in Dinner in Camelot: The Night America's Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House (ForeEdge, April 3); see also:  www.JosephAEsposito.

The photo of Oppenheimer, taken in 1944 near the height of his career, is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

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