The nuclear physicist’s busy and not terribly melancholy life after his humiliating security-clearance hearing in 1954.
A national icon after World War II, extolled as father of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer (1904–67) hobnobbed with world leaders and advised presidents. He also had plenty of enemies, who finally capitalized on his reluctance to develop the hydrogen bomb and enthusiastic participation in 1930s left-wing activities to organize the 1954 hearing that revoked his security clearance. Few historians deny that the hearing was wildly unfair or that he behaved with inexplicable passivity, which made the outcome inevitable. Science writer Wolverton (The Depths of Space, 2004, etc.) emphasizes that Oppenheimer loved being at the center of power, so this rebuff delivered a crushing blow, but it had no affect on his status as an internationally respected physicist or as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He continued to travel and write, and his lectures—on science or philosophy, never politics—attracted overflow audiences. Liberals and the liberal media supported him, but most Americans and the popular media looked on him as a suspicious character. Matters improved as anticommunist furor declined, particularly after Democrats won the 1960 election. By the ’60s many prominent officials supported restoring Oppenheimer’s security clearance, but this didn’t happen; he refused to submit to another hearing, and the administration was reluctant to risk another controversy. Wolverton makes a good case that Oppenheimer led a satisfying life until the end. He maintained an intense concern with scientific policy and preventing nuclear war, always enjoyed a respectful audience and remained an establishment spokesman, never a gadfly like Linus Pauling or Leo Szilard. He vehemently objected to artists and historians who portrayed him as a tragic figure tormented by remorse over his role in developing the bomb.
A sympathetic account of a brilliant but enigmatic giant of 20th-century science.