In 1954, Robert Oppenheimer was subjected to what was rightly called “an extraordinary American inquisition” (Stern 1969) under the name of a security hearing. Despite having served his country so devotedly in heading the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, he was now publicly humiliated, condemned as a security risk, stripped of his security clearance, and forced to step down from his government consultancies. Those hearings were skewed and manipulated in McCarthyite fashion. But while extremely harmful professionally and personally, the hearings were not Oppenheimer’s greatest tragedy.
His greatest tragedy was the success of his leadership in the creation of the weapon. His remarkable gifts as a physicist and as a human being were most realized in the building of a weapon that could lead to the destruction of humankind.
To be sure, Oppenheimer also achieved renown as a brilliant teacher of the new physics—the quantum mechanics he had himself studied in Europe. And he did make discoveries in physics of lasting importance (though they were restless and varied rather than constituting a major development). But the “American Prometheus,” as his biographers termed him, found his greatest life achievement in the creation of an instrument of genocide. [Continue reading…]