Broken by Secrets: Robert Oppenheimer and the Early Atomic Age

Gen. Leslie Groves speaks at a ceremony honoring Robert Oppenheimer, far left, in Los Alamos in 1945. Courtesy/Palace of the Governors Archives

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  • A Free First Friday Evening Talk

SANTA FE—Less than a decade after he helped craft the weapons that helped bring an end to World War II, Robert Oppenheimer was stripped of his top security clearance.

In a public display played out in the nation’s newspapers, he was removed as even an advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission. Learn more about “Oppie’s” fall from grace when Dr. Jon Hunner, interim director of the New Mexico History Museum, speaks on “Broken by Secrets: Robert Oppenheimer and the Early Atomic Age.” The Free First Friday Evening Talk is 6 p.m., Oct. 3 in the Meem Community Room. (Museum admission is free 5-8 p.m.)

Hunner, a history professor at New Mexico State University, is author of two books about the Manhattan Project and its aftermath, Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004) and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Cold War, and the Atomic West (University of Oklahoma Press, 2009).

The latter book explored Oppenheimer’s complicated life, from a privileged childhood on the Upper East Side of New York to a gold-plated education at Harvard and prestigious universities in England and Germany. Even before earning a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, Oppie found refuge in New Mexico when he traveled around the state at age 18 while recuperating from a yearlong illness.

In the 1930s, while teaching at Berkeley and Cal Tech, he spent summers in New Mexico to recover from his hectic teaching and research duties. When World War II came, Oppie turned once again to New Mexico as he sought a place for a top-secret laboratory to create an atomic weapon.

Oppenheimer’s leadership at Los Alamos helped the lab to create two types of atomic bombs and laid the groundwork for ongoing research. After the war, he stayed involved with nuclear matters as he served on committees for the federal government that decided what to do with nuclear weapons and atomic energy. He was by turns gracious and then inhospitable, managing to make enemies personally as well as professionally. In 1953, those enemies conspired to remove his influence from the debate on the future of the country’s atomic policies.

From a hero of World War II who helped end the war in August 1945 to a scapegoat who was accused of being a Soviet spy, Oppie stands at the center of a complicated Cold War story that illustrated the impact of atomic weapons on the early post war period.

“He was an ambitious scientist, a gifted communicator, and thoughtful intellect who sought ethical ways to deal with a weapon of mass destruction,” Hunner said. “Historians in the future might look at Los Alamos and the creation of the atomic bomb as a key moment in not just 20th century, but in human history.”