J. Robert Oppenheimer
Reconstructing the Legacy
After the final decision was made to remove his security clearance, Oppenheimer fled the scene of his disgrace, taking his family on vacation to their house in the Virgin Islands. He eventually returned to the Institute for Advanced Study. Although his opponents had tried to convince the school not to renew his position as director, they had been unsuccessful.
Oppenheimer's life was riddled with ironies and contradictions. A consummate theorist, Oppenheimer led the greatest experimental endeavor of the twentieth century. A lover of peace, he became the man most responsible for a new era of war. Oppenheimer built his career on the development of the most powerful weapon in history, but then he saw that career destroyed by the development of an even more powerful one. But perhaps the greatest contradiction inherent in the Oppenheimer story is that Oppenheimer was the man trusted with the nation's greatest secret in a time of peril, the man who spearheaded the greatest scientific enterprise of the twentieth century, and the man who, during the war years, seemed to hold the fate of the world in his hands. And yet, in the end, he was thrown away by a government who labeled him arrogant, naïve, and duplicitous. He served his country–and helped save his country–and in return was publicly humiliated and cast aside.
Oppenheimer's exile was short-lived. Joseph McCarthy himself was publicly disgraced, and when McCarthy died in 1957, McCarthyism died with him. Perhaps a bit embarrassed by their treatment of Oppenheimer, the country offered him an act of contrition; in 1963, the General Advisory Committee of the AEC awarded him the Enrico Fermi Award for Excellence in the field of nuclear research. Edward Teller, father of the Super and former enemy of Oppenheimer, had won it the year before.
But the government's conciliation proved a case of too little, too late. Oppenheimer continued to make public appearances in support of his beliefs about nuclear power and, as the years went on, he gained the increasing respect of the public for both his Los Alamos and post-war activities. But he never again reached the heights of his prominence of the 1940s, nor did he ever fully recover from the lows of the 1950s. Oppenheimer died of throat cancer on February 18, 1967, at the age of 62. Now, from a distance of several decades, it is easier than ever to see the remarkable impact that Oppenheimer made on American life.