In October 16, 1945, Oppenheimer resigned from his position as director of Los Alamos, intending to return to academic life. Within two years, he was appointed to the directorship of Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, the world-renowned center of thought whose best known scholar in resident was Albert Einstein.
But academia proved too tame for Oppenheimer. His years at Los Alamos had given him a taste for power, fame, and the shaping of public policy, and he wasn't yet ready to turn his back on public life. Oppenheimer had never succeeded in making a name for himself as a physicist, but he'd had phenomenal success as an administrator and public figure–the government welcomed him back into service with open arms.
Oppenheimer had become an international symbol for the success of American physics, and his popularity and experience easily translated into prestige and influence in Washington, D.C. The creation of the atomic bomb represented an amazing achievement for the United States, but now the United States, specifically the United States government, needed to figure out what to do with it. Oppenheimer was ready and willing to put in his two cents.
Shortly after Hiroshima, Oppenheimer testified in support of the May-Johnson bill, which turned the Manhattan Project into a permanent program and gave permanent control of the project over to the military. Oppenheimer supported the bill in the hopes that it represented a move toward some form of international control over nuclear power. However, many of his colleagues were appalled that any scientist would support putting science into the hands of the government. They questioned whether the taste of political power had corrupted his scientific integrity.
Undaunted by criticism, Oppenheimer continued in his attempt to place the nuclear arsenal under international control. In 1946, Oppenheimer helped to author a plan that would be presented to the United Nations Atomic Energy Committee. Known as the Baruch Plan, the program would establish a world authority, to be administered by the UN, that would control all atomic energy research and development. The Soviet Union would open its labs to international inspection, and the United States would turn its bombs into power plants. When Bernard Baruch, Truman's designated representative, presented the idea to the UN, he insisted that under his plan, no nation could have veto power. Insistent on not compromising their veto power, the Soviet Union immediately rejected the Baruch Plan. It's likely that the Soviets would have rejected the plan no matter what, as it did not fit into their nuclear strategy–to either eliminate the United States' nuclear arsenal, or to develop their own nuclear weapons as soon as possible. The United States and the Soviet Union were deadlocked, and negotiations soon fell apart.
Oppenheimer never lost sight of his goal, however, which was to establish some form of peaceful, international control over nuclear weaponry or, barring that, to ensure that the United States government acted responsibly when it came to the American nuclear arsenal. Contrary to what some later believed, Oppenheimer was not against nuclear weapons. In fact, he agreed with the majority of the country that nuclear weapons were essential to protecting the nation's security. However, Oppenheimer would always feel partly responsible for introducing nuclear weapons into the world and felt it was his responsibility to monitor and attempt to influence how they were used.
For the next several years, Oppenheimer was a familiar face around Washington. Nuclear physics was the hot topic of the decade, so Oppenheimer had ample opportunity to speak his mind. If there was a government committee meeting, hearing, or panel on nuclear weapons, chances are that Oppenheimer was in attendance and probably running the show. In 1946, he was appointed to the new Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the government agency that replaced the Manhattan Project and oversaw the country's nuclear research. He was then appointed chairman of the commission's General Advisory Committee (GAC).
And this was only the beginning. In the years from 1945 through 1953, Oppenheimer served on the Scientific Panel of the War Department's Interim Committee, the President's Evaluation Committee for Operation Crossroads, the Joint Research and Development Board's Committee on Atomic Energy, the Naval Research Advisory Committee, the Science Advisory Committee of the Office of Defense Mobilization, and the Secretary of State's Panel on Disarmament.
For almost a decade, Oppenheimer was the consummate Washington insider, which must only have a made it a greater shock when Washington suddenly shut him out.
I was disturbed by this edition of Spark Notes. Oppenheimer got a raw deal but he brought a lot of the problems on himself. His wife, girlfriend, brother, and many of his friends had ties to the Communist Party. He lied to investigators about his relationships. Considering that the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb with help from their agents in the US like Klaus Fuchs, concerns about Oppenheimer were more than justified. Also, General Groves testified at the hearing - not a trial - that he would not approve Oppenheimer's security cle... Read more→