As the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer has had more influence than almost any other scientist in the course of the twentieth century. However, his own encounters with some of the most significant events of the last hundred years had an equally great influence on his own life. Were it not for events such as the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, Oppenheimer may have quietly lived out his professional life in relative obscurity, gaining the respect of his peers but garnering little national attention beyond the scope of the scientific community. As it was, and thanks in large part to the events around him, Oppenheimer was propelled into public life and gained an international notoriety for his leadership over the development of the world's first atomic weapon.
The twentieth century began with a period of enthusiasm and hope for the future. Oppenheimer was born into a world fascinated by the possibilities of science. Revolutionary technological advances had changed the way of life for all Americans, as cars, phones, and electric power all became commonplace.
However, by the time Oppenheimer had reached adulthood, the outlook for the American future seemed significantly gloomier. The country had emerged from World War I triumphant, only to plunge into a drastic and seemingly never-ending economic depression. Known as the Great Depression, the economic shutdown paralyzed the country. Few were able to find jobs, money became nearly worthless, and families starved. Watching the Great Depression destroy his beloved students helped force the young Oppenheimer to realize that political and current events might be worth noticing.
As the Depression ended, the world soon faced a new peril: World War II. Country after country joined the battle, but the United States abstained from taking part, supporting the Allied forces, but refusing to get involved. In 1941, Japan forced the country's hand, bombing the American military base at Pearl Harbor in a deliberate act of war. The United States immediately entered the world war, battling both Japan and Hitler's fascist forces across Europe.
Historians have called World War II "the physicists' war," because of the many crucial contributions to military technology that a fleet of physicists made through the war years. Perhaps the greatest of these contributions was the creation of the world's first atomic bomb. Physicists flocked to join the Manhattan Project, the largest and most expensive physics program in history. The project was a success, ushering the world into a new era: the nuclear age. While there are now those who debate the wisdom and morality of the United States dropping a bomb on Japan, at the time, the majority of the country was in full support of the action. It soon became common wisdom that a strong nuclear arsenal was necessary to the preservation of national security. This mentality would continue for decades and lead to a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, as each country struggled to gain the atomic upper hand over its rival.
Once the United States had vanquished the Axis powers in World War II, the country found itself with a new enemy: the Soviet Union. While tension had existed between the United States and the Soviet Union for decades, the period just after the war saw a drastic increase in hostilities. The two countries soon found themselves in what was called the Cold War, a state of hostility and wariness, as each country continually suspected the other to be on the brink of declaring war.
The introduction of nuclear weapons into this hotbed of fear, hostility, and paranoia heated things up even more, magnifying both fears and suspicions as it became clear that a nuclear war would mean annihilation for at least one of the powers involved. Powerless to change things abroad, the United States redirected its fear of the Soviet Union inward, toward its own people, during the dark period of McCarthyism. The leaders of this movement believed communism to be an insidious and powerful force that had already infiltrated the country. The communist hunters targeted figures from all areas of American life–Hollywood, the arts, academia, the scientific community, and the government itself. Oppenheimer was only one of many to be targeted as a potential communist and drummed out of public life.
Oppenheimer died in 1967, but his nuclear legacy lived on. The United States is still wrestling with the question of how to preserve the safety of a world in which nuclear weapons exist. Having lost its nuclear monopoly long ago, the country must live with the fact that the destiny of the world lies in a number of hands–some friendly, some hostile. Oppenheimer wanted nothing more than to usher in an age of peace but was instead responsible for introducing the world to a new way of waging war.