At the beginning of his time at Berkeley, Oppenheimer embodied the ivory tower intellectual, and, caring nothing for politics or current events, he isolated himself from both. Immersed in physics and spending all his spare time pondering Hindu mythology or the classics of the ancient world, Oppenheimer had no time to spare for worldly matters.
He had no phone, no radio, and never read the newspaper, and, so, was completely unaware of everything going on beyond the bounds of Berkeley. When the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression, Oppenheimer took no notice of it. After all, he lived off a trust fund from his parents, and thus he was not economically affected. He remained unaware of the country's dire straits until six months later, when someone mentioned the stock market crash to him in casual conversation.
But the events of the 1930s were soon to shock Oppenheimer out of his apathy. As he has said, seeing how the Depression affected his students forced him to understand "how deeply political and economic events could affect men's lives." It was the beginning of a newly aware, politically active Oppenheimer.
The physicist's new political resolve was soon strengthened by events abroad. Fascism had begun to take hold across Europe, as Adolf Hitler swept into power in Germany and as Spain was taken over by General Francisco Franco. Oppenheimer had German roots, and it was clear to him that Hitler was no friend of the German Jews.
His distaste for European fascism and his distress about the precarious state of the American economy may have shocked Oppenheimer into awareness, but it wasn't until he met a passionate, radical woman, Jean Tatlock, that he was propelled into action.
Tatlock was a graduate student at Berkeley, working toward a degree in psychology. She was also a member of the Communist Party. This was not unusual in the 1930s. Communism was a standard path for young liberals to take, and it was an allegiance that they often claimed quite openly at the time. The Communist Party was seen as a liberal, reformist party that worked for integration, fair wages, and other popular causes. Perhaps most appealing to Oppenheimer, the communists stood solidly against fascism, and supported the causes of oppressed peoples abroad.
Tatlock introduced Oppenheimer to the world of radical politics that thrived just below the surface at Berkeley. He joined a number of political organizations, some of which were secretly controlled by the Communist Party–although there is no evidence he was ever a member of the Party itself. He did, however, have a number of communist friends. He was in love with Jean Tatlock, and he had also befriended Haakon Chevalier, a professor of French Literature and a practicing communist. Both relationships would prove troublesome for Oppenheimer in the future. In 1936, Oppenheimer's brother Frank, also a physicist, moved to California and joined the Communist Party, which created yet another link between Oppenheimer and the communists.
But Oppenheimer's plunge into radical politics soon proved to be nothing more than a passing fancy. He broke up with Tatlock and met someone new, Kitty Harrison, and this time the relationship would stick. At the time Kitty was married to her third husband, a British doctor. Soon after meeting Oppenheimer, she got a divorce, and the two were married on November 1, 1940.
As the years went on, Oppenheimer grew increasingly disenchanted with communism. After speaking with several scientists who had actually lived in the Soviet Union, he was upset to hear of the oppressive communist way of life. The Nazi- Soviet Pact of 1939, a secret pact of nonagression between Germany and the Soviet Union, also helped damage the appeal of communism in his eyes. But the deathblow was dealt in 1942, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor–as America entered the Second World War, Oppenheimer says, "I decided that I had had about enough of the Spanish cause, and that there were other and more pressing crises in the world." At this point, according to Oppenheimer, he cast away cmmunism forever, in favor of something more appealing: American patriotism and the war effort.
In later years, Oppenheimer dismissed his flirtation with communism as just that–a boyish flirtation attributed to the foolishness of youth, a necessary stage in growing up, one which he passed through and left behind forever by the beginning of World War II. Later investigators into this period in his life weren't so sure. Did Oppenheimer carry his communist leanings with him through the 1940s? Was he more connected to the communist Party itself than he was ever willing to admit? Oppenheimer would flatly deny both these allegations. But true or not, such questions would follow him for the rest of his days.