Faculty Q&A: Who Was J. Robert Oppenheimer?

Author: News Bureau
Posted: Tuesday, July 25, 2023 12:00 AM
Categories: Pressroom | School of Arts and Letters | Faculty/Staff

Cochran, GA

The Trinity test of the Manhattan Project was the first detonation of a nuclear device. Image: Public domain, United States Department of Energy.

The newly released film Oppenheimer, along with its star-studded cast, has taken social media by storm. Who is J. Robert Oppenheimer, the historical figure at the center of the film? We asked Dr. Javan Frazier, #MGA history professor, for an overview of the man known as the “father of the atomic bomb.”  

Could you provide a brief overview of who J. Robert Oppenheimer was and his significance in history?

J. Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist and science administrator, noted as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory (1943–45) during development of the atomic bomb and as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (1947–66).

Oppenheimer is often referred to as the "father of the atomic bomb." Could you explain his role in the Manhattan Project, the top-secret program to make the first atomic bombs during World War II?

After the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, the physicists Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, and Eugene Wigner warned the U.S. government of the danger threatening all of humanity if the Nazis should be the first to make a nuclear bomb. These warnings prompted President Roosevelt to establish the Manhattan Project in 1941. In June 1942, Robert Oppenheimer was appointed its director. Preliminary research was being done at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but Oppenheimer set up a new research station at Los Alamos, New Mexico. There, he brought the best minds in physics to work on the problem of creating an atomic bomb. In the end he was managing more than three thousand people, as well as tackling theoretical and mechanical problems that arose.

Aside from his scientific achievements, what were some of Oppenheimer's other notable contributions to academia and society as a whole?

Oppenheimer’s early education was at the Ethical Culture School in New York. He took math and science classes, but also enthusiastically studied Greek, Latin, French, and German. He had a feel for languages and often learned one quickly just to read something in its original language. He learned Dutch in six weeks in order to give a technical talk in the Netherlands. He also maintained an interest in classics and eastern philosophy throughout his life.

He obtained his Ph.D. in Germany after graduating from Harvard in 1925 and studying at Cambridge University under Ernest Rutherford. In 1929 he returned to the United States and positions at Berkeley and Cal Tech.

Oppenheimer’s early research was devoted to energy processes of subatomic particles, including electrons, positrons, and cosmic rays. He also did groundbreaking work on neutron stars and black holes.  He was an extraordinary teacher and an excellent theoretician. His analyses predicted many later finds, such as the neutron, positron, meson, and neutron stars.

Oppenheimer faced scrutiny and controversy during the Cold War due to his associations with communist sympathizers. Could you delve into this aspect of his life and how it affected his legacy?

The rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany stirred in Oppenheimer an interest in politics. In 1936 he sided with the republic during the Civil War in Spain, where he became acquainted with communist students. Although his father’s death in 1937 left Oppenheimer a fortune that allowed him to subsidize anti-fascist organizations, the tragic suffering inflicted by Joseph Stalin on Russian scientists led him to withdraw his associations with the Communist Party - in fact, he never joined the party - and at the same time reinforced in him a liberal democratic philosophy.

After the war, Oppenheimer chaired the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. He opposed developing an even more powerful hydrogen bomb. When President Truman finally approved it, Oppenheimer did not argue, but his initial reluctance and the political climate turned against him. In 1953, at the height of U.S. anticommunist feeling, Oppenheimer was accused of having communist sympathies, and his security clearance was taken away. He had, in fact, had friends who were communists, mostly people involved in the antifascist movement of the thirties. This loss of security clearance ended Oppenheimer's influence on science policy.

As you know, a much-buzzed about movie, Oppenheimer, has just been released. (Do you plan to see it?) Why do you think there is still so much interest in the life of Oppenheimer?

I do hope to see the new movie about Oppenheimer as he optimizes the dilemmas faced by scientists before, during, and after World War II.  He was a man who wanted to “do his part” in World War II and, in particular, to stop Nazi Germany. Yet, how far should science go in unlocking the secrets of the atom? Should the vast amount of energy that was theoretically there be used in weapons?  He and other scientists wrestled with these ideas and eventually helped create America’s first atomic weapons.

After World War II, Oppenheimer worried how the new atomic weapons would be used and feared the further development of even more powerful hydrogen bombs. Yet, he also faced scrutiny for his friendships and associations with communists as the Cold War became entrenched in 1950s American society.  Eventually, Oppenheimer lost his security clearance with the federal government.  Even so, he continued his work on how nuclear weapons should be used in society.

Oppenheimer is a tragic figure of the early 20th century. He was a man who tried to help his country end a terrible, destructive war, but he helped to unleash a terrible, destructive weapon upon humanity. Oppenheimer spoke out against developing even more powerful weapons and was awarded for his stance with the loss of security clearance by the very government he had worked with to end World War II and blatant attempts to discredit him by some of the very people he had previously worked with.

As World War II recedes further into the past, with the 100th anniversary of the detonation of the first atomic device just 22 years away, it is important to understand the motivations and thinking of people like Oppenheimer regarding why they made the decisions they did and the environment they lived in while making those decisions. Some people cannot imagine developing or using atomic weapons against other people. This is an understandable attitude to have, but it is also important to understand what circumstances people faced that led some to decide to undertake a project that led to the use of nuclear weapons on people. 


Dr. Javan Frazier is professor of history at Middle Georgia State University, where he has taught since 2006.  A native of Tennessee, he graduated from Tennessee Technological University in 1996 with a B.S. in Secondary Education-Social Studies. He earned an M.A. in history at North Carolina State University in 2001 after completing his thesis entitled "Key Moments in Nuclear Cooperation between the United States and South Africa, 1953-1981."  In 2006, he graduated from Auburn University after finishing his dissertation "Atomic Apartheid: United States-South African Nuclear Relations from Truman to Reagan, 1945-1989." Frazier teaches multiple courses at MGA that include topics on the Cold War, Multicultural America, American Civil Rights, American Foreign Policy, and American History.   


Sources/Further Reading:

A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries: J. Robert Oppenheimer (pbs.org)

Robert Oppenheimer | Biography, Manhattan Project, Atomic Bomb, Significance, & Facts | Britannica