From the director's chair

Six Los Alamos leaders reflect on Oppenheimer’s legacy.

By Jill Gibson | July 19, 2023

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Oppenheimer sits in his old director's chair during a visit to Los Alamos in 1964. This photo appeared in the June 1964 issue of The Atom magazine with the caption: “The famed scientist…tried the old executive chair he used as Laboratory director. Oppenheimer noted that it was ‘still very hard.’” Los Alamos National Laboratory

Including J. Robert Oppenheimer, 12 directors have sat at the helm of what is now Los Alamos National Laboratory. Each brought his own background, management style, and individual beliefs to the Lab. Despite their differences, the directors who followed Oppenheimer shared a deep respect for the Laboratory’s first director. Here, six former directors reflect on the leadership legacy Oppenheimer left behind.

Siegfried Hecker

When I became the fifth director of Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1986, I was following in Oppenheimer’s footsteps, but I could never step into his shoes. Throughout my career, I have carefully avoided trying to compare myself to Oppenheimer. He was a giant among giants whose legacy has influenced all things nuclear, including most of my career.

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Recently I became the chair of the board of sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group created by Albert Einstein and first led by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Over the years I have spent as a professor at Stanford University, Texas A&M University, and Middlebury College, my teaching has been founded on Oppenheimer’s research, writing, and concerns for the future. I find myself often referencing him when writing and delivering talks.

As a scientist, much of my research has been on plutonium. Oppenheimer, long after his tenure at Los Alamos, once reflected that “plutonium turned out not to be a cozy metal … It was a terrible test from beginning to end. It never stayed quiet: it gets hot, it is radioactive, you cannot touch it, you have to coat it, and the coating always peels … It is just a terrible substance, and it is one reason why … it has never been used for peaceful atomic power because you cannot buy anyone to pay any attention to it.”

Well, I began to pay attention to plutonium as a summer graduate student at Los Alamos in June 1965. In 1983, for the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Laboratory, I coauthored an article titled, “Plutonium—A Wartime Nightmare but a Metallurgist’s Dream,” that enumerated the scientific and technical complexities of plutonium. The full range of plutonium’s complexities continue to be under intense study at the Lab today.

Early in my directorship, the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, which led to my first of 57 trips to Russia. Academician Yuli Borisovich Khariton introduced himself with his hand extended as I stepped off the plane at the Sarov airfield on February 23, 1992. At age 88, his hand was a bit weak, but his smile was strong, and his eyes were warm as if greeting a long-lost friend. He had been the scientific director of the Russian Los Alamos since the beginning of the program in 1946. Khariton described the history of the atomic project in Russia. He addressed us in excellent English (with a decidedly British accent picked up during his graduate studies at Cambridge).  

Seven years later, I was asked to give a talk at the Khariton Scientific Conference in Sarov held to honor Khariton three years after his death. I captured Khariton’s admiration of Oppenheimer in a slide comparing what they had in common as first pointed out to me by Khariton. They had the same first name because the “J” in J. Robert Oppenheimer stood for Julius, the English version of Yuli. They were born in the same year, 1904. They both studied at Cambridge in 1926, although they did not know each other. They both gained an appreciation for the arts from their mothers. They were also, of course, the first scientific directors of the first nuclear weapons institutes in each country.

In the slide, I showed portraits of Khariton and Oppenheimer. After the talk, one of their legendary nuclear designers, Academician Yuri Trutnev, congratulated me on a fine talk. He asked me to explain, however, why the chest of their Russian hero, Yuli Khariton, was bedecked with medals whereas Oppenheimer had none. I was quick on my feet with the reply, “In America, sometimes we don’t treat our heroes well.” I am sure that Trutnev knew of the fateful U.S. government 1954 decision not to renew Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Fortunately, now some 68 years later, Department of Energy Secretary Granholm has finally vacated that decision.

John Browne 

I came to Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL) in 1979, and during the 24 years I worked there, I came to understand that J. Robert Oppenheimer left an important legacy on Los Alamos that can be seen in many areas. Oppie created the atmosphere and the conditions from which LASL would become a first-rate laboratory. One key aspect was Oppie’s search for the best scientific minds to help accomplish Project Y, as the Los Alamos role in the Manhattan project was known. That tradition of attracting the best talent has been key to the Laboratory’s success throughout its history.

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Although Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist, he built the success of Project Y on the blending of theory with experimentation and computation. That three-legged stool still serves the Laboratory’s approach to problem-solving today. Future directors built on Oppie’s approach, particularly Norris Bradbury, who was faced with creating from Project Y a national laboratory, christened LASL in 1947.

Another aspect of Oppie’s legacy that has continued to thrive at Los Alamos is the importance of allowing intellectual curiosity, which was certainly one of the reasons I joined Los Alamos. This creative “Oppie” atmosphere has been enhanced by technical colloquia open to all scientific staff, by connections to universities through students and faculty, and by collaborations with the international scientific community. There is a famous photograph from Project Y showing Oppenheimer and some scientific staff, including Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman, at a technical colloquium. That image sums up my vision to have as much open participation as possible to solve difficult technical problems. I was not fortunate enough to meet Oppenheimer, but I did get to interact with some of his contemporaries, including Eugene Wigner, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and John Wheeler. Although I cannot claim that Oppenheimer affected their approaches to science, I did observe that they each supported that same atmosphere for the conduct of science. 

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Los Alamos Directors (f rom left) Charles McMillan, Michael Anastasio, John Browne, Bob Kuckuck, Don Kerr, and Terry Wallace gather in front of an Oppenheimer quote in 2018. The wall behind them reads: “There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors."

Robert Kuckuck

The success of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos was of course remarkable, and there is strong consensus that Oppenheimer’s leadership was a major factor. I see that success as consisting of two major achievements: the bomb of course, and also the creation of a working model for engaging research scientists to team with the government and the military in the service of meeting national priorities. The Manhattan Project was the first effort of such magnitude in the history of the world. 

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With respect to the primary achievement, creating the bomb, Oppenheimer exhibited exceptional skill in attracting, motivating, organizing, and guiding a remarkably diverse collection of brilliant minds, ranging in personalities from Edward Teller to Hans Bethe.  Given Oppenheimer’s own complicated personality, this successful exhibition of “people skills” may have even been considered surprising to some. 

The second accomplishment, teaming scientists with the military, was also no mean task.  The contrast between scientists’ needs for informal and open communication, collaboration, and the freedom to follow the data in real time, versus the military’s hierarchical and rigid formality and the need for firm planning and secrecy, was challenging.  Achieving a successful working relationship, which became fundamental to the creation of the nation’s Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (of which Los Alamos National Laboratory is one), has proven to be of significant and lasting value to the nation.

Oppenheimer’s project was unique.  It had a single objective, and Hitler and the war provided extremely clear purpose and motivation, particularly to those displaced European scientists at Los Alamos. I believe that many of Oppenheimer’s skills, particularly the “people skills” he exhibited, are relevant, in fact universal, and apply today across the many programs and projects of our national laboratories just as they did at that time to his single project on “The Hill.” The broader roles and social interfaces encountered today by our national laboratories may demand an even greater weight being placed on “people skills.” 

With respect to Oppenheimer defending internal openness, communication, and inclusion among the scientists to insulate them from General Groves’ pressures for compartmentalization and secrecy, I believe today’s leaders face similar pressures from the government. The ever-increasing pressure for excessive external oversight and micromanagement is exacting serious time and resource inefficiencies upon the laboratories’ research. 

Today’s leaders can take notice and encouragement from Oppie’s success in establishing an environment conducive to scientific research and build upon that to continually optimize the national environment and opportunities for conducting science in the service of the nation.

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Charles McMillan

Among the many interesting artifacts in the Los Alamos archives is a letter to Oppenheimer from his bank, on the back of which he scribbled a set of questions that appear to have served as a project plan for the Manhattan Project. Through interactions with his graduate students, Oppenheimer seems to have honed his ability to ask questions, questions that provided critical insights into problems and served as prompts for the future.

For these reasons, it has always seemed to me that a good question is worth more than a good answer. Thus, I admire Oppie’s ability to ask just the right questions—questions that might break open a topic for the people of the Lab or help to organize a difficult subject. I have attempted to follow his example throughout my career.

Terry Wallace, Jr.

It is difficult across the chasm of 80 years to understand the “social” dynamics of the success of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. Only two years and a few months passed between assembling the most talented scientific and engineering team in the history of the world and the successful detonation of an atomic bomb on July 16, 1945. In hindsight, there are far more reasons why it should never have succeeded: the task was enormous, and human conflict, bad decisions, accidents, or even bad luck could have delayed the weapon months or years. However, the success must be laid on the incredible leadership of Oppenheimer. 

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By 1940, Oppenheimer was arguably the most talented theoretical physicist in America, even if he was not the most decorated. That extraordinary competence was one of the pillars of Oppenheimer’s leadership. Without the respect of the professional skill of J. Robert, the collection of extraordinary scientists and engineers would have likely not focused on collective success. 

The second pillar of Oppenheimer’s leadership was his charisma, which was not about his ego; he was great at involving everyone. He was a polymath who could engage on topics from Indian mythology to collecting minerals (as a child Oppenheimer was a mineral collector—perhaps the only thing he and I have in common). When Oppenheimer first taught at the California Institute of Technology in the 1930s, he was a terrible teacher. He was boring and disorganized. He realized that he was ineffective, so he worked to become a great teacher. He learned to teach to the individuals in the class. It was this ability to connect to people that made him an effective and charismatic leader.

The third pillar of Oppenheimer’s leadership was integrity. The Los Alamos staff trusted him. 

The last pillar was sharing success. Oppenheimer never claimed credit for the success of the Los Alamos part of the Manhattan Project. He made sure that the success was recognized as a collective effort. 

Brilliant, charismatic, honest and gracious, Oppenheimer left a leadership legacy for all future directors at Los Alamos.

Thom Mason
2018 to present

I have often reflected on Oppenheimer’s legacy. In a certain sense, Oppenheimer defined the idea of what a lab director should be. Prior to the Manhattan Project, there really wasn’t a concept of national laboratories, so, as one of the first lab directors and probably the most iconic, Oppenheimer serves as a reference point and role model. He clearly worked to impart on his staff a strong sense of the national security mission, its urgency, and the need to bring the right people to bear on the problems. People felt motivated to live up to his high expectations—that was one of the reasons behind his success. I think he also saw part of his role was to serve as a buffer between the Lab and the external forces represented by senior policymakers: the military, and federal bureaucracy. He shielded the Lab from some of those factors so the staff could focus on the challenging technical issues that had to be overcome.

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Oppenheimer had almost no prior management experience, so it was really a leap of faith that General Leslie Groves put him in charge. Oppenheimer was trained as a scientist, not a bureaucrat, or a manager, and this emphasis on lab directors having scientific backgrounds continues today. I think it’s a strength that the Department of Energy continues to choose people with strong technical backgrounds for senior leadership roles. Even though no one can be an expert in all areas of science and engineering, a scientific background creates credibility with the staff and informs key decisions. That was important during the Manhattan Project, and it’s important today.

I think at the Lab we have a desire to protect Oppenheimer’s legacy. Recently, I worked closely with eight former Los Alamos directors to nullify the 1954 revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance. We all agreed that this was something that needed to be done. In a certain sense, it’s a small gesture, many decades too late, but that’s not a reason not to do it. It was past time to shine a bright light on a dark spot in U.S. history.

Oppenheimer’s legacy is part of what makes Los Alamos so special. The employees are so brilliant, so creative that I often find it mind-boggling to see the depth of talent here. This was also true during the Manhattan Project. That’s one of the key lessons that Oppenheimer left behind for future lab directors—success starts with an exceptional team. ★