The Oppenheimer issue

The undisputed genius, charismatic leader, and fallen hero was also the first director of what is today Los Alamos National Laboratory.

By Brye Steeves | July 19, 2023

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National Security Science art director Brenda Fleming created this issue’s cover art using digital oil paints and watercolor brushes. “I’ve seen hundreds of black and white photos of Oppenheimer,” she says. “I hoped a color portrait would not only capture Oppie’s piercing blue eyes but also convey how alive his legacy is today.” Los Alamos National Laboratory

This issue of National Security Science magazine explores the dynamic legacy of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who came to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943 to direct the top-secret weapons laboratory of the Manhattan Project. In just 27 months, as the world would later learn, he led the effort to create the atomic bomb, helping end World War II.

These scientific achievements brought the secret lab into the public eye and the world into the Atomic Age, with Oppenheimer as the face of both.

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Brye Steeves

In many ways, his legacy is our legacy. True to its beginnings, Los Alamos National Laboratory has remained a locus of collaborative innovation and held its position at the forefront of national security research, development, and stewardship throughout its 80-year history.

Laboratory contributions to nuclear science, including many by Oppenheimer himself, have been preserved through the decades and are archived in the Lab’s National Security Research Center (NSRC). The NSRC began as Oppenheimer’s wartime technical library and today serves as a leading research institution, curating millions of classified holdings that are accessed daily by researchers in support of our national security.

The NSRC also curates unclassified collections of historical value. These photos, films, documents, and other media include details about Oppenheimer that may otherwise have been lost to time. Thanks to Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer film being released this summer, many stories about the Lab’s founding director are being shared with renewed interest.

The NSRC, too, is creating an Oppenheimer film. The documentary is based on the historical information in NSRC collections as well as interviews with Laboratory staff, current Lab Director Thom Mason, and Oppenheimer biographers Kai Bird and Jim Kunetka, authors of American Prometheus and The General and the Genius, respectively.

Over the years, the NSRC has written extensively about Oppenheimer. He appears in presentations and has been the subject of podcasts. Oppenheimer was a complex, complicated man, but he can certainly be better understood through these stories.

I particularly like the anecdote of him as a 12-year-old boy presenting his research paper to the New York Mineralogical Club and subsequently being made an honorary member. Or, the story of Oppenheimer as a young academic learning Dutch in six weeks to deliver a technical lecture in the Netherlands. (It was there he was first dubbed “Oppie,” or “Opje” in Dutch.) 

As a professor at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, Oppenheimer seemed to both inspire and influence his students, earning a loyal following—quite literally, as many joined him in Los Alamos. “Like most of his students, I would more or less follow him to the ends of the earth,” recalled Manhattan Project scientist Robert Christy in a 1983 interview.

By the time he was the director at Los Alamos, stories portray Oppenheimer as charming and charismatic, holding court at parties while sipping his signature martini and chain-smoking cigarettes.

Recollections from his directorship also point to Oppenheimer’s incredible drive and ambition. Perhaps this is what Manhattan Project leader General Leslie Groves saw in Oppenheimer beyond his lack of managerial experience and questionable past associations. According to the transcript of the call Groves made to Oppenheimer after the release of the Little Boy bomb, Groves said, “I think one of the wisest things I ever did was when I selected the director of Los Alamos.”

Personally, though, the story I like best is much lesser known and comes from Dimas Chavez, whose oral history interview is a part of the NSRC’s collections. Chavez was a young boy who didn’t speak English when he moved to Los Alamos in 1943 for his father’s new job. In the evenings, Chavez sold newspapers in front of the Lab. One of his customers had “piercing blue eyes,” a “peculiar-looking hat,” and would “always come over to me, and he’d give me a nickel or a dime as a tip—he always did.”

In town one afternoon with his father, Chavez saw Oppenheimer, who greeted the boy by name. “My dad about fainted,” Chavez recalled with a laugh. “I walked on a cloud on the way home.”

Oppenheimer’s story is varied and told by many, and it continues to evolve as new anecdotes, like Chavez’s and others you’ll read in this magazine, are shared. I hope you enjoy this timely issue of NSS. ★