Henry DeWolf Smyth—A.B. and Ph.D. Princeton, and Joseph Henry Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at Princeton since his retirement last year—helped shape U.S. nuclear policies under five Presidents; as general consultant to the Manhattan District, member of the AEC, and author of the famous “Smyth Report” (Atomic Energy for Military Purposes). He is U.S. Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Commission. This appraisal is from the memorial service for J. Robert Oppenheimer in Princeton’s Alexander Hall, February 25, 1967.

Three days ago the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency interrupted its deliberations in Vienna to pay tribute to the memory of Robert Oppenheimer. This was an appropriate action because we were discussing the future of the Center of Theoretical Physics in Trieste, and Dr. Oppenheimer had been a member of the Scientific Council advisory to that Center. But the tribute was quite clearly wider in purpose. The members of the Board of Governors, representing 25 nations from all parts of the world, were recognizing Dr. Oppenheimer’s achievements as a world famous scientist, and as one concerned with efforts to control the forces of nuclear energy which so endanger the whole world.

This afternoon we are united here in Princeton to review the contributions that Robert Oppenheimer has made to science and to the service science can render to humanity. I can touch on only a few of these contributions.

I do not remember when I first met Robert Oppenheimer, but I do remember getting to him well at Berkeley when my wife and I spent a few months there in the spring of 1940. Far more than others whom we met there, he was aware of the implications of the war which had broken out in Europe. Neither he nor anyone could have anticipated the enormous contributions he was to make to the efforts of America and her allies in that war.

His principal contribution was as leader of the Los Alamos Laboratory. In the first two years of the Manhattan District—that is, the American efforts to produce an atomic bomb—a number of laboratories were set up. It became apparent that work on the actual design and development of the weapon needed to be concentrated in one place. Oppenheimer was one of the first to realize the necessity for such concentration. The two chief arguments for it were that maximum interchange of ideas among those working was essential and, at the same time, maximum secrecy mush enshroud the work of the group as a whole.

General Groves recognized this need, as did others, and it was decided to set up a new laboratory in an isolated location. After considerable search, Los Alamos, New Mexico, was chosen as the site. It was a lofty mesa in the mountains of northern New Mexico, bare, save for a small school, and accessible only by a narrow mountain road.

Perhaps the most important decision General Groves made was to choose Robert Oppenheimer as the Director of the new laboratory. It was an unusual choice since Oppenheimer had had no administrative experience. But Groves recognized that a man who had been so successful as a teacher and idol of brilliant students must have qualities of leadership.

One of the first decisions was whether Los Alamos should be a military or a civilian laboratory. The scientists argued for civilian status, and won. Civilian status made it easier to recruit students and made the atmosphere one of normal scientific collaboration, uncluttered by questions of rank and military protocol. Within the laboratory free interchange of information was encouraged.

Let me emphasize what an extraordinary achievement of leadership, organization and administration this enterprise became. Oppenheimer came to Santa Fe on March 15, 1943. Within a few weeks a considerable group of able physicists began to gather around him. The largest group, incidentally, came from Princeton. Within the same weeks, equipment was sent in from all parts of the country. By the end of July 1943, much of this equipment had been set up and the first significant experiments on plutonium had been conducted. Before the explosion of the first atomic bomb in the summer of 1945, Los Alamos had become a first-class research laboratory. It had also established a number of development groups working on the production of highly purified materials—in some cases materials practically unknown a few months before, on engineering hardware, on ordinance and on testing. It had even been necessary to establish some specialized production facilities on almost a factory basis.

On January 12, 1946, the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, awarded the Medal of Merit to Robert Oppenheimer.

The citation which accompanied the Award carried these words over the signature of President Truman:

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service to the War Department, in brilliant accomplishments involving great responsibility and scientific distinction in connection with the development of the greatest military weapon of all time, the atomic bomb. As Director of the Atomic Bomb Project Laboratory in New Mexico, his great scientific experience and ability, his inexhaustible energy, his rare capacity as an organizer and executive, his initiative and resourcefulness, and his unswerving devotion to duty have contributed immeasurably to the successful attainment of the objective.

Yet neither Robert Oppenheimer nor other thoughtful people connected with this project were entirely happy at its success. They had a feeling not of guilt but of regret. They regretted that the laws of nature permitted the development of atomic weapons. Dr. Oppenheimer once said, “Scientists are not delinquents; our work has changed the conditions under which men live, but the use made of those changes is the problem of governments, not of scientists.” In spite of this disclaimer of responsibility, a large part of his energy since 1945 has been devoted to urging the control of the forces which he had helped to set free.

In the post-war period the first problem was a domestic one. How should the work of the Manhattan District be carried forward? This led to the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission in the fall of 1946, and to the appointment of a General Advisory Committee to that Commission, with Dr. Oppenheimer as one of the members. Equally important was the problem of international control. In January of 1946, Mr. Byrnes, then Secretary of State, appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Acheson. This committee shortly appointed a panel of consultants under the chairmanship of Mr. Lilienthal with Dr. Oppenheimer as one of the members. It fell to Oppenheimer’s lot to educate his colleagues. After a period of intensive labor this panel produced a report in the preparation of which Oppenheimer played a major role. Commonly known as the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, it is dated March 16, 1946. In it will be found many of the ideas that have continued to be studied as possible ways of limiting the manufacture and use of atomic weapons on an international basis. On March 18, 1946, Bernard Baruch was appointed as the American representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. In retrospect, many of the ideas advanced by Mr. Baruch in the United Nations still seem to be sound. Oppenheimer continued to make a contribution as one of Baruch’s most important scientific advisers. Unfortunately, the international political atmosphere of the time made success impossible. It is only now—20 years later—that there seems to be some prospect of the kind of international control of nuclear weapons which would have been far easier technically in 1946. If, indeed, a non-proliferation treaty is achieved, those who labored so valiantly for the Baruch Plan can be thanked for laying much of the groundwork.

During this period Dr. Oppenheimer was serving as Chairman of General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission as well as adviser to various parts of the United States Government. Leaving Los Alamos shortly after the end of the war, he returned to Berkeley as a Professor of Physics, but then had accepted the position as Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1947.

In the fall of 1949 it was learned that the Russians had exploded an atomic bomb. This led to a general review of our atomic weapon program and, in particular, to the so-called “Hydrogen Bomb Decision.” Let me emphasize that the political and technical factors involved in this consideration have never been fairly presented. The situation was so complex as to justify differing conclusions as to the wisest course to be pursued. Opinions in the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, and among the five Commissioners themselves, varied. The predominant flavor of the thinking in the General Advisory Committee under the chairmanship of Oppenheimer was opposed to an immediate “crash” program. This was a view entirely tenable by farseeing and honorable men. It is a tragedy of our time that this view was later to be used against Dr. Oppenheimer.

On June 29, 1954, the United States Atomic Energy Commission handed down its decision in the matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. By a vote of four commissioners to one, the majority opinion concluded that Dr. Oppenheimer’s clearance should not be reinstated and that he should be denied access to restricted data. As the sole commissioner to dissent from the majority opinion, I voted to reinstate Dr. Oppenheimer’s clearance on the grounds that careful and objective examination of the total evidence in the massive available record of Dr. Oppenheimer’s life did not support the severe conclusions of the majority that he should be debarred from serving his country.

I would like to repeat today the last sentence in my dissenting opinion of June, 1954: “I prefer the positive statement that Dr. Oppenheimer’s further employment will continue to strengthen the United States.”

In judging the Oppenheimer Case, we should remember that the winter and spring of 1954 marked the height of the McCarthy period. It was a horrible period in American history, and we paid horribly for it.

The tragedy of 1954 ended Dr. Oppenheimer’s direct connection with the Government of the United States. In spite of it, his influence in this country and abroad was not lessened; perhaps it was even enhanced. This was the more so because of the quiet courage with which he and his wife continued to conduct themselves.

Such a wrong can never be righted, such a blot on our history never erased. We can at least be thankful that belatedly an attempt was made to set the record straight. In April 1963, the Atomic Energy Commission announced that the highest honor it could bestow, the Fermi Award, would be given to Robert Oppenheimer the following December. This decision of the Atomic Energy Commission, with the concurrence of the White House, was made while President Kennedy was alive. The Award was presented by President Johnson on December 2, 1963, with this Citation:

Dr. Oppenheimer, I am pleased that you are here today to receive formal recognition for your many contributions to theoretical physics and to the advancement of science in our nation. Your leadership in the development of an outstanding school of theoretical physics in the United States and your contributions to our basic knowledge make your achievements unique in the scientific world. Even more unique is the demonstration of your scientific and administrative leadership in the forging together of many diverse ideas and experiments in our war effort at Los Alamos and elsewhere.

In conclusion, I would like to speak of the place of Robert Oppenheimer in this community. In this small town of Princeton, we have been proud to have him as a leading citizen. Princeton University has continued to enjoy close and happy relations with the Institute for Advanced Study. Our scientists rejoiced in their opportunity to know Robert Oppenheimer as a physicist and as a man. We share his deep regret that a brilliant discovery of science had to be perverted to an appalling weapon. We regret that his great work for his country was repaid so shabbily, and that he should ever have felt impelled to quote these lines of Shakespeare: The sad account Which I knew pay as if not paid before. If he paid heavily, as indeed he did, we hope he knew how greatly his country and the world would have been rewarded by work.

This was originally published in the March 14, 1967 issue of PAW.