When he arrived in Princeton after World War II, J. Robert Oppenheimer was second only to Albert Einstein as the most prominent scientist in the country. The “father of the atomic bomb,” the brilliant physicist had led the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory, resulting in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war. His new appointment leading the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), an independent research center, should have been the capstone to his distinguished career. By 1954, however, Oppenheimer would be publicly disgraced, wrongly pilloried by the House Un-American Activities Committee and by Sen. Joe McCarthy as a traitor to his country.
“Oppenheimer in 1945 was hailed as a national hero by Democrats and Republicans alike, put on the cover of Time and Life,” says Kai Bird, co-author of the book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the source for Oppenheimer, a new movie released this month by Universal Pictures starring Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer), Emily Blunt (Kitty), Matt Damon (Leslie Groves), and Robert Downey Jr. (Lewis Strauss). “And then just nine years later, he’s humiliated in this secret kangaroo court proceeding and he becomes a nonentity, suspected by his critics of being disloyal at best and at worst, maybe a spy.”
Bird’s co-author Martin Sherwin, who died in 2021, started the book in 1980, assembling 50,000 pages of documents from archives, before calling in Bird to help. The book was published in 2005 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. While Oppenheimer may be known for his development of the bomb, Bird says it was his Princeton years that dedicated both authors to the story. “The Manhattan Project was interesting history, but it didn’t have a personal narrative arc to it,” Bird says. “What really made it fascinating was this tragedy that followed.”
Following the war, Oppenheimer — known to students and colleagues as Oppie — resigned his position at Los Alamos. “He was finished building weapons of mass destruction and didn’t want to have anything more to do with that,” Bird says. When Lewis Strauss, the IAS board president, recruited him, Oppenheimer jumped at the post, which came with a hefty salary and accommodation at Olden Manor, an 18th-century farmhouse with ample grounds. Founded in 1930, the institute was conceived as a quiet retreat for top scientists free from the burdens of teaching. “It was the ultimate ivory tower,” Bird says. Oppie himself called it an “intellectual hotel.” While the IAS is separate from Princeton University, the two institutions have always had a close relationship — for example, Oppenheimer gave public lectures at Princeton.
Every afternoon, fellows gathered to mingle and exchange ideas over high tea. The institute’s most famous occupant, Einstein, had been in residence since 1932, and now Oppenheimer essentially became his boss. He also recruited promising young scientists as fellows, and persuaded Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, and other leading quantum physicists to come for sabbaticals. Oppenheimer supported and encouraged the mathematician John von Neumann in the construction of the world’s first high-speed computer in the basement of Fuld Hall. “It was an amazing, groundbreaking achievement,” says Bird about the computer, which is now at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Oppenheimer also worked to make the IAS more interdisciplinary. Educated at a progressive school on the Upper West Side, he had a lifelong love of poetry and studied Sanskrit at Berkeley to read the Bhagavad Gita. “What made him a role model as a scientist is that he was a polymath,” says Bird. “Yes, he lived in this rarefied quantum physics world, but he was also a humanist.” He recruited other humanists, such as historian Arnold Toynbee, social philosopher Isaiah Berlin, and historian and diplomat George Kennan 1925, who wrote his great books on the history of Russia on Oppenheimer’s watch. He even brought the poet T.S. Eliot to Princeton for a semester.
While Oppenheimer was no doubt happy during his early years in Princeton, Bird says, his marriage became strained by his wife Kitty’s descent into alcoholism and erratic behavior. Then again, Oppenheimer could be erratic too. “He was the kind of intellectual who could be very sweet and patient with students, but he could be highhanded and rude to people who presumed to be in position of authority.” Increasingly, that meant Strauss, a man with a healthy ego, felt professionally and personally snubbed by Oppenheimer. Their personalities were set up to clash — while Strauss was a conservative, devoutly Jewish, anti-communist cold warrior, Oppenheimer was a secular Jew who made no secret of his leftist sympathies and former association with the Communist Party in the 1930s. “They were like oil and water,” Bird says.
When Strauss became head of the Atomic Energy Commission, advocating for a newer, more powerful hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer publicly came out against the weapon in the pages of Foreign Affairs. After revelations that another scientist was a spy at Los Alamos, Strauss began to suspect Oppenheimer of treason, referring him to the House Un-American Activities Committee. “He orchestrated this letter of indictment, set up this security hearing, and picked the three panelists in what became a witch hunt against Oppie,” Bird says. In 1954, the hearing was leaked to The New York Times. Eventually Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance and access to government, effectively becoming a pariah.
Despite his public disgrace, the IAS never abandoned Oppenheimer, who remained director until 1965. The following year, Princeton University gave him an honorary degree at Commencement, hailing him as a “physicist and sailor, philosopher and horseman, linguist and cook, lover of fine wine and better poetry.”
When Oppenheimer died in 1967, 600 people came to his memorial service at the University’s Alexander Hall, including Nobel laureates, politicians, scientists, and poets. “In this small town of Princeton, we have been proud to have him as a leading citizen,” said then-physics professor emeritus Henry D. Smyth 1918 *1921 during his remarks at the service, which were also published in that year’s March 14 edition of PAW. “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.”
Bird is thrilled with the film — some of which was shot on Princeton’s campus and at the Institute for Advanced Study — praising it as true to the book and Oppie’s life. “I hope it will start a national conversation about history and nuclear weapons and the Atomic Age and McCarthyism,” he says. “He was literally the chief celebrity victim of the whole McCarthy era.”