This article originally appeared in the December 1983 issue of Esquire. To read every Esquire story ever published, upgrade to All Access.

The ferocious weapon first exploded secretly in the American desert in 1945 did not merely alter history, it loosed the power to end it. The bomb was the work of hundreds of keen minds, the foremost of which was J. Robert Oppenheimer’s. He administered Los Alamos, where the weapon took form, and the glory of the accomplishment—if glory it was—belonged to him. Sadly, so did the later realisation that what had been created was the distinct possibility of self-destruction.

THIRTY-NINE years ago come next July, Robert Oppenheimer looked across the New Mexico sands, took the fireball’s measure, and knew that he was the usher who had escorted all the creatures of the earth to the tenebrous dawn of the atomic age. Afterward he would remember—or prefer to believe—that his first conscious thought had been Krishna’s:

“I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.”

It is unlikely that he himself could say with any assurance whether here was the cry of the stricken sinner or the exultation of the conqueror. His essence was, as always, in the ambiguities of the divided soul and equivocal presence of someone who had come in triumph to a world that would have been safer if he and everyone else who tried had failed.

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BUT then he would himself have been safer if, at the hour that so precipitately discovered him, he had known enough more about the world than it had about him. He had been wrapped at birth in the soft bunting of a well-to-do German Jewish household on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive. He came to consciousness in an ambience secure—indeed, smug—about the refinement of the air it breathed but timid about the rough winds beyond. He began his education at the Ethical Culture School, a place of refuge for families that had cast aside the few rags of superstition still adhering to Reform Judaism and swaddled themselves in the credulities of secular humanism. He passed on to Harvard, where Jewish applicants from New York had no large chance of arriving unless they brought with them the promise of departing summa cum laude. He was graduated with honours more than justifying Harvard’s confidence and embarked at once for England and Christ’s College, Cambridge, and then to Germany and the University of Göttingen. At Cambridge he met Niels Bohr and Paul Dirac, and at Göttingen he studied with Max Born; the great men of theoretical physics had become familiars to him while they were still strangers to the most cultivated of his countrymen.

He earned his German doctorate back to Harvard; he had already begun to robe himself in folds of mystery; Philip Morse, a Princeton graduate student who met him at a Harvard conference on molecular vibrations, had no more vivid recollection of their first encounter than “I didn’t know what he was talking about.”

His four months at Harvard and five at the California Institute of Technology made the year 1927 the least purposeful he had ever experienced; and it was a relief for him to accept a Rockefeller Foundation grant and escape for twelve months in the European centres of the new physics that were altogether more congenial to him for being so much more aware.

He returned in the summer of 1929 to an assistant professorship at the University of California in Berkeley, where, as he afterward remembered, “I was the only one who knew what this was all about.” But even though, or perhaps because, Berkeley had so long been a desert for theoretical physics, he found it most suitable for cultivating a comfortable, if modest, bloom. Its experimentalists never quite found out what he was talking about; but they learned quickly to trust and more and more to depend on the sound and clear assessments of the practicalities of their projects he drew up from his reservoir of the indecipherable.

But for all their affectionate admiration, they never got over the sense that they were in the company of an abstract being, and they were correct in that judgment. His father’s textile properties were essentially undamaged by the Depression; and Robert Oppenheimer often recalled that in those days he so seldom glanced at the newspapers that he did not know the stock market had crashed until a long time after it had. The world’s coarse rubbings had never chafed his flesh until Hitler shocked him into a political activism that was the more febrile because belated and that so faithfully followed the customary courses of his divorcement from reality as to make him a fellow traveler of the Communists. Those delusions had already grown wispy when the outbreak of the war drew him into research on the potentials of nuclear fission for weaponry.

It was an area of exploration that gave the new physics an authority it had never known before; and Oppenheimer swiftly displayed such unique attributes as bridge between the abstract and the concrete that he was recognised as essential. His earlier leftward excursion was a source of doubts and trepidations, but they yielded to the overpowering necessity for his special qualities, and he was appointed director of the Los Alamos laboratory.

There he showed gifts of command quite beyond any suggested by either his prior history or the highest expectations of his sponsors. He persuaded a hundred scientists to leave the cozy precincts where they were already satisfactorily engaged in military research and to come with him to a closed military outpost in the desert. In the end he was managing a work force of over three thousand.

He was their inspiration, their supervisor, and even their housekeeper, and. collective triumph though theirs was, they all knew that he had done more to build the bomb than anyone else at Los Alamos. Here had been the utmost prodigy of practical achievement; and yet it had been brought about in an isolation sealed off from the run of humanity; there, as always, he had been protected from the routine troubles, discontents, and worries that instruct even while they are cankering ordinary persons, and he was transported to his glittering summit innocent of all the traps that every other man of affairs has grown used to well before he is forty-two years old.

AFTER the War the United States government established an Atomic Energy Commission, and one of its earliest decisions was to approve Robert Oppenheimer as chairman of its General Advisory Committee. One of the commissioners, Lewis Strauss, was also a leading trustee of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He saw his chance to add to its collection a jewel hardly less precious than Albert Einstein and went down on his knees to persuade Oppenheimer to be director of the institute.

The slow work of Robert Oppenheimer’s undoing began in the awe that Strauss brought to their earliest encounters. For it was the awe evoked by a presence whose singular curse was that he was easier to adore than comfortably like. The aura of otherworldly properties is the riskiest of capitals, because the gullible, once disappointed in imagining them divine, are apt to fall into imagining them diabolical. Strauss was one of nature’s gullibles, and, having come to worship, he would remain to destroy. There would be others.

As director of Los Alamos’s laboratory, he had been all else but the solitary creator of the nuclear weapon; but he had been master of its macabre ceremonies and he could not escape becoming its personification, not just for the public but for a government too quick to assume that since he produced the riddle, he must have brought along its answer. But it did not take long for his country’s governors to recognise that Oppenheimer was more riddle than answer.

To their ultimate common despair, he was conscripted as physics tutor to paladins like Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Wise-About-Everything John J. McCloy; and he was an automatic choice as scientific member of his country’s delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Control of Atomic Energy, the first flight in a search of ever-diminishing expectations.

He complained early in his tenure as chief adviser on international atomic policy that whatever he proposed was uncritically accepted. His wait for relief from that distress was a short one; within a few months his advice was being just as uncritically disregarded.

He first began to sense the limitations of his writ when President Truman asked him, in 1946, to guess when the Russians would develop their own atomic bomb. Oppenheimer replied that he did not know; and Mr. Truman said that he knew the answer and that it was “Never. ” The misapprehension of Robert Oppenheimer’s supernatural qualities had done its worst damage; Mr. Truman could not conceive that the Russians could find the secret because he could not imagine a Soviet Oppenheimer and did not understand that no such ultimately delicate instrument was needed for work rather coarser than he knew

ON November 25, 1947, the young, standing or sitting in the auditorium of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, listened as if at their devotionals while he recited science’s general confession: “. . . in some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatement can extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and that is a knowledge they cannot lose.” Half a week before, the eight other members of the General Advisory Committee had watched with no less admiration for their chairman’s dedication as he led them through the preliminaries of what they had agreed upon—“without debate [but] I suppose not without melancholy”—as their prime task: “To provide atomic weapons and many atomic weapons.”

His ambiguities were already traveling into the ambivalence that is the first leg of every journey toward exhaustion.

Long afterward, in his troubles he replied to the charge that he had been less than wholehearted in serving his government’s desires, if not its truest interests, by saying: “I did my job, the job I was supposed to do.” There was in those words a cold tone stripped of every ideal except the rules of function. It was just that pinnacle of spiritual dispossession that Robert Oppenheimer tried his best to reach, and he would fall short only because he traveled encumbered with too many pieces of baggage he could not quite bear to throw away.

He had crashingly entered the great world without bringing along enough familiarity with the ordinary one. Every famous American physicist before him had been a species of grand tinker more conspicuous for the size of his machines than the breadth of his concepts. Oppenheimer represented instead that first generation of theoretical physicists who had voyaged to Europe and brought it home with them. He thought of science almost as a religious vocation and the higher physics as the sublimest poem in its liturgy.

This susceptibility to abstraction seems the most plausible explanation for his attraction to communism in the years before he fell into practical affairs. Marx’s message could never have been as compelling as it was if he had not presumed to call his system “scientific socialism.” Oppenheimer would always say that his fear of the Nazis had first brought him close to the Communists; and yet in 1939, when Stalin consummated a treaty of friendship and even a spot of collaboration with Hitler, Oppenheimer’s reaction, while by no means uncritical, was somewhat this side of repulsion: Stalin was, after all, a scientific socialist and might know something he didn’t.

In July 1945 Edward Teller had solicited Robert Oppenheimer’s support for a muster of Los Alamos physicists petitioning Mr. Truman not to drop the bomb on Japan itself.

“He told me in a polite and convincing way,” Teller said later, “that he thought it improper for a scientist to use his prestige as a platform for political pronouncements. . . . Our fate was in the hands of the best, the most conscientious men in the nation. And they had information which we did not possess.”

Now he had taken upon himself the felt duty of speaking for physics to government and for government to physics. He would be guardian angel over an alliance with too much of the imbalance that obtains when one side is the caterer and the other is the customer and disputes about taste are settled by the palate of the payer.

Oppenheimer maintained this singular legation for five years. He was all but final judge of what could be done and what could not and, consequently, keeper of the gate between the ambitions of others and the official funds that could give them life and force.

The earliest recruits to the army of enemies that eventually overbore Oppenheimer were assembled, not unnaturally, from his oldest friends in the physics department of the University of California, the home where he had grown up and where he had met all of those he had ever consciously harmed and too many of those who would harm him.

He had risen beyond Berkeley and even beyond physics to a grandeur that is at once an affront and a promise, because its object arouses envy and inspires emulation. He had shown the way to an eminence there was no reaching except by a conquest more resounding even than his. He had become a huge shadow between other men and whatever bright particular moon they happened to be baying at.

At Berkeley Oppenheimer had never been more than an honoured guest in a house whose master was Ernest Lawrence. Lawrence had earned his Nobel Prize with the great machines he had forced to the outer limits of those laws of physics he insecurely understood and expected someday successfully to defy.

In 1946 Lawrence designed his Materials Testing Accelerator, a piece of hardware too expensively enormous even for his private patrons, his magnificoes. He laid the MTA’s conception before the AEC’s General Advisory Committee, where he sustained the shock of having it dismissed by Oppenheimer as a vision that, “imaginative” as it was, “cannot do what is expected of it.” Lawrence was too powerful for any such summary disposal; he turned, in his wrath, to the Department of Defense and the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy and so intoxicated them with his promises that the AEC could only give way and buy Lawrence his Materials Testing Accelerator, which swiftly burned itself out.

This demonstration of Oppenheimer’s sound judgment increased rather than abated Lawrence’s rage at his presumption. For at Berkeley he had taken on the ineffaceable taint of the deserter. He himself had all but ceased to search, whether because he had realised his ambition or because he had shrunk from its consequences. He could be seen as someone who existed only to frustrate the ambitions of others, having lost and perhaps, indeed, deserted the high American confidence that overrides all doubts and compunctions.

Major General Roscoe Wilson was sitting, in January 1951, as the Air Force’s representative on an AEC panel on long-range weapon objectives. As always, Oppenheimer was its chairman; and General Wilson went back to headquarters deeply shaken as “a dedicated airman” at having found his country’s most authoritative scientific adviser dubious about current prospects for a thermonuclear weapon, pessimistic about any early improvement in devices for detecting atomic explosions, and chilling to notions that anyone present would live long enough to see a nuclear-powered aircraft.

After this cold bath to his dreams, General Wilson felt that he had to “go to the director of [Air Force] intelligence to express my concern over what I felt was a pattern of action not helpful to the national defense.”

By the time General Wilson cast his stone at this consecrated object, the odour of incense had already grown faint around it. After September 1949, and the fact of the first successful Soviet nuclear test, Oppenheimer could never again be the symbol, or even personally the sharer, of a national complacency secure in the possession of a weapon beyond any alien’s attainment.

Ordinary laymen and officials had taken for granted their country’s monopoly of a secret uniquely Robert Oppenheimer’s, and they could see no way it could have been lost if it had not been stolen. They kept faith with that misconception well after it had been blown to vapour by executing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose crimes could never have run beyond pilferage too petty to explain the triumph of Soviet research.

Edward Teller knew better than that; he was a theoretical physicist whose attainments and even intuitions were barely less commanding than Oppenheimer’s. Teller’s contributions at Los Alamos had been smaller than the promise of his talents, because he had spent the war hunting after a thermonuclear weapon quantitatively more dreadful than the bomb delivered upon Hiroshima. His first reaction to the Soviet accomplishment was to recognise in it a public necessity and personal opportunity to renew that pursuit.

He telephoned Oppenheimer to ask what should now be done. “Keep your shirt on, ” Oppenheimer advised; and that reply left Teller lastingly certain that the chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission had dropped out of a race it was his duty to run.

There were doses of moral qualm in the mixture of his objections to what Teller zestfully called the Super, but they were rather smaller than his practical doubts. His remedy for the advantage lost to the Soviets was not to aim for the prodigious but to give more attention to the comparatively modest and to concentrate upon smaller nuclear weapons designed for “getting the atom to work on the battlefield as well as the heartland” and to develop a defense system that might diminish Soviet confidence that the United States could be destroyed.

All five of his colleagues on the General Advisory Committee joined him in recommending a low priority for Teller’s quest of the absolute. Oppenheimer later professed himself astonished by a unanimity that his enemies could never afterward explain except as the workings of his malicious animal magnetism.

All but one of the AEC’s commissioners seem momentarily to have been given pause by the unity in opinion of their scientific advisers; but that one happened to be Lewis Strauss, a minority of undiscourageable militance, who trundled his alarms to the Secretary of Defense and there raised the battalions that would prevail upon Mr. Truman to decree a crash program for the Super.

Oppenheimer’s immediate response to this defeat was the suggestion that he yield his General Advisory Committee chairmanship to someone who would bring the necessary enthusiasm to the Super. Secretary of State Acheson responded to this overture by sending back word, “for heck’s sake, not to resign or make any public statements to upset the applecart but accept this decision.” Oppenheimer stayed on, puzzled, as he afterward said, that anyone could have even transiently mistaken him for the sort of crank who would seek, let alone “find a way to make a public conflict.”

He was able to husband a somber hope drawn from his despairs about the Super’s feasibility until June 1951, when Teller arrived at a weapons conference in Princeton with the formula that made the hydrogen bomb workable.

Oppenheimer’s certainties had eroded and his will was ebbing; but the old intuitive faculty was swift as ever; and he seems to have divined Teller’s breakthrough sooner than anyone else there. “Sweet and lovely and beautiful,” he is reported to have observed. There was a sudden reglowing of what embers remained from the fires of his earliest conviction that what could be discovered ought to be discovered, wherever it tended. Once more elegance was for him its own absolution.

He set himself thenceforth to do whatever he could to help Teller. But he had lingered too long in the sin of dubiety to earn gratitude or forgiveness from those he had transiently obstructed. A few months after he had speeded Teller on his road, Oppenheimer’s term as GAC chairman expired; and neither he nor his masters had any itch to have it renewed. He was sent off with Mr. Truman’s warmest thanks (“You have served your country well”).

And then President Truman gave way to President Eisenhower, Lewis Strauss became the Atomic Energy Commission’s chairman, and Malice put on the robes of Judgment.

Even though Strauss had not quite been tutored up to his pretensions as an amateur of science, he still deserved to be thought of as a professional of sorts, because he had so often profited as a banker alert to the market potential of the by-products of scientific curiosity. In the years when research funds still depended upon private generosity, he had been Enrico Fermi’s patron; and now the federal budget had made him a dispenser of benefices so much more opulent that when he retired as AEC chairman, defense agencies were spending five times as much on scientific research as they had in the Second World War.

Strauss did not carry his empire in his eye. His face, with its rosy hue and the blandness of its spectacles, gave no hint of his resentments; and his manner infrequently deviated from an all-but-universal disbursement of deferences. The Strauss who had been obdurate when alone in the Commission’s minority would be tyrannical as commander of its new majority.

Extremes in the worship of anything, even reason, inevitably arrive at superstition. Strauss had made of science a cult; and, all the time he was sure of himself as a child of the Enlightenment, his devotions bore him farther and farther back toward those smoking altars where men adored or shuddered before idols they thought either kind or malign but never indifferent.

For Strauss, science had become confused with magic; and since he saw Oppenheimer as the apotheosis of the scientist, he saw him as a species of wizard who would not withhold his powers for good unless he proposed to employ them for evil.

Oppenheimer had abandoned his resistance to the Super as soon as Mr. Truman had approved it; he had been scrupulous, if not quickly enough enthusiastic, about assisting its achievement; and then, having already laid down his arms, he had with no visible complaint yielded his office and withdrawn from the centre of affairs.

The very propriety of such conduct was an especial disturbance to Lewis Strauss, whose own disposition so scorned the concept of majority rule that he never thought a question closed until it had been finally settled in his favour.

Insulating the Atomic Energy Commission from Oppenheimer was no problem at all: he was still on call as a consultant, but Strauss had only to abstain from taking the opportunity to consult him.

But in 1953 Strauss and Air Force Secretary Thomas Finletter learned that Oppenheimer had rebounded to a seat on the Office of Defense Mobilization’s Scientific Advisory Committee, which had been mouldering unnoticed until President Eisenhower suddenly adopted and lodged it in the National Security Council, the most private chamber in his household. This image of their presumed grand antagonist, his radiance rekindled, bearing his potions and reciting his incantations before the President himself, threw the Strategic Air Command and the AEC into the determination that there was no remedy for Robert Oppenheimer’s contagions except to get him stripped of the security clearance that was his license.

He had obeyed the state too conscientiously to afford it an easy excuse to find points where he had strayed. He had, of course, been close to the Communists in the lost time when such sympathies were the private citizen’s options; but he had candidly confessed his excursions, and even Lewis Strauss had assessed them as trivialities when the AEC reviewed them before approving Oppenheimer’s security clearance six years before.

In the interim, to be sure, his security file had grown to a width of four feet and six inches from its birth late in the Thirties, when the FBI recorded him as a new subscriber to the People’s World, a Communist daily. He himself had contributed little to its engorgement since his enlistment to Los Alamos; and the small scraps of his own giving had all been the consequences of the infrequent times when his official discipline had fleetingly been overcome by private feelings:

1) Late in the Thirties he had been informally betrothed to Jean Tatlock, an on-again, off-again member of the Berkeley unit of the Communist party. After their courses diverged, Jean Tatlock had wandered into those forests of depression that would lead her to suicide in 1944. At one point in the months before the end, she sent word to Oppenheimer that she was anxious to see him. He was too occupied to respond to her appeal until June 1943; but he must have been touched in places he had thought forgotten, because he missed the Los Alamos train to sit with her, talking through the night in her father’s house.

Oppenheimer did not yet know that he had embarked upon an existence that did not hold many hours of unobserved privacy. His government’s agents had watched them enter the Tatlock home and had remained outside it until the next morning when she drove him to the airport.

2) During his affair with the Left, Oppenheimer’s nearest and most mutually ill-fortuned masculine friendship had been with Haakon Chevalier, who taught French at Berkeley. Chevalier’s romantic and innocent ardor for the Marxist-Leninist simplicities endured after Oppenheimer’s disenchantment with them; but their personal affections survived. One evening, while Oppenheimer was mixing their martinis, Chevalier told him that he had been approached by an industrial chemist on the lookout for physicists who might be willing to use the Soviet consulate as conduit for transmitting information to Russian scientists.

Oppenheimer’s only recollected comment was, “That would be a terrible thing to do.” But later he had thought it no less than his duty to warn the authorities against the intrusive chemist without identifying Chevalier as his go-between.

This effort to serve both his friend and his nation failed so utterly that the government’s agents did not relax their pressure until he surrendered Chevalier’s name. He had revealed the weakness that those who thought they knew him best would be the last to impute to him; he was a man who could be bullied.

With this revelation, Chevalier’s career commenced a steady decline; and now and then, from promptings livelier in his conscience than his affections, we may suppose, Oppenheimer would make a feeble stab at clearing his name.

3) Communism had attracted—or as the Fifties would prefer to say, infected—several of his Berkeley graduate students. In 1949 the House Un-American Activities Committee called him to an inquiry on two or three of them. By now Oppenheimer was thoroughly infused with the developing spirit of his age and in that key he poured out his direct suspicions of Bernard Peters, who had come to California as an exile from Nazi Germany and had gone on to teach physics at the University of Rochester.

Oppenheimer told the Committee that Peters had brought with him to California an abounding fraternal affection for the German Communists, beside whom he had fought Nazi gangs in the Berlin streets before being imprisoned in Dachau, from which he had escaped by guile. To Oppenheimer any such history betrayed a character “not pointing to temperance,” an assessment most curiously founded upon little more evidence than the indications of light-mindedness that Peters had shown when he had been so wanting in respect for Hitler’s system of justice as to commit the insolence of levanting from one of its concentration camps.

The Committee had listened to Oppenheimer in an executive session and he had been sent away with a warm testimonial from Congressman Richard Nixon for this among so many even larger services to his country. He had felt secure against anyone outside the hearing room ever knowing what he had said about Peters; but he was about to learn how much more careless the government was with his secrets than he could ever be with its.

The Committee’s staff provided a Rochester journalist with snippets of Oppenheimer’s strictures on Peters; and their publication left the accused jobless and the accuser beset with protests from other physicists. The harm done Peters only too probably distressed him less than the damage he had inflicted upon himself with portions of his old fraternity. He sought to repair both with a letter to a Rochester newspaper, taking note of Peters’s denial of affiliation with any Communist party anywhere and hoping that no word of his own would be taken as impugning “the honour and integrity [of] a brilliant student [and] a man of strong moral principles. . . .” That disclaimer seems to have been little meant and was even less effective; after a futile canvass for some haven in an American academy, Peters went off to teach in India.

An unhopeful attempt to comfort a woman the world thought a Communist and he once thought he loved, a failed essay at shielding a friend who may or may not have made a pass at espionage, and a halfhearted try at calling the dogs off someone against whom he himself had raised the scent—those three uneasy passages were the only departures from prescribed discretion that could be found against him by prosecutors whose obsessive curiosity was more than up to discovering any others.

But no more than this was more than enough. His judges needed those dry straws because they dared not engage the whole, awful bale. Oppenheimer’s damning offense was the sin of moral qualm; he had contemplated the shadows of the thermonuclear age and shrunk back, however briefly, at a tidal point in what might or might not be man’s march toward his own extinction.

This was inarguably a high crime, but it was one for which the spirit of his time forbade any man’s condemnation. The Enlightenment is to be distinguished from the Age of Superstition not because it is invariably so much nicer in its treatment of heretics but because it would never burn one without being careful to condemn him for any and all sins except heresy.

Jean Tatlock, Haakon Chevalier, and Bernard Peters were broken fragments from long ago; but their excavation was essential to proceedings whose verdict could not be satisfactory unless it could contrive to define Robert Oppenheimer’s departed past as his present. These minor trespasses adumbrated the major crime; his dealings in each case were signs of a piece of Robert Oppenheimer that some might think the redeeming piece: not even his upmost self-rigours could uniformly subsume the private into the public self. The same unruly heart had given itself away in the gesture to Jean Tatlock and the recoil from the specter of the Super.

Oppenheimer was tried before a three-member Personnel Security Board chosen by Lewis Strauss, a prosecutor uniquely blessed with the right to select his jury. The hearings lasted over three weeks and consumed some 990 pages of transcript. Large portions of them were engaged with inconclusive burrowings into the history of the hydrogen decision. Six of the eight prosecution witnesses gave evidence whose main import fell upon the bad advice they felt the accused had given to his masters.

Two of his three trial judges found Oppenheimer guilty. Their names are dust now but they were paladins in their day; and both were obedient to commands of a time never more zealous, with genuflections before the temple of liberty of thought in general, than when it was punishing somebody or other it suspected of liberty of thought in the particular.

Thus, they so wanted it understood that Oppenheimer’s hesitations when faced with the Super were no crucial element in their judgment that they felt themselves impelled “to record [the board’s] profound and positive view that no man should be tried for his opinions.” What they could not forgive was Jean Tatlock, Haakon Chevalier, and Bernard Peters; a man could be tried for his ghosts.

Their findings were sent upward to the Atomic Energy Commission, where honest venom resided. Lewis Strauss himself undertook the composition of the AEC majority opinion that ruled Robert Oppenheimer unfit for future service.

“The work of Military Intelligence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Atomic Energy Commission—all at one time or another have felt the effect of his falsehoods and misrepresentations.”

After these savage rites there followed the customary national drill of accommodation. Oppenheimer was allowed to wither with every material comfort. He was still director of the Institute for Advanced Study, and Strauss was still a trustee, and each kept his place.

The motion to retain Oppenheimer was, in fact, tendered to the institute’s board by the same man who had, only three months before, officially found him to have “lived far below acceptable standards of reliability and trustworthiness.” If Strauss’s principles had been the equal of his rancors, he might better have given the board the option of finding either a new director or a new trustee; but he had sounded the temper of his fellow trustees, and he preferred to keep one of his honours at whatever expense to his honour and did not press his vengeance beyond the limits of his convenience.

Whatever outrage any of the physicists felt never extended to troubling anyone above and beyond their own specialised community, and soon stopped troubling even them. Edward Teller was snubbed at the first physics conference he attended after the revelation that he had been a witness for the prosecution at Oppenheimer’s trial. But there was no change in the deference of the physicists when they encountered the formidable Strauss; the unassailable immunity is reserved for the man who pays.

Enrico Fermi and I. I. Rabi had joined Oppenheimer in the General Advisory Committee’s early remonstrance against the Super; and yet Strauss went on showering them with his blessings and they went on rejoicing in them. Perhaps the distinction between democratic and totalitarian societies is in economy of victimization: totalitarians suppress wholesale and democrats, when a like fit is upon them, manage a decent retail measure of the same effect by pillorying a representative specimen of a class and depending upon his example to cow the rest of its members. It could now be understood that Robert Oppenheimer was the archetype of the physicist not least because he was someone who could be bullied.

In the summer of 1945 he had done what he could to convince a doubting Teller that this country’s governors were “the best and most conscientious men . . . who had information that the rest of us did not possess. ”

He had believed those words, against increasingly intimate access to contrary evidence, all the while his glory blazed; and even now, when it had been extinguished, he seemed somehow to believe them still. Government, not Krishna, and not even science, had turned out to be God for him; as there could be no disrupting a government’s decision to immolate Hiroshima, there could be no real disputing its decision to immolate him.

When the curious approached with questions about himself and his life, he would often recommend the closest attention to the transcript of the Hearings of the Atomic Energy Commission in the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. This record of his degradation seemed almost to have become for him the authorised biography; but then, it bore the authority always most requisite for him: it was a government document.

One day, shortly after his disgrace, he sat with a visitor painfully better acquainted with his history than his person.

“What bothers me.” Robert Oppenheimer said, “is the complicity.”

But where, his visitor wondered, did the complicity lie?

Was it in making the atomic or resisting the hydrogen bomb, in denouncing Bernard Peters or defending Bernard Peters, in leaving Jean Tatlock or returning to her for a few skimpy hours in the night, in hurting Haakon Chevalier or trying to help him, in serving his government too unquestioningly or not questioningly enough—in all the mess we make of life and life makes of us, just where do we locate and house the complicity?

“In all of it,” Robert Oppenheimer answered.

THE point of him? Who can feel sale in saying? A clutch at a guess might be the sense that it is probably an illusion that any one man much alters history even in the short run, and it is certainly a fact that history crushes every man in the long and that Robert Oppenheimer can touch us still because he was one of the few of those who have lived with both the illusion of being history’s conqueror and the fact of being its victim

But that is a surmise too grand for the almost domestic thoughts that start when we look at his eyes in the old photographs and confront some inexplicable nobility, of stuff so adamant that it can be passed through every variety of the ignoble, do the worst and have the worst done to itself, and somehow shine through all its trash and its trashing.

His death was discreet and his memorial service impeccable. The Juilliard played the Beethoven C-sharp Minor Quartet at the funeral, up through but not beyond the adagio movement. We ought to assume that his was the choice of the C-sharp Minor and that his was the decision to cut it short. Personages of consequence would come to his funeral and bring with them a few troubles of the conscience; and it had never been his way to make uncomfortable the bottoms of his betters.

But all the same, dying as he had living, he had tried to find some means of expressing at once his sense of his own culture and the perfection of his manners.

The C-sharp Minor had been the emblem that Oppenheimer and the aspiring theoretical physicists at his feet in Berkeley had held up to proclaim the difference between their own refinement and the crudities of those stranger cousins, the experimentalists.

Now his votaries were scattered, a few by the main force of public contumely, one chased to India, another to Brazil, and he himself dead, each in his exile.

Young and obscure though they were then, they would have been much too pure to distract themselves from their reveries over the C-sharp Minor to read the program notes and discover that Beethoven had instructed his publisher that “it must be dedicated to Lieutenant General Field Marshal Von Stutterheim. ” All the while, the portrait of the warrior had hung upon the walls of the little rooms where they dreamed, incarnating the future that would be the unpitying judge of each and all.

This article originally appeared in Esquire US.