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Historically Speaking: Robert Oppenheimer

Robert Oppenheimer: The Father of The Atomic Age

By Tom Morrow

The current TV miniseries, “Manhattan,” (Sundays on WGN America) has resurrected curiosity about the project that produced the first atomic bombs, which ultimately ended World War II.

Heading up the Manhattan Project was the brilliant, albeit, controversial theoretical physicist Julius Robert “Oppie” Oppenheimer. Born to a wealthy New York City family in 1904, he was a professor of physics at the UC Berkeley when tapped to head the project.

There were four bombs developed at the remote, desolate and hastily-built community of Las Alamos. Located on the high desert of northern New Mexico, it was the most secret government facility ever built. Oppenheimer chose the location for its remoteness.

The first bomb, called “Trinity Gadget,” was a test near Alamogordo, N.M. The second, known as “Little Boy,” a uranium bomb, was dropped Aug. 6, 1945, on Hiroshima, Japan; the third, “Fat Man,” a plutonium bomb, was dropped Aug. 9, 1945, on Nagasaki, Japan. The fourth was never used, however, reports indicated there was no more fuel for additional weapons.

On October 9, 1941, shortly before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a crash program to develop an atomic bomb.

In June 1942, Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves was appointed director of what became known as the Manhattan Project. Groves selected Oppenheimer to head the project’s secret weapons laboratory, a choice which surprised many, as Oppenheimer was not known to be politically aligned with the conservative military, nor to be an efficient leader of large projects. Despite Oppenheimer being a suspected communist, Groves said the scientist was too important to be ousted over “suspicious behavior.”

Groves was impressed by Oppenheimer’s singular grasp of designing and constructing the bomb. As a military engineer, Groves knew the project would involve physics, chemistry, metallurgy, ordnance and engineering. Groves reckoned Oppenheimer would supply the drive necessary to push the project to a successful conclusion.

Los Alamos was built on the site of an old school north of Santa Fe, N.M. Oppenheimer then assembled a group of the top physicists.

The project was operated by the University of California under contract to the War Department. Los Alamos grew from a few hundred people in 1943 to more than 6,000 in 1945.

In August 1943, Oppenheimer told security agents an unknown person had solicited three scientists at Los Alamos for nuclear secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union. Later pressed on the issue, he admitted the only person who had approached him, personally, was a former fellow Berkeley professor.

After a number of failed attempts, Oppenheimer completely reorganized the scientists, focusing on an implosion trigger to work with uranium-235. The result became known as Little Boy, the 9,700-pound bomb dropped By a B-29 (Enola Gay) on Hiroshima.

Research on a second, more complex, device resulted in what became known as “Fat Man,” the 10,300-pound bomb dropped by a B-29 (Bocks Car) on Nagasaki.

There was speculation the two bombs were named after Groves, who was rather rotund, and Oppenheimer, who was extremely slender.

After the bombs leveled the two Japanese cities, Oppenheimer was heard to utter a quote from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita: “Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

After two years of unsuccessful treatment of throat cancer, Oppenheimer fell into a coma on Feb. 18, 1967, and died as his home in Princeton, N.J., at age 62.


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