You have no idea how repugnant this isto go over my life. It is impossible to be completely candid. It's an art and it takes technique, and you have to learn it. If you've lived a life that isn't free and open with people, it's almost impossible to unsnarl it, to unravel the ball of twine.
So said Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to an interviewer in 1948. Last week Oppenheimer's lifenot merely the pros & cons of the security risk charges against him, but the whole development of his mind and characterbecame a matter of interest, more than ever before, to those who shared with him an uneasy habitation of the planet.
His contemporaries were already keenly aware of him as a genius of physics, the leader in the making of the Abomb. Less sharply, they understood that he was a leader in another sense, that he had become a symbol of a new mood among physicists (and many other scientists), a mood that alternated between their old self-confidence and profound new doubts. The Oppenheimer who symbolized this mood had become a power in the highest policy councils of the nation, partly because of the national dependence on him and the men for whom he stood, partly by the force of his personality. His genius, perhaps, was not confined to physics. It was more or less publicly known that the star of his influence on policy had been in decline for several years, that he had been on the losing side of several muffled controversies that might decide the destiny of the republic. Then last week came the news that he had been suspended from Government posts, because of doubts cast upon him as a security risk (TIME, April 19).
With that shocking news came an extraordinary document: Oppenheimer's answer to the Atomic Energy Commission's letter suspending him. He wrote a 43-page autobiographical sketch, because "the items of so-called 'derogatory information' set forth in your letter cannot be fairly understood except in the context of my life and work." Oppenheimer's letter shone with literary brilliance; the strength of his personality leaped out from the page. It was especially moving to men and women in the same age bracket as Oppenheimer (he is 50). Many men ten years older or ten years younger did not fully understand him. His letter was an account of a strange period of history, the decades 1920-50not so much of their strange events but of even stranger states of mind. His story was an extreme example of what had happened in that period to a large body of the world's intellectuals.
Yet, as Oppenheimer would be the first to admit, no man's account of himself need or should be taken as the last word.
Drawing heavily upon his letter to the AEC, upon other things he has said and written, upon information from his friends and enemies, upon his record and the record of his time, here is an account of Robert Oppenheimer.