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The Day That Could Have Brought Down Robert Oppenheimer

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Popperfoto via Getty Images
Popperfoto via Getty Images

This story is adapted from An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer's Life, by Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus, just published by Turner Press.

By Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus

___________

Three women were central to the scientist's life. One was his best friend. One was his great love. One was his wife. And two of them were members of the Communist Party USA.

The light was fading by the time Robert Oppenheimer left Le Conte Hall on June 14, 1943. He walked across campus at his usual fast clip, heading for the streetcar that would take him into San Francisco. He would have allowed his mind to skim over the consequences of what he was about to do. Not that he was weighing them; he had already made the decision to see Jean Tatlock. It would be more of an exercise to keep his mind occupied, to block the uncertainty of how he would find her. Radiant or remorseful. Perfect or flawed.

There would be hell to pay, that he knew. He would have stopped to light a cigarette, maybe taking the opportunity to glance around for the Army security agent he knew would be there. He was too important to the war effort to be allowed to go loose in the world. His slender, six-foot frame and his signature porkpie hat made him an easy target to tail. The security agents would inform Pash, and Pash would be delighted to inform General Groves, and the general would be livid.

Oppenheimer was the new scientific director of the Los Alamos section of the Manhattan Project, hidden on a mesa high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. It was possible that seeing Jean could cause him to be removed from the project altogether. The idea was so disturbing that it would have had to be put out of his mind, along with the wife and two-year-old son he had left behind in Los Alamos.

After one last deep drag of his cigarette, he would have flicked it away, then swung onto the Key System train that would carry him over the Oakland Bay Bridge and into the city. He was thirty-nine that June. Jean was twenty-nine. They had known each other, loved each other, for seven years. He would always want her; twice he had come close to marrying her.

Three months before, when he had been about to leave Berkeley for Los Alamos, Jean had asked to see him, but he had not gone to her then. Too much was happening, too fast. He wasn't allowed to tell her why he was leaving or where he was going, could not confide what he and a remarkable band of scientists were attempting to create. Probably he was glad for that; Jean would not have approved. She was one of the most principled people he had ever known; she believed above all else in the sanctity of life. She was a physician now, a resident in psychiatry at Mount Zion Hospital, working with troubled children. She did not know that ending World War II might depend on his group's ability to develop a weapon of mass destruction so horrific it would defeat America's enemies, unless the Germans got it first. That grim possibility played on his mind. The Germans were intent on conquering all of Europe, the world. Would Jean, with her kind and open heart, be able to grasp the enormity of such a catastrophe?

It was dark by the time the train rattled over the bridge. The FBI would have a file on Jean, on their relationship. What could they know about that relationship? All those years later, he would try to explain to strangers in a Washington, D.C. hearing room: "We had been very much involved with one another and there was still very deep feeling when we saw each other."

On that June evening in 1943, he knew that an agent would be lurking near her at the terminal in San Francisco where she would be waiting for him.

Oppenheimer arrived at 9:45 pm, the FBI report reads. He rushed to meet a young lady, whom he kissed and they walked away arm in arm. They entered a 1935 green Plymouth coupe and the young lady drove. The car is registered to Jean Tatlock. She is five foot seven, 128 [pounds], long dark hair, slim, attractive.

She was smiling, not hurting, he could see that. The Jean he could not give up. He would have smiled as she raised her face to kiss him, would have studied her with that intensity that so unsettled others, the blue eyes riveted, as if he could record the synapses of her brain. Others wilted under this attention, Jean did not. She slipped her arm into his and led him to the roadster.

She drove east along the Embarcadero--the scene of much of the labor unrest she had reported in the Western Worker--then turned west on Broadway. She had decided where they would eat; not one of the posh restaurants he would have chosen, but a shabby place not far from her apartment on Telegraph Hill, good for the spicy food he favored and some proletarian privacy. An agent waited outside. He would report: Drove to Xochiniloc Cafe, 787 Broadway, at 10 p.m. Cheap type bar, cafe, and dance hall operated by Mexicans. Had few drinks, something to eat, went to 1405 Montgomery where she lives on top floor... Appears to be very affectionate and intimate... At 11:30 lights went out.

Within two weeks, Lieutenant Colonel Boris Pash, chief of counterintelligence for the Ninth Army Corps in San Francisco, would send a memo to the Pentagon recommending that Dr. Oppenheimer be denied a security clearance and be fired as scientific director of the Manhattan Project, citing among other things this overnight tryst with Jean Tatlock, identified as his mistress and a known Communist.

*

Robert J. Oppenheimer has been the subject of several exhaustively researched biographies, but to get a complete picture of the man, it is important to look at the women who loved him, who he loved. The three women who were central to Oppenheimer's life, and each a powerful influence, were: Ruth Tolman, the wife of another important physicist; Robert's wife, Kitty Puening; and the psychiatrist Jean Tatlock. All three were born in a pre-feminist period when women--even educated, intelligent, ambitious women -- were limited in the roles they could achieve.

Robert met Jean on that early summer day in 1943 just as work on the atomic bomb was beginning on a secret plateau in New Mexico. He was only a few weeks into the work when he had to return to U.C. Berkeley to recruit young scientists. It was then that he decided to keep a promise he made to see the young woman he would always describe as "a lyrical, uplifting, sensitive, yearning creature." Their reunion lasted scarcely 24 hours, but would prove to be pivotal -- and detrimental in ways he couldn't imagine -- to the career of the man credited with leading the effort to produce the first weapon of mass destruction.

About the authors:

Shirley Streshinsky is a magazine journalist, novelist, and biographer. Her most recent book --co-authored with historian Patricia Klaus -- is the biography An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer's Life. Turner Publications, Nashville and New York.

Patricia Klaus received her Ph.D.in Modern British History from Stanford, where she specialized in women's studies, the history of marriage and the study of war and literature. She has taught at Yale, Stanford and the University of Virginia.