THE BLOG
10/17/2014 09:31 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2014

Why Do We Keep Perpetuating Myths About the Man Called the Father of the Atomic Bomb?

Keystone/Getty Image

The New York Times manages to revive the myth of atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer as a man broken, his career ended by a long-discredited security hearing in the 1950s, in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Last Sunday The New York Times ran a story headlined "Transcripts Kept Secret for 60 Years Bolster Defense of Oppenheimer's Loyalty," written by William J. Broad. The first paragraph explains that Oppenheimer, in the heat of the anti-Communist crusades of the 1950s, was accused of being a Soviet spy and was subjected to a hearing that essentially branded him a security risk -- even though he had been celebrated at the end of World War II as the man most responsible for producing the atomic bomb.

The newly declassified pages of that hearing, according to Broad's story, offered no damning evidence against Robert Oppenheimer and, in fact, tended to exonerate him. Most of the redacted material was, in fact, in support of Oppenheimer, and several of the experts mentioned in the article were at a loss to see why the Energy Department, the successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, which pilloried Oppenheimer, should have withheld the material.

As an author, along with historian Patricia Klaus, of the nonfiction book An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer's Life, I was not surprised by any of the material included in the Times story. In fact, we were aware of some of the information Broad seems to think is new, such as the part of physicist Isidor I. Rabi's testimony at the hearing that has him saying, in defense of Oppenheimer, "We have an A-bomb. What more do you want? Mermaids?"

But the major reporting mistake in this article, it seems to me, comes in the second paragraph, when the Times reporter claims that the revocation of Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance in the spring of 1954 "brought his career to a humiliating close, and Oppenheimer, until then a hero of American science, lived out his life a broken man."

Not so. Not by a long shot. Oppenheimer's last years were spent at the helm of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. As we write in our book:

Robert worked hard to erase the image of his martyrdom, though it would linger in the American mindset into the next century. Under Robert's directorship, the Institute became an international center of intellectual achievement. Young academics saw it as a kind of Camelot.

He also continued to lecture around the country and the world, usually to packed houses. And almost always, he included in these lectures his thoughts on the responsibilities of living with the threat of nuclear war. He was not broken; he did not give up. While reporter Broad may have deduced that the recently declassified pages "suggest that Oppenheimer was anything but disloyal," most of us knew that more than half a century ago.