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What is J.R. Oppenheimer's importance in US history?

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gameson | Student, College Freshman | eNotes Newbie

Posted April 27, 2010 at 10:46 AM via web

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What is J.R. Oppenheimer's importance in US history?

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hi1954 | Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted April 27, 2010 at 5:57 PM (Answer #1)

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Oppenheimer was not only chief scientist on the atomic bomb project but was the first major atomic scientist post-war to take a public stand against continued research into nuclear weapons, specifically the development of the hydrogen bomb. The project was originally termed the "Manhattan Engineering District," although the code name changed monthly during the war.  It was a joint project between the US, UK and Canada, carried out in the US because there was no secure location in Britain during the war.  The British weapons project TUBE ALLOYS was the basis of the work.  After the war the scientists involved split into groups, some opposing further weapons research, some for it.  Edward Teller was a brilliant physicist who was also an opportunist, and seeing an unlimited future of government sponsored research ahead he tirelessly worked to ruin Oppenheimer's reputation.  In the Red Scare in the wake of the disastrous beginning of the Korean War, Oppenheimer was easy prey for people like Teller and McCarthy.  In 1953 his security clearances were revoked,effectively ending his work with governmental projects.  From 1947 through 1966 he was director of the Institute for Advanced Studies, at Princeton.  Prior to the war he had been simultaneously assistant professor of physics at UC Berkely and the California Institute of Technology.

Interestingly enough, Robert Oppenheimer in the 1930s was the first physicist to suggest the existence of what are today termed "black holes," as well as important work in the theory of cosmic ray showers and what eventually became known as quantum tunneling.  He was one of the greatest of American scientists, and a man who the country owed a great debt of gratitude to but who was treated shabbily.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted April 27, 2010 at 8:30 PM (Answer #2)

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Dr. Oppenheimer's focus and drive in helping deliver the atomic bomb is highly significant to modern American History.  At the time of commencing his project, there was significant belief that the Germans were working on a similar project.  Few could predict what, if anything Hitler would have been able to do with an atomic weapon.  Would he attack America?  Would he attack European nations?  Would he attack his own people?  There was a government sponsored initiative to help develop both a device as well as nuclear technology that would enable the United States to compete with this pressing reality.  Dr. Oppenheimer was able to assemble the best and the brightest minds in the field to help make this vision into a reality.  Throughout his work, there was a constant debate and battle between science for science inquiry's sake as well as the tension of government intervention.  Oppenheimer was the go between in the midst of both ends.  Certainly, scientists like Oppenheimer understood the distinct dangers of atomic energy and the impact it would have.  Yet, not until the bomb's dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would this have been so prevalently displayed.  Oppenheimer can be credited with delivering America into the Atomic Age, an act that he himself saw both its creative and destructive applications.  After being sought to develop a more powerful Hydrogen Bomb, Oppenheimer resigned his commission with the U.S. Military and became an advocate for safe and controlled use of atomic energy in warfare.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted April 27, 2010 at 10:49 AM (Answer #3)

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Oppenheimer was the man who was the chief scientist on the Manhattan Project.  This was the project that created the first atomic bombs -- the ones that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  So Oppenheimer can be seen as the father of nuclear weapons.

At the start of WWII, President Roosevelt became concerned that an atomic bomb was possible and that the Germans might get one before the US did.  So he authorized the start of a huge program to get one as soon as possible.  Oppenheimer was the scientist in charge.

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted April 27, 2010 at 4:23 PM (Answer #4)

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Robert Oppenheimer was a brilliant, driven scientist that led the project to develop the bomb. Once he had developed it successfully and the bomb was first tested, he wrote in his diary that all he could think of was a Hindu proverb: "I have become death, the destroyer of worlds".  While he continued to work on new and better nuclear weapons, he clearly had some mixed feelings about the long term effects of his work.

He was also one of the more famous peple accused by Joseph McCarthy during the Second Red Scare of being a communist sympathizer.  Even though many well known scientists testified on his behalf, his career never really recovered.

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