J. Robert Oppenheimer - Final Years

Final Years

Starting in 1954, Oppenheimer spent several months of the year living on the island of St. John in the Virgin Islands. In 1957, he purchased a 2-acre (0.81 ha) tract of land on Gibney Beach, where he built a spartan home on the beach. He spent a considerable amount of time sailing with his daughter Toni and wife Kitty.

Increasingly concerned about the potential danger to humanity arising from scientific discoveries, Oppenheimer joined with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Joseph Rotblat and other eminent scientists and academics to establish what would eventually become the World Academy of Art and Science in 1960. Significantly, after his public humiliation, he did not sign the major open protests against nuclear weapons of the 1950s, including the Russell–Einstein Manifesto of 1955, nor, though invited, did he attend the first Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1957.

However, in his speeches and public writings, Oppenheimer continually stressed the difficulty of managing the power of knowledge in a world in which the freedom of science to exchange ideas was more and more hobbled by political concerns. Oppenheimer delivered the Reith Lectures on the BBC in 1953, which were subsequently published as Science and the Common Understanding. In 1955 Oppenheimer published The Open Mind, a collection of eight lectures that he had given since 1946 on the subject of nuclear weapons and popular culture. Oppenheimer rejected the idea of nuclear gunboat diplomacy. "The purposes of this country in the field of foreign policy," he wrote, "cannot in any real or enduring way be achieved by coercion." In 1957 the philosophy and psychology departments at Harvard invited Oppenheimer to deliver the William James Lectures. An influential group of Harvard alumni led by Edwin Ginn that included Archibald Roosevelt protested against the decision. Some 1,200 people packed into Sanders Theatre to hear Oppenheimer's six lectures, entitled "The Hope of Order". Oppenheimer delivered the Whidden Lectures at McMaster University in 1962, and these were published in 1964 as The Flying Trapeze: Three Crises for Physicists.

Deprived of political power, Oppenheimer continued to lecture, write and work on physics. He toured Europe and Japan, giving talks about the history of science, the role of science in society, and the nature of the universe. In September 1957, France made him an Officer of the Legion of Honor, and on May 3, 1962, he was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society in Britain. At the urging of many of Oppenheimer's political friends who had ascended to power, President John F. Kennedy awarded Oppenheimer the Enrico Fermi Award in 1963 as a gesture of political rehabilitation. Edward Teller, the winner of the previous year's award, had also recommended Oppenheimer receive it, in the hope that it would heal the rift between them. A little over a week after Kennedy's assassination, his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, presented Oppenheimer with the award, "for contributions to theoretical physics as a teacher and originator of ideas, and for leadership of the Los Alamos Laboratory and the atomic energy program during critical years." Oppenheimer told Johnson: "I think it is just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today." The rehabilitation implied by the award was partly symbolic, as Oppenheimer still lacked a security clearance and could have no effect on official policy, but the award came with a $50,000 tax-free stipend, and its award outraged many prominent Republicans in Congress. The late President Kennedy's widow Jacqueline, still living in the White House, made it a point to meet with Oppenheimer to tell him how much her husband had wanted him to have the medal. While still a senator in 1959, Kennedy had been instrumental in voting to narrowly deny Oppenheimer's enemy Lewis Strauss a coveted government position as Secretary of Commerce, effectively ending Strauss' political career. This was partly due to lobbying by the scientific community on behalf of Oppenheimer.

A chain smoker since early adulthood, Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 1965 and, after inconclusive surgery, underwent unsuccessful radiation treatment and chemotherapy late in 1966. He fell into a coma on February 15, 1967, and died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, on February 18, aged 62. A memorial service was held at Alexander Hall at Princeton University a week later, which was attended by 600 of his scientific, political and military associates, including Bethe, Groves, Kennan, Lilienthal, Rabi, Smyth and Wigner. His brother Frank and the rest of his family were there, as was the historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger Jr., the novelist John O'Hara, and George Balanchine, the director of the New York City Ballet. Bethe, Kennan and Smyth gave brief eulogies. Oppenheimer was cremated and his ashes were placed in an urn. Kitty took his ashes to St. John and dropped the urn into the sea off the coast, within sight of the beach house.

Upon the death of Kitty Oppenheimer, who died of an intestinal infection complicated by pulmonary embolism in October 1972, Oppenheimer's ranch in New Mexico was inherited by their son Peter, and the beach property was inherited by their daughter Toni. Toni was refused security clearance for her chosen vocation as a United Nations translator after the FBI brought up the old charges against her father. Three months following the end of her second marriage, she committed suicide by hanging in the beach house in January 1977 and left it in her will to "the people of St. John for a public park and recreation area." The original house, built too close to the coast, succumbed to a hurricane, but today, the Virgin Islands Government maintains a Community Center in the area.

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