Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Charles Oppenheimer and Dorothy Vanderford’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Charles Oppenheimer and Dorothy Vanderford are the grandchildren of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview with historian Kai Bird, author of American Prometheus, a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, they discuss what it was like growing up with the Oppenheimer family legacy. They talk about growing up on the Oppenheimer family ranch in New Mexico, Perro Caliente, and how they and their father, Peter Oppenheimer, have dealt with being an Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer and Vanderford also reflect on how the memory of J. Robert Oppenheimer has been treated, the family’s position on the security trial, and their father’s involvement in anti-nuclear marches. They recall meeting some of Robert and Peter’s friends and family, including the Hempelmanns and Frank Oppenheimer, and discuss whether the historical treatment of Kitty is a fair one.

Date of Interview:
June 2, 2015
Location of the Interview:


Kai Bird: This is Kai Bird off camera, interviewing Charles Oppenheimer and Dorothy Vanderford. Just for the record, I will ask you to state your names and your date of birth and where you were born.

Dorothy Vanderford: My name is Dorothy Vanderford. I was born as Dorothy Oppenheimer August 18th, 1973. I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Charles Oppenheimer: My name is Charles Oppenheimer. I was born on April 20th, 1975 in a small adobe house in Lacona, New Mexico, but I usually simplify that to Santa Fe. It’s maybe fifteen miles near Santa Fe. I was born at home.

Bird: I’m trying to remember now, but when I was researching with Marty Sherwin our biography of Oppenheimer, I came by and at some point talked to you. I interviewed your father in Santa Fe. I can’t remember, did I interview you or not? Maybe not?

Vanderford: I am not having a clear memory of it, but I did start getting e-mails from you, and that’s where I made that connection that maybe we had met, but unfortunately, I cannot remember.

Bird: I was just telling you, I had this vivid memory of coming to interview your father. Then afterwards he took me up to a house in Santa Fe where Ella was staying. I think she was working in a Starbucks at the time.

Vanderford: Yes. That would be her.

Bird: We spent a couple of hours going over family photographs.

Vanderford: I think I know where my confusion came from. It’s because I have that box of photos at my home, and he [Marty] and Ella showed up. So I just maybe invented you also visiting us.

Bird: This is the problem for historians and with oral histories. Human memory is really fuzzy.

Oppenheimer: You get a different perspective every time.

Bird: You have these sharp memories of what happened, and they conflate with things over time.

Let’s stick with you. I guess I would like to begin with asking—I know from interviewing other people for other biographies that growing up as the son or daughter, or grandson or granddaughter, of a famous person, there can be some pluses to it, but it can also be baggage. It can be a burden.

When did you first realize as a child that there was something special about your grandfather, who of course you had never met, had you?

Oppenheimer: Neither of us.

Bird: What was that earliest memory?

Oppenheimer: It’s funny, because I actually wrote that down as a subject of my few words I was going to talk about today. I remember pretty clearly going up and down to our ranch in New Mexico. For some reason I remember being in the car, the trees, the bend in the road, when we were talking about this. It’s one of those memory things. Maybe it didn’t happen there, but that’s what I remember, the exact location.

Bird: Memories are important to get down, whatever they are.

Oppenheimer: Of having our conversation in our jeep truck. I can’t put the time on it; we lived there in two periods, up at the ranch, when I was younger, before five almost exclusively and then later when I was about eight. So it was likely from a later time. Maybe I had heard something and I was asking my dad. The conversation I remember was specifically with my Dad saying, “Your grandfather was somebody who worked on a big project during the war. He kind of got picked out. He was going to do something to help, and he ended up being picked out for this big project. He might have done anything during the war, but he happened to work on this scientific project.”

That kind of statement, that he was just contributing to the war effort and he was one of the people who contributed, was my first family framing of it.

There are couple other random memories I have. I’m not sure about Dorothy. Like at a birthday party at the Freeman’s, I was running along. A boy picked up a piece of obsidian and said, “This is an atomic bomb that’s going to blow up! You know what that is.”

I said, “I do? I don’t know what that is!”

It was just real pieces of hearing things, but I didn’t get a family line on who was my grandfather? Was he a famous person? I had heard this narrative that he was somebody who did his job during the war.

Vanderford: I like how you said, “Family framing of it.” My primary recollection is also of schoolchildren telling me a way of looking at it. I’m not sure whether I agree with it, but the first thing that I really remember is being maybe in fourth grade. I remember announcing my name and at the time I may have been referring still to, “He invented the atomic bomb,” because that was a very common way of referring to it. I think at some point my Dad corrected that and explained the intricacies of it. Of course, I know more now. At any rate, this schoolboy looked at me and said, “So it’s your fault.”

I just remember having this feeling of protest and shame, all of this conflict at the same time. Of course, this reveals a lot about me, and how I listen to what somebody else had to say. I began to realize that there was a lot to the story. But my understanding of my family name and place has really evolved over time. As I’ve grown into my forties, I’m getting interested now. I spent a lot of my life distanced from it.

Bird: Yeah, it wasn’t your story.

Vanderford: Well it wasn’t and it was. I changed my name when I got married, and I did that consciously because I wanted to do things on my own. I had a lot of motivations; I was also a lot younger. It’s really interesting being here today. I see the reception that Charlie gets with his tag that says “Oppenheimer.” It’s just so funny how people can see the name and just associate it with so much, when they see the family name as a part of the person of Robert Oppenheimer.

Bird: Oppenheimer today, particularly with this crowd, he is a legend, a hero. But of course, in 1954 he went through a terrible national exercise of humiliation, this witchcraft kind of trial. I know from talking to Peter [Oppenheimer], your father, that that was a traumatic experience, not only for Oppie, but for your father, who then was very young. Peter was then in high school?

Vanderford: Thirteen.

Bird: Thirteen, fourteen. So growing up, when did Peter talk to you about the trial? Did he sit you down and explain this ever?

Oppenheimer: I’m not sure that my Dad would agree that it was a terrible or a big deal. The family narrative is that it was a farce and not a tragedy. It wasn’t a big deal.

Bird: It was a farce!

Oppenheimer: But that’s what I’ve heard about it—not that our family suffered an injustice and this was a big deal. I barely ever heard about that side of it. And if I asked my father directly about a direct line to it, he would say it was no big deal.

He told me one story, I think—he must have been younger than that. He told me that might have been in fifth or sixth grade, and he wrote something on the chalkboard saying, “Some people are treating other people unfairly.” That was a sense of protest. There was definitely an effect.

Bird: I remember. I had that anecdote in American Prometheus [pages 553-554].

Vanderford: You do, and I was curious where you got that?

Oppenheimer: I’m pretty sure I’ve heard that from him as well, and not just from your book. It wasn’t something that was discussed a lot. As you can tell with our family, the whole topic was not dwelled on or focused on. We had no part of our life, except for the public stuff that we just had to deal with with people, especially in New Mexico where it is more prevalent, you know, going on field trips to Los Alamos. But there wasn’t a big part of our family life that was saying, “You’re an Oppenheimer, blah blah blah.”

On the other hand, I became curious and my father was really open to talking about it. He would spend any amount of time talking to us. So almost all of the discussions were one-on-one discussions that evolved out of kids asking questions. I learned a lot of our positioning based on that.

Vanderford: Yeah, I have a different experience. I’m the older sibling, not by that much, and I didn’t ask many questions. Now I’m beginning to see that it would be valuable to ask him questions directly. I just spoke to him recently about the idea of it being a traumatic thing growing up with your phones wiretapped, being hunted by the FBI. I imagined being in that position and how awful it would be. Somebody asked my Dad and he said, “No, no. My parents really protected me. It wasn’t some awful thing for us.” That’s what he says. I wasn’t there, I don’t know. I wouldn’t enjoy it. I didn’t ask him questions maybe the same way. Charlie has his own relationship with my Dad and I have mine. I didn’t ask a whole lot of questions, but I’m beginning to get more curious now.

Oppenheimer: I really like the treatment in your book, American Prometheus, especially after that postwar period because I learned more from that section, of the whole situation. In my first years of becoming really interested, I mostly experienced the topic like most people would be interested in Oppenheimer. You get some books and you read about it. But I always had the backdrop of, “What does my Dad think? What does the family think?” I always asked him all of the time.

He has very strong beliefs, really passed to him from his father, that are so hard to deal with. That’s where it comes from. What my grandfather thought was right around nuclear energy and proliferation, ethics, the world, and society are these elaborate customs that don’t really fit in. So my Dad always had these ideas about what was right and wrong. For example, he can’t stand almost anything published about the family. He thinks it’s deeply inaccurate if there’s a statement or two is off, and that implies that almost everything is published about our family. He’s probably right. I have a much more tolerant view of it. I’m like, “Oh, They were wrong about a few things, but it is an interesting read.”

It really does matter who you are when you’re dealing with fame and legacy. Are you directly affected by it? I think the sons of famous and powerful men probably have the worst job in the world. That’s famous across history. You have a powerful king, and the son is a disaster.

As a grandchild, we have to deal with our legacy like everybody does, but it certainly hasn’t been overwhelming. There’s been many times where I thought, “Gee, I wish I could have gotten something out of being an Oppenheimer.” I felt like I never received a red nickel out of it. It’s just something that sometimes comes up.

Vanderford:  The first thing anybody asks us is whether we are physicists.

Oppenheimer: You get high expectations from teachers. The New Mexican term would be, what I would get is, “You invented the atomic bomb.”

I’m like, “Wait a second here. We don’t have a lot of time to discuss in the schoolyard, but that’s off by a few magnitudes.”

Bird: That does sound difficult and not traumatic, but weird.

Oppenheimer: Weird might be a good way to describe it.

Bird: Just a weird childhood.

Oppenheimer: I have another memory of sitting in Fat Man and Little Boy, if you remember the Hollywood movie. That made a pretty big stir. It’s a Hollywood movie. We were kids in New Mexico, where the Manhattan Project was a bigger deal than most places. I was already kind of developing an interest in this, instead of just being creeped out by being an Oppenheimer. So I wanted to go to the movie, and of course nobody would go with me. My Dad’s like, “No way.” He wouldn’t even consider doing something like that.

I was sitting there in the movie theater. I was old enough to go on my own. I remember just sitting next to people watching this and saying, “Yeah, that’s my grandfather. That’s my grandmother.” Eating some popcorn. Nobody knows that. We were just watching the movie.

There’s been a series of things like that through my life. Now I’m by far more open in dealing with it than ever before. I never really had a problem with it, but now at least I have some opportunity to show up and say, “I’m an Oppenheimer.” Most of the jobs I take, the people I meet, they don’t even know that. It doesn’t come up. I was taught not to go around saying, “I’m an Oppenheimer.” Now I willing only to say it if the circumstances are right.

Bird: And you guys are old enough now to realize, as you mentioned, that all history, what you read, it is very subjective. All books are filled with errors of judgment and also of fact. So you have to take it all with a grain of salt.

Vanderford: There is something jarring still about seeing a photo of my grandfather anywhere around here today, but I’m getting more used to it. I to show my children, “Look, that’s your great-grandfather.”

Oppenheimer: Remember Dr. Atomic? The love scene? And you’re like, “Ah, that’s my grandmother,” during that love scene, on the bed?

Vanderford: It was very uncomfortable. I didn’t like that.

Oppenheimer: Me and Dorothy were both there. We were like, “Yes, that’s Grandma.”

Bird: I’ve never seen that opera.

Vanderford: Yes, we went to see it and it was an experience.

Bird: Speaking of that, have you seen over the years, The Day after Trinity documentary?

Oppenheimer: There are a few approved vehicles by the Oppenheimer family, which I feel is my Dad. He knew Robert, and he’s extremely selective on what he likes and he doesn’t like. The approved ones are The Day after Trinity, which he liked a lot. It was the letters of recollections of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which are the firsthand accounts. He always says, “If you want to know about it, read that.” He’s right. And Richard Rhodes’s books. Those are the only ones I’ve ever heard about that he actually likes. Those are what we would look at.

But it’s one of those weird things. Robert Oppenheimer, of all people, he has this cult of personality that’s so hard to figure out for historians and anybody. It’s a fascinating story. Then when you meet an actual Oppenheimer, you’re like, “They’re not that great.” It makes it even more bizarre than if it was just some famous guy. In particular, people are having a hard time pinning down who this guy was. I guess it’s made it difficult to deal with for the family, for some people. Not for me.

Bird: Coming back to your childhood, you both spent part of, as I understand it, your early childhood up in the old ranch. What was it called?

Vanderford: Perro Caliente in the Pecos.

Oppenheimer: But nobody in the family called it that. We called it “The Ranch,” and so did Robert, as far as I know.

Bird: Did Peter call it “The Ranch?”

Oppenheimer: Yes.

Bird: He never called it “hot dog?”

Oppenheimer: No. I think that was something that happened and it got written down, but I don’t think anybody in the family did.

Bird: “The Ranch.”

Vanderford:  Yeah, that’s what we called it.

Bird: When I was researching the book, at one point I was out there and I actually rented a horse from—what’s it called?

Vanderford: Huey Lake?

Oppenheimer: Probably Huey Lake, down in Tererro. That’s the only place where you can rent them.

Vanderford: It really is. That’s where it was.

Bird: We took horses up to the ranch.

Vanderford:  Yeah, we have the photo in the book.

Bird: There’s a photo in the book of Marty and I standing on the front porch, I guess. It’s a beautiful but stark piece of geography. What are your memories of what it was like living there?

Oppenheimer: I’ll let Dorothy handle this, but that, much more than Robert Oppenheimer was our bearing in life. Being raised in a log cabin at the ranch is who we were.

Bird: It just happened to be where your grandfather had spent a lot of time and he loved it.

Vanderford:  I will ponder this probably my whole, whether it just happened or if it was something that was a reaction or a distancing on my Dad’s part. All I know is he really wanted to live there and was able to convince my Mom to go live there with me as very young child, Charlie as a young child. Our sister came later.

Oppenheimer: My sister, Ella Oppenheimer.

Bird: Did Ella live there ever?

Vanderford:  No. Did she live in there when we were—she’s six years younger.

Oppenheimer: Maybe as a really young infant. Right after she was born, we had been living on the ranch full-time. This is in a log cabin with no electricity. My Mom cooked on a wood stove. We had an outhouse. That’s how we lived, and that’s what defined us. We lived within twenty miles from the nearest household. It was not that unusual to live that way in the 1890s, or 1910, or 1920.

In 1975 in New Mexico, it actually wasn’t that unusual to go back to the land, but we were really back to the land. We have some really good friends in northern New Mexico who would be considered hippies. They were part of the hippie movement. They said, “You’re the only people we know who are weirder, more off the map, than us.” They lived in a village.

Vanderford:  They still are. They still live a fabulous life.

Oppenheimer: But yeah, we lived completely off the map.

Vanderford:  I grew up with reading. I grew up without television. Of course, this was a different era, and it’s so different from how my children are coming up now, just so different. I’m happy, absolutely, that my Dad and essentially my grandfather gave me that opportunity; because that’s the reason I was able to grow up in this cabin. It gave me an appreciation for self-sufficiency and self-reliance, and I absolutely trusted my Dad in all areas to take care of us. When we would be driving through really deep snow and getting stuck, he could get us out of any kind of jam. I learned a lot about how to live on land and in nature. I absolutely appreciate that. I think that is something that’s passed down through my family, from Robert Oppenheimer, through to my Dad, to me. In my case, it may be ending with me.

Bird: What’s happened to the ranch? Is it still in the family?

Oppenheimer: It’s still there, and the land is in good shape. My Dad’s maintained it. The cabin is essentially falling down. And talk about legacy, that’s something that just weighs on my father. Apparently he had made a deal with his Dad when they were going to sell it in the ’50s or ’60s. This was a teenager or a young man’s deal, saying, “Don’t sell it Dad. I’m going to take care of it.” To some extent it’s hung around his neck for his life. He did do that. He raised a family and brought his family there, but it’s something that’s been a real sense of visible weird family emotions around the ranch.

It’s not a vacation cabin that it started as. It started as a way to get healthy for Robert, and it really worked. Robert and Frank spending all their time being great horsemen. Causing Los Alamos to be centered in New Mexico was from that place. But when we experienced it, it was just a family thing, living there.

Bird: Remind me, how many acres is it around?

Oppenheimer: It’s about 160. My Dad actually has a great vision for it. At one point, ten, fifteen years ago, I said, “Dad, let’s get electricity in there and get it to be a really nice vacation cabin and I’ll go there and work out of it.” He would entertain me with letting me say that.

But then he would say, “I think it’s the only place up in the Cowles, Pecos cabin that hasn’t been converted into a vacation cabin. It’s the only one true to its historical roots as a hand-hewn log cabin from the 1890s.”

He’s really interested in the specific history of the geography of that cabin. He knows everything about every cabin that was built in the valley, not because of Robert Oppenheimer, but because he thinks it’s really interesting. I would love to get it back in shape, because the cabin is teetering. It’s almost in pristine historical shape, and it’s almost falling down. That’s exactly where it’s at. Structurally it’s fine, but it would need to be completely rehabbed at this point.

Bird: Yeah, when I saw it, structurally, it seemed pretty solid.

Oppenheimer: Structurally it’s okay, but it would need at least a construction project.

Bird:   Every winter it must go under more stress.

Oppenheimer: And it won’t be rehabbed with a typical industrial effort, at least while my Dad’s there. It would be hammer and nails and not a single piece of electrical anything.

Bird: So when you were growing up, did you grow food there?

Oppenheimer: A little bit.

Bird: Was there cattle?

Oppenheimer: We had goats.

Vanderford: We didn’t have it as a working ranch, but we did have goats. Chickens.

Oppenheimer: And there was really just enough food to go around the edges. It was more just rural living, where we would have enough food to survive.

Bird: Was there running water from the spring into your house?

Vanderford: Yes, but it’s really quite dried up now.

Oppenheimer: There was water for drinking into the house and an outhouse. I think we took baths in washtubs.

Vanderford:  There were no toilets and no showers.

Bird:   And your mother cooked over a wood stove?

Vanderford:  Yes, with the cast iron.

Bird:   Did you have horses, like Robert did?

Vanderford:  Yes.

Oppenheimer: Yes, we had horses.

Bird:   So you rode?

Oppenheimer: I wasn’t a horseman. Robert and Frank were really good horsemen, Robert in particular. My Dad was very good. He was a rancher primarily, and a little bit of construction. As a kid, I could barely saddle a horse. I could definitely ride them. I was never really got my ranch—

Vanderford:  Yeah, I never saddled a horse much myself, but I feel really comfortable riding them.

Oppenheimer: We ended up moving to Santa Fe and becoming city people. That was always the demarcation in the family. It was like, “We used to live up at the ranch in the mountains, doing this cool stuff. Now we live in the city, and everything is different is now.”

Bird:   So how old were you, Charlie, when you moved from the ranch to Santa Fe?

Oppenheimer: There were two periods, so I must have moved there when I was four or five, living my entire life up there. And we went back when I was seven or eight. So I think most of my memories are from that second period, but those were the only two periods.

Bird:   So when you were seven or eight, you moved back there, and stayed how long?

Oppenheimer: It was probably only a summer and a winter.

Vanderford:  It was half a school year.

Oppenheimer: So six months, and that’s where the majority of my older memories are from. Definitely some of my younger ones.

Bird:   Dorothy, you spent longer, then?

Vanderford:  Yes, just because I’m older. I always say that I went to Santa Fe when I was about six and I started first grade. Then I was nine and did half of fourth grade up at Pecos Elementary.

Oppenheimer: It was a rough school. We were probably the only white kids in the school. I didn’t realize that at the time.

Vanderford: I had a great time, but he didn’t have a very good time there.

Oppenheimer: So at least partially, we went back to Santa Fe because the schools were better. I think it was pretty hard to live off the land also for the family.

Bird:   So you were pretty close to Los Alamos. Did Peter take you to Los Alamos and visit it ever?

Oppenheimer: We had no official relationship at all. We’ve been ice skating there. I met some of the directors over the years. My main memories of Los Alamos, besides field trips and stuff, were once my Dad starting participating more in the anti-nuclear movement, he would go there to talk or do some action. That was just for a brief few years, but that’s when I remember going to Los Alamos, is protesting the place.

Bird:   Yeah, that’s filled with some irony.

Vanderford:  I have no memory of that. I remember going on peace marches with my Dad to Nevada. Apparently we were here, and I remember a lot of things about here, but I don’t remember the peace march part of it. I remember going Nambe to a lot to visit with the Hempelmann’s, Elinor and Louis Hemplemann. I spent a lot of time visiting them.

Bird:   Oh, the Hemplemann’s.

Oppenheimer: Dr. Hemplemann was on the Project. I think one of the main reasons we’re so close is that Elinor and Kitty were good friends, as the women. Although Dr. Hemplemann was a physician in the project, but it was really more as a family friend.

Bird:   Yeah, he was a medical doctor.

Oppenheimer: He was a medical doctor during the war. But that was a family relationship that’s always gone on. When we were kids, when we were transitioning to these different places of Indian reservations and the ranch, we would stay in the Hemplemann’s house. So it’s a family connection that’s always been there.

Bird:   So did your Dad keep in touch with any other Los Alamos veterans over the years besides the Hemplemann’s?

Oppenheimer: There were certain scientists who would come by. I remember Phillip Stern.

Bird: Phillip Stern was a lawyer here in Washington, DC and an author. He did a book about the trial, the 1954 trial.

Oppenheimer: Maybe I’m remembering the wrong guy, then. The guy I’m remembering is more of a scientist. So there were certain scientists he kept in—

Bird:   Phillip Morrison?

Oppenheimer: Yeah. Phillip Morrison, thank you.

Bird: There we go.

Vanderford:  I remember him too.

Oppenheimer: I remember him at our house. I remember Frank Oppenheimer visited us both at the ranch and at our house. It was the same type of connection that you would have with any of your parents’ friends, “Oh, there’s Frank Oppenheimer.” He’s our family, but it was that kind of thing. But my father certainly didn’t. I think he was always more comfortable with the generation of World War II, but that was just because he associated with them. So people like the Hempleman’s, he kept in touch. He would go and spend Thanksgiving with her every year. And Francoise Ulam, who he kept in touch with because she was really old and my dad, as a six-year-old—

Vanderford:  She moved to a place there and we would go and visit her at her place.

Oppenheimer: But it’s just things like that. My Dad growing up didn’t grow up with a sense, “I’ve got to preserve our legacy and keep in touch with X, Y, and Z people.” Absolutely the opposite. It just was people that he felt on a personal level some connection, or for some reason they knew us.

Bird: So Phillip Morrison was someone that you remember coming to visit?

Oppenheimer: Coming to our house.

Bird: He was very close to Oppie and I think he had a relationship with your father too, just supportive.

Oppenheimer: Yeah. A few other veterans caming through, but I don’t remember all their names.

Vanderford: I remember the same.

Bird:   So tell me a little more about Frank Oppenheimer. Do you have memories of him, what he was like?

Oppenheimer: I do.

Vanderford:  I do too. What I remember about him was, I remember walking along down Gallsto Street in Santa Fe with my Dad and him and just having a conversation. So what I remember of him is that I felt affectionate toward him, and he seemed so comfortable just walking along the dirt street. The road was paved, but there were no actual sidewalks. I remember my Dad was giving me a hard time about something, and Frank said to him, “Don’t be so hard on her.” So I always felt like he was my hero, because he kind of protected me. I remember visiting them for holidays.

Bird: This was in the ’70s?

Vanderford: No, in the ’80s.

Bird: By that time, he was living in San Francisco. He was no longer in Colorado on his ranch.

Oppenheimer: Yeah, that ended a long time ago. I remember our first visits out to San Francisco as a three-year-old, it must have been, but those are some of my first memories. I remember a ferryboat ride and somewhat of Frank’s house. I also remembered when he visited us at the ranch one time. I guess it was one of the times that we were living there, but he drank out of the spring with his hat, and that just shocked me. Who drinks out of a spring with their hat? Everybody does a push-up and drinks out of it on the ground, so I found that really shocking.

We have been in pretty close touch with his daughter, Judy Oppenheimer, who lives in the Bay Area, so me and Karen always visit. And then there’s The Exploratorium, which is an absolute institution in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Everybody knows about it, but hardly anybody knows the name “Frank Oppenheimer,” and they don’t realize there’s a connection.

Bird:   I’m surprised by that.

Oppenheimer: The people who work there certainly know about it, but that’s not what anybody out of hundreds or millions people, if you say the name “The Exploratorium,” almost none of them would be able to say, “Oh, Frank Oppenheimer started it.” For example, living in San Francisco, that’s not a bonus. Nobody knows about that. It’s just another part of the family.

The Exploratorium, which is an amazing institution, has zero affiliation with the Oppenheimer family, and I think there was a period of time when there was a little bit of a hard feelings with the kids, where they weren’t including them in the funeral. It’s not an affiliation, but it’s a lovely institution and it came from a hundred percent Frank. That place was Frank’s teaching style turned into a museum. It’s not like partially created by Frank. That was a Frank Oppenheimer original.

Bird:   Yeah, that was his thing. He really invented the interactive sciences.

Vanderford:  I remember enjoying it as a young child, going on visits there, very much.

Oppenheimer: Yeah.

Bird: I’m thinking of other family members. Kitty died in 1972?

Oppenheimer: Something like that. I’m not sure because my Mom met her, so it must have been around there.

Bird: You never met Kitty?

Vanderford: No.

Bird:   So are there any stories about Kitty that you remember being told as you were growing up by Peter?

Oppenheimer: We were told nothing about Kitty. My Dad won’t discuss it.

Vanderford:  I will tell you that my Dad absolutely says nothing bad about his parents.

Oppenheimer: Never. Not a word. It’s not like, “They were terrible people, I’m not going to tell you.” He says either good things. He doesn’t agree with this perception that they were some terrible family. My Dad’s an eccentric person, I don’t mind saying it on camera, who doesn’t relate perfectly with the world, and he definitely says, that’s the kind of person he is. 

Bird:   He’s a very private person.

Oppenheimer: He ended up in New Mexico in the ’70s. There were some people like that. There’s the fame thing and that’s who he is. I think some of the characterizations of the Oppenheimer family is, “Oh, were bad parents and that’s caused these problems.” I don’t think that’s accurate. We have an extremely close family, and that was passed down from my Dad through just closeness and great interactions.

Bird: Oh dear. I’m a culprit then probably, having written some of these stories.

Oppenheimer: Well as an historian or an author, you don’t know. People don’t know. There’s never any one story. I’m sure there’s things that might not get through.

Bird: I’m recording what other people say, but of course, even the closest of family friends can’t sometimes know a family.

Oppenheimer: That’s right. Sometimes I describe to people, I say, “Do a thought experiment with me. What if somebody wrote a book about your Mom? They got every fact right. They wrote down when she went to high school, and here’s what her personality was like.” This is an analysis of her personality and they published that book, you’re not going to agree with that. You’re going to say, “That’s a pile of garbage.” You’re going to have a really hard time believing somebody else’s interpretation, analyzing somebody, especially if you didn’t meet them. Cause my Dad is a sensitive person—

Bird:   Okay. This is important. Let’s get this on the record. Growing up, you never got the sense from Peter that he had any feelings of animosity towards Kitty or his father?

Vanderford:  Never. Not one time.

Oppenheimer: No. And I’ve heard many people talk about their parents and complain about them, all of us included. My Dad had positive things to say about his family, that his Dad—now Kitty, he just has less to say. I’ve asked him sometimes to say, “Tell me this and tell me that.” He won’t talk about it a lot, but it’s certainly not a series of complaints about this and that.

Vanderford:  When I read your narrative in American Prometheus, it really piqued my interest in learning more about my grandmother as a person and all of her complications. I think I might see the potential for a bigger picture, and see her as a more full person than your portrayal of an evil person, or something awful like this. I didn’t enjoy that. It was a quote somebody else said.

Bird:   I hope I didn’t portray her as an evil person.

Vanderford:  There was a quote in there from Jackie saying that.

Oppenheimer: Jackie didn’t like her, though.

Vanderford: There was a lot in there. That’s not really the purpose of this interview, we can talk about it at a different time, what I thought about your book. But the point is, it piqued my interest in, how would I portray somebody I hadn’t met that’s related to me? It really piqued my curiosity in her. I wanted to know more about her as a person, so that’s something good, but I don’t have anything additional to add.

Oppenheimer: I do have something that my Dad would be horrified for me to say, but since I’m on camera, it’s not his comments. It’s something that my Mom told me over the years. My Mom read and wrote German, and she said that she read letters written by Kitty about Peter that were damning, saying terrible things about a baby that couldn’t be true. I haven’t read those letters and I don’t know how accurate she is, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there was a terrible relationship between the Mom and the child. I have not heard that. I’ve heard good things and I came from a good family, a close, good family that could really talk to each other and take care of each other. I don’t think that that came from out of the blue.

Bird:   But these letters were in German from Kitty?

Oppenheimer: Kitty to somebody else.

Bird:   Yeah, she could write in German. She came from German ancestry and she had relatives in Europe.

Oppenheimer: If we could find them maybe they’d have more historical merit, but my father has never said anything about her. I’d like to hear more, but you can only get what you can get.

Bird:   That’s interesting. Obviously Kitty was a very colorful, dynamic, vibrant, assertive woman.

Oppenheimer: By the way, some of the research you guys published shocked me. We had never heard anything about her, so when you say that she was related to this royal family and a famous Nazi, I had no idea. That’s one of the advantages of being related to a famous family, you have people doing research for you and you get to read these things. I was kind of impressed by that. I didn’t know we had distantly German royal blood lines.

Bird:   It’s all true.

Vanderford:  One thing I would like to say on the subject of Kitty is, we read things differently over time. There’s a way maybe to read her. I hear she’s a colorful, outspoken person. It was a generation when women weren’t necessarily outspoken and colorful. It was probably offensive to somebody who wasn’t an innate feminist then.

Bird:   Exactly. She was an early feminist.

Vanderford:  So I respect that. We may not look at the disease model of maybe perhaps alcoholism, something like that. There are things such as postpartum depression. There are a lot of different ways that we might read a person now that are more complicated. I think we allow for that now. It made me interested to see what I could discover.

Bird:   Absolutely. It’s very complicated stories and complicated people. I want to assure you as the biographer, I don’t have any confidence that what I’ve written is the end of the story. There will be other biographers who will come along with new evidence, maybe these new letters.

Oppenheimer: That’s kind of the funny thing about Robert Oppenheimer’s life in general. I guess you could have a more examined life, but I’m not sure how. Every hour of everything that he ever did has been interpreted and examined. I can’t think of another example. I read about the presidents, but I haven’t seen a team of investigative historians going over every nuance of literally of down to the hour of most of his life. It’s kind of a bizarre thing, that there’s that much attention on it.

Bird:   It is bizarre, but it’s happened because of the FBI records, in part. Eight thousand pages with all of this surveillance. It’s happened because he has become such an iconic figure in history.

Oppenheimer: If Richard Rhodes’ interpretation from this morning is, like you said, if he’s partially right about that, “The End of War.” It is a big deal, and he hoped people would be talking about these people who did this Project hundreds of years from now. In that case, the historical effort would pay off.

But in human and family terms, it’s so overwhelming that usually you just wouldn’t even pay attention to it. That’s certainly what my Dad does, with published stuff. He doesn’t want to see that version, because he has a memory of people he knows. So that was some of our earlier memories, when they’d have shows on TV. He wouldn’t prohibit us from watching it, although we didn’t watch a lot of TV in general. But he didn’t want to watch it, because he felt like he’d be just picking up somebody else’s interpretation of the people he knew.

Vanderford:  I understand that sentiment.

Bird:   Did he ever take you back to Princeton and show you his family home?

Oppenheimer: One time.

Vanderford:  Yes. We were talking about that the other day, and I’d say I was maybe twelve.

Oppenheimer: I know I was in fourth grade.

Vanderford:  Yeah, so I would have been eleven or twelve. It was the fall, so I would have just turned twelve. We took a very nice trip out here, and we did see the house that he grew up in. I remember being in it. It was nice. It matches the pictures.

Oppenheimer: The reason we went was during a peace march, an anti-nuke rally that ended in Washington, DC. So we went to New York and we were just kids, we went along as tourists and saw that, and participated in that. Then we stopped in New Jersey and visited Olden Manor. It was very impressive to me. It’s this giant mansion. I was like, “Wow, this is not how I grew up.”

Bird: They gave you a tour inside? The current director [of the Institute for Advanced Studies]?

Oppenheimer: Yeah, my Dad would show us where they added the pool and memories he had. He talked about Einstein coming over one time and the dogs scaring him.

Vanderford:  Were they mastiffs?

Oppenheimer: I’m not sure. I thought they were German shepherds. But it was nice, and then we went to the Institute and some other places in New Jersey. It was almost just a coincidence that we dropped in there, and ended up in DC for the end of the peace march. That was the last time you were here, in Washington, DC.

Vanderford:  I have no recollection of the peace march. I remember leaves. I remember Olden Manor. I remember steam coming out of the grates in New York City alleyways. I remember the trains, but I have no recollection of the peace march at all.

Bird:   Which peace march could this have been?

Oppenheimer: I’m sure we could look it up. There was a pretty big anti-nuke movement in the ‘80s. This might have been ’85, ’86.

Vanderford: We would also go to Nevada. Sometimes my Dad would take us there. I remember that.

Oppenheimer: So for a brief period, my Father became more interested in that movement. While he’s anti-participating in Oppenheimer events, he had encouraged me, saying, “If you’re going to use your last name, use it for something like that.” So as I was speaking here today, I had that virulent anti-nuclear speech and I was like, “I’d better cross that out, cross that out. It’s inevitable.” A few little anecdotes I’m going to share, hopefully in five minutes when I go in to talk to the audience.

Bird:   Have you ever heard your grandfather’s speech that’s on tape that he gave three months after Hiroshima?

Oppenheimer: I haven’t heard it, but I’ve read it. That’s the one in Los Alamos, right? Is it October. 

Bird:   No, that’s a different one. It’s very close in time, and he may have said something very similar. People talk about that speech a lot. But he also gave a speech in Philadelphia to the American Philosophical Society, and it’s now online on YouTube. Marty and I quote from it in American Prometheus.

He had this very soft-spoken, haunting voice. At one point he says something like, “If you think that this Manhattan Project was an expensive thing because you’ve read in the paper that it costs two billion dollars, you would be wrong. It was actually very cheap. There are no secrets. This weapon is a weapon for aggressors. It can only be used on cities. This weapon was used on an essentially already defeated enemy.”

In the beginning of the speech, he talks about science and how this was inevitable to discover this. He’s not taking back what he did. He said, “We had to find out how the atom worked.” He’s also buying into Richard Rhodes’ argument about, “We needed to do this to try to end all wars.” That was an idea he got from [Niels] Bohr. He’s clearly becoming an anti-nuclear activist.

Oppenheimer: He said in Los Alamos, I think in October, right while he was at Los Alamos, “If the weapons that we made here are going to be added to the arsenals of mankind, the day will come that we curse the name of Los Alamos,” or something like that.

Bird:   Yeah, that’s very close.

Oppenheimer: He both was very clear. These scientists were geniuses. He wasn’t the only one. They saw what was going to happen. He said, “The way we’re headed, we’re going to get into an arms race, and we shouldn’t do it.” Not only was he willing to speak out, not on marching on Washington where nobody listens to you, but to say exactly what he thought about them. But also work on the inside of the government to try to control them with his position of power. Some of the other scientists were probably more ideologically rigid, wouldn’t want to protest it.

But he tried to use his power to work on the inside to control them. The plans they set forth were pragmatic, international control of fissionable materials. The Acheson-Lilienthal suggestion in 1946 or 1947 was the plan that George Bush was implementing in 2007 saying, “Hey, if we can control fissionable materials, we can control this.” So they laid out the plan to not get into an arms race, to use cooperative control of atomic energy.

The times were against my grandfather. I think my Dad’s opinion is, he was lucky to get crucified by the institution, because they were a bunch of buffoons and whoremongers. There were never going to listen to him. It essentially set him free. He did his duty. He did try very hard to get them control and work on it. But it wasn’t ambiguous where he was coming from.

He didn’t apologize for his work during the war, like no soldier apologizes for it either. He did what he had to do, and he knew what should be done afterwards and he tried really hard afterwards to get it done. I can’t fault him for any of that.

That’s the family position. My Dad is a true pacifist, innate, sensitive, true pacifist. My grandfather was not. He’s much more pragmatic and maybe a little bit like me, but my Dad truly doesn’t believe in war. I think he belonged in a march against it, rather than inside the government like Robert Oppenheimer.

Vanderford: I see my grandfather as very brave and honest. My Dad has always been very clear that he was loyal and patriotic, in the genuine sense. That’s familiar information for everyone. I really do believe that, that he loved the country and loved what he was doing.

Oppenheimer: One of the harder things to deal with—like most of my upbringing, saying, “You invented the atomic bomb,” wasn’t particularly hard for me. At least I got a little attention. One of the times it was a little bit hard was an Oppenheimer conference that I went to in Berkeley in 2004, right before I got married.

A reporter walked up to me and said—that was when Gregg Herken published his book, which had what I felt was salacious details about some impossible conspiracies. He [Oppenheimer] was a secret member of the Communist Party that nobody could have known about, except him [Herken]. How do you prove that? I hadn’t read too much into it.

A reporter asked me, “Was your grandfather a Communist?”

I said, “Let’s not name names. Why does it matter if he was a Communist or not?” That was in the newspaper. I read that and I’m like, “No, he wasn’t a Communist! Everybody knows he wasn’t a Communist!” But I didn’t come out and spit that out to the reporter. He’s provably not a Communist. The FBI knew he wasn’t. Some of that attention during that conference was hard. I emotionally felt it. I’m like, “Why are these guys talking about my grandfather that way after what he did for the country?”

But after I researched it a lot more, it doesn’t bother me as much personally. That trial in the ’50s is in some sense comical, when I think about the kind of senators we elect now. Those are the guys who were accusing my grandfather. Their accusation, when you read it, was that he was insufficiently sufficient to run a crash program to develop a hydrogen bomb. What kind of an accusation is that? He was insufficiently enthusiastic. But in the ’50s, that was a black mark, and it was so effective. The way you guys outlined it, his place in society and his aura of this incredible person, which all of the scientists and a lot of people believed, was so tenuous that the minute you prick that and said, “There’s some doubt here. Is this really a good guy?” That was all it took to deflate the entire card of Oppenheimer. In that sense, it could be tragic.

Bird: He was one of the chief victims of this McCarthyite witch hunt that we went through. We still live with the residue of it in American political culture.

Oppenheimer: It’s the same genre, same political thinking. You can trace exactly where it went from there to today.

Vanderford: Personally, what I find in my legacy, in our legacy, is the idea that that kind of thing could happen again. That is what frightens me. I want to sort of shy away from the Oppenheimer legacy, because I have this sense of, how would I handle it if I did something fantastic and then I was attacked by my own government? So there’s a sense of vulnerability. That may be why my Dad keeps to himself and why I’ve kind of adopted that, keeping to myself. You [Charlie] didn’t get that.

Oppenheimer: But I also feel more aggressive about it. Oppenheimer was correctly characterized as somebody who couldn’t stand up on trial well. I see some of that in myself. If somebody said, “Did you do this? Are you guilty?”

I’m like, “Yeah, I’m probably guilty. But let’s talk about it.” I don’t know if we’re out of time here.

Bird:   We’re I guess running out of time. Let’s end on two questions. Are there any sources that you think have not been yet tapped about the Oppenheimer family legacy, either in terms of letters, photographs? Is the family taking every precaution to preserve whatever is left? Are there things out there that historians haven’t seen yet?

Vanderford:  Perhaps.

Oppenheimer: I’m not totally sure. There probably are some things. My Dad would be a good source of first-person information about this, and probably a good source for most of the documents. But he doesn’t want to participate in that, the vast majority of the time. 

Copyright 2015 The Atomic Heritage Foundation. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.