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Haakon Chevalier’s Interview – Part 1

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Haakon Chevalier was a French literature professor at Berkeley and close friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, Chevalier discusses aspects of Oppenheimer’s personal life, including his romantic relationships and family, hobbies including Sanskrit, and religious views. He recalls how Oppenheimer became involved in politics on the Berkeley campus. He also discusses who was present for his infamous conversation with Oppenheimer, in which Chevalier told Oppie he knew a way to pass scientific secrets to the Soviets. This conversation played a key role in Oppenheimer’s security trial in 1954.

Date of Interview:
June 29, 1982
Location of the Interview:


Martin Sherwin: Did you know Robert [Oppenheimer] when he was going out with Jean Tatlock?

Chevalier: Yes, but I don’t think I ever saw them together.

Sherwin: When we first spoke over the phone, you called me from the airport about three or four years ago. I was living in Princeton, New Jersey.

Chevalier: Oh, yes. Yes, that’s right.

Sherwin: Yes, and we had a nice conversation on the phone, and after we hung up, I made notes. You were talking about the script, the BBC script, which you had seen, and you had said they had gotten everything wrong. One in particular was especially the relation with Jean Tatlock. You said that she was a wonderful girl and their portrait of her was a very poor one. Then you said you felt that she was really Oppenheimer’s deepest love, or in certain ways the woman he was most attached to in a profound sense.

Chevalier: Yes, I had that sense.

Sherwin: Where did you get that sense from?

Chevalier: I don’t know. I just had that feeling—intuition. I don’t know what, but not based on anything that I saw or heard.

Sherwin: Now, I would like to also ask you a bit about the relationship between Melba Phillips and Oppenheimer. Was he ever romantically attached to her?

Chevalier: I don’t know. I wonder. It’s conceivable. She was the one, you know, whom he left in the car.

Sherwin: That’s right. I have never believed the story that he just wandered off thinking of physics but nonetheless. I have spoken to her. She didn’t want to speak about that.

Chevalier: She didn’t?

Sherwin: No, she didn’t. Not to me, at least. I understand that she was very disappointed in him in retrospect, in the years following the war. She felt that he had essentially sold out.

Chevalier: Yes.

Sherwin: Did she ever talk to you about that?

Chevalier: No, not much. Just very briefly, but several others, like [Philip] Morrison, very strongly had that feeling, and [Robert] Serber also.

Sherwin: Did you talk to them about Oppenheimer?

Chevalier: Yes, yes, not recently.

Sherwin: No, but when?

Chevalier: In 1950—no, yes. ’50, ’48, ’49, ’50.

Sherwin: What did Morrison say, for example?

Chevalier: I mention it in the book. He said, “He thinks he’s God,” was one thing he told him.

Sherwin: Yes, I remember that now.

Chevalier: I think I also mentioned the fact that he spoke of the then Secretary of State—I forget who it was—Marshall?

Sherwin: Yes, Marshall, George, yes.

Chevalier: Yes, George. He lived in a different sphere from his now.

Sherwin: Indeed, he did.

Chevalier: Do you know what happened, how Serber and Kitty [Oppenheimer] got together, and how they got that boat and went down to the Gulf of Mexico?

Sherwin: Panama?

Chevalier: Yeah.

Sherwin: Do you know how it happened, or that it happened?

Chevalier: It seemed to me to make very little sense. Were they on their way to—

Sherwin: They were taking a trip around the world, and Serber became involved with Kitty. She was the Robert Oppenheimer substitute, in a sense. I think they both, in important ways, were hanging onto each other as a way of hanging onto Robert.

Sherwin: You talked about the Oppenheimers as being good parents, but I have talked to a lot of people that have a very different point of view. Not that they were consciously bad parents, but that in a sense they were somewhere else psychologically than in the family, in terms of the focus being on the children.

Chevalier: Uhm hmm.

Sherwin: In a sense, the children were sort of a burden on their lives rather than an enrichment.

Chevalier: I don’t remember making that statement. Perhaps I was simply referring to the fact that they conscientiously did what was supposed to be done. The last time I saw them was in 1950, when I was on my way here, and I saw both of them for the period that I was there. I was there twice for two or three days at a time, and they were part of the family. I couldn’t see anything that wasn’t proper. They weren’t shoved off or anything. They seemed to be a part of the family.

Sherwin: For example, I was somewhat struck by the fact that when Peter was such a small baby, that Kitty left Peter with you. Not for a week or two, but was it a full two months?

Chevalier: It was several weeks, yes. I think it was about two months.

Sherwin: That’s a long period of time.

Chevalier: Yes, it is. She had a bad pregnancy and delivery, and she was pretty exhausted, so there was some excuse.

Sherwin: It’s not a usual thing to do. Kitty and Peter had a terrible relationship, actually.

Chevalier: Oh, yes?

Sherwin: Again, according to people who observed the family on a daily basis.

Chevalier: Uhm hmm.

Sherwin: It became worse much later.

Chevalier: Oh, really?

Sherwin: It was not particularly good from the very beginning. What was your impression of Kitty intellectually?

Chevalier: She was intelligent and well-read. No great intellect, that is. She wasn’t astute, and she wasn’t profound. She was more intuitive, and she was very much at Oppie’s beck and call for anything. She was really dedicated to him. She had her orchids, she raised orchids. I don’t think she did very much with mycology after she left her studies.

Sherwin: Do you have any sense that she resented being taken away from her studies? Or was she just as happy to be done with it?

Chevalier: Well, no. I didn’t have any sense of that, except on the occasion that I mentioned it to Oppenheimer in the kitchen about the [George] Eltenton conversation. She had just bought a French edition, an early 19th century edition of a book on mycology with hand-drawn painted illustrations. It was a very fine book, which we spent some time looking at. She had just bought this, picked it up somewhere, so she was maintaining her interest in the subject.

Sherwin: After Robert died, Kitty had a very poor relationship with Peter. In fact, Peter would never see his mother.

Chevalier: Where was he living? In a separate place?

Sherwin: He wouldn’t even come into the house for a while, and then he moved out west. I am trying to recall an interview that I had many years ago. At the moment, it slips my mind who it was with, but it was after Robert died. Kitty told this person that she was in the kitchen in the so-called Chevalier incident.  

Chevalier: No, she wasn’t. There were just the four of us, and my wife and Kitty were in the living room while Oppie and I were in the kitchen, which was separate from the living room and separated from the dining room, pantry, and kitchen. Does Peter have any money?

Sherwin: I think he does.

What was it like, teaching at Berkeley in the ‘30s? What was the atmosphere like in terms of politics and environment, where the country as a whole was in the midst of a transition? That is, the New Deal, and the possibility of the development of a whole new relationship between government and the people, and in a place like Berkeley which was, as you said, dominated by conservative Republicans, in terms of the administration and the department chairmen and the older faculty? I would guess the students, or at least a fairly decent portion of them, was in the swing of the New Deal. Is that right?

Chevalier: Yes, it was a time of great tension in the faculty and in the student body. In the faculty, a few of us who were more or less left-wingers were very conscious of the fact that we were frowned upon by the others. There were several outstanding professors like Professor Brady, who was a leftist. He was one of the people in the teacher’s union.

Sherwin: What was his first name again?

Chevalier: Bob—Robert.

Sherwin: Robert Brady.

Chevalier: His wife Mildred was one of the people in Consumers Union to which all of us, including Oppenheimer, belonged. There were various clashes with professors at a council which would meet periodically to decide certain things of interest to the university, which was presided usually by the President.

Sherwin: Council of Elders, as it were?

Chevalier: Uhm hmm. I forget what it was called. I can’t remember. There were several issues on which there were clashes, and conservatives always won, of course.

Among the students, there were all kinds of meetings and tensions of various kinds over problems—partly university problems, partly local or state situations in the labor movement during the waterfront strike, for instance. There was a great deal of activity on the student part, so it wasn’t calm. There was always something going on. There were times when there was a strike. The student body went on strike, or the faculty went on strike.

I can’t remember how it worked out, but the eve of the day of the strike, we all received a special delivery letter from the Provost, Monroe Deutsch, ordering us to be present at our classes on time. I don’t remember the letter. I just remember that I was outraged. I went there, and there were no students.

Sherwin: Oh, so it was a student strike and you went?

Chevalier: Well yes, I guess it must have been a student strike.

Sherwin: Do you remember about when this was?

Chevalier: I don’t remember exactly. It must have been around ’40 or ’41.

[Tape switch]

Chevalier: —Not be quite satisfied with a first draft, as it were. He [Morrison] would repeat the thing, and then finally a beautiful, long sentence would come out and that would satisfy him that that was what it should be. It was a very interesting intellectual exercise to witness when he did this. It was occasional. It wasn’t too frequent, but sometimes there would be a very interesting idea that one would discuss for a certain length of time. It wasn’t quite right, and then he would begin to work it over, and then finally it would come out in a perfect statement.

Sherwin: Do you remember any particular instances?

Chevalier: No, I can’t remember any. I should have taken notes.

Sherwin: We all should have.


Sherwin: Morrison, as you know, is still very active, and I think extraordinarily admirable in the activities he participates in now.

Chevalier: Yes, he is a remarkable chap.

Sherwin: And still has this ability to—

Chevalier: Have you ever seen him? Have you spoken to him?

Sherwin: Oh yes, I know him fairly well. He doesn’t read books. He swallows them and reads at this incredible pace. It’s as if the print just leaps off the page into his head. He reviews books for the Scientific American. He reviews every month, in a long review essay of probably about 5,000 to 10,000 words, some six or seven books on a variety of topics every month. He’s been doing it for years, and he writes like that too. He just sits down and writes. That’s why I was interested in the quality of his mind and the relationship with Oppenheimer.

Chevalier: He’s an extraordinary chap.

Sherwin: He is.

You write beautifully, by the way, and you hardly need to hear that from me, But in re-reading this, which I had read years ago when it came out, I was struck with the descriptions of Oppenheimer and his personality and how he thought. I want to try and press you into some similar kinds of insights into Morrison. Do you have any vivid pictures of Morrison, for example, speaking on the steps of Sproul Plaza? Any of the issues that were involved with what he was like?

Chevalier: No, nothing too definite. He was a striking personality, and still is, of course. But it has been so long ago that I can’t think of any specific issues. Of course, the issues were the issues of the day: war, probably in most cases, and of course all sorts of labor problems, both local and state and national.

Sherwin: The longshoreman issue, the farm workers.

Chevalier: Yes, the migratory workers.

Sherwin: Just the general national union problems.

Chevalier: Yes, and then the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] was getting started sometime around the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.

Sherwin: Did you know Francis Fergusson?

Chevalier: No, I’ve never met him.

Sherwin: Friend of Oppenheimer’s. In terms of the discussion group, basically you remember about three or four people?

Chevalier: Yes.

Sherwin: What types of issues were discussed? Were they theoretical issues? Did you focus on a book or a tract? Or was it a focus on a particular political problem of the day?

Chevalier: It was a little of all of those things. There weren’t any set speeches or anything. There was discussion, and there were all sorts of immediate problems. Teacher’s union was one of them, of course, and local issues of various kinds.

Sherwin: Oh, yes. This is a frivolous question, but I thought I would ask anyway, because I like martinis [laughter]. You said that Oppenheimer made the best martinis in the world. Do you care to reveal, or did he ever reveal, the secret formula [laughter]?

Chevalier: No. There was no real secret, but he had a knack. They just seemed better when he made them.

Sherwin: You talked about the university faculty, and it being filled for the most part with archconservatives, and certainly the administrative structure being conservative, and that most of them were conservative Republicans. What was your sense of the left-wing on the faculty? Were they all the younger people? Or was it focused on certain departments?

Chevalier: Well, they were mostly younger, yes. Certainly, most of them were younger. Some were older. There was T. K. Whipple. He was a Professor of English. He and I were the first two faculty people to initiate the teacher’s union, Local 349. [Mathurin Marius] Dondo joined the union. I think Tolman did too, but never showed up but became actually a de facto member.

Sherwin: This is not Richard Tolman, is it?

Chevalier: No, I think it’s his brother.

Sherwin: That’s what I was going to ask. E. C.?

Chevalier: Psychology. I think it’s E. C. yes.

Sherwin: You talked about the [Culbert] Olson governorship and Russian war relief as being issues?

Chevalier: Uhm hmm.

Sherwin: Let’s see. What was the John Steinbeck Committee?

Chevalier: Steinbeck wrote the book on the migratory workers, and he also wrote a series of articles in, I guess it was, in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Sherwin: Which I’m not familiar with.

Chevalier: That’s the one—there is the Examiner.

Sherwin: No, I’m familiar with the Chronicle. I taught at Berkeley for four years.

Chevalier: Oh, you did?

Sherwin: I’m not familiar with the series of articles that he wrote in the Chronicle.

Chevalier: I don’t remember the title of it. Then he was sort of a hero because he had vindicated the migratory workers and they started the Steinbeck Committee, which gave occasional parties.

Sherwin: Oh, I see. I was thinking it was a John Steinbeck Committee for something specific, like he was locked in jail and you were trying to raise money to free him, or something that I didn’t know about.

Chevalier: No, no.

Sherwin: You used his name as a blanket or umbrella to raise money for these causes?

Your descriptions of your various homes in Oakland—was your second home in Berkeley?

Chevalier: Yes, the Woodmont Avenue was in Berkeley, and the [inaudible] was just on the other side of Oakland, but almost next door to Berkeley.

Sherwin: Just across the street from—what is it? I used to live on [inaudible] just before the Oakland/Berkeley.

Chevalier: Yes, yes.

Sherwin: Then I moved up in the Hills at one point during the last two years that I was there.

Chevalier: You taught in the History Department there?

Sherwin: Yes, it was my first job before I was finished with my dissertation. I taught there for four years.

I was surprised to learn that Oppenheimer hardly ever missed a union meeting, and how active he was in the daily nitty-gritty activities. You give the example of addressing envelopes or stuffing envelopes, and that’s particularly interesting because that was one of his great strengths was as an administrator at Los Alamos. That although he didn’t do nitty-gritty things necessarily, he always knew exactly what was going on, even down to that level.

There were lots of memoranda, for example, that I have come across, of Oppenheimer himself writing a memo about housing to the women of the Los Alamos community, with bathtub problems, or school problems, etc. So the connection between his activities as a union member, his willingness to get in there and do all of these small things. His experience of doing that clearly carried over into his activities at Los Alamos.

Chevalier: Yes, yes.

Sherwin: In a sense, I think I would argue he probably recreated the community that he was a part of in Berkeley, in terms of relationships and his role in it. He recreated that community at Los Alamos.

Chevalier: It certainly was a valuable experience for him.

Sherwin: You talked about Oppenheimer’s the “Hebrew prophet,” side of his nature, which coexisted with and and never quite obliterated the playfully, the sophisticated worldly side. What did you have in your mind when you talked about the Hebrew prophet side?

Chevalier: He just had that look during conversation, in a case like what I just mentioned about trying to find the proper expression. He would have kind of an entranced look. He would look off into space and make gestures, and he looked like he suggested a hieratic figure, long ago. He seemed at sort of a different level than an ordinary human being. There was a strange sense of that, that came through again and again.

Sherwin: Do you feel that it was a very natural part of his personality or something he cultivated?

Chevalier: I think something that developed naturally. He didn’t at all give the impression of being self-conscious at any time. He was outgoing.

Sherwin: When he started studying Sanskrit with Arthur Ryder, that was in about 1938 to 1939?

Chevalier: Just about, yes.

Sherwin: Did he talk to you about it, and why he was doing it and the excitement of it?

Chevalier: He wanted to read the Bhagavad Gita and the great classics in the original, and he was very excited about it. I think there were just two in the class. The other was a man named Raiko Ruzic, a Yugoslav who knew many languages, but Oppenheimer said he didn’t know any of them really well. He said, “The trouble with him was that he wasn’t a linguist.”

Sherwin: The way Oppenheimer thought of himself as being?

Chevalier: Yes.

Sherwin: Do you remember how that Yugoslav spelled his name?

Chevalier: Raiko. I have his death notice. He died a couple of years ago in a boat accident. I think it was Ruzic. Raiko, I suppose, R-E-I-K-O.

Sherwin: My Yugoslavian is not very good.


Sherwin: I’m going to tell you a funny story. I was interviewing I. I. Rabi, who knew Oppenheimer quite well. He said at one point, the trouble with Oppenheimer was that he studied Sanskrit instead of the Talmud. I asked him what he meant by that. I had a good idea what he meant but he said, “Well, the problem with Oppenheimer is that he didn’t know who he was.”

Chevalier: He didn’t know who he himself was?

Sherwin: He didn’t know who he himself was, and that he had this problem with being Jewish. Not that he tried to pretend that he was not, but that he wasn’t completely comfortable with immersing himself in that culture as opposed to all these other cultures. And then, Rabi contrasted it with himself that he had no problem with that, and he knew exactly who he was. I asked for examples and he said, “For example, his women. None of the women that Oppenheimer were particularly close to were Jewish.”

I put that on the table, I think, for your comment, because I’m trying to see to what extent that comment is a valid one, from the point of view of people who knew Oppenheimer.

Chevalier: It doesn’t sound very characteristic to me. For one thing, among the women he had affairs with, there were two who were Jewish. One was my sister-in-law, and another was Estelle Caen, who was the sister of Herb Caen.

And then as far as Jewishness, I don’t remember discussing it, but I would be surprised—well, of course, apparently he was very conscious of it when he was at Harvard because there is kind of a barrier there, apparently. Jews are looked down on.

Sherwin: Well, not now, but certainly then. Have you see the Smith/Weiner “Oppenheimer Letters”?

Chevalier: Yes, yes.

Sherwin: There is the one letter of recommendation from [Percy] Bridgman, where he talks about how he—Oppenheimer—did not have qualities that are characteristic of his race, etc. So there clearly was that. Even in the 1940s, you see letters of recommendation from various physicists who are WASPs talking about Jewish students, that this one should fit in because he doesn’t fit a stereotype of some sort. But by the ‘60s and ‘70s, I think at least it appears to have changed considerably.

But again, Oppenheimer was certainly involved in the political activities of the ‘30s, partly certainly because of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. He certainly made efforts, in terms of his own family, to bring those out he could.

Chevalier: Yes.

Sherwin: I think Rabi was thinking of it in a much deeper level, someone like Walter Lippmann, who was somebody who kept it as far a distance as he possibly could.

Chevalier: Kept his what?

Sherwin: Kept his Jewish background as far a distance as he possibly could.

Chevalier: By the way, speaking of Rabi, you know that reference in the hearing, he said—by the way, his role was awfully good, wasn’t it? I think he was the best witness, in many ways. He was the only one who stood up to [Roger] Robb effectively.

But he said that he had noticed—Rabi speaking of Oppenheimer—he had noticed something that surprised him, that he was advocating preventive war. Remember that? You didn’t happen to bring that up with him, did you?

Sherwin: No, I didn’t, but there are other people who have in a sense confirmed that in conversations sitting around Oppenheimer’s, I think, frustration with the Soviet commentary to the effect, “Maybe the best thing is to sort of bomb them and get it over with,” that sort of thing. That’s not a quote, by the way.

There was occasionally, I would say, a carelessness in Oppenheimer, in terms of seeking a political solution, an effort to do something that would really solve the problem, which is probably characteristic of a scientist’s approach to problems. That there is a solution, a real solution, something that solves a problem. Whereas, my view, at least in politics, is that problems are ameliorated. They are moved from a prominent place on the world stage to a place of lesser importance and replaced by other problems. But there’s no such thing as eliminating a problem, generally speaking. Except of course in the most horrendous type of way that is sometimes sought after, back to our original conversation about Israel and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization].

Chevalier: Of course, there is a very simple solution, which is simply to give up all armaments.

Sherwin: Yes, of course.

Chevalier: That’s easy, and it’s cheap. Why can’t one resort to it?

Sherwin: Well, one can resort to it. Why can’t all resort to it? That’s the problem.

I think theoretically all problems could be resolved. But as we deal with these problems on a day-to-day basis, I think we should work towards solutions. I certainly don’t think that that was a serious policy that Oppenheimer was recommending.

Chevalier: He wasn’t actually advocating it.

Sherwin: No, it was a comment that came out of the frustration of trying to deal with what he saw, and of course still is today the most important problem of the world, the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Once another side got it, would the human race come to an end? Of course, it still might, and it’s much more dangerous today.

Chevalier: Yes.

Sherwin: I was speaking to [Hans] Bethe about four or five weeks ago, and he was talking about the good old days when atomic bombs were only 50 kilotons, how simple the problem was then, how tiny these things were, and if we could only get back to that point of when we were handling such simple, little things.


And of course the hysteria at that time was quite understandable within that context. They didn’t look at these things as simple weapons.

Copyright 2005 Martin J. Sherwin. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Martin J. Sherwin. Rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.