Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Harold Cherniss’s Interview – Part 1

Harold Cherniss was an American classicist. He initially met J. Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley in 1929, and they reconnected after the war in Berkeley and later at the Institute for Advanced Study. In this interview, Cherniss reflects on his friendship with Oppenheimer and his experience with others who knew him. Among other subjects, he discusses Oppenheimer’s personality, intellectualism, friendships, and political leanings. He recalls Oppenheimer’s interest in literature, especially French poetry. Cherniss explains how and why Oppenheimer became interested in studying Sanskrit – because Oppie loved a challenge.

Date of Interview:
May 23, 1979
Location of the Interview:


Harold Cherniss: Well, you see, I was married on January 1, 1929, in White Plains. When we went back to Berkeley, it was immediately after that that I met  [J. Robert] Oppenheimer. This is the time in which he had come to Berkeley the autumn before, just about this time. Taught one term in Berkeley, one term at Caltech. That’s when I first met him, and I met him because my wife had known him when they were children.

Martin Sherwin: Your wife’s maiden name?

Cherniss: Meyer, M-E-Y-E-R, and the families had known each other long before, in the preceding generation.

Sherwin: Yes. I think that’s what was mentioned.

Cherniss: Oppenheimer’s parents and my wife’s parents had known each other for a long time before that.

This was really how I happened to meet him, as soon as we went back to Berkeley. Then saw a good deal of him until the autumn of 1930, when we left Berkeley and I went to Cornell. From that time on, well, really, from ’30 until ’42, I saw him only very infrequently. When he would come east sometimes, I would see him. Yeah, ’42, I think, the spring of ’42, just before I went into the Army, I went back to Berkeley for a couple of weeks to give some lectures, and I saw him several times then. Then I didn’t see him again until after the war. Because in ’46, when I got out of the Army, I went back to Berkeley instead of going back to [Johns] Hopkins, where I had been before.

Sherwin: I see, you went from Cornell to Hopkins?

Cherniss:  I went from Cornell to Hopkins, from Hopkins into the Army, and then back to Berkeley. When I got back to Berkeley in February of ’46, the Oppenheimers had just come back from Los Alamos, moved back to Berkeley. So then, of course, we saw them frequently until we left—well, until he left.

Sherwin: In ’47.

Cherniss: The following year, he came here [to the Institute of Advanced Study], and the year after that I came here.

Sherwin: Right. So you were here from ’48.

Cherniss: I was here from the autumn of ’48 on. He was here from the autumn of  ’47 on.

Sherwin: Okay. So there are really three distinct periods: the ’29 to ’30 period, when you were away, from ’30 to ’40, ’46.

Cherniss: And in Berkeley from ’46 to ’47, and here from ’48 on.

Sherwin: Well, perhaps we can proceed chronologically. Being a historian you would know that, of course, compulsive about that. I am really interested, I think, in three kinds of questions. One has to do with Oppenheimer’s personality and your impressions of it, and whatever you can help me along those lines in terms of development. The second has to do with Oppenheimer’s political views, and the third has to do with Oppenheimer as a scientist.

I suppose the first one is the question of personality. You had met him in ’29?

Cherniss:  Yeah. That’s the most difficult, really. Because as I have frequently said of him recently, the longer I was acquainted with him, the more intimately I was acquainted with him, the less I knew about him.

Sherwin: There have been statements made about him that—on the one hand, some people who have written have said that he was a very complex personality. Nuel Pharr Davis says if you really want to understand Oppenheimer, you have to understand that he was really a simple person. Another interpretation that I have read is that he had a complex outlook on life, but was fundamentally a simple personality. How would you evaluate those? Sounds like a short answer question.

Cherniss: I couldn’t, because in the first place I don’t quite know what they mean by a simple personality.

Sherwin: I don’t think they do either.

Cherniss: No. I mean, if they mean, if they were to mean “simple” in the way a man on the street would understand it, then, of course not. He was not simple in that sense. In the ordinary sense of the word, of course, he was complicated. I don’t think he was a fully integrated personality, if you know what I mean by that. Now, of course, maybe very few people are completely integrated personalities.

Sherwin: That’s very interesting. Could you develop it? Because I may have one view of what you mean by an integrated personality and you might mean it in a different way.

Cherniss: He was very sharp intellectually, one of the sharpest people I have ever seen or heard of, intellectually. And in that sense, extremely intelligent. He had very wide interests, and was interested in almost anything you could think of. When he became interested in anything, he very quickly picked up an enormous amount of knowledge about it. On the intellectual side, he was complicated simply because he was interested in so many things and knew so much about all these various things.

Emotionally, in a sense he wanted to be a simple person, simple in the good sense of the word. I’m sure that he wanted friends very much. He didn’t quite know how to make friends, though. He had a tremendous personal charm and attracted people.

Sherwin: Was that true when you first knew him also?

Cherniss: Yeah, immediately, yeah. His mere physical appearance, his voice and his manners, I think, made people fall in love with him, male, female, everybody, or almost everybody. Of course, I have no doubt that it made many people jealous, too, so that there would be this kind of relation that they vulgarly referred to as a hate/love relation. But he was terrifically attractive. He remained that way, really, to the end, when he wanted to be.

He could also be very cruel in his remarks. He did not suffer fools gladly, of course. Being intellectually sharp as he was, keen, or seeing the point of things almost immediately, he tended to irritate people who were more on his level. He was always very, very kind and considerate to anybody below him, if I may use that term. But not at all to people who might be considered his intellectual equals. This, of course, irritated people, made people very angry, made enemies.

When I say that I don’t think that he was really a well-integrated person, I mean to say that I don’t think the intellectual side of him, where his really great ability lay, was never well-integrated with his emotional side. Not many people, I think, could have felt that they knew with confidence how he would act and what he would do in a hypothetical situation. That’s troubling to people. I think he was also aware of this lack of integration, and this troubled him a great deal.

I know that he wanted friends, and he didn’t really know how to make close friends. He had some, a few. I think this was true, from what I have heard, even before I knew him, when he was in high school.

Sherwin: In terms of the conflict between personality and intellect, do you think that this was the result of an emotional immaturity? Or simply a set of emotions that had different—

Cherniss: Of course, he was psychoanalyzed, too. He went in for all of that sort of stuff.

Sherwin: But only earlier. And later he was very hostile to it.

Cherniss: That’s right, yeah. I’m sure that psychoanalysts who knew him would say this had something to do with his childhood. He had no reason to have an unhappy childhood. Quite the contrary; he was doted on by his parents, by his younger brother [Frank Oppenheimer]. He had everything he wanted, and you might say brought up in luxury. That never spoiled him, incidentally, and in that sense he was never spoiled. He was extremely generous. I mean, generous with money and material things, so he was not a spoiled child in any sense. There was no reason why he should have felt any kind of inferiority complex or what they call the feeling of rejection that a child has, none of that that would explain this.

It’s very difficult, of course, to say what the origins of an emotional life of a person are. But aside from that—which I can’t explain, wouldn’t even attempt to—I think probably from childhood in school, he felt different, and maybe his companions felt that he was different. He was always, obviously, intellectually far ahead of them, and he went to a school in which there were a lot of awfully bright people. But he was always recognized as far—and apparently he was rather gauche, didn’t really know how to get along with these other children socially. Now, this, of course, I say at secondhand, because I didn’t know him, but I know many people who did know him at that time.

Sherwin: Who are some of these people?

Cherniss: Have you heard of Francis Fergusson?

Sherwin: Oh, yes.

Cherniss: Well, you see, Francis was one of his very few friends in high school years, a very close friend of his. I shouldn’t be surprised if Robert would have said to the end that Francis was his closest friend. He remained a very close friend of his. He knows, I think, more about that early stage than anybody else. The things that he says in this respect are confirmed by people like my wife, who knew him when he was a very small child.

Sherwin: Could you recall anything that she’s told you about him?

Cherniss: Well, no. See, she knew him when he was quite young, and then not so much in the period in which Francis Fergusson would have, because she went to this school, too, when she was quite young. Then her family moved out into the country, out at Westchester, and the Oppenheimers were still in New York City, I think. Anyway, Robert went to the Ethical Culture School on through high school.

Sherwin: In 1929, during that period, do you recall any sense of the kinds of things that were particularly important to Oppenheimer? Any sort of stories about relationships and anything?

Cherniss: Stories about relationships, no, but of course, I saw him a great deal. Things that were important to him were literature, poetry, of course, his own science. These were exciting days in physics in Berkeley. Getting the cyclotron, in fact, the whole beginning of this department of theoretical physics that was just being built up with all the young people, [Ernest] Lawrence and Oppenheimer and others. We didn’t talk very much about physics and physicists, but mostly about literature, poetry. We disagreed about almost everything.

Sherwin: Good. Can you remember what literature it was and what was the most interesting?

Cherniss: He was always interested in the most advanced poetry. But it was then, too, that he came into contact with Arthur Ryder and began to study Sanskrit, read Sanskrit with him.

Sherwin: Do you remember how he came across Sanskrit or was attracted to it?

Cherniss: Well, through me.

Sherwin: Aha, okay.

Cherniss: I introduced him to Ryder, who was a teacher of mine, and Ryder was fascinated by him immediately. I left Berkeley the next year, but I know that Oppenheimer continued to see Ryder all the time, to read Sanskrit with him. He was interested in poetry, but he was interested in philosophy, too, naturally.

Sherwin: If I wanted to read the books that Oppenheimer was reading at that time and talking about, what would be a fair sampling, assuming I could read –

Cherniss: Everything from Saint-John Perse to the Bhagavad Gita and the Shakuntala, he read everything.

The one thing that he was not interested in, so far as I knew, was politics, in which I was very much interested. I can’t remember ever having a conversation with him about politics at all. Politics in any sense, I mean, historically or contemporary politics. I think in this aspect of life, he was probably quite naïve. I don’t think he knew much about things. When he came to stay with us in Ithaca for a few days—I was at Cornell—he told me that he had read Marx, he had read Das Kapital. He had become interested in this sort of thing apparently.

Sherwin:   This was at what time?

Cherniss:  Hmm?

Sherwin: When was this?

Cherniss: I was at Cornell from ’30 to ’33, probably about ’32. He came to Cornell to give a lecture, something of the sort, stayed with us for a couple of—

Sherwin: You can really be sure of this? That it had to be in that period, and that he had read Marx by that time?

Cherniss: Yeah. Well, he had read Das Kapital by that time, and he happened to mention that to me.

Sherwin: I see.

Cherniss: It would have to fall in ’32 was the most—let’s see, I went there in ’30, the autumn of ’30. I think it must have been about the spring of ’32.

Sherwin: Yeah. Well, that’s actually very interesting, because the mythology is more that it isn’t really until the Spanish Civil War that there’s any consciousness at all of international affairs and problems.

Cherniss: Well, I don’t say that by this, say in ’32, he was interested in politics. Since he read everything of which he had heard somewhere, I suppose somebody said to him, “Maybe you don’t know anything about this, or you haven’t seen it.” He got this wretched book and read it.

Sherwin: Which is no easy read.

Cherniss: No. But you see he was, he was also a good linguist, and naturally knew German very well. He had been in Germany, knew German and French very well, at any rate. That would not be a problem for him.

Sherwin: This had to come up in the course of a conversation. Do you have any—

Cherniss: Yes, but it was not a political conversation, so far as I remember. Even then, it was probably something about what he had been reading, or something of that sort.

Sherwin: Well, you must have been a little surprised that he had read Das Kapital.

Cherniss: I remember I laughed when he told me.

Sherwin: What did he say?

Cherniss: Nothing.

Sherwin: Just went on to something else.

Cherniss:  Yeah. Yes, we probably went on talking about—the only kind of politics in which we were particularly interested during that visit was academic politics. Because there was a question of things that were happening in Berkeley that had nothing to do with him, had much more to do with me, as a matter of fact, and the Department of Greek at Berkeley at the time.

But he had come to know Arthur Ryder, Sanskritist, and he had also come to know a couple of the people who had been my teachers in Greek, [Ivan] Linforth particularly, and Roger Jones, who that very year, ’32, had left Berkeley and gone to Hopkins. I was concerned about the Greek department there. This was, I think, just some passing remark.

Sherwin: I was literally asking about academic politics. I taught at Berkeley for four years, ’67 to ’71. In that period and now, and even long before that, Berkeley was a premier institution in the country. But what was it like being at Berkeley in the ‘20s and ‘30s? I mean, is there anything analogous to that in the country today? A major state university that’s on its way up, that has a reputation—

Cherniss: I don’t think so.

Sherwin: Or was it predictable what it became?

Cherniss: Well, you see, in ’29—I went to Berkeley as a freshman in ’21, got my B.A. in ’25, and I was there off and on from ’25 to ’29, when I got my PhD. I was in Europe for a year, year and a half and elsewhere. But most of my graduate work was done at Berkeleym and that’s where I got my degree.

Sherwin: You were brought up then in Berkeley? Is that how you got to California?

Cherniss: No, no, no. I was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, and my childhood was spent in the Middle West, not there, but mostly in Wisconsin. Then my parents moved to California in 1920, and in ’21 I went to university. I was not a Californian. As I say, I’m a Californian by choice, not by the accident of birth.

Berkeley was a great university, and knew it was a great university at this time. Very large number of extremely interesting people on the faculty. Even then, of course, a big university by the standards of those days, about 10,000 students.

Sherwin: Was most of the faculty Eastern educated?

Cherniss:  I suppose. I don’t know. Yeah, I suppose so. I don’t know of any statistics on that, but most of the people had come from elsewhere, certainly.

Sherwin:   Did Oppenheimer ever discuss with you why he turned down the Harvard offers, which came at pretty regular intervals?

Cherniss: No. Not the Harvard offer as such, but he obviously had many offers or half offers or temptations. But no, the only thing that he would say generally was that he preferred Berkeley, and of course, the physics department.

You see, this was a peculiar thing. Until his generation, there had been no real theoretical physics in this country. The physics department at Berkeley—well, let’s say in 1920, take a rough date—I presume was a respectable department of physics, as departments of physics went in the first rate universities. But certainly not outstanding.

A man who always interested me, the man who was the chairman of that department at that time who was himself is probably forgotten and was certainly not an outstanding physicist, had the foresight or insight to hire a whole group of young people who were just beginning their careers, really. Oppenheimer, [Ernest] Lawrence, I don’t know, half a dozen. These people all came there at the same time. There was just an explosion, and they brought with them, really, the new theoretical physics. There was an explosion of this, and it was interesting to see the attitude from the point of view of students.

When I went to Berkeley in 1920, ’21, the bright students were going into chemistry. Six years later, seven years later, they were going into physics. This was a real revolution, it was a change, an intellectual change of great magnitude. These young people were—I mean the young people on the faculty like Oppenheimer and Lawrence, and [Luis] Alvarez and so on—were extremely excited about this.

These were the great days of physics that lasted up until, I should say, 1950, when I moved into this building. Everybody else in the building were the physicists, young physicists. They thought that they had the world by the tail and that they were going to explain everything within the next two weeks. It’s much different now.

Sherwin: Yes, it certainly does. Let me go back to this ’29-’30 period, since it’s such a difficult period to get information on. I want to try and sort of push your memory as far as I can for any, any sort of either insights or even stories about Oppenheimer per se. Do you have any recollection of particular evenings or groups of people that were—

Cherniss: Yeah, yeah, I have memories of lots of evenings. We saw him usually alone, not with a lot of people. He would come up to the—my wife and I, this was the first year of our marriage, really, and we were living in a large house in Berkeley.

Sherwin: Do you remember where?

Cherniss: Where?

Sherwin: Yeah.

Cherniss: Oh, I do, 99 Euclid Avenue.

Sherwin: Oh, I know that, I used to live near there.

Cherniss: Yeah, I think the numbers have been changed now, but the house is still there. It was a house that belonged to this teacher of mine, who was away on a sabbatical year. So he had given us the house. I had lived with him before he gave us the house. We were young and we had lots of parties, and lots of friends who came there. Because my wife was—I had met her at Berkeley as a student, you see. She knew even more people than I did.

Robert would come up for dinner frequently. There always preceded him—these are stories that really don’t amount to anything—if he was to come to dinner and it was just, as I say, not a party, he was just coming up for dinner, he was always preceded by a large bouquet of flowers. He was terrifically polite. Even with the two of us, one of who he had known since childhood, overly polite. He was always eager to take people out. He had a large motorcar, which he didn’t know how to drive very well.

Sherwin: Certainly not safely?

Cherniss: Not safely, no. Many a drive we had with him. These were the days of Prohibition, you know. He knew all of best restaurants and speak-easies in San Francisco. We would go with him to these places.

Once in a while, somebody else would be there. I remember one evening that he brought Lawrence up to the house. I think this was really the only time I ever met Lawrence. Sometimes he would come and cook dinner himself at our—

Sherwin: For you?

Cherniss: Yeah.

Sherwin: What did he cook?

Cherniss: Well, I’ll tell you one story. I’ve told it to many people. He told us one night that he knew a wonderful South Sea Island dish called nasi goreng. Have you heard this story?

Sherwin: Well, I’ve heard it became known as “nasty gory” [among Oppenheimer’s friends].

Cherniss: He gave my wife all the ingredients that he would need.

Sherwin: You remember what they were?

Cherniss: I remember some of them, because she was shocked by them. It was a large amount of butter, a large amount of red peppers, meat of some kind, I don’t know what it was, veal, I think, or something like that, and many other things.

She got all this stuff together and Robert came up and cooked. I remember first of all, he put a pound of butter in a large skillet and melted it, and then put in bay leaves and red peppers and maybe some, I’m sure, a lot of other stuff. Then he poured all the butter out and threw it away, which I remember because it shocked my wife so much. Anyway, he cooked at this stuff for an hour, hour and a half, or something like that. The kitchen was here and the dining room was there. We had set the table in the dining room. We stood around in the kitchen and watched him cook, watching him cook this stuff.

Finally, when he said it was done, ready, he turned to my wife and asked her whether she had some eggs. Because he said he’d like a couple of soft-boiled eggs, because he didn’t eat this stuff. Anyway, it was brought in in a large tureen. Robert had his eggs. My wife took one taste of it and said she’d get herself some eggs, too. I ate the rest of it myself, terrifically hot, and I liked hot things. But they couldn’t eat any of it.

Sherwin: Was it good, or were you just hungry?

Cherniss: I thought it was good, yeah. The only time I’ve ever had it.

Sherwin: You didn’t ask for it again.

Cherniss: These were just, you know, evenings of young people. Sometimes he would try to explain something about physics to my wife, without any great success.

Which reminds me about—of course, he was apparently a remarkable teacher, too. At any rate, his pupils were all devoted to him. There is a little book that you may have seen that was got out a year or two after his death.

Sherwin: [Isador I.] Rabi and [Glenn] Seaborg.

Cherniss: [Abraham] Pais, Rabi, and Bob Serber.

Sherwin: Yes.

Cherniss: I particularly remember Bob Serber, because Serber was a student of his there at Berkeley later. I remember reading that thing of Serber’s about Robert’s seminars. But this, of course, I never knew firsthand.

Sherwin: I would like to come back for a moment to literature and philosophy and what he was reading. I’m concerned to go over a lot of this ground, if possible. I think I’m asking you for the reading list.

Cherniss:  Reading list.

Sherwin: I mean, can you recall the actual, some of the books? Clearly, I won’t read them all. I’d never get to write this thing, at the rate he read.

Cherniss: I can’t really, because, as I say, he seemed to read everything. First of all, he read almost everything new that came out, which I didn’t always do.

Sherwin: New academic, or very popular?

Cherniss: No, now I’m talking about purely literature. I’m not talking about any professional—no, it was poetry particularly.

Sherwin: Who were his favorite poets?

Cherniss:  Who were his favorite poets? He read French poetry, he read a good deal of French poetry, people like [inaudible] or older poets. He liked Racine. These things we would talk about, because this was my wife’s field. Apart from that, he would read new books of poetry that came out, he would read new novels in those days. Whether he ever read anything like biographies or history, I mean new historical books, I really don’t remember. I can’t give you, it just seemed to me that –

Sherwin:   Did he read [Ernest] Hemingway, did he talk about that?

Cherniss:  Oh, yeah, sure.

Sherwin:   He read it all?

Cherniss:  Anything like that. Who were the novelists in those young days of ours? Hemingway, certainly. I remember because he liked it much better than I did.

Sherwin: Do you remember what he liked about it?

Cherniss: What he liked about it? I guess he just thought that they were interesting novels. I remember an argument about The Sun Also Rises, The Sun Also Rises must have come up in some other matter.

Sherwin: Yes, yeah.

Cherniss:  There’s a scene in the early part of that book in which the hero leaves or deserts. The Italian Army gets him to Switzerland, or something on that side. I remembering having an argument with him about that scene, because I said that it was stolen from Stendahl, which I think it was. Tell me, I have even forgotten who were the novelists in those days, besides Hemingway?

Sherwin: [Inaudible]?

Cherniss:  Does The American Tragedy belong in that?

Sherwin:   I think it might be a little bit later. Maybe I’ll come back to—

Cherniss: At the same time as he was reading such things, he was reading Greek poets and then, as I say, he began Sanskrit. As a matter of fact, he hadn’t learned Sanskrit in ’29. It was only I think toward the end of ’29 when I introduced him to Ryder.

Sherwin: Did you ever ask him why he did all this?

Cherniss: Why he what?

Sherwin: Why he was interested in all this, or why he did all of this? Even in the intellectual environment—of course, academia has changed, and everything’s so specialized that there are few people with time for those kind of wide interests.

Cherniss: Well, yes, you’re right that things have changed. Of course, things have become more specialized. But there’s another difference, and a much more important difference. The young physicists that I see now haven’t had any education. I mean, they may be very good at mathematics and their own, but they have never been educated in any general way. Oppenheimer—and he was not alone in this, it was fairly remarkable, perhaps, for a young American physicist. Not unique, however. But not at all strange for a European physicist.

The people of the immediately preceding generation, whom I knew here later, they had had a classical education, they had studied Greek and Latin, they were interested in such things. He could read Greek and Latin, he knew German and French practically as well as English. He was, as I say, exceedingly bright. Therefore, although he probably gave his first attention to physics, theoretical physics, he did that so fast that he had time for other things, too.

This was true, of course, even in later times. I have sat here with him, say in the evening with several other physicists, older physicists. He seemed to know all the latest bibliography in physics. But that was taken for granted, and then they would talk about other things more interesting.

Sherwin: Certainly, to you.

Cherniss: Yeah. I know I never asked him why he became interested in Sanskrit, because I took it for granted. I mean, it’s like Greek, and if you get a taste of it, you can’t help but get interested in it. There probably was something also, probably Arthur Ryder had more of an influence on him in this respect than say some other Sanskritist may have had, because Ryder was a very remarkable man himself. Through him, Oppenheimer was introduced, say to the Vedas and things like that, and he had a little taste that way. There was a little taste for the mystical, cryptic. First of all, of course, he liked things that were difficult.

Sherwin: That’s what I was sort of moving towards, in terms of the challenges.

Cherniss:  Yeah. Since almost everything is very easy for him, the things that really would attract him, attract his attention, would be the things that were more difficult. This, I think, also was his attitude in physics, although he was certainly interested in any particular advance, say, in detail. What he was always looking for was something much more fundamental behind it somehow or other. You can get this from reading his more or less popular lectures of his.

One thing that I never suspected: I did not learn about his connection with Los Alamos until the explosion of the bomb. I was at that time in the Army in Belgium. Then I learned about his supervising the research at Los Alamos. I was amazed that he should ever have—first of all, that he should ever have taken such a job, and secondly, that anybody should ever have picked him out for it.

Because so far as I knew, he had had—and I’m sure I was right in that—no experience of administrating anything at all. Of course, I suppose, he worked with a certain amount of cooperation with colleagues in physics that were interested in the same sort of things. But he worked as an individual. I should myself have said that if I had been looking for somebody to do this, I might have wanted Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, but he would have been the last person I would have thought of, putting him in charge.

The second thing that amazed me about him was that when I came back to Berkeley in 1946 and he had just come back too, they used to have every now and then, maybe every month or so, a student assembly or something of the sort. At this first one in the spring, must be say March or so of ’46, Oppenheimer was going to address this meeting.

Well, I never went to these student meetings, either as a student or as a faculty member. But this one I went to, and I went in fear and trembling, because I thought he was no public speaker, he would be horrible. I was interested in public speaking as a student, in any event. So I went to this meeting. It was held in the men’s gymnasium, and there were thousands of people there, I don’t know how many thousands, it was filled, packed.

Sherwin: Do you have a sense of the date?

Cherniss: No, but I know that it must have been early in ’46. I went to this and he got up, he was introduced by [Robert] Sproul, of course. It was a lot of, “This is the Oppenheimer age,” and all that kind of thing. Then Robert got up and spoke. He spoke for maybe three-quarters of an hour. I didn’t hear half of what he said. He dropped his voice in his speaking, and I didn’t hear half of what he said, really, and I have no notion now of what I did hear.

But what amazed me was his hold on this audience. From the moment he began to speak until the end, there was not a whisper in this whole place. It was kind of magic that he exercised. I mean, this would not have surprised me if he had been talking to one person, but that he should be able to do this with an audience, I never would have guessed. Maybe he did it too well for his own good, as a matter of fact. The ability to speak in public like that is a poison. It’s very dangerous to the person who has it.

Those two things, though I thought I knew him, were really new to me and amazed me.

Sherwin: Do you remember the subject he spoke about?

Cherniss: He talked about science and the new fields of learning opened up by physics, I suppose, and also the dangers of – this was the theme, of course.

Sherwin: Nuclear weapons, international control.

Cherniss: Yeah, he was very much upset, I think, and very much concerned about—

Sherwin: Did he speak without notes?

Cherniss: Oh, yeah, there was no notes. No, he never, never used notes. I have heard several speakers in my life who could do this sort of thing in different ways, but this was really a remarkable experience.

Sherwin: Now, the next time that you knew him, it was close to him here at the Institute.

Cherniss: Well, really, yes, that is after—at that time, when I came back to Berkeley and he had come back to Berkeley, of course, we saw a good deal of each other. Then, all of a sudden, well, only a year later I heard that he had taken this job here, which amazed me, too. I didn’t hear it from him. I heard it from the East, as a matter of fact.

So then he came here and for that next year, I didn’t see him. I never corresponded with him, I think, through all the time that I knew him. Of course, much of the time I was with him, so there was no occasion for correspondence. But through all the time that I knew him as we were separated from each other, I don’t think he wrote me more than maybe two or three letters.

Sherwin: Do you happen to have these letters?

Cherniss: No, I don’t keep letters.

Sherwin: You don’t keep letters?

Cherniss: I always destroy the letter as soon as I answer it. But there were none from him. I mean, a short note, let’s say, to Ithaca saying that he was coming to Ithaca and would like to stay with us, or something like that. I really never had any real correspondence with him.

Then during that year, ’47-8, I didn’t see him. When I came here in the autumn of ’48, and from that time on, I saw him all the time.

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.