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Robert R. Wilson’s Interview

Robert R. Wilson was an American physicist. He studied at the University of California, Berkeley, where he first met Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer recruited Wilson and his entire group at Princeton to work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos on the cyclotron. After arriving at Los Alamos in 1944, Wilson became head of the Research Division. In this interview, Wilson reflects on his time working with Oppie, including his personality, political views, and Oppenheimer’s unwillingness to engage him on the moral implications of building the bomb. He discusses Oppenheimer’s controversial security hearing and recalls how it affected Oppenheimer. Wilson recalls how he and other scientists fought against Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce in retaliation for Strauss’s role in the hearing.

Date of Interview:
April 23, 1982
Location of the Interview:


Owen Gingerich: This is an interview between Owen Gingerich and Robert Wilson. You use your middle initial. It’s Robert R.?

Robert Wilson: Yes, usually.

Gingerich: Robert R. Wilson, who is a builder of high energy accelerators and who was one of the physicists at Los Alamos. We are speaking today in Philadelphia, where we both happen to be for the American Philosophical Society. It’s April 22. No, it’s Shakespeare’s birthday. It’s April 23. That’s the documentation for the day.

I am speaking here with Professor Robert R. Wilson, a veteran of Los Alamos, someone who saw and knew Robert Oppenheimer. Was that the first time you met him, when you were at Los Alamos?

Wilson: No, I had been a student in Berkeley and he was a professor there. I believe he was on my doctor’s committee, when I got my Ph.D. I took courses from him. To me, though, it was a student and professor relationship. He was on one of those high peaks that were unattainable.

Gingerich: Who was your thesis advisor? You were working on—

Wilson: Ernest Lawrence.

Gingerich: Yes, so you were working on experimental physics there?

Wilson: That’s right.

Gingerich: Now, how long before the Los Alamos project began did you finish your thesis?

Wilson: I finished my thesis in 1940. I had been a student at Berkeley, both undergraduate and graduate student, eight years before that. So during all of that time, I overlapped Oppenheimer.

Gingerich: Did you have occasion to meet him personally, or only as a student in his classes?

Wilson: Well, let’s see. As an undergraduate, I only observed him. I did, as an undergraduate, I went to graduate seminars and to the colloquia there. I would have observed him. He was very active, of course, participating in those things.

As a graduate student, then I knew him because I went to his seminar. I went to his course, talked to him, knew his students. He was a very accessible person. Then I would see him over in the Radiation Laboratory, where he was interested in an experiment I was doing in proton-proton scattering. It wasn’t just that I had to do with accelerators. I also had to do with physics. He was particularly interested in anybody who was doing physics in the laboratory.

Gingerich: Well, of course, as soon as the war was over, Oppenheimer’s name became a household word. But during that Berkeley period before Los Alamos, he was well known in physics circles, but hardly beyond that, I suppose.

Wilson: He certainly got lots of newspaper coverage. He was eccentric, and his general activities were followed in the newspapers. I think that there was a little broader than you—even in the local region of Northern California.

Gingerich: All right. What sort of things was he doing that got this coverage?

Wilson: I can remember one thing. He had gone with Melba Phillips up to Grizzly Peak, I guess, to talk about physics. That’s what most physicists—if you know the area, most people didn’t go to Grizzly Peak for that reason, and perhaps he didn’t either. In the course of the conversation, had wandered off, forgotten where he was and ended up at home, leaving Melba up on the mountain.

Gingerich: I see.

Wilson: That, of course, got into the newspapers, because she was worried about him and called the police. So that got a lot of coverage in the local newspapers.

Gingerich: The absentminded professor.

Wilson: Yes. That was one example that I remember.

Gingerich: Of course, before the war—as one of our panelists, one of the people I have talked to has mentioned, he [Oppenheimer] considered himself even slightly politically irresponsible. But that kind of thing did not get into the newspapers. That was his private doings, I suppose.

Wilson: I suppose so. It was certainly well known on the campus that was he active in politics. I remember as a graduate student, I felt somewhat as on an outgroup because I wasn’t on the ingroup that went to those fancy cocktail parties, very stylish cocktail parties that he would attend and that his students in theoretical physics would attend.

Gingerich: Did he recruit you to come to Los Alamos?

Wilson: Yes, he came to Princeton, where I was working, and spoke to me. Earlier, Ed McMillan had also come. I had a project that was just closing down. I was a young man. I might have been twenty-seven years old at the time.

Gingerich: In that case, you were right on the average age of the people at Los Alamos.

Wilson: I see. In any case, I had a project at Princeton that was just closing down. It was a project to separate isotopes, and represented a group of perhaps twenty people. He was very anxious to get that group to come out en masse to help at the laboratory.

Gingerich: So you went out in 1943?

Wilson: Yes, early 1943. I remember I went out on my birthday, which is March 4th, I was out at Los Alamos to see. He had asked me to go out to oversee how the progress was, and particularly the progress of the building in which the cyclotron—that was going to be my responsibility and the responsibility of my group from Princeton would be the cyclotron, which we were going to move from Harvard to Los Alamos. The building had to be put up.

He asked me, because very few people had been there, to look at the whole project. I remember that I reported back to him that it was in terrible state, because none of the buildings were up, or very few of them were up, to receive the people who were going to come in a very short time.

Gingerich: I see. That’s interesting. He himself was not at Los Alamos at that moment?

Wilson: No, he was at Berkeley.

Gingerich: He was out still on recruiting missions?

Wilson: Recruiting missions, and working at Berkeley and other places. I wouldn’t say that he was spending all of his time recruiting. It was more complicated than that.

Gingerich: I see. So the Army started building the buildings there before the people came in and started the research?

Wilson: That’s quite right, yes.

Gingerich: Would you describe him as a logical choice for the director of the Los Alamos project? I mean beforehand, not retrospectively?

Wilson: Not at all, not at all. I don’t think he would have been the normal person that you would have chosen. He was, as we indicated, he was something of an eccentric, almost a professional eccentric, when I knew him and before 1940. He either had a very liberal point of view about politics, or a very innocent point of view. He just wasn’t the kind of person that you would think would be an administrator.

Gingerich: Isn’t it odd, then, that he was chosen? It took some special perception on the part of General [Leslie R.] Groves, I suppose.

Wilson: Indeed, it did, yes, that’s one of the—

Gingerich: But you would say it was a very successful choice?

Wilson: Oh, yes, indeed. But it certainly did not appear to me in the beginning that it was a logical choice or even a very good choice, because he didn’t seem to have any—I had all of six—no, I had all of about a year’s experience as an administrator, so I considered myself an old hand. I think other physicists did, too, who had similar experiences that I had.

We were just shocked at how he went about formulating problems. He didn’t pay much attention to where people would be living. He had a romantic notion of what was going to happen, but not much practical experience. As he made decisions, you couldn’t see that anything was going to happen, that there were any deadlines, that there was any general plan.

A number of us got very excited about that. I remember that John Manley and I went out to see him in Berkeley, mostly to complain about the lack of any administrative plan.  

Gingerich: Yet there was some kind of magic that got it all pulled off.

Wilson: Yes. He had style and he had class, and one couldn’t argue about that. He was a very clever man. Whatever we felt about his deficiencies, in a few months he had corrected those deficiencies and obviously knew a lot more than we did about administrative procedures. Whatever our qualms were, why, they were soon allayed.

Gingerich: When you say he had style, how would you characterize that?

Wilson: Well, he had—that’s a very hard thing.

Gingerich: I ask you that because I have heard that same word used before, precisely, and yet it’s kind of difficult to define.

Wilson: The one thing he was in any group, he would take a leadership in the conversations that went on. He would dominate the conversations.

There were a lot of the little sort of theater things that happen among the academics. I mean, if you were about to go out for dinner, you would find yourself going to a very good dinner. If you were at his home, you would find yourself having a good meal, and everything would happen in fairly good order.

I suppose that what I mean is that it would be at a level, a factor of two or three above what one would normally be accustomed to. Any conversation was more intense. People would join in the conversation more intensely. I know that I was always about a foot taller than I would normally be, when I was in his presence.

He had the ability to inspire groups, and individuals within those groups, to come up to what I suppose were his ideals of what we should be talking about and how we would be talking about whatever was being involved.

Gingerich: Let’s talk just a little bit about the thoughts in making the weapon, the atomic bomb. When did people, if at all, begin to ask in a kind of moral way what was going on?

Wilson: I suppose each person asked himself that question before he went into the project. I certainly did. I don’t know of any— well, certainly when I was talking to Oppenheimer in various airports, we raised questions about what was going in our conversations. I had been a pacifist before the war, so I was very much concerned about what we were doing and how we were doing it. But perhaps many of those problems came down to specifics.

I remember I engaged Oppenheimer in questions about why the Russians were not involved at the stage that Los Alamos was being organized. He didn’t want to talk about that sort of thing, I recall. I don’t know why, but I was an innocent and very young person, and I wanted to know. I could see that if we were successful and they were not involved, that we would have terrible problems after the war, so it seemed to me. I guess, but it was sort of an innocent question.

I think that he didn’t want to discuss that sort of thing because he may have had some paranoia about being overheard, perhaps. In any case, he always would divert any of my questions on that subject. Maybe he didn’t trust me completely, too.

Gingerich: Do you feel that he felt he was on a political trapdoor because of his past associations?

Wilson: Of course, I didn’t know too much about his past associations at that time except in a kind of a gossipy way, having to do with my fellow students. As a student, I wasn’t all that concerned about politics. I was quite an innocent person, too. So it perhaps more from my innocence than from his that the difficulty would arise.

Gingerich: You have indicated that you did discuss with him from time to time the sort of consequences or the morality of what was being done in making such a weapon. Did he make attempts to justify it, or was he ambivalent?

Wilson: To me, he seemed to be very uncomfortable with any discussions that I would initiate and would soon the change the conversation to some more practical problem. I can’t make any theories why that was so. He must have been very worried, though, that he had been chosen for this, which I and others and I am sure he regarded as a choice of tremendous responsibility. He didn’t want that endangered in any way, I believe. Irresponsible discussions of sophomoric type with some kid, let’s put it that way.

Gingerich: When the war ended in Germany, there was already a lot of justification for building the bomb on the thought that the Germans were doing the same thing. Then it must have become clear fairly rapidly that to the extent they tried, they had got nowhere with it.

Wilson: We understood that at the end of the war.

Gingerich: But nevertheless, there was so much momentum that the building continued. But did people begin at that point to raise questions as to whether it should continue, or was it just too much fun to do it?

Wilson: Niels Bohr was at the laboratory. He certainly raised our consciousness about these political questions. He spent all of his or most of his time talking about what were the conditions after the war effort, survival of this. He understood what a force for evil, I guess I could say, or what a powerful thing it was and that it might destroy nations. So he certainly was concerned. He was the principle person who was—he was almost the conscience of the project, I would say.  Certainly, for me he was. That was one current.

My own particular group, we were off in a corner of the project. Although we came from Princeton, we were considered I think slightly radical. Again, I don’t know quite why that was. But we would complain about all sorts of social things going on in the laboratory, such as the absence of sidewalks or trivial things of that general kind, but we were a pretty vocal group. Sometimes, I think we were almost radical in our points of view, radical being very hard to define in retrospect.

Nevertheless, we felt that once you have that reputation, you feel you have a responsibility. So I remember after discussions in my group that I called a meeting to be held down in our building, which was in one corner of the project, where the cyclotron was. I posted up a number of pieces of paper saying that the meeting would be held at such and such a time. It was called “Impact of the Gadget.” That was because at Princeton just before we had come out, there had been many sanctimonious talks about the impact of something on something else, with all very scholarly kinds of discussions. So I had to have the “Impact of the Gadget after the War.” I have forgotten what the title was, but it was modeled on those Princeton discussions since we were a Princeton group.

When Oppie called me in—I saw him very frequently, because I was one of the heads of the division. He asked me about this. He warned me that I would get into trouble by calling such a meeting. He suggested that perhaps it would be wiser not to hold such a meeting, because I would be in trouble with the G2 people who were present at the site. They would not regard this as the kind of activity that should be going on.

I told him that I didn’t think that was any of their business, and invited him to come. Indeed, he did. Once he had come of course to the meeting—the meeting did occur. Viki Weisskopf came, I remember. It must have been it was in the cold. I can remember it being very cold in our building. I suppose there may have been twenty people present, where we did have a pretty intense discussion of why it was that we were continuing to make a bomb after the war had been won.

Gingerich: That is, the war in Europe?

Wilson: The war in Europe. Either I think it was going to be won, I mean, we were pretty confident by that time that it would be won. Why would we continue? So it was sometime probably between January and April of 1945 that this discussion was going on. Hard for me to remember exact dates now.

Gingerich: But Oppenheimer took a dim view of the meeting. Did he participate in the meeting?

Wilson: He participated very much, dominated the meeting. We came to the rationalization—we discussed many possibilities, but especially because of Oppenheimer, we tended to think about the San Francisco meeting, which was going to come. I have forgotten the date of San Francisco meeting in which the United Nations was really formalized or organized, in which that organization would take place. That might have been scheduled for April, I have forgotten, or June. It is a well-known date [April 25, 1945].

Oppenheimer especially pointed out that this date was coming, and the various possibilities, supposing that the United Nations were organized without the knowledge of an atomic bomb. Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? We discussed that. We all argued that it would be a better thing to have a bomb to have been demonstrated before that United Nations was organized. If this was something that was a possibility or probability or something that could happen, to have the future peace organized without knowledge of that, we regarded, would have been a bad thing.

There was a certain suspicion of the military people that existed there. I could go into more detail, but it was a natural difficulty between academic people and military people, that they tended—I don’t mean the military people working as technicians, but the people that were military intelligence to keep the security and so on. Obviously, it was their business to try to keep things a secret as possible. It was our custom to have things done as openly as possible, at least within the laboratory. Never mind about we understood that we wouldn’t be publishing anything we did generally, but we were not of the same thinking.

From the difficulties that we had had about security, I think we were very suspicious that the military would want to keep that a secret if possible, that is if it had not been demonstrated in some dramatic way, then they might want to keep it secret after the war. We thought that that would be a very bad thing.

That was the kind of thing that was discussed. When we came out of the discussion, it was the general agreement that we should build that bomb and demonstrate it, if for no other reason than that a true peace could be formulated after the war rather than a peace without knowledge, because it was also clear if we could do it, then anybody could do it.

Gingerich: Meanwhile, you were quite completely out of touch with what the other groups were doing. So you didn’t know that there was the report in Chicago, the proposal to the government, that the bomb should be used as a demonstration rather than on a target.

Wilson: Not at all. I was, for example, a courier at the time. It was my business as a courier to go back and forth. I would go to Chicago, and I am not sure it corresponded to the date of that meeting. It was rather late in the war, but I certainly knew about their discussions about demonstrations and such things.

Gingerich: Did you know they had made a proposal to go to the government? 

Wilson: I did not know about that. I did not. I think I went once a month, and when I went, when I did go there, the people that I happened to see was rather adventitious. So I don’t remember that I knew that they had made a formal proposal. On the other hand, I know that it was my own opinion, and I think that had been developed quite independently of that group, that there should be a demonstration.

Now, my opinion may very well have come because of my exposure to the Chicago group. When I came back, though, then I would discuss whatever it was that I had seen there. That was my business, to convey information to the Chicago people and to convey information about what they were doing back to the Los Alamos group on a technical level. But I was not prohibited from mentioning these other discussions. Indeed I would, on both sides.

Gingerich: I would like to skip ahead now to the time after the making of the bomb, the use of it on Japan, and come up several years later to the time when Oppenheimer was brought in the for the security hearings. By this time, many of these political issues were brought up again, but essentially I believe the whole hearing took place because of his lack of enthusiasm for the hydrogen bomb. Is that your reading of it?

Wilson: I think it was deeper than that. He had participated in a study either at Stanford or Caltech, I have forgotten which one of those places. [Jerrold] Zacharias at MIT I know was very important, and a number of people from Cornell went to the study. It had to do with the use of bombs, possibly even of atomic bombs, not as a strategic weapon, but there is another word for it, a different kind where you as part of the fighting of the special—

Gingerich: As tactical?

Wilson: Tactical weapons, that’s the word I was reaching for. Thank you.

Right after the war, I went back—I had said that I had been a pacifist before the war. I went back to those sentiments after the war. I would have no part to do with any secret projects such as that. On the other hand, there was a lot of discussion going on about these in academic circles, even though the details were classified. So that I knew that Oppenheimer and that particular group were very unpopular.

There had been an article in Fortune about a group called by their initials. It was SWAG or ZWISS or something [ZORC] that had to do with [Jerrold] Zacharias and [Charles] Lauritsen, and other people involved in that. They became very unpopular, because they went against the Air Force dogma at the time. One can see that they regarded themselves as a group of liberals fighting the liberal fight, perhaps to prevent a Holocaust happening on a larger scale. I don’t know what it was. I thought everybody was badly motivated.

But it seemed to me that because Oppenheimer had become essentially in the other group, an enemy of a group in power, that that’s why he was challenging them on a different level. That was the important thing. It had to do with something happening in the Air Force, which I can’t say definitively because I don’t know about it.

But I am reflecting the general gossipy attitude that was prevalent before the hydrogen bomb question came up. When that came up, I think that that added fuel to those previous flames. I think it was a political matter, that he was out of line for some people in the Air Force. I think that it was a simple matter that they then challenged him on whatever grounds they could find.

Gingerich: Was this a matter solely of his opinions about this? Or was it also related to the matter of style or with the arrogance with which he gave forth his own opinions, that he offended some of the Air Force or military people?

Wilson: Since I didn’t take part in any of these, I can’t say. It would be curious if he would not. When he was arguing a case, he would frequently make use of a flip remark to demolish an argument on the opposite side. It would be characteristic of him that he would. He was the master of the put down. He might have done that, but I don’t know that from personal experience.

Gingerich: Well, hearing people talk about Oppenheimer’s arrogance sometimes and the put down reminds me ever so much of Galileo and his troubles with the Inquisition, which to a large degree came about because of his personality, because he was so brilliant and so feisty in an argument and made fools of some of his opponents. I think that issue was important for what happened back in— well, it’s almost exactly 350 years ago.

Wilson: Yes.

Gingerich: Do you see any parallels between “In the matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” and Galileo before the Inquisition?

Wilson: I would think just the sort of thing that you described would certainly apply in the case of Oppenheimer. Surely, the kind of public displays that he had made could not have made him more beloved of the chairman, Mr. [Lewis] Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, for example, where he in public on a number of occasions, Oppenheimer had made remarks that he could not have received happily. Mr. Strauss was certainly one of the important people in the trial of Oppenheimer, and might have played a role that you would be able to associate with someone in the church at the time of Galileo. So I think your parallel might be followed rather in detail.

Gingerich: The role of an [inaudible] behind the scenes somehow, because he wasn’t actually there in the hearings.

Wilson: No, he was not there on the hearings. On the other hand, it was clear that in the first place—the person I suppose had most responsibility for those hearings, which I regard as a complete and utter disgrace and national disgrace. I am still ashamed of my country that those hearings were held at all. I would expect Eisenhower to be the person who would have the principal responsibility to have the good sense and understanding that that wasn’t the sort of thing that one would do. I can imagine many ways where he could have gotten rid of Oppenheimer if he did not like him. It seems to me this was one of the more irresponsible. If you don’t want somebody to be your advisor, than I think it’s perfectly reasonable not to have him be your advisor. But to use the trial in that particular kind was unconscionable, I think, and I would give Eisenhower the first responsibility.

Then perhaps after that, Mr. Strauss could have stopped it, as the next in line of responsibility. Beyond that, well, I suppose there were any number of people who might have seen that this was not a proper thing to be doing, to be examining this man in this particular context in terms of what he had recommended. First of all, it certainly made it very dangerous in the future for anybody to give good scientific advice, which I am convinced Oppenheimer was doing in every moment of his existence. Secondly, then to be looking into his politics after he had been cleared on any number of occasions at an earlier time.

Gingerich: What was the reaction of the scientific community toward that event?

Wilson: I know my outrage was certainly one of outrage, and I think that that was pretty much a reflection of my colleagues.

Gingerich: Did they take any kind of action or was there any way of—

Wilson: That was a curious thing in that many people made threats. Very little was done about it. I was in France. When I came back, the Oppenheimer affair, I mean, the judgement had been made. The question was, would anything happen as a result? Would there be some kind of a—you could have imagined that any number of scientists might have resigned their positions as scientific advisors. That didn’t happen.

There was a considerable vacuum created when Oppenheimer then left his position. It seemed to me that the other scientists moved in and filled that vacuum almost idiomatically and instantly, too.

Now, I don’t remember that there was any—there had been a lot of outrage and lots of editorials, and certainly the letter and the testimony that had been made by the scientists. That appears
“In the Affair of Robert Oppenheimer” or the good documentation before that.

But afterwards, what happened—I remember I was giving a class. First of all, there was something organized that I should say that was called the Last Straws Committee. Have you ever heard of that?

Gingerich: I believe you have mentioned it to me in times past.

Wilson: Okay, well, the Last Straws Committee: a group from Brookhaven and a group particularly at Cornell and a group in Washington of physicists, scientists in Washington, D.C., had—Strauss was coming up, Lewis Strauss, for an appointment of Secretary of Commerce, I believe.

I was so outraged and the other people were so outraged by what we regarded as he had done. I think perhaps mistakenly. I think we were not all of that fair. We were so outraged, that we decided that we would do whatever we could to prevent him from become the Secretary of Commerce. We thought that a man who used such poor judgement in the matter of Oppenheimer was not a person that we regarded as a person who should have such as a high position as Secretary of Commerce and that we would do everything that we could to prevent that from happening.

Gingerich: You succeeded.

Wilson: I am not sure that we had anything to do with it. On the other hand, I am not sure that we didn’t. We worked as a pretty effective lobby against him. I was ashamed afterwards. In any case, he did not become the Secretary of Commerce.

Afterwards, I thought that perhaps we had not behaved in the right manner, that we didn’t have any business. We were too narrowly oriented to be discussing such a high position as that. But I think in part it was just anger about what had happened to Oppenheimer and an attempt to get even. It came down to those simple matters. It was lashing out and doing something, but certainly it was done in that case. Perhaps it did add one more straws to the last straws.

Gingerich: I have overstayed my time here, but I want to ask you one more question. You and your wife are both interviewed in the film The Day After Trinity. The film presents Oppenheimer as a broken man after this hearing “In the matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Do you agree with that assessment?

Wilson: I was one of Oppenheimer’s lieutenants at Los Alamos. As you have heard from my previous comments, you must see that I admire him tremendously. I thought of him then as a great hero and a great leader. I was disappointed—I also felt of him even more so during the time of the International Atomic Energy Agency was essentially invented by Oppenheimer, which he supported so eloquently, and the Lilienthal plan. Then I thought he was behaving just magnificently.

Then he went through a long period when he seemed to be more and more involved with sort of anti-communist, with the Cold War and a militaristic answer to what appeared to be a threat from the U.S.S.R. in this country. So I saw him go—where I saw a great voice for peace and sanity and security after the war, to my horror, I saw him joining what I regarded as not the proper answer.

So I was extremely disappointed in Oppenheimer. We tended to fall out whenever we met, in disputes about what he was doing. He didn’t regard that my refusing to work on anything was a proper response either. So we became quite angry with one another. That lasted until the trial and after the trial, and then we made our peace and became great friends.

Well, in some sense, it seemed to me that he had come back to the fold. I saw him as a very disappointed man, yes. I also saw him, though, and in deep conversations that I had with him, it seemed to me that he had come back to more the Oppenheimer that I knew, more the kind of the spiritual person, the deep Niels Bohr student kind of person that I admired, the man that I knew.

I would not regard him in my mind as being lost. I don’t regard that in his mind he was lost. It seemed to me that he was relieved of sort of responsibilities that people who have responsibilities are likely to get into. That is, you can understand how many people get into the positions that they have.

For example, Mr. Haig doesn’t always take the position that I would like to see him take. On the other hand, I can understand perhaps why he got into that. I could imagine that if he were suddenly relieved of that job, that he and I then probably would be able to have a conversation more easily than if he had a position say of responsibility.

Gingerich: I can understand that. All right, thank you very much. This is with Professor Robert R. Wilson, the recent former director of the Fermilab and a distinguished experimental physicist who has been talking with me about Robert Oppenheimer.

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.