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Roy Glauber & Priscilla McMillan on Oppenheimer

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In this conversation, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Roy Glauber and Oppenheimer biographer Priscilla McMillan discuss how J. Robert Oppenheimer changed over the years.

Date of Interview:
June 6, 2013
Location of the Interview:


Priscilla McMillan: Roy, you knew Oppenheimer at Los Alamos and you knew him again when you were a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Had he changed? Did he lead those two institutions differently and behave differently or the same?

Roy Glauber: That is a very complicated question to answer. Oppie was never the simplest of people. There was a certain obvious complexity about him always, and that is one of the things, of course, that led people to be interested in him and to listen to him. He had certainly aged a good deal and was behaving rather differently.

McMillan: When were those years?

Glauber: Well the years at Los Alamos were 1943 through 1945. I would not say that he was that much younger. In fact, there were people who would insist that he was never young, that he had always a certain gravity about him. He had that at Los Alamos and of course he had a great deal more of it when he was at Princeton, because he only went to Princeton, invited, I would have to add, by Admiral Strauss, known as “Admiral” in those days. He only went to Princeton after he had become a world-renowned figure.

He started out by being on the cover of Time magazine and he had a very heavy sense of who he was and of talking to the ages when he was at Princeton. You did not hear that—anything like the same extent at Los Alamos, so there was always a certain gravity in his voice. But he was much more spontaneous at Los Alamos, and the spontaneity at Princeton was hardly even present when he did all the commenting that he did in the seminars, which is about the only place we ever heard him be informal.

McMillan: Was this the early fifties?

Glauber: In Princeton, yes. It was 1950 to 1952, roughly. He certainly behaved as if the eyes of many people were upon him in Los Alamos, but you did not get the impression that he felt the whole world was watching. You did get that impression in the fifties.

McMillan: Did you have any clue at that time that the hearings that—he anticipated political trouble? And did you get much sense that he was away some of the time advising the government?

Glauber: Oh, he was away a lot of the time advising the government and advising other projects that his friends were on. Of course I was even at Cal Tech, by the way at his suggestion, taking Feynman’s place when Feynman went off to play the bongos in Brazil. So I was at Cal Tech when all of a sudden he more or less parachuted into Cal Tech because there was a report being constructed by friends of his. The report of Project Vista. Nobody ever told me what Project Vista was supposed to be doing, and I think I still do not know. But he was appearing at the critical moment, and the impression I got rather indirectly was that he had had considerable influence on that report. 

He was doing quite a fair amount of traveling in those days. While I was at Princeton, he was perhaps doing even more. He was often out of the office and he depended heavily on a kind of Lieutenant Abraham Pais, who had been at the Institute for a while and whom he treated as a kind of archangel dealing with the others of us.

McMillan: When you say an archangel—

Glauber: Do I mean that he was God? Well, you could easily have gotten that impression at times, but none of us thought it was inappropriate.

McMillan: Were you aware that he was in Washington a lot?

Glauber: Well we could not tell where he was going and I would have imagined that he was going to Washington often. But there were clearly other places he went to—name one of them.

McMillan: Did you know about the H-bomb discussions?

Glauber: Not very much about them. We knew what had gone on and to the extent that Lewis Strauss made his case publicly. We knew at least that much.

McMillan: Did you know that he and Oppie were on opposite sides?

Glauber: Yes. Well I remember coming back from Cal Tech, passing through Princeton, I was hoping to see Oppie for a moment and I think I did. There was a rather obscure article that appeared in the back of Fortune magazine, which seemed to make various revelations. It clearly had been written by an insider of some sort who wanted to spill the beans. The beans were about resistance toward the hydrogen bomb project. I cannot remember the details; many of them were the very things which were made still more public in hearings later. 

But it was the first sign that the magic spell around Oppie had been broken. I must say, Oppie himself had certainly an awareness that they were gunning for him. I cannot otherwise explain various things he said to support accusations of questionable loyalty that were made of people who had been around him. That had been going on for years. Oppie had a kind of charmed existence, in a sense, because they were clearly out to get one person after another who had had anything to do with him.

McMillan: To get them?

Glauber: In one or another sense, to get them. Now that is putting it a bit too colloquially. To embarrass them.

McMillan: Like Phil Morrison?

Glauber: Phil was a fine example, but there were half a dozen others. There were one or two whom Oppie cooperated in denouncing. And that really—when we saw him doing that, which was quite inconsistent with what he had done before, I did not know these people and heaven knows it is not impossible that they might have been cases that he was more justified in criticizing. 

Several of us were upset that Oppie had changed his tune in that particular year. I think that year was around 1952. It may well be that he was trying to make it clear whose side he was on. I do not know.

McMillan: Did you see him after the hearings, that would be 1954?

Glauber: I saw him after the hearings, yes, but only very briefly.

McMillan: Had he changed?

Glauber: Yes, yes. First of all, of course his hair had been turning gray, what there was of it and he looked worn and exhausted.

McMillan: Was that right after the hearings or a little bit longer when he—

Glauber: I cannot remember the exact time. He was on our visiting committee.

McMillan: In the Physics Department at Harvard?

Glauber: In the Physics Department, and showed up at times. I think I saw him a few times after the hearings. I think I might have seen him as late as 1956. Yes.

McMillan: Had he lost that confidence, that air he had, or whatever the air was that he had?

Glauber: I couldn’t tell. I didn’t get a chance to speak to him.

McMillan: But he looked older?

Glauber: He certainly looked worn and older, yes. I had photos of him that certainly showed that.

McMillan: Was his manner graver?

Glauber: It was much slower and he was much more carefully spoken.

McMillan: Was he kinder?

Glauber: I cannot answer the question. I have no idea. Kindness was never one of his great virtues anyway.

McMillan: The reason I ask you that is I talked with a devoted secretary of his, a woman of great distinction named Verna Hobson. I don’t know if you knew her.

Glauber: I don’t think I did. 

McMillan: She had blue eyes that were almost exactly like his. So it seemed as though they were quite equal people, in a way.

Glauber: Yes.

McMillan: And he got her to work for him when he learned that the hearings were going to happen. He called her in. She had been working for him for a short while. He called her into his office and told her the trouble he was in and a lot about what had led to it; his past as a leftist. So she was with him through a hard time, as you can imagine.

Glauber: Yes.

McMillan: And she told me that the last years that she was with him, he grew a lot. That he became a much nicer person and he expanded in a way. Well most people, you know, like Hans Bethe, others, say he was just crushed. The Chernisses [Harold and Ruth], who knew him very well, Peiss, who knew him very well, as you brought him up.

Glauber: Yes.

McMillan: And what she said was so different. Another person who said that was Ann Marks, whom you probably knew at least vaguely in Los Alamos because she was his secretary during the latter part of the time there. She was married later to his lawyer, Herb Marks.

Glauber: Yes. That is why I did not recognize the name.

McMillan: Right.

Glauber: I knew his secretary as of those days, but by her maiden name.

McMillan: Yes. And it was women who in a way attested to his having changed in a good way after the hearings, but it is so contrary, like Rabi and Bethe, they both said that he was never the same afterward and that the hearings crushed him.

Glauber: Well I did not have that much contact with him, I would have to say. I would rather, from the little I did see, I would rather have said he was crushed in the sense that his power was taken away. His power to persuade anybody of anything he felt. You know, that is what he was struggling to save in a sense; his security clearance would have lapsed within a matter of a couple of weeks of that hearing.

McMillan: Exactly, yes.

Glauber: The hearing was a kind of defiance saying that he was going to stay the same and be the same. And they saw to it that he could not.

McMillan: Yes.

Glauber: That certainly has the elements of tragedy. If he spoke more softly and more thoughtfully, in some ways that would not at all surprise me. But in this male aggressive world, that is what amounts to being crushed.

Kelly: Interesting. So do you want to talk a little bit about the trial from the point of view of—you know the dynamics of it?

McMillan: Well I was thinking of saying to Roy, when you mentioned the hearings, that of course as you know they were rigged coming and going.

Glauber: Absolutely.

McMillan: But one of the things I noticed was there is a—you know how these situations bring out creepy people, sort of underlings who will do anything?

Glauber: Oh, yes.

McMillan: And one of the less creepy—but what he did was pretty creepy—was an FBI man named Charles Bates who had a real in with J. Edgar Hoover because he was a protégé of the Speaker of the House, Rayburn, Sam Rayburn. I mean, how these things work out. And Bates was liaison between the Atomic Energy Commission that is, Strauss, Admiral Strauss as you—and J. Edgar Hoover. And Bates would carry wiretap reports of Oppie’s conversations with his lawyers. It was not just that their phone conversations were recorded, but the places where they talked their defense strategy were bugged. And that was Randolph Paul’s house in Georgetown, wherever they were having conversations, they were bugged. 

And in the course of the hearings, Bates carried 253 wiretap messages from the FBI to Strauss’ office. Then Strauss gave them to an AEC official who then gave them to Roger Robb, the prosecutor, for his questioning. But that way Robb was able to say that he never used any bugged or wiretap material in the hearing to frame his questions. And when the question arose later, Richard Nixon thought about appointing Rob to the D.C. Court of Appeals and Robb had to turn it down because he was afraid that it would become public that he had used illegally gathered material during the Oppenheimer hearing.

Another irony too, questions about the H-bomb which came up. I do not know how familiar you are with the transcript, but if you read it, you probably tried to forget, because it was so dramatically unjust. And this law firm of Lloyd Garrison hired a young litigator named Sam Silverman, who later became a judge in New York and a highly revered person, but I think he was at the most thirty-five and he might have been younger than that. He knew nothing about the atomic energy program. He was the cleverest person on the defense team. He learned physics from Oppenheimer.

Glauber: Which was not easy to do.

McMillan: And this was the physics of the H-bomb. And the timing, Roy, was May 1954, right after the Castle series of tests in the Pacific, the Bravo test that I was telling you about. And all through the transcript, it was very important not to reveal when we did this, when we changed that, to the Russians; because of course they were the first people to read the transcript. So Bethe, Rabi and Oppenheimer just were extremely careful in explaining the H-bomb program, in answering to the questions they were asked by Roger Robb, who knew nothing about the hydrogen bomb or indeed about physics. So he would ask a rather blunt question, which could have brought out something that would be quite helpful to the Russians, and Oppenheimer, Bethe and Rabi was so careful to frame their answers in such a way that the Russians would not learn anything. 

So it turns out that they were the ones who observed security and the prosecution did not know enough really to be careful about security. There were just so many ironies, that I could not refrain mentioning that one.

Glauber: Well it is a beautiful one.

McMillan: It is. I mean, they were so careful and so loyal. For instance, Rabi knew Oppenheimer’s deficiencies, as you know. I think the whole time, he was trying to supply Oppenheimer with the backbone that he knew he did not have. Does that ring a bell with you?

Glauber: Well, that I do not know. We all, to some degree, knew of the things that were going to be questioned about Oppenheimer. There were really very few mysteries about Oppenheimer and certainly none that were resolved by the loyalty, by the clearance proceedings. You can ask the question why Oppie was the sort of guy he was and why he did so many off-beat things. But if you knew the guy, it would not surprise you, and particularly in the atmosphere in Berkeley in the prewar years. He, Oppenheimer, was certainly not preparing himself in any sense in those years for the role he eventually came to fill. 

The most unbelievable element in the whole thing is that General Groves had the wisdom to appoint him nonetheless; aware of absolutely everything. I do not believe there was a revelation anywhere that Groves had not previously been aware of. At least there is no hint that there was any such thing. But Oppenheimer clearly became a changed man in the course of all of this.

One thing I can tell you, which is generally lost sight of, which is very awkward sort of tension that existed just after the conclusion of the war. The people in Chicago were not nearly as inhibited as we were, enclosed on a military base. They lost very little time in traipsing off to Washington and they discovered that they were among the most popular people in Washington, the only people who could say anything sensible about the deal. So they were evangelizing these several people who went to no end. They included many of the most responsible and several senior people. We at Los Alamos felt helpless and foolish partly because Oppie was imploring us to keep quiet, not to complicate the whole business. He, Oppie, was on board with all of the people in Washington who were intent on getting appropriate legislation quickly through the Congress, the so-called May-Johnson Bill. 

Now as far as we could tell, Oppie was one hundred percent in favor of the May-Johnson Bill and getting it through Congress as quickly as possible. The younger people at Los Alamos, particularly as there was further discussion of that bill, were really quite upset by it. And the question was, what could we do from there? Could we pick-up and go to Washington?

McMillan: Was this 1945 or 1946?

Glauber: Yes, this was 1945. This was late 1945 and early 1946, and before the McMahon committee was put together, before McMahon made his first noises. In that period, Oppie was imploring us to shut up and not rock the boat. We felt such loyalty to him that we did exactly that. Eventually we wrote a letter to President Truman. We decided that we would constitute the 

“Association of Los Alamos Scientists,” and in the name of that organization; we wrote a letter to Truman advocating international control. And Truman’s first statement after the beginning of the year, I believe it was, it was close to it, but it was before I left Los Alamos, Truman made a statement advocating international control, saying that securing international control of atomic weapons was the goal of American policy. It literally quoted the pros with our letter.

I think, I cannot remember whether Willie Higginbotham actually showed that to Oppie or not. I do not remember, but there was no suggestion of strong disapproval from Oppie. It was only then that some of our people went to Washington and began speaking. And suddenly they eclipsed the Chicago spokesman. The whole game seemed to change. That May-Johnson Bill, of course, had not the tiniest recognition that there was anybody else on the globe. And I cannot remember the timing of Senator Brian McMahon, he was a senator was he not?

McMillan: Yes he was a senator and he said that the atomic bomb was the greatest thing that had happened since Jesus Christ, I think.

Glauber: Yes, but in any case, there was—the Joint Committee of the House and Senate was set up, and that was immensely influential in the next couple of years. It was that that created the Atomic Energy Commission and some expression of U.S. foreign policy. Of course, the actual business of working toward control, international control, was of course upset by the Russians in every way they could.

But the point is simply that, the point I began trying to make, is that Oppie was not any leftist activist at that time at all. He felt the one person you could really trust was the Secretary of War, [Henry] Stimson. And that remained so for a while. It took a couple of years and the intervention of the Strategic Air Command to begin to change Oppie’s mind about these things.

Copyright 2013 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.