- J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Cold War, and the Atomic West
There have been several books written about how the planning and development of the atomic bomb contributed to the growing rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union, but few works explore how the Cold War atmosphere assisted in the modernization of the American West during the late twentieth century. In this work Jon Hunner argues that Oppenheimer and the other scientists working on the Manhattan Project helped transform the American West into a region of scientific research and technological advancements during the mid-twentieth century. Accordingly, Oppenheimer's decision to locate the atomic weapons research laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, as well as the establishment of leading physics departments at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkley helped usher in a new era of educational and economic progress for the American West.
Hunner begins the work with a brief discussion of Oppenheimer's early life. Born into an affluent Jewish family, Oppenheimer attended the Ethical Culture School in New York City, where he excelled at the institution. Prior to attending Harvard University, Oppenheimer was stricken by a severe case of dysentery and colitis. In the summer of 1922, he sought to restore his health by traveling to New Mexico. While the Southwest's fresh air and dry climate cured Oppenheimer of his aliments, the region also offered him an escape from his conventional and sheltered lifestyle. After graduating from Harvard University, Oppenheimer pursed graduate studies at Cambridge University and the University of Göttingen, where he worked in the fields of atomic physics and quantum mechanics. During the 1930s, Oppenheimer established one of the nation's leading theoretical physics departments at the University of California, Berkeley.
While Oppenheimer trained future physicists at the academic institutions, he also conducted scientific experiments, which contributed to the American West becoming the focal point for advanced studies in nuclear physics. Garnering worldwide attention, Oppenheimer was appointed as a member of the Advisory Committee on Uranium, which was responsible for coordinating America's atomic weapons research. By June 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had established the Manhattan Engineer District to develop an atomic bomb. That same year, Colonel Leslie R. Groves selected Oppenheimer as the director of the Manhattan Project's central research laboratory. While some scientists associated with the Manhattan Project believed that their research efforts would help the Allied forces end World War II, others feared the potential devastation that they had unleashed on the world.
Although Oppenheimer helped the federal government formulate atomic energy policies during the postwar years, Army Intelligence agents and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover began investigating Oppenheimer's background and past connections because they believed that the physicist was a communist who threatened national security. Hoover and army agents based these allegations upon Oppenheimer's left-wing politics and his attendance at Communist Party meetings. During the early 1950s, the FBI investigations led to the Atomic Energy Commission revoking Oppenheimer's security clearance and they discredited the physicist's [End Page 220] credibility as a spokesperson for America's atomic energy policy. Despite the public humiliation, Oppenheimer continued to make presentations across the country, where he discussed the benefits of nuclear energy. In April 1963, President John F. Kennedy helped restore Oppenheimer's image when he honored the physicist with the Enrico Fermi Award, which recognized his work in the fields of atomic research and advanced physics.
Hunner's book is well written and thoroughly researched. Although the work provides readers with a concise history of an American physicist who initiated the dawn of the Atomic Age, it also serves as a significant addition to American West historiography by examining how the Manhattan Project had a transformative effect on the western United States during the mid-twentieth century.