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Sunday, October 29, 2017 by Nadia

Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the atomic bomb” served as director of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Laboratory during the development of the first nuclear weapon. The Manhattan Project was staffed by top scientists and physicists, with the mission to explore a newly documented fission process involving uranium-235, with which they hoped to make a nuclear bomb before Adolf Hitler could develop it.

July 16, 1945 marked the first test of the bomb at a site codenamed “Trinity", in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. With its success, two more bombs were deployed in the following month: one in Nagasaki, Japan, and the other in Hiroshima. These actions essentially ended WWII.

While witnessing the explosion, Oppenheimer remarked, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

After the war Oppenheimer accepted the Director position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.  He brought together intellectuals at the height of their powers and from a variety of disciplines to solve the most pertinent questions of the age.  

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established in 1947 after World War II to foster and control the peacetime development of atomic science and technology.  Oppenheimer was appointed as the Chairman of its General Advisory Committee (GAC). From this position he advised on a number of nuclear-related issues. As Chairman of the GAC, Oppenheimer lobbied vigorously for international arms control and funding for basic science, and attempted to influence policy away from a heated arms race.

In August 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. When the government questioned whether to pursue a crash program to develop an atomic weapon based on nuclear fusion — the hydrogen bomb — the GAC issued its October 1949 report opposing such a development.  They were motivated partly by ethical concerns, feeling that such a weapon could only be used strategically against civilian targets, resulting in millions of deaths. They were also motivated by practical concerns, as at the time there was no workable design for a hydrogen bomb.  They were overridden by Truman, who announced the crash program in January 1950 in response to Russia exploding its first bomb.

Otto Oldenberg was a renowned Harvard physics professor and a published authority in the field of nuclear physics and atomic science.  After Truman announced the crash program, Professor Oldenberg was interviewed about the feasibility of developing such a weapon.  On February 2, 1950 Oldenberg was quoted as saying the H-bomb would be a very difficult thing to make and “scientists may not be able to do it.”

Frederick Pope had a long career in chemical engineering and was involved in various government committees. He began his career as the President of Standard Aniline Products Corporation and a then a founding partner in the investment firm of Moses, Pope & Trainor.  He moved on and served as director of the American Cyanamid Company and founder of its engineering arm, the Chemical Construction Corporation.  At the end of World War II, he worked with the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion.  As chairman of Project 16, he was tasked with best practices to eliminate the remaining german resources for war, specifically chemicals. He was the unofficial Business Ambassador to Russia in the 1930s and 1940s, was involved in rebuilding western Europe, and had an interest in these nuclear projects.  Under the Manhattan Project, Pope and his company, the Chemical Construction Corporation, were given a government contract to produce uranium for the first atomic bomb.

In the 1950s, Oppenheimer was the Chair of various Visiting Committees at Harvard, designed to strengthen the curriculum and promote the broader goals of the University.  In 1950, he was Chair of the Physics Visiting Committee, and, during the time of the Hydrogen Bomb effort, he was also working at Harvard to analyze and strengthen its physics program.  The greatest national security strength, he had said, was the ability to teach the next generation the principles that would further technological progress.  In January of 1950, he brought together some of the greatest scientific minds at Harvard as Chair of the Harvard visiting committee.  

In this Typed Letter Signed, on Institute for Advanced Study letterhead, Princeton, New Jersey, November 7, 1950 to Mr. Pope.  “Dear Mr. Pope:  There will be a meeting of the Committee to Visit the Department of Physics of Harvard on Monday, January 8th.  The formal meeting with the senior members of the department will convene at 4:00 p.m. in room 330, Lyman Hall; and the Visiting Committee will hold a brief executive session following this meeting.  We will rejoin the senior members of the department at dinner at the Harvard Club.  The meeting should adjourn by 10:30 p.m.  Professor Oldenberg has asked me to assure you that if you are able to visit the department earlier in the day you will be most welcome.  With every good wish, Robert Oppenheimer”

Robert Oppenheimer is a very uncommon autograph. This is the first one we have carried in two decades.  This letter connecting key players in atomic development is quite remarkable. We acquired this directly from the family of the recipient and it has never been offered for sale before.