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  • Johanna Lynn

Oppenheimer’s Legacy: The Sins of The Father

Updated: Apr 16

J. Robert Oppenheimer known as the “father of the atomic bomb”, led a team of scientists in the US to create the first nuclear weapon.

The phrase, “the sins of the father,” is of Biblical origin. The phrase itself and the concept of the consequences of sin passing from one generation to another are found throughout literature, film, the science of epigenetics and even music.

After watching Oppenheimer in a packed movie theater with my family last week, I became fascinated with what happened to his two children after the impact of the launch of the atomic bomb that took the lives of so many innocent civilians. 

He was instrumental in creating the first atomic bomb and spent decades campaigning against it. Giving him notary and wealth yet plagued his conscience. It has been said that his life was a man who succeeded as a weapons maker and failed as a peacemaker. 

How many people died as a result of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? 

The most credible estimates for the low side is 110,000 mortalities and a high of 210,000, is truly an enormous gap. The truth is there was incredible damage inflicted upon the cities, and any precise reckoning will likely never be achieved.

While visiting the White House in October 1945, Oppenheimer said Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”  

His focused brilliance created a bomb that ended the lives of at least 100,000 civilians and made Hiroshima and Nagasaki uninhabitable for decades. An impact like that can live out like a heavy weight for his children.

Robert Strunsky, who was a close friend of the Oppenheimer family said that “to be a child of Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer is to have one of the greatest handicaps in the world.”  Both of their children were certainly impacted by their parents’ unique eccentricities.

Peter, their firstborn, was sent to live with friends as a baby when their mom, Kitty was overwhelmed and numbing with alcohol while Robert focused on his work.

Peter had a strained relationship with his mom, due to her alcoholism and relentless expectations. He was sent off to boarding school and later lived with his Uncle Frank Oppenheimer. He had intermittent contact with both parents as an adult. He struggled with anxiety throughout his life and he lives in seclusion in rural northern, New Mexico, working as a carpenter. He has three grown children: Dorothy, Charles and Ella. 

Peter’s sister, Katherine ‘Toni’ Oppenheimer was diagnosed with polio as a child and spent time in the U.S. Virgin Islands to aid her recovery.

Professionally Toni Oppenheimer worked as a translator in the US and was denied a position as a translator for the United Nations because the FBI refused to grant her a security clearance. That process dredged up many of the painful memories connected to her father being denied security clearance, fifteen years before, during stressful circumstances.

It seems that Toni’s life had a connection to her father’s struggles and the impact on the world with her father’s invention.

In her youth, she lived with the challenges caused by polio, along with the heartache of two unsuccessful marriages, and being denied her professional position as a translator, just like her father.

Toni became a recluse in her family’s old cottage in the remote area of the Virgin Islands. Shortly after losing her father to cancer, at just 32 years old, she committed suicide.

The ‘sins of the father’ can be acknowledged in the distant parent-child relationships, living lives of seclusion, and painful challenges in the lives of Peter and Toni. 

Exploring the next generation, Oppenheimer had three grandchildren.  Two of them live public lives and comment on their grandfather’s legacy.

Dr. Dorothy Oppenheimer Vanderford, is a technical writer and works for the Nevada National Security Site, a nuclear testing facility.

Charles Oppenheimer, father of two, writes about nuclear power, in light of his grandfather’s work. His Twitter bio says he represents the “family of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”

Although we don’t know the personal lives of his grandchildren, we can see how Oppenheimer’s family has taken his legacy forward in positive and detrimental ways.

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