Flashback Friday: Red Scare ensnared noted U of M professor 70 years ago

June 14, 2019 09:53 AM

Frank Oppenheimer would go on to a successful and acclaimed career as a professor of physics and, most notably, as the founder of San Francisco's Exploratorium  - a pioneering participatory science museum that opened in 1969 and is still going strong today.

Long before that, the physicist, who had worked with his older brother J. Robert Oppenheimer on the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, made a brief - and controversial - stop-over at the University of Minnesota where he became ensnared in the Red Scare gripping the nation at the time.


His older brother headed the Los Alamos Laboratory and played a leading role in the Manhattan Project during World War II. 

Frank's own work during that project made him an acclaimed physicist in his own right. So it was seen as a major coup when he was hired as a professor of physics at the U of M in March 1947.

"He is ticketed to become one of America's outstanding nuclear physicists," then-university president James Morrill was quoted as saying in the March 26, 1947, edition of the Minneapolis Tribune.

Controversy erupted just months later when an article in the Washington Times-Herald alleged Oppenheimer had been a member of the Communist Party in the late 1930s in the midst of the Great Depression.

Such a charge, with or without merit, carried with it the potential of lasting damage to an individual's reputation and career at a time when fear of communist subversion of American government and society were running rampant in certain quarters.

Oppenheimer initially denied it, telling the Tribune on July 13, 1947 that "I am not, and never have been, a member of the Communist Party."

University officials at first rallied to his defense, citing his service to the country through his wartime work on the Manhattan Project.

"It would seem incomprehensible that Dr. Oppenheimer, or any of the scientists so close to the heart of that secret project, could be even suspected of disloyalty," Morrill was quoted as saying in that same edition of the Tribune.

However, according to local historian Iric Nathanson's 2007 article on the affair for Minnesota History, a publication of the Minnesota Historical Society, at least one university official was not convinced by Oppenheimer's denial and continued to press the matter, even writing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in an unsuccessful effort to seek more information.

On June 14, 1949, Oppenheimer himself admitted he had been a member of the Communist Party for a few years in the late 1930s while in his 20s. He said he had resigned his membership soon after and no longer considered himself affiliated.

The admission came when he was sworn in as a witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was probing alleged communist infiltration of the atomic bomb project. Among the committee's members was a Republican Congressman from California, Richard Nixon, who was in the midst of leading the charge in an investigation into the activities of former high-ranking state department official Alger Hiss.

According to Nathanson's article, Oppenheimer testified he had resigned from the party because it "didn't seem to me to be effectively achieving the objectives for which I had joined. The kind of atmosphere which could arrive at an effective solution of the problems at that time, which demanded a great deal of free discussion, did not seem to be adequate."

Oppenheimer strenuously stated he knew of no communist activity during the war, and that he never provided anyone any information about the work he was undertaking.

Mindful of the consequences simply being associated with the party, even in an individual's younger years, carried at that time, he also refused to provide information on the alleged activities of others.

Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan project, was among the many who came to his defense following his testimony.

"I felt Frank Oppenheimer was a man it was advantageous for the United States to trust," he told the Minneapolis Tribune on June 17, 1949.

But the damage to Oppenheimer's reputation was enormous. He resigned from the university at the time of his testimony, a resignation university officials quickly accepted.

He found his job prospects in the academic world soon non-existent.

"There were a lot of politics swirling around at that time," said Robert Semper, the executive associate director of the Exploratorium, who worked with Oppenheimer from 1977 until the latter's death in 1985.

"People were making charges against certain individuals for certain reasons. And he was caught up in that. The physics community at the time was really upset by what had happened to him.

"I think he was a little bitter about what took place," Semper continued. "He hadn't really done anything wrong. He hadn't given away any secrets or anything like that. Yet his livelihood was taken away from him."

Oppenheimer and his wife retreated to Colorado, where they took up life as cattle farmers in Pagosa Springs for the next number of years.

By 1957, the climate had cooled at least enough that he was allowed to begin teaching science - at the local high school.

"The school had lost their science teacher and he was asked to step in,"  Semper said. "And suddenly, science students from this little school in southwestern Colorado were going to the state science fair in Boulder and winning. The faculty at the University of Colorado took note and brought Frank back into the fold."

After arriving in Boulder in 1959, Oppenheimer became deeply engaged in developing curriculum for science education, especially for elementary and high school students.

That work eventually led to the founding of the Exploratorium.

The museum opened in 1969, a result of Oppenheimer's desire to increase the general public's understanding of science and technology through the ability to participate in a direct fashion.

"The Exploratorium was really one of the first museums to be fully engaged in the use of hands-on exhibits," Semper said. "Previously, museums maybe had a few hands-on exhibits. But they were largely a collection of items on display. Frank's vision was that the Exploratorium would really be only hands-on exhibits.

"And it became successful early on. There were over 100,000 visitors the first year alone with really not much advertising at all."

The participatory concept became an influential one, spawning similar museums around the world.

Oppenheimer himself remained there until his death from lung cancer in February 1985, creating a lasting legacy and leaving the past behind.

"He was able to create a place that came from his vision," Semper said. "A place that really took the visitor seriously as a participant in the experience."

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