February 21, 2024

Saint John: The tiny island where Robert Oppenheimer escaped his inheritance

When the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, US President Harry Truman ordered American scientists to begin a new program to build a hydrogen bomb, which could have a nuclear explosion. 1,000 times more powerful than an atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, the government’s chief scientific adviser on nuclear policy and defense, objected on both moral and practical grounds, telling Truman, “I feel that I have blood on my hands.” Ultimately, Oppenheimer’s challenge was a key target of US anti-communist hysteria during the Cold War. In the spring of 1954, he endured an exhaustive four-week interrogation that questioned his loyalty to the United States and finally obtained his security clearance. (The US government would eventually clear his name 68 years later.)

According to Bird, Oppenheimer was now left completely “humiliated, terribly wounded and physically and psychologically exhausted”. So, that summer, the disgraced physicist left his home of Princeton, New Jersey, boarded a 72-foot ketch with his wife and two children and set sail for Saint John.

“He was running away – running away from the reputation of being the father of the atomic bomb, but also the reputation that plagued him after the ’54 trial, the suspicion of disloyalty, that he was a Communist or maybe a spy,” Bird said. “When they first saw the island, [Oppenheimer] He fell in love with Saint John … so, he went back the next year and finally got a property on the beach and built a very simple spartan cabin, and that’s where he spent the rest of his life – you know, long months of the year, in the winter, but sometimes in the spring and summer … he was unrepentant; it was about returning to the physicality of the natural world.”

Saint John Oppenheimer

St. John’s couldn’t be further from the life Oppenheimer left – and that’s the point. Oppenheimer grew up in an elegant house on Manhattan’s Upper West side with three maids, a chauffeur and Van Gogh paintings hanging on the walls. When the family landed on the Manhattan-sized island in July 1954, Bird and Sherwin wrote that there were almost no telephones or electricity, and peacocks and donkeys roamed the dirt streets. St. John’s had only been a US territory for 37 years and 90% of its 800 former residents were descendants of slaves who had been kidnapped from Africa by previous Danish landlords to work on their sugar and cotton plantations. The first bar on the island would not be built for another two years, and his largest building was the one-storey West Indian. ginger style cottage.

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