Kunetka: J. Robert Oppenheimer Has Never Left The Stage

Author and historian James Kunetka speaks Monday evening at Duane Smith Auditorium. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com

JROMC Chair Tom Ribe, left chats with James Kunetka prior to Monday’s lecture. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com

Los Alamos National Laboratory Senior Historian Alan B. Carr introduces fellow historian James Kunetka Monday evening at Duane Smith Auditorium. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com


James W. Kunetka, a bestselling novelist and leading historian who has written several books about the Manhattan Project kept his audience at Duane Smith Auditorium engaged Monday evening during his lecture, “Los Alamos:  Robert Oppenheimer’s Greatest Legacy”. The lecture was co-sponsored by the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee and the Los Alamos Historical Society as part of the JROMC’s celebration of its 50 years of honoring Oppenheimer’s influence on Los Alamos.

Introducing Kunetka Monday, Los Alamos National Laboratory Senior Historian Alan B. Carr noted that Kunetka was given a clearance many years ago and had worked with the Lab back in the 1970s.

“We had all of these old records that were completely unorganized and we didn’t know quite know what to do with them. Behold Jim Kunetka showed up to save the day, sorted through those old Manhattan Project records and saved them for us here and made my job possible, or at least a large part of it, so I’m appreciative of that. He didn’t get paid got but did use them to write one of his many books, ‘City of Fire’, Carr said. “He did so well that the Laboratory sent him to the National Archives to try and extract, which he did successfully, historical records there too which he shared with me just last week. He’s been here and he knows the history.”

Carr noted that not too many people have written about the Manhattan Project who have had clearances and who have had full access to the records. He said he and Kunetka first met about eight years ago and have been good friends for many years.

Kunetka said that looking at how Oppenheimer has been represented in popular history over the decades, books, motion pictures, television and other dramatic productions have increasingly interpreted the man in a rather narrow set of portrayals. He went on to supplement those portrayals with what is known of Oppenheimer from the historical record.

 “This time next year we will be treated to the man who has come out of the historical shadows because he will be the subject of a major motion picture. I’m hoping “Oppenheimer” the film succeeds because if it does it engages viewers with some degree of accuracy and our newer generations will discover something of this remarkable man who still merits our attention today,” Kunetka said.

He said it’s an irony that even Oppenheimer would find flattering, but maybe not, that he has never quite left the public stage even in the decades since his death.

“He reappears from time to time as the subject of movies, television, documentaries, plays, the opera, and of course histories of World War II and the atomic bomb. He survives while many of those associated with him are mortally forgotten. When was the last time you saw or read the name Leslie Groves, although he will be appearing in the film, Gene Taplock or Henry Stimson or Roger Rock or George Marshall or Haakon Chevalier or even a man named Lewis Strauss? All these individuals were significant players in Oppenheimer’s life, and therefore in shaping his reputation but yet, they are largely relegated to small parts of chapters. Robert Oppenheimer survives and continues to intrigue us and fascinate us,” Kunetka said.

He said over the past 20 years he has been collecting one-word or short phrases of descriptions of Oppenheimer by biographers, writers, by critics.

“Here’s a sampling: He’s the salesman, a sage, a scientist with a soul, a gifted leader, a patriot, the victim of national hysteria, and above all, a flawed hero. He has I think endured as a public figure because his life has followed a tragic arc, a man gifted by the gods who rose too quickly and eventually fell like Icarus and let’s face it, we mortals love that kind of story,” Kunetka said.

Kunetka’s lecture and the April 4 lecture by Carr entitled “MANHATTAN: The View from Los Alamos of History’s Most Secret Project” are both available for viewing on the JROMC website, https://jromc.org/video-recordings/.