The rise and fall of the man known as “the father of the atomic bomb” is the subject of a new movie. However, few realize that he spent a significant portion of his final days as a castaway in the Caribbean.
I was twenty years old and had the run of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s place. Four steps went down from the cottage’s porch to the beach, where coconut trees swooped low over the crystal-clear Caribbean and gently caressed the powdery sand. After a long day at the office, I’d take this trip to watch the parrotfish, butterflyfish, and hawksbill turtles swim on the shallow coral reefs.
I imagined that “the father of the atomic bomb” found this deserted crescent of white sand to be the ideal place to retreat after World War II.
On July 21, audiences everywhere will be able to see Oppenheimer, a film about the life and times of the mysterious scientist who unleashed a weapon with the potential to kill humanity. While it is common knowledge that Oppenheimer privately struggled with the ethical implications of his invention in the years following World War II, few are aware that he spent much of his later life effectively hiding out on the tiny, remote island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands to avoid the political fallout.
Oppenheimer was celebrated as a national hero following the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Pulitzer Prize–winning author Kai Bird, whose book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, written with the late Martin J. Sherwin, inspired the new biopic, has said of Oppenheimer, “His image was put on the cover of Time and Life [magazines], and he becomes America’s most famous celebrity scientist.” “Then, in 1954, he suddenly becomes a pariah and disappears from national life until virtually the day he dies.”
It was an excellent spot for secrecy and anonymity.
Locals refer to the two-acre property where the physicist vanished and lived in a humble hut occasionally from 1955 and 1967 as Oppenheimer Beach. It is not on most tourist maps, although it is widely considered to be the nicest beach in the Virgin Islands and a well-kept secret. Equally fascinating is the tale of how one of the United States’ most renowned scientists, J. Robert Oppenheimer, went from being a hero to a villain to a castaway in the Caribbean.
From national hero to outcast
The secret Manhattan Project, on which Oppenheimer took the helm, was the impetus for his move to St. John. “Oppenheimer’s view of the gadget he was building never really changed,” Bird said. From the moment he signed on with the Project in 1942, he knew full well that it was a dreadful thing and that he was working on a weapon with tremendous deadly potential. Instead, Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, and the majority of the top scientists of the day were certain that the development of the bomb was inevitable and that if he didn’t develop it first, the Nazis would.
The race to develop this weapon was on, and he worried that Hitler would use it to win the war for fascism—a sad outcome in and of itself. “He just felt like he had to,” Bird explained. He had a very complicated relationship to this awful thing that he was responsible for constructing, and “immediately after Hiroshima, he fell into a deep depression… he spent the rest of his life trying to warn humanity about the dangers of these weapons and the need to control them.”
U.S. President Harry Truman, in response to the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb explosion in 1949, tasked American scientists with developing a hydrogen bomb, whose nuclear explosion may be 1,000 times more powerful than an atomic bomb’s. On both moral and practical considerations, Oppenheimer, the government’s top scientific counselor on nuclear policy and defense, reportedly told Truman, “I feel I have blood on my hands.” As a result of his resistance, Oppenheimer became a prime target of anti-communist hysteria in the United States throughout the Cold War. He was subjected to a rigorous four-week interrogation in the spring of 1954, during which his US loyalty was called into doubt and his security clearance was revoked. (The United States government exonerated him 68 years later.)
“humiliated, terribly wounded, physically and psychologically exhausted,” Bird writes of the now-white-haired Oppenheimer. The following summer, the disgraced physicist packed up his family and departed Princeton, New Jersey aboard a 72-foot ketch bound for St. John.
“He was escaping — escaping the notoriety of being the father of the atomic bomb, but also the notoriety that plagued him after the ’54 trial, the suspicions of disloyalty, of being a Communist or perhaps a spy,” Bird said. “[Oppenheimer] fell in love with St. John the minute he set eyes on the island. After returning the following year, he purchased some beachfront land and constructed a primitive cottage, which he called home for the remainder of his life. He spent several winter months there, as well as some spring and summer months. It had nothing to do with repentance but rather with reconnecting with the natural world on a more material level.
St. John of Oppenheimer
St. John is so different from Oppenheimer’s old life that it’s almost comical. Oppenheimer’s childhood home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was complete with three housekeepers, a chauffeur, and Van Gogh paintings. Bird and Sherwin describe the island, which is roughly the size of Manhattan, as having no phones or power when the family moved there in July 1954, and instead having peacocks and donkeys roaming the dirt streets. Only for the past 37 years had St. John become a US territory, but already 90% of its 800 citizens were descended from Africans who had been abducted by the island’s previous Danish landlords to labor on sugar and cotton plantations. The largest structure on the island was a one-story cottage in the West Indian gingerbread style; the first bar wouldn’t be built for another two years.
David W Knight Sr, a local historian whose family was friends with the Oppenheimers and who housesat at their cottage when they were away, remarked, “The reason they chose St John was because it was a backwater.” There would be no one to bother Robert. Nobody recognized him, and nobody cared. It was an excellent spot for secrecy and anonymity. That’s how easy it is.
The Oppenheimers’ dramatic escape was not only a means to maintain their privacy, but also served a useful purpose. when the FBI did monitor the scientist’s New Jersey house in the 1950s when rumors of his communist affiliations began to circulate, Bird and Sherwin note that “the FBI found it impossible to keep Oppenheimer under surveillance while he was on St. John.”
According to Knight, Oppenheimer’s move to St. John was spurred by his growing opposition to nuclear power. My parents always said that Oppenheimer picked the US Virgin Islands because he thought that, thanks to the trade winds, it would be one of the last areas hit by nuclear fallout.
The Oppenheimers bought a piece of land on Hawksnest Bay in 1955, where they eventually built a modest beach house. To quote Bird and Sherwin: “The gentlest part of Robert’s nature was unfurled on St. John.” At his bay-windowed desk, the scientist penned lyrical works. Between the US and British Virgin Islands, he and his wife Kitty sailed for several days. For New Year’s Eve, the pair would send out three dozen invites every September. They would serve lobster salad and Champagne, have a local calypso band play, and Robert would dance on the beach while pointing out the constellations overhead.
People of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds attended. Robert didn’t differentiate between the sexes,” Bird and Sherwin wrote. A former acquaintance of his remarked to the authors, “He was the gentlest, kindest man I think I have ever met.” Never before have I met someone who had or exhibited so little animosity against others.
Oppenheimer moved far away from his history, yet he could never forget what he had done or seen. A friend of the Oppenheimers went swimming one evening in 1961 and caught a little hawksbill turtle, according to a report written by Bird and Sherwin. He brought the wriggling thing out to show everyone at dinner and said he was going to fry it. ‘It brought back to him the horrific memories of what happened to all the species after the [first atomic bomb explosion test] in New Mexico,’ Robert said as he begged for the turtle’s life while wincing.
Six years later, at the age of 62, Oppenheimer would pass away from throat cancer. Kitty dumped her husband’s ashes into Hawksnest Bay, near the little island of Carval Rock that he often gazed at from their cabin. Kitty’s ashes were also sprinkled there after her death in 1972. Toni, their depressed daughter, loved the island more than anywhere else. Her father had built a beach house for the family, and she committed suicide there in 1977, but not before leaving a note on the bed deeding the property “to the people of St John.”
Saint John’s Day
St. John is the smallest, most secluded, and least developed of the three US Virgin Islands (the others being St. Thomas and St. Croix) some 70 years after Oppenheimer’s escape there. More than 20 hiking trails crisscross the park’s 20 square miles of rugged terrain, which includes twisted trees and thorny cacti thanks to a donation from Rockefeller. Along the island’s remote eastern slopes, you can still find wild donkeys roaming free.
Unless you’re the Oppenheimers and sail in on your own boat, you’ll take the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John’s major town, Cruz Bay. St. John is home to 3,880 people. A fleet of open-air trucks converted into taxis picks up passengers at the port and drives them up North Shore Road, past Caneel Bay and the island’s most popular beaches.
Trunk Bay, with its underwater snorkel trail, is widely regarded as one of the best beaches in the world, but it also happens to be one of the busiest on the island. Look for a white picket fence on the left side of the road past Hawksnest Beach if you, like Oppenheimer, are hoping to avoid the throng. Oppenheimer Beach is known only to the in-the-know because there is no signage and only three parking spots. You can enter the turquoise bay through an old black-iron gate that says “Oppenheimer” just a few steps away from the fence.
One of the most stunning beaches in the United States. Bridgette Key, owner of Palm Tree Charters, tells tourists that the water on St. John’s North Shore is so pure that they can swim to their necks and still see their feet. “But the seclusion is what really makes it stand out.”
The Oppenheimer home and property were still open “to the people of St. John” in 2003, when I first visited the island, but the inside was completely boarded up and abandoned. After I left, the cottage was blown out to sea by years of storm winds, but a community center was built on its foundation. My friends tell me that anyone can hire it out today for events like picnics and weddings, and that calypso bands are welcome to perform.
Andrea Milam, a St. John correspondent for the Virgin Islands Daily News, remarked, “Although the house Oppenheimer lived in looks very different from the structure that is there today, it’s easy to sit on the outdoor patio and take in a view similar to what Oppenheimer would have experienced.” Perhaps Oppenheimer found solace and tranquility in the bay as he tried to get away from the scope of his global repercussions.