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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Serber the Patriot, Oppenheimer the snitch.

Charlotte Serber's WW2 era Los Alamos Labs badge picture.

A slice of top-secret life from The Nuclear Secrecy Blog:


Some of the badge photographs are the ones that anyone on here would be familiar with — Oppenheimer, Groves, Fuchs, etc. But I enjoyed picking out a few more obscure characters. One of my favorites of these is Charlotte Serber, wife of the physicist and Oppenheimer student Robert Serber. Here’s my micro-essay:
Charlotte Serber was one of the many wives of the scientists who came to Los Alamos during the war. She was also one of the many wives who had their own substantial jobs while at the lab. While her husband, Robert Serber, worked on the design of the first nuclear weapons, Charlotte was the one in charge of running the technical library. While “librarian” might not at first glance seem vital to the war project, consider J. Robert Oppenheimer’s postwar letter to Serber, thanking her that “no single hour of delay has been attributed by any man in the laboratory to a malfunctioning, either in the Library or in the classified files. To this must be added the fact of the surprising success in controlling and accounting for the mass of classified information, where a single serious slip might not only have caused us the profoundest embarrassment but might have jeopardized the successful completion of our job.” Serber fell under unjustified suspicion of being a Communist in the immediate postwar, and, according to her FBI file, her phones were tapped. Who had singled her out as a possible Communist, because of her left-wing parents? Someone she thought of as a close personal friend: J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Charlotte was also the only woman Division Leader at Los Alamos, as the director of the library. She was also the only Division Leader barred from attending the Trinity test — on account of a lack of “facilities” for women there. She considered this a gross injustice.
What I like about Charlotte is not only that she highlights that many of the “Los Alamos wives” actually did work that was crucial to the project (and there were scientists amongst the “wives” as well, such as Elizabeth R. Graves, who I also profiled), and that the work of a librarian can be pretty vital (imagine if they didn’t have good organization of their reports, files, and classified information). But I also find Charlotte’s story amazing because of the betrayal: Oppenheimer the friend, Oppenheimer the snitch.
I should note that Oppenheimer’s labeling of Charlotte was probably not meant to be malicious — he was going over lists of people who might have Communist backgrounds when talking to the Manhattan Project security officers. He rattled off a number of names, and even said he thought most of them probably weren’t themselves Communists. This, of course, meant that they got flagged as possible Communists for the rest of their lives. Oppenheimer’s attempt to look loyal to the security system, even his attempts to be benign about it, were terrible failures in the long run, both for him and for his poor friends. Albert Einstein put it well: “The trouble with Oppenheimer is that he loves a woman who doesn’t love him—the United States government.”

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