LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — History shows that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was deeply conflicted about his creation. He and his team of scientists and engineers knew they were racing against Nazi Germany to develop an atomic bomb, the survival of civilization in the balance.
The bomb was demonstrated on July 16, 1945, in the successful Trinity test south of Los Alamos, New Mexico. The enormity of the team’s creation weighed heavily on Oppenheimer’s mind, his doubt illustrated by his most famous quote.
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” a reference to Hindu scripture Oppenheimer later said ran through his mind during the detonation of ‘Gadget,’ the first atomic bomb.
“I grew up with my siblings up in the ranch that Robert Oppenheimer owned,” said Dorothy Vanderford, granddaughter of J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. Vanderford knows the home that became a focal point of director Christopher Nolan’s biopic.
Vanderford has lived in Nevada since the 1990s and works for the contractor that manages the Nevada National Security Site. That location has seen more atomic explosions than any other place on Earth.
“My dirty secret is that I changed my name when I got married,” said Vanderford. “I go by Dorothy Oppenheimer Vanderford, but I also am known as Dorothy Vanderford.”
When asked if she ever got physics questions from inquiring minds who found out about her lineage, Vanderford made it clear that she’s thankful the answer is no.
“That would be awkward. I couldn’t answer them,” Vanderford said.
Vanderford earned her degree in English and writes reports for her employer. She is the daughter of Peter Oppenheimer, the son of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her father doesn’t speak publicly about his family’s legacy. The physicist died before Dorothy was born. However, Vanderford learned early on why the name was so well known. Growing up in the Oppenheimer bloodline, there were discussions about what J. Robert had accomplished and how he was treated, though, Vanderford says, not as many as one might think.
“My dad always maintained that he was a good patriot who was doing what he needed to do during wartime,” Vanderford recalled. “That he was not treated fairly.”
After the Trinity test and the bombings of two Japanese cities that ended the Second World War, J. Robert Oppenheimer openly expressed concerns about an atomic arms race and pushed back against creating more destructive nuclear weapons. That disagreement brought Oppenheimer into conflict with powerful interests.
His family was placed under constant, often illegal, surveillance. Although Oppenheimer had been trusted with the world’s most important secret, investigations dug up dirt, namely his close personal links to former members of the Communist Party. One of those links was his wife.
Eventually, Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked following a humiliating public hearing depicted in Nolan’s feature film. Vanderford said the government accused him of having a character flaw.
“I don’t think it’s a fair characterization,” Vanderford said. “I admire and respect him for being willing to speak up when he saw that there was going to be a problem with nuclear armament proliferation, and being willing to say ‘This is a problem. Let’s look at this a different way.'”
After his clearance was stripped, Oppenheimer went into a deep depression. He died at the age of 62. Decades later, in December 2022. The revocation of his clearance was reversed, and his name was, in essence, restored. The newly-released feature film biopic is about a massive project that changed the world. However, at its core, the film’s theme is based around a central moral dilemma.
Vanderford wondered before her Tuesday screening how Oppenheimer would be portrayed in the piece, although her vision of the physicist is cemented.
“I think he’s rather heroic,” Vanderford said. “They often talk about the tragic hero, right?”