The Caribbean island where Robert Oppenheimer escaped his legacy

caribbean island Oppenheimer

Few people are aware that Oppenheimer spent a significant portion of his remaining days effectively hiding out on the tiny, remote Caribbean island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands while publicly wrestling with the moral ramifications of his invention after World War Two.

On July 21, Oppenheimer, one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of the year, was released, giving audiences everywhere the chance to see the ascent and stunning demise of the mysterious scientist who unleashed a weapon so lethal it had the potential to wipe out humanity.

“In 1945, after [the US military dropped an atomic bomb on] Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer was hailed as a national hero. 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.”

Kai Bird, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer, written with the late Martin J Sherwin, inspired the new biopic
grayscale photo of explosion on the beach
Photo by Pixabay on

The two-acre site, currently public land and known locally as Oppenheimer Beach, is where the physicist vanished and lived in a small cottage from 1955 until his death in 1967. It is frequently referred to be one of the nicest beaches in the Virgin Islands and one of its best-kept secrets, despite the fact that it is not depicted on the majority of tourist maps. The little-known tale of Oppenheimer’s transformation from hero to villain to castaway in the Caribbean provides a fascinating look into the life of one of the most well-known scientists in the US, as well as the island that ultimately molded his dying days.

Caribbean island Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer’s journey to St John began with the top-secret Manhattan Project, where he led the team who developed the first atomic bomb. As Bird explained, “Oppenheimer’s view of the gadget he was building never really changed. He was perfectly aware from the day he joined the Project in 1942 what a terrible thing it was, and that he was building a weapon that would have enormous destructive potential.” Instead, Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein and most leading physicists of the time were convinced the bomb’s creation was inevitable, and that if Oppenheimer didn’t create it, the Nazis would first.

“It was a race to build this weapon, and he thought if Hitler had it first, he would use it to win the war for fascism, which would be a terrible, tragic outcome. So, he felt compelled to do this,” Bird said. “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, so he had a very complicated relationship to this terrible thing that he himself was responsible for building.”

According to Bird, a now-fully-white-haired Oppenheimer was left “humiliated, terribly wounded and physically and psychologically exhausted”. So, that summer, the disgraced physicist left his Princeton, New Jersey, home, boarded a 72ft ketch with his wife and two children and set sail 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. “When they saw the island for the first time, [Oppenheimer] fell in love with St John … so, he went back the following year and eventually found some property on the beach and built a very simple, spartan cabin, and it’s where he spent the rest of his life – you know, many months of the year, both in the winter, but sometimes in the spring and summers … it wasn’t about penance; it was about getting back to the physicality of the natural world.”

Oppenheimer’s life was far apart from St. John, and that was the point. Oppenheimer was raised in an opulent Upper West Side residence in Manhattan that had three servants, a chauffeur, and Van Gogh artwork on the walls. According to Bird and Sherwin, there were hardly any phones or electricity when the family arrived on the Manhattan-sized island in July 1954, and donkeys and peacocks roamed the arid streets. 90% of St. John’s 800 inhabitants, who had just been a US territory for 37 years, were descended from former slaves who had been taken from Africa by the island’s old Danish owners to labor on their sugar and cotton plantations.

Caribbean island Oppenheimer

The first bar on the island wouldn’t be constructed for another two years, and the biggest structure there was a one-story West Indian gingerbread-style home.
According to a local lore, Oppenheimer relocated his family to the Virgin Islands because he believed they would be among the last areas to be damaged by a nuclear explosion.

“The reason they chose St John was because it was a backwater. No one was going to harass [Robert]. No one knew who he was or cared. It was a great place to hide out and be anonymous. It’s that simple.”

David W Knight Sr, a local historian whose family was good friends with the Oppenheimers and who housesat at their cottage when they were away

Knight also suggested that Oppenheimer’s decision to relocate to St John was motivated by his increasing anti-nuclear stance. “My parents often repeated the story that the reason why Oppenheimer had chosen the US Virgin Islands is that he was convinced that due to the trade winds, it would be one of the last places affected by nuclear fallout.”

The Oppenheimers bought a piece of land on Hawksnest Bay in 1955 and built a modest house right on the sand. According to Bird and Sherwin, “The gentlest part of Robert’s nature was unfurled on St. John.” At his desk, which was facing the bay, the physicist penned poems. He spent days sailing with his wife, Kitty, between the US and British Virgin Islands. Every year in September, the couple would invite their friends to a New Year’s Eve celebration where they would offer champagne and lobster salad, hire a local calypso band, and have Robert dance on the beach while he pointed out stars to the partygoers.

Oppenheimer was able to physically distance himself from his past, but he was never able to forget what he had witnessed or done. A friend of the Oppenheimers went swimming one evening in 1961, according to Bird and Sherwin, and brought home a little hawksbill turtle. He showed the writhing monster at supper and declared he intended to cook it.
“Wincing, Robert pleaded for the turtle’s life, telling everyone that it ‘brought back to him the horrible memories of what happened to all the creatures after the [first atomic bomb explosion] test in New Mexico’.”

St. John continues to be the smallest, least populated, and least developed of the three US Virgin Islands (which also include St. Thomas and St. Croix) even 70 years after Oppenheimer sought refuge there. Two-thirds of St. John remain a protected national park as a result of Rockefeller’s bequest, and its 20 square miles of landscape is crisscrossed by more than 20 hiking paths, twisted forests, and spiky cacti. Wild donkeys continue to graze freely around the island’s isolated eastern highlands, and there are no airports or cruise ship docks.

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