Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks Upon Presenting the Fermi Award to Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer

December 02, 1963

Members of the administration, the Senate and the House, Mr. Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. and Mrs. Oppenheimer, ladies and gentlemen:

One of President Kennedy's most important acts was to sign the Enrico Fermi Award for Dr. Oppenheimer for his contributions to theoretical physics and the advancement of science in the United States of America.

It is important to our Nation that we have constantly before us the example of men who set high standards of achievement. This has been the role that you have played, Dr. Oppenheimer.

During World War Two, your great scientific and administrative leadership culminated in the forging together of many diverse ideas and experiments at Los Alamos and at other places. This successful effort came to a climax with the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo on July 16, 1945.

Since the war you have continued to lead in the search for knowledge, and you have continued to build on the major breakthrough achieved by Enrico Fermi on this day in 1942. You have led in developing an outstanding school of theoretical physics in the United States of America.

For these significant contributions, I present to you on behalf of the Atomic Energy Commission and the people of the United States the Enrico Fermi Award of 1963, the Enrico Fermi Medal.

Mr. Secretary of State and Mr. Secretary of Defense, would you come over here and meet Dr. Oppenheimer.

Here is the medal and perhaps the least important to you, a $50,000 check from the Treasury of the United States.

[At this point, Dr. Oppenheimer expressed his appreciation for the award. In a brief statement he noted that Jefferson had often written of the brotherly spirit of science. "We have not, I know, always given evidence of that brotherly spirit .... This is not because we lack vital common or intersecting scientific interests. It is in part because, with countless other men and women, we are engaged in this great enterprise of our time, testing whether men can both preserve and enlarge life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and live without war as the great arbiter of history. In this enterprise, no one bears a greater responsibility than the President of the United States. I think it just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today. That would seem to be a good augury for all our futures.

["These words," he said, "I wrote down almost a fortnight ago. In a somber time. I gratefully and gladly speak them to you."

[The President then resumed speaking.]

I know every person in this room grieves with me and with Dr. and Mrs. Oppenheimer that the late President who gave his all for his country could not present this award as he anticipated, and it was with great pleasure and pride that I tried to substitute for him today.

Throughout my life I have heard this statement: That behind every great man there must be two great women--a great mother and a great wife. All of you men in the room know what we would be without either, so, Dr. Oppenheimer, although I have never met your mother, I have met your wife, and I want this group to meet this lady who shares honor with you today--Mrs. Oppenheimer.

You may observe she got hold of the check!

Note: The President spoke at 5 p.m. at a ceremony in the Cabinet Room at the White House. In the course of his remarks he referred to Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.

Dr. Oppenheimer, director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J., was the seventh recipient of the Enrico Fermi Award. The citation accompanying the award reads: "For contributions to theoretical physics as a teacher and originator of ideas and for leadership of the Los Alamos Laboratory and the atomic energy program during critical years."

The text of introductory remarks of Glenn T. Seaborg, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who read the citation, and of Dr. Oppenheimer's response to the President was also released.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks Upon Presenting the Fermi Award to Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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