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People & Events
Oppenheimer Hearings

On December 23, 1953, in what it claims were the "interests of national security" the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) temporarily suspended Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance. In a long letter, the General Manager of the AEC explained why. He claimed that the wartime scientific director of the atomic bomb project had long term associations with the Communist Party; that his wife and brother had both been Communists; that he had made contributions to "Communist front-organizations"; and that he had recruited Communists to work on the atomic bomb project. Also included was a shorter list of charges related to the hydrogen bomb. These stated that Oppenheimer had continued to oppose the development of the H-bomb even after President Truman had ordered a program to go ahead. And they claimed that Oppenheimer's opposition had retarded the progress of the project.

Rather than hand in his resignation, which is what AEC chairman Lewis Strauss had hoped Oppenheimer would do, the stunned physicist asked for a security hearing to review the charges. Oppenheimer wrote to Strauss saying, "I have thought earnestly of the alternative suggested. Under the circumstances, this course of action would mean that I accept and concur in the view that I am not fit to serve this Government that I have now served for some twelve years. This I cannot do."

Suspicions about his patriotism had dogged Oppenheimer for about a decade. In part they dated back to an incident during the war, when a professor of French, Haakon Chevalier, had tentatively approached Oppenheimer about passing information to the Soviets. Oppenheimer hadn't reported the incident immediately and when he did the story he told changed several times. The physicist had also espoused left-wing causes, although he had never in fact joined the Communist Party himself.

It was Strauss' appointment as Chairman of the AEC in July 1953 that intensified the Washington campaign against Oppenheimer. Within five days of taking office, Strauss ordered all classified AEC documents removed from Oppenheimer's office. In November, William Borden, a Washington lawyer who was hoping to ingratiate himself with Strauss, sent a letter to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that listed reasons why Oppenheimer was most likely a Soviet agent. And on December 3, President Eisenhower himself ordered that "a blank wall" be placed between Oppenheimer and our government operations.

Most of the scientific community was distressed by the news of Oppenheimer's impending security hearings. Physicist Hans Bethe told the New York Times, "I was deeply shocked when I heard that this great man was to be subjected to a security investigation. Without Dr. Oppenheimer the United States might not have the atom bomb, because it was his insight and devotion more than anyone else's which led Los Alamos to success during the war..." In the months leading up to Oppenheimer's hearing, the FBI tapped Oppenheimer's phones and had the physicist followed, giving the AEC legal team extensive access to conversations between Oppenheimer and his lawyers that would normally have been protected by attorney-client privilege.

The hearings opened on April 12, 1954 and lasted for four weeks. In all 39 witnesses testified, not including Oppenheimer himself. Many of them were scientists who had worked with Oppenheimer on the atomic bomb project. One of them testified that the charges against Oppenheimer could be "...interpreted as placing a man on trial because he held opinions, which is quite contrary to the American system." It was, however, one of Oppenheimer's former colleagues who would give some of the most damning testimony against him. When Edward Teller took the stand, he said, "In a great number of cases I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer act... In a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand.... To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more."

The security board majority found that Oppenheimer was a loyal citizen and that the nation owed him "a great debt of gratitude for...magnificent service." But it claimed that his "continuing conduct and associations reflected a serious disregard for the requirements of the security system." The board did not recommend reinstating his security clearance.

Oppenheimer appealed the security board findings to the AEC commissioners. On June 29th a majority of the commissioners including Chairman Strauss, found that "Dr. Oppenheimer is not entitled to the continued confidence of the Government and of this Commission because of the proof of fundamental defects in his 'character.' " It concluded that Oppenheimer's access to restricted data should be denied. The public ordeal broke the spirit of a man who had given years of his life to serving his country.
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