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Race for the Superbomb | Article

Atomic Energy Commission

The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 established the Atomic Energy Commission, putting the AEC in charge of all aspects of nuclear power. The agency consisted of five civilian members who were advised by a scientific panel called the General Advisory Committee. In 1974, Congress passed the Energy Reorganization Act which abolished the AEC. The newly established Nuclear Regulatory Commission took over the AEC's regulatory functions. And the Energy Research and Development Administration took over nuclear research and development. The Department of Energy which is today in charge of nuclear weapons activities was created in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. 

Hydrogen Bomb Decision 

On September 23, 1949, President Truman shocked America with a terse announcement. "We have evidence," he said, "that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR." The announcement caused panic in the country and created a flurry of activity in scientific and political circles. What, everyone wanted to know, should the American response be? 

Most of the debate was carried out in top secret. The initial proposal from the Los Alamos weapons laboratory was to step up the production of atomic bombs. Meanwhile, physicist Edward Teller and Atomic Energy Commissioner (AEE) Lewis Strauss were among those who began arguing vociferously for a "high-priority" program to build a hydrogen bomb. In the next few months, both men dedicated their efforts to bringing everyone in Washington around to this point of view. 

In October, the AEC turned to its scientific advisory panel for advice. The General Advisory Committee, as it was known, was chaired by Robert Oppenheimer who had headed the atomic bomb project during the war. The scientists wrestled with the issue for two days and agreed with the various division directors at Los Alamos that the nuclear weapons program should be expanded in several ways. They supported proposals to increase the production of plutonium and the supplies of uranium ore. And they recommended expanding research into fission bombs. 

The panel then turned to the question of the super. In their report, the scientists wrote that if the super could be built there would be, "no limit to the explosive power of the bomb itself except that imposed by requirements of delivery." And they concluded, "... it is not a weapon which can be used exclusively for the destruction of material installations of military or semi-military purposes. Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations." The scientists unanimously recommended that the U.S. not embark on a crash program to build the H-bomb. 

The AEC commissioners themselves were divided. Chairman David Lilienthal proposed stepping up the production of atomic weapons. He also advocated seeking a way of creating international controls of nuclear weapons while at the same time officially announcing that the U.S was refraining from developing a hydrogen bomb. 

Commissioner Strauss made his views very clear in a letter to President Truman on November 25th. "I believe that the United States must be as completely armed as any possible enemy. From this, it follows that I believe it unwise to renounce, unilaterally, any weapon which an enemy can reasonably be expected to possess. I recommend that the President direct the Atomic Energy Commission to proceed with the development of the thermonuclear bomb..." 

When asked for their opinion, the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported development of a hydrogen bomb, saying, "The United States would be in an intolerable position, if a possible enemy possessed the bomb and the United States did not." 

Finally Truman turned to a special committee of the National Security Council for advice. It consisted of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, and Lilienthal. Acheson and Johnson both agreed that the U.S. had no alternative but to proceed as rapidly as possible to develop an H-bomb. As political pressure mounted in January in favor of the H-bomb, Lilienthal knew he had been defeated. The Special Committee of the NSC recommended that the AEC investigate the feasibility of a hydrogen bomb. And on January, 31, 1950, Truman publicly announced his decision. "I have directed the Atomic Energy Commission," he said, "to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or superbomb." 

To supporters of the H-bomb, this didn't sound like the crash program they were hoping for. But within weeks, Truman cleared up any ambiguity. On March 10, the President privately ordered the AEC to expand facilities in preparation for the production of the H-bomb. The Soviet Union's response to Truman's January announcement was swift. Just four days later, Lavrentii Beria issued a protocol ordering Soviet scientists to submit a report on the progress of the "Layer Cake," physicist Andrei Sakharov's H-bomb design. 

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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