At the height of the McCarthy era, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the government’s top atomic physicist, came under suspicion as a Soviet spy.
After 19 days of secret hearings in April and May of 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission revoked his security clearance. The action brought his career to a humiliating close, and Oppenheimer, until then a hero of American science, lived out his life a broken man.
But now, hundreds of newly declassified pages from the hearings suggest that Oppenheimer was anything but disloyal.
Historians and nuclear experts who have studied the declassified material — roughly a tenth of the hearing transcripts — say that it offers no damning evidence against him, and that the testimony that has been kept secret all these years tends to exonerate him.
“It’s hard to see why it was classified,” Richard Polenberg, a historian at Cornell University who edited a much earlier, sanitized version of the hearings, said in an interview. “It’s hard to see a principle here — except that some of the testimony was sympathetic to Oppenheimer, some of it very sympathetic.”
A crucial element in the case against Oppenheimer derived from his resistance to early work on the hydrogen bomb. The physicist Edward Teller, who long advocated a crash program to devise such a weapon, told the hearing that he mistrusted Oppenheimer’s judgment, testifying that “I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.”
But the declassified material, released Oct. 3 by the Energy Department, suggests that Oppenheimer opposed the hydrogen bomb project on technical and military grounds, not out of Soviet sympathies.
Richard Rhodes, author of the 1995 book “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb,” said the records showed that making fuel to test one of Teller’s early H-bomb ideas would have forced the nation to forgo up to 80 atomic bombs.
“Oppenheimer was worried about war on the ground in Europe,” Rhodes said in an interview. He saw the need for “a large stockpile of fission weapons that could be used to turn back a Soviet ground assault.”
The formerly secret testimony “was immensely relevant to Oppenheimer’s opposition,” he said, adding, “There’s a lot here for historians to digest.”
Robert S. Norris, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and the author of “Racing for the Bomb,” a biography of Lt. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, the military leader of the World War II project to develop the atomic bomb, said a reading of the formerly secret testimony showed it had little or nothing to do with national security.
“In many cases, they deleted material that was embarrassing,” he said in an interview. “That’s pretty obvious.”
The Energy Department, a successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, offered no public analysis of the 19 volumes and no explanation for why it was releasing the material now. It did, however, note that the step took 60 years. Sidestepping questions of guilt or innocence, it referred to the 1954 hearing as a federal assessment of Oppenheimer “as a possible security risk.”
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ project on government secrecy, called the release “long overdue” and added, “It lifts the last remaining cloud from the subject.”
Priscilla McMillan, an atomic historian at Harvard and author of “The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” applauded the release but also expressed bafflement at its having taken six decades, saying her own research suggested that the transcripts held “zero classified data.”
An eccentric genius fond of pipes and porkpie hats, Oppenheimer grew up in an elegant building on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, attended the Ethical Culture School and graduated from Harvard in three years. After studies in Europe, he taught physics at the University of California, Berkeley.
As a young professor, he crashed his car while racing a train, leaving his girlfriend unconscious. His father gave the young woman a painting and a Cézanne drawing.
In the 1930s, like many liberals, Oppenheimer belonged to groups led or infiltrated by communists; his brother, his wife and his former fiancée were party members.
In the 1940s at Los Alamos in New Mexico, in great secrecy, he led the scientific effort that invented the atom bomb. Afterward, as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission’s main advisory body, he helped direct the nation’s postwar nuclear developments.
Oppenheimer’s downfall came amid Cold War fears over Soviet strides in atomic weaponry and communist subversion at home. In 1953, a former congressional aide charged in a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that the celebrated physicist was a Soviet spy.
Troubled by the allegation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered “a blank wall” erected between Oppenheimer and any nuclear secrets.
No evidence came to light that supported the spy charge. But the security board found that Oppenheimer’s early views on the hydrogen bomb “had an adverse effect on recruitment of scientists and the progress of the scientific effort.” He died in 1967, at 62.
Experts who have looked at the declassified transcripts say they cast startling new light on the Oppenheimer case. Polenberg of Cornell, for example, expressed bewilderment that 12 pages of testimony from Lee A. DuBridge, a friend and colleague of Oppenheimer’s who discussed the atomic trade-offs and the European war situation, had remained secret for 60 years.
“A difference of opinion doesn’t mean disloyalty,” he said. “It’s hard to see why it was redacted.”
Polenberg also pointed to 45 pages of declassified testimony from Walter G. Whitman, an MIT engineer and member of the Atomic Energy Commission’s advisory body.
“In my judgment,” Whitman said of Oppenheimer, “his advice and his arguments for a gamut of atomic weapons, extending even over to the use of the atomic weapon in air defense of the United States, has been more productive than any other one individual.”
Asked his opinion of Oppenheimer as a security risk, he called him “completely loyal.”
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Alex Wellerstein, an atomic expert at the Stevens Institute of Technology, said in a comment on the secrecy blog of the Federation of American Scientists that years ago he had asked the government to declassify the secret Oppenheimer testimony.
The department’s public silence on his request, he said, made the unveiling look like “the result of an internal interest in the files rather than prodding from an outside historian.”
A few of the declassifications cast new light on what were already famous moments in Oppenheimer’s downfall.
Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate and veteran of the Manhattan Project who staunchly defended the beleaguered physicist, told atomic investigators that he found the hearing “most unfortunate” given what “Dr. Oppenheimer has accomplished.”
The restored transcript adds a deleted phrase in which Rabi mentioned the hydrogen bomb, then also known as the Super. It underscored the depth of his fury.
“We have an A-bomb,” he told the hearing, as well as “a whole series of Super bombs.” He added: “What more do you want, mermaids?”