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Key Issues Nuclear Weapons History Cold War Oppenheimer Affair Introduction

The Oppenheimer Affair

J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb, enjoyed both the heights of worldwide fame (or infamy), and the depths of despair when the Atomic Energy Commission voted to strip him of his security clearance. Oppenheimer became enamored with and devoted his life to the study of theoretical physics while working on his Ph.D. at the University of Göttingen in Germany. During World War II, General Leslie Groves named him the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which designed and tested the first atomic bomb. The ramifications of what the scientists accomplished was not lost on Oppenheimer, who told the president in 1946, "I have blood on my hands."

After the war, Oppenheimer served as chair of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. During 1949, the committee discussed and debated the feasibility of building a thermonuclear bomb. The committee listened to hours of testimony by a wide variety of experts, including members of the Atomic Energy Commission, senior officers of the military, and foreign policy experts, most of whom were uncertain of the military value of the "super." Oppenheimer, and others in the majority opinion, advocated total renunciation of this new bomb. The committee members felt the dangers associated with the bomb far outweighed any military value. They said that it was in "a totally different category from an atomic bomb." They feared that it "might become a weapon of genocide." Despite the scientists' concerns, the fear that the Soviets might disregard the American renunciation and go on to build their own hydrogen bomb haunted President Truman and other government officials, including many members of Congress. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson, Truman's most trusted advisor, took a proactive approach and successfully recommended that the U.S. build the hydrogen bomb.

Oppenheimer's initial opposition and continuing reservations about the hydrogen bomb project first led to suspicion about his loyalty. At the height of McCarthyism, his politics during the 1930s came under scrutiny and ultimately led to his undoing at the hands of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1953. Oppenheimer had never become a member of the Communist party, but he did admit that he had "belonged to just about every Communist-front organization on the West Coast." He asked for a security hearing to review the charges, which went on for four weeks and heard testimony from 40 witnesses including Oppenheimer. This hearing outraged most scientists, and one testified that it could be "interpreted as placing a man on trial because he held opinions, which is quite contrary to the American system." However, it was testimony from a fellow scientist that did the most damage to his case. Edward Teller, whose idea it was to build the hydrogen bomb, was more than a little upset about Oppenheimer's opposition to the project. He testified that he "would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more." The security board found that, although he was a loyal citizen and was owed "a great debt of gratitude for magnificent service," his continuing conduct and associations reflected a serious disregard for the requirements of the security system." By a vote of 4-1, Oppenheimer was refused security clearance by the Atomic Energy Commission.

Although the U.S. government officially rehabilitated him in 1963 in a ceremony held by President Johnson, the public ordeal took its toll on Oppenheimer, who had given years of his life to serving his country.

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See Also

Oppenheimer Biography
Manhattan Project
KD Nichols to Oppenheimer Dec. 23 1953
Oppenheimer to KD Nichols March 4 1954

More on the Web

Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues
Yuli Khariton, Viktor Adamskii, and Yuri Smirnov, "The Way It Was," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Nov./Dec. 1996) 53-59
United States Atomic Energy Commission In The Matter of Oppenheimer