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  Library Correspondence Arthur Holly Compton: Letter, April 21, 1954

Letter Regarding the Oppenheimer Affair
From:Arthur Holly Compton
To: Gordan Gray, President of the UNC
Date: April 21, 1954

Park Hotel
Istanbul, Turkey

April 21, 1954

Dear President Gray:

I was in Pakistan when the news broke regarding the suspension of J. Robert Oppenheimer from the Advisory Board of the A. E. C., and it was not until yesterday that I received sufficiently full information about the case to make a statement that I knew would be relevant. Because of my close association with Oppenheimer, I believe that some facts from my first-hand knowledge will be useful to your committee in judging his loyalty. These facts I am stating here with the same responsibility for their veracity as I would accept in the case of sworn testimony before a court of law.

1. I was responsible for appointing Oppenheimer to the task of organizing whatever was necessary for designing the atomic bomb. This was about the end of April, 1942. (The dates given here are all approximate. I have here no notes regarding these matters, and all of my statements are from memory.) It was a month or two later that responsibility for the atomic development was assigned to the U. S. Engineers (Army), and it was in September, 1942, that I recommended to General Groves that Oppenheimer be continued at this task, and that the responsibility be enlarged to include the construction of the bomb. This recommendation was in accord with that of others, in particular that of Dr. James Conant, and was accepted.

At the time of Oppenheimer's appointment the atomic development was, as you know, in civilian hands. By Dr. Conant, acting for the OSRD, I was given complete responsibility for such appointments, reporting to him, however, regarding actions taken. For my guidance, within our "Metallurgical Project," a personnel division had been established which investigated the loyalty background of employees. This investigation (and our other security measures) was carried on with the help of the Federal Bureau of Investi-gation. But we kept within our own hands the responsibility for the decisions in each case.

It was recognized that the task to which we were appointing Oppenheimer was not only of essential importance to the success of the total project, but also one in which a unique degree of discretion was required. It was my judgment that Oppenheimer's qualifications fitted him for such a post better than any other person who could be made available. This was after a diligent search for about a month which included consultation with many top-level scientists.

That Oppenheimer had had contacts with Communists was well known to me. These contacts, as I knew them, were essentially as described in his letter as published in The New York Times of April 13. It was my impression that, as one eager to find a solution to world problems, he had investigated Communism first-hand to see what it had to offer.

The much more significant fact was that he had already become disillusioned with Communism by what he had found. In a conversation with him about another matter, in the spring of 1940, I believe, he had given me his reasons for not associating himself with a professional organization that had some Communist ties. Later, in 1941, I believe, he had told me of his efforts to persuade his brother Frank to dissociate himself from Communist groups. As I recall it, it was during the early stages of our conversations about the atomic program, before I had approached him about accepting the responsibility for the design of the bomb, that Oppenheimer told me he was breaking completely every association with any organization that might be suspected of Communism, in order that he might be of maximum usefulness on war projects.

It was my judgment that a person who had known Communism and had found its faults was more to be relied upon than one who was innocent of such connections. This was the more important because it was evident that his task would necessarily draw in many men of foreign background, who were among those most competent in theoretical physics. Without the use of such men his task could hardly have been accomplished. A man with Oppenheimer's experience both in foreign countries and, in a limited way, with Communism, was in a most favorable position to recognize those whose loyalties might be directed elsewhere than to the United States and the free world.

The chief positive reason for selecting Oppenheimer for this post was that after working vigorously on rallying the help of theoretical physicists to the design of the bomb, Oppenheimer had shown the most eagerness and initiative, he was one of the very few American-born men who had the professional competence, and he had demonstrated a certain firmness of character. While his administrative competence remained to be demonstrated, it looked to me promising.

Looking back on this selection, I do not believe it would have been possible to find anywhere a man better suited to carry through this unique job in the nation's interest.

2. After the war was over I discussed with Oppenheimer several times the question of proceeding with the development of the H-bomb. Its possibility Oppenheimer had called to my attention in August, 1942. This possibility was kept under the utmost secrecy; but before the war was over its suggestion had arisen spontaneously from so many sources that it was evident that it would arise in any group working seriously on nuclear explosions. In particular, it was evident that the basic principle of the fusion bomb would be known in Russia.

Immediately after the war our great consideration was to reach a reliable agreement with Russia that would rule out atomic weapons but permit the development of atomic power. During this period there was no immediate occasion to work toward atomic fusion. The situation changed when Russia showed such reluctance that no atomic weapon agreement seemed feasible. We then recognized that Russia was working vigorously on her own atomic development. Presumably the H-bomb would eventually become part of her program.

I recall a conversation with Oppenheimer in 1947 or 48 in which I was advocating the initiation of a program of active research and development toward the H-bomb. My point was that this development, if it was physically possible, was sure to come before many years, and it was important that the availability of this "super" weapon should first be in our hands.

I found Oppenheimer reluctant. His chief reluctance was, I believe, on purely moral grounds. No nation should bring into being a power that would (or could) be so destructive of human lives. Even if another nation should do so, our morality should be higher than this. We should accept the military disadvantage in the interest of standing for a proper moral principle.

He had other reasons - the development of fear and antagonism among other nations, the substantial possibility that the effort to create an atomic explosion would fail, questions regarding the H-bomb's military value. He hoped that no urgent need for its development would arise.

In this and other conversations Oppenheimer brought up precisely those questions that needed to be considered. His thinking seemed to be aimed solely toward finding what was in the best interests of the United States. He took for granted, as did L that the United States' interests are those of humanity. There was no shadow of a suspicion that his arguments were subtly working toward Russia's advantage. I am confident that no such thought was in his mind.

With the explosion of Russia's first atomic bomb in 1949 the situation was sharply changed. I do not recall any first-hand discussions with Oppenhei-mer on this matter after that date.

3. Having known Robert Oppenheimer since his days in Gottingen in 1927, having worked with him closely during the war years, and having kept in touch with him occasionally since, it is my judgment that he is completely loyal to the interests of the United States, and that any activity in the interest of a foreign power at the expense of the United States would be thoroughly repugnant to him. It is my judgment further that he is, and has been since 1941, just as thoroughly opposed to Communism.

Your sincerely,
Arthur H. Compton

AHC:dbs
(Permanent address,
Washington University,
St. Louis, MO. U.S.A.)

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See Also
Arthur Holly Compton biography