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  Library Correspondence Robert Oppenheimer: Letter, March 4, 1954

Oppenheimer's Letter of Response on Letter Regarding the Oppenheimer Affair
From: J R Oppenheimer
To: K.D. Nichols
Date:March 4, 1954

In the spring of 1936, I had been introduced by friends to Jean Tatlock, the daughter of a noted professor of English at the university; and in the autumn, I began to court her, and we grew close to each other. We were at least twice close enough to marriage to think of ourselves as engaged. Between 1939 and her death in 1944 I saw her very rarely. She told me about her Communist Party memberships; they were on again, off again affairs, and never seemed to provide for her what she was seeking. I do not believe that her interests were really political. She loved this country and its people and its life. She was, as it turned out, a friend of many fellow travelers and Communists, with a number of whom I was later to become acquainted.

I should not give the impression that it was wholly because of Jean Tat-lock that I made left wing friends, or felt sympathy for causes which hitherto would have seemed so remote from me, like the Loyalist cause in Spain, and the organization of migratory workers. I have mentioned some of the other contributing causes. I liked the new sense of companionship, and at the time felt that I was coming to be part of the life of my time and country.

In 1937, my father died; a little later, when I came into an inheritance, I made a will leaving this to the University of California for fellowships to graduate students.

This was the era of what the Communists then called the United Front, in which they joined with many non-Communist groups in support of humanitarian objectives. Many of these objectives engaged my interest. I contributed to the strike fund of one of the major strikes of Bridges' union; I subscribed to the People's World; I contributed to the various committees and organizations which were intended to help the Spanish Loyalist cause. I was invited to help establish the teacher's union, which included faculty and teaching assistants at the university, and school teachers of the East Bay. I was elected recording secretary. My connection with the teacher's union continued until some time in 1941, when we disbanded our chapter....

My own views were also evolving. Although Sidney and Beatrice Webb's book on Russia, which I had read in 1936, and the talk that I heard at that time had predisposed me to make much of the economic progress and general level of welfare in Russia, and little of its political tyranny, my views on this were to change. I read about the purge trials, though not in full detail, and could never find a view of them which was not damning to the Soviet system. In 1938 1 met three physicists who had actually lived in Russia in the thirties. All were eminent scientists, Placzek, Weisskopf, and Schein; and the first two have become close friends. What they reported seemed to me so solid, so unfanatical, so true, that it made great impression; and it presented Russia, even when seen from their limited experience, as a land of purge and terror, of ludicrously bad management and of a long-suffering people. I need to make clear that this changing opinion of Russia, which was to be reinforced by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the behavior of the Soviet Union in Poland and in Finland, did not mean a sharp break for me with those who held to different views. At that time I did not fully under-stand-as in time I came to understand-how completely the Communist Party in this country was under the control of Russia. During and after the battle of France, however, and during the battle of England the next au-tumn, I found myself increasingly out of sympathy with the policy of disen-gagement and neutrality that the Communist press advocated. . .

Because of these associations that I have described, and the contributions mentioned earlier, I might well have appeared at the time as quite close to the Communist Party-perhaps even to some people as belonging to it. As I have said, some of its declared objectives seemed to me desirable. But I never was a member of the Communist Party. I never accepted Communist dogma or theory; in fact, it never made sense to me. I had no clearly for-mulated political views. I hated tyranny and repression and every form of dictatorial control of thought. In most cases I did not in those days know who was and who was not a member of the Communist Party. No one ever asked me to join the Communist Party....

In 1943 when I was alleged to have stated that I knew several individuals then at Los Alamos who had been members of the Communist Party," I knew of only one; she was my wife, of whose disassociation from the party, and of whose integrity and loyalty to the United States I had no question. Later, in 1944 or 1945, my brother Frank, who had been cleared for work in Berkeley and at Oak, Ridge, came to Los Alamos from Oak Ridge with official approval.

I knew of no attempt to obtain secret information at Los Alamos. Prior to my going there my friend Haakon Chevalier with his wife visited us on Eagle Hill, probably in early 1943. During the visit, he came into the kitchen and told me that George Eltenton had spoken to him of the possibility of transmitting technical information to Soviet scientists. I made some strong remark to the effect that this sounded terribly wrong to me. The discussion ended there. Nothing in our long standing friendship would have led me to believe that Chevalier was actually seeking information; and I was certain that he had no idea of the work on which I was engaged.

It has long been clear to me that I should have reported the incident at once. The events that led me to report it-which I doubt ever would have become known without my report-were unconnected with it. During the summer of 1943, Colonel Landsdale, the intelligence officer of the Manhattan District, came to Los Alamos and told me that he was worried about the security situation in Berkeley because of the activities of the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians. This recalled to my mind that Eltenton was a member and probably a promoter of the FAECT. Shortly thereafter, I was in Berkeley and I told the security officer that Eltenton would bear watching. When asked why, I said that Eltenton had attempted, through intermediaries, to approach people on the project, though I mentioned neither myself nor Chevalier. Later, when General Groves urged me to give the details, I told him of my conversation with Chevalier. I still think of Chevalier as a friend....

From the close of the war, when I returned to the west coast until finally in the spring of 1947 when I went to Princeton as the director of the Institute for Advanced Study, I was able to spend very little time at home and in teaching in California. In October 1945, at the request of Secretary of War Patterson, I had testified before the House Committee on Military Affairs in support of the May-Johnson bill, which I endorsed as an interim means of bringing about without delay the much needed transition from the wartime administration of the Manhattan District to postwar management of the atomic-energy enterprise. In December 1945, and later, I appeared at Senator McMahoris request in sessions of his Special Committee on Atomic Energy, which was considering legislation on the same subject. Under the chairmanship of Dr. Richard Tolman, I served on a committee set up by General Groves to consider classification policy on matters of atomic energy. For 2 months, early in 1946, I worked steadily as a member of a panel, the Board of Consultants to the Secretary of State's Committee on Atomic En-ergy, which, with the Secretary of State's Committee, prepared the so-called Acheson-Lilienthal report. After the publication of this report, I spoke publicly in support of it. A little later, when Mr. Baruch was appointed to represent the United States in the United Nations Atomic Energy Committee, I became one of the scientific consultants to Mr. Baruch, and his staff in preparation for and in the conduct of our efforts to gain support for the United States' plan. I continued as a consultant to General Osborn when he took over the effort.

At the end of 1946 1 was appointed by the President as a member of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission. At its first meeting I was elected Chairman, and was reelected until the expiration of my term in 1952. This was my principal assignment during these years as far as the atomic-energy program was concerned, and my principal preoccupation apart from academic work....

The initial members of the General Advisory Committee were Conant, then president of Harvard, DuBridge, president of the California Institute of Technology, Fermi of the University of Chicago, Rabi of Columbia University, Rowe, vice president of the United Fruit Co., Seaborg of the University of California, Cyril Smith of the University of Chicago, and Worthington of the duPont Co. In 1948 Buckley, president of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, replaced Worthington; in the summer of 1950, Fermi, Rowe, and Seaborg were replaced by Libby of the University of Chicago, Murphree president of Standard Oil Development Co., and Whitman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Later Smith resigned and was succeeded by von Neumann of the Institute for Advanced Study.

In these years from early 1947 to mid-1952 the Committee met some 30 times and transmitted perhaps as many reports to the Commission. Formulation of policy and the management of the vast atomic-energy enterprises were responsibilities vested in the Commission itself. The General Advisory Committee had the role, which was fixed for it by statute, to advise the Commission. In that capacity we gave the Commission our views on questions which the Commission put before us, brought to the Commissions's attention on our initiative technical matters of importance, and encouraged and supported the work of the several major installations of the Commission....

The super itself had a long history of consideration beginning, as I have said, with our initial studies in 1942 before Los Alamos was established. it continued to be the subject of study and research at Los Alamos throughout the war. After the war, Los Alamos itself was inevitably handicapped pending the enactment of necessary legislation for the atomic energy enterprise. With the McMahon Act, the appointment of the Atomic Energy Commission and the General Advisory Committee, we in the committee had occasion at our early meetings in 1947 as well as in 1948 to discuss the subject. In that period the General Advisory Committee pointed out the still extremely un-clear status of the problem from the technical standpoint, and urged encouragement of Los Alamos' efforts which were then directed toward modest exploration of the super and of thermonuclear systems. No serious controversy arose about the super until the Soviet explosion of an atomic bomb in the autumn of 1949.

Shortly after that event, in October 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission called a special session of the General Advisory Committee and asked us to consider and advise on two related questions: First, whether in view of the Soviet success the Commission's program was adequate, and if not, in what way it should be altered or increased; second, whether a crash program for the development of the super should be a part of any new program. The committee considered both questions, consulting various officials from the civil and military branches of the executive departments who would have been concerned, and reached conclusions which were communicated in a report to the Atomic Energy Commission in October 1949.

This report, in response to the first question that had been put to us, recommended a great number of measures that the Commission should take to increase in many ways our overall potential in weapons.

As to the super itself, the General Advisory Committee stated its unani-mous opposition to the initiation by the United States of a crash program of the kind we had been asked to advise on. The report of that meeting, and the Secretary's notes, reflect the reasons which moved us to this conclu-sion. The annexes, in particular, which dealt more with political and policy considerations - the report proper was essentially technical in character indicated differences in the views of members of the committee. There were two annexes, one signed by Rabi and Fermi, the other by Conant, Du-Bridge, Smith, Rowe, Buckley and myself. (The ninth member of the com-mittee, Seaborg, was abroad at the time.)

It would have been surprising if eight men considering a problem of extreme difficulty had each had precisely the same reasons for the conclusion in which we joined. But I think I am correct in asserting that the unanimous opposition we expressed to the crash program was based on the conviction, to which technical considerations as well as others contributed, that because of our overall situation at that time such a program might weaken rather than strengthen the position of the United States.

After the report was submitted to the Commission, it fell to me as chairman of the committee to explain our position on several occasions, once at a meeting of the joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy. All this, however, took place prior to the decision by the President to proceed with the thermonuclear program.

This is the full story of my "opposition to the hydrogen bomb." It can be read in the records of the general transcript of my testimony before the joint congressional committee. It is a story which ended once and for all when in January 1950 the President announced his decision to proceed with the program. I never urged anyone not to work on the hydrogen bomb project. I never made or caused any distribution of the GAC reports except to the Commission itself. As always, it was the Commission's responsibility to determine further distribution.

In summary, in October 1949, I and the other members of the General Advisory Committee were asked questions by the Commission to which we had a duty to respond, and to which we did respond with our best judgment in the light of evidence then available to us....

In this letter, I have written only of those limited parts of my history which appear relevant to the issue now before the Atomic Energy Commission. In order to preserve as much as possible the perspective of the story, I have dealt very briefly with many matters. I have had to deal briefly or not at all with instances in which my actions or views were adverse to Soviet or Communist interest, and of actions that testify to my devotion to freedom, or that have contributed to the vitality, influence and power of the United States.

In preparing this letter, I have reviewed two decades of my life. I have recalled instances where I acted unwisely. What I have hoped was, not that I could wholly avoid error, but that I might learn from it. What I have learned has, I think, made me more fit to serve my country.

Very truly yours,

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Princeton, N.J., March 4, 1954

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