The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer

When World War Two ended in 1945, Americans found themselves with a mysterious new weapon. They quickly learned that the weapon, which destroyed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and effectively ended the war, had been built in the remote New Mexico desert, in utmost secrecy, by an assortment of physicists, mathematicians and other scientists many of whom were too young even to have earned their PhD's. The man whose photograph was displayed in all the newspapers and who was credited with leading this group was a slender, fragile-looking physicist by the name of Robert Oppenheimer. He became a hero, the man credited by many Americans for ending the war early and sparing their families the loss of a husband or brother or son.

Oppenheimer remained in the public eye. During the postwar decade he spoke out on the decisions facing the United States. And after the Soviet Union broke the American atomic monopoly by conducting its first test in 1949, Oppenheimer and other scientists were asked for their advice. Should the United States negotiate with the Soviet Union, led by Josef Stalin, or try to build a bigger bomb, the hydrogen bomb, a weapon said to have the explosive power of a thousand atomic bombs?

This was the question before the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, President Truman’s special advisory group, when it held a super secret meeting in October, 1949. The committee members, most of whom had worked on the atomic bomb, voted unanimously against proceeding with the hydrogen bomb. The Chairman who drafted the majority opinion was Robert Oppenheimer.

That meeting, and that decision, led to the events described in this book. Oppenheimer remained Chairman of the GAC and adviser to countless government agencies. While he stunned everyone with his eloquence, he made enemies, too. He could be cutting and cruel, and not everyone enjoyed being put down by a master. But in testimony before Congress or decisions that came before the GAC, he refused to throw red meat to the Senators and he opposed creation of a second weapons lab at Livermore, California, an outcome desired by a hostile fellow scientist, Edward Teller, who happened also to be informing against Oppenheimer at the Pentagon and Congressional Committee.

As the times became more anti-Communist and McCarthyism settled in, people with whom he had crossed swords remembered that back in the 1930’s, Oppenheimer had had a fellow-travelling  past. He had never been a Party member, or so he claimed, but many of those around him had been – his brother, his wife, many of his friends. Could it be that Oppenheimer’s advice against building the H-bomb came from old pro-Soviet feelings?

Oppenheimer’s enemies were not numerous, but they were well placed. Topping them off was Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who had been bitterly offended by one of Oppenheimer’s put-downs. Strauss led the charge by instigating a letter from a young Congressional aide stating that Oppenheimer, during the war, had been a spy for the Soviet Union. Hearings were arranged into whether Oppenheimer could be trusted with the high-level security clearance he still held. Those hearings took place, in utmost secrecy, in a rundown old government building during April and May,1954.

Then one day that spring, I was at my office desk in New York, typing, when I spotted a newspaper headline saying that the security clearance of Robert Oppenheimer had been withdrawn because the government suspected that he might not be trustworthy. To me, and to others who read it, the story was unbelievable. Even the board which doubted Oppenheimer seemed unsure of itself; it declared that had it been able to render a ‘common-sense judgment’, it might have ruled differently. “Why didn’t you use common sense?” was my first thought. This man, Oppenheimer, has had in his head for years every secret about the atomic bomb and even discovered some of them, and now you’re saying he’s “untrustworthy?”

The Oppenheimer “case,” as it came to be known, was a high-water mark of the McCarthy era and a low-water mark for civil liberties in this country. If a man who was universally admired and viewed with gratitude could be pulled off the street, branded a security risk and destroyed, then who was safe?

The security hearing remains a burr under the government’s saddle. The “unredacted” text of the testimony lay in the Energy Department’s archives for many years, classified so that no member of the public could see it. Then, in 2014, a scholar who had filed a Freedom of Information request for it, found the unclassified text lying in a folder there. The department, still sensitive about the hearing, had neglected to inform him that after seventy years the complete text had become available.

Another recent case illustrates the government’s sensitivity. Almost fifteen years ago a group of New Mexico citizens, the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, asked the Energy Department to restore Oppenheimer’s clearance and vacate the verdict. Over the next twelve or thirteen years the committee, represented by topflight pro bono lawyers and supported by New Mexico’s Senators, repeated its request many times. Then, in December 2016, the last month of the Obama Presidency, the committee was informed by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz that its request had again been refused.

Today we could be approaching a situation as bad as, or worse than, the McCarthy years. Our President, Donald Trump, seems unaware what civil liberties are. He keeps the Attorney General in constant fear for his job and meddles in the running of the FBI. His interference in the very branches of government most responsible for the rule of law, is a signal that in a short time none of us may be safe.

We ignore lessons like the Oppenheimer case at our peril. 

Priscilla J. McMillan is an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. The author of the bestselling Marina and Lee: The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession Behind Lee Harvey Oswald’s Assassination of John F. Kennedy, her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and Scientific American, among other places. She is also the author of The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race