J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance has been restored by the U.S. government, just 55 years after his death and 68 years after his clearance was stripped from him during the most hysterical period of the Cold War.
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said, “More evidence has come to light of the bias and unfairness of the process that Dr. Oppenheimer was subjected to while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed.” With that, the “black mark” on his record was removed.
Way too little, way too late, but perhaps better late than never. Here’s the story.
Father of the Atomic Bomb
Oppenheimer was the father of the atomic bomb. He was a genius. Born in New York in 1904, he excelled at everything he did, except possibly life. He studied at Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture School in New York City, then went off to Harvard, where he, well, excelled. After an unhappy stint at Cambridge under the great British physicist Ernest Rutherford, Oppenheimer got his Ph.D. at the University of Gottingen in Germany in 1927. When he returned to the U.S., he was offered a number of teaching posts. He settled on a joint appointment at Cal Tech in Pasadena and the University of California at Berkeley.
He was the last person you would expect to be recruited to direct the Manhattan Project. He was a theoretical physicist who had never directed a scientific lab. He was a dilettante at the very highest levels of human curiosity. He learned the ancient language Sanskrit to read the Hindu sacred texts. He learned Italian so that he could read Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in the original. He could quote whole swaths of the poetry of John Donne, the poetry of T.S. Eliot and of Baudelaire (in French). He was also, as he freely admitted, a Berkeley leftist, never a member of the Communist Party in America but, as he put it, a member of every Communist Party front organization on the West Coast. But when Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves turned up at Berkeley in the autumn of 1942 looking for someone to build this untried and unprecedented weapon of mass destruction, he immediately realized that Oppenheimer was his man.
Oppenheimer chose the remote mesa at Los Alamos, N.M., for the lab. Years before he had said, “My two great interests are physics and desert country. It’s a pity they can’t be combined.”
Most of the challenge of building an atomic weapon was not about physics but about engineering a portable weapon in which two subcritical masses of plutonium or uranium-235 could be kept apart until the right moment and then be hurtled into each other so quickly (millionths of a second) that they would release an unbelievably intense burst of energy, enough to level a city or any military installation in the world.
How Oppenheimer managed to keep a couple dozen of the most brilliant, neurotic and egotistical scientists of the world in harness at a remote desert facility long enough to build the bomb on time and within budget, in time to affect the outcome of the war, is little short of a miracle. Chock it up to unearthly charisma and also a mind so great that David Lilienthal (later the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission) said, “It is worth living a lifetime just to know that mankind has been able to produce such a being.”
“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The world’s first atomic explosion occurred at 5:29 a.m. July 16, 1945, at a remote site in New Mexico. Oppenheimer later said that when “the gadget” worked on the first try his mind flashed to a line from the Hindu sacred text the “Bhagavad Gita”: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer supported the unannounced use of the atomic device on Hiroshima in Japan on Aug. 6, 1945, and another of a different mechanism on Nagasaki three days later. 150,000 Japanese citizens were vaporized. He was lionized throughout America.
And then everything fell apart. Because he was a man who did not suffer fools gladly, he made some powerful enemies, chiefly Lewis Strauss, who was the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Oppenheimer was lukewarm on the development of the hydrogen fusion bomb. He argued, correctly, that a hydrogen bomb can only be regarded as a genocidal weapon, since a much less powerful A-bomb could destroy any military installation on Earth. He argued that the United States, the nation of the Declaration of Independence, should not be the pioneer of a weapon whose primary purpose was genocide. This was during the McCarthy era. The Cold War was at its most intense. Honest people believed that the very future of the United States and human freedom was under an existential threat.
Oppenheimer’s Unforced Errors
So the military industrial complex, as President Dwight Eisenhower would put it in his farewell address, decided that Oppenheimer must be silenced and shunted aside. Now, therefore, his old leftist associations came back to haunt him. During the course of the project (1942-45), Oppenheimer had made several serious errors of judgment. Though he was married (from 1940), he had maintained an illicit affair with his old Berkeley girlfriend, Jean Tatlock, who was herself a “card-carrying Communist,” as Cold Warriors liked to put it. This alone would not have been sufficient to destroy him, but it indicated a lapse of integrity, and it might have made Oppenheimer susceptible to blackmail.
Much more damaging was the so-called “Chevalier Incident.” In early 1943, at a dinner party at Oppenheimer’s home on Telegraph Hill in Berkeley, a well-intentioned Berkeley language professor named Haakon Chevalier approached him to say that although he did not know quite what he was working on out in the desert of New Mexico, he reckoned it was of great geopolitical importance. Chevalier said that if there was any strategic information that it would be useful to share with America’s ally the U.S.S.R. in the war against Hitler, he knew a guy in the Bay Area who knew people at the Soviet consulate who would be willing to serve as intermediaries, should Oppenheimer think that a good idea.
Oppenheimer’s response was stern and unambiguous. He rebuked his friend Chevalier for approaching him at all, declared in no uncertain terms that he was not interested in offering any information of any sort to the Russians, insisted that Chevalier never bring it up again, and said “this conversation never happened.”
If Oppenheimer had reported the incident to Groves or the security team of the project in the next few days, he could have saved himself a world of trouble. He decided instead to just forget the whole thing and move on. When eventually he did report the incident, he tried to shield his friend Chevalier, whom he regarded as a harmless humanist who did not understand the stakes of the game. Eventually, Groves insisted that Oppenheimer divulge the names of the individuals who were involved. The physicist reluctantly complied, but the seed had been planted that he was the kind of man who arrogated to himself the right to decide what constituted a security breach, and — who knows? — he might be a spy.
Oppenheimer Didn’t Stand a Chance
The incident was investigated a number of times during and after the war and each time Oppenheimer gave a somewhat different account of what had happened. When the most zealous partisans of the Cold War decided that Oppenheimer must be discredited, they dredged up these old incidents and vilified the great scientist in every way they could. Late in 1953, President Eisenhower was persuaded to suspend Oppenheimer’s security clearance pending a full hearing.
The security “hearing” took place in April and May 1954, but it had more in common with one of Stalin’s Soviet show trials. His mail was opened, his phones tapped. His legal team was not permitted to obtain the security clearances that would have enabled them to mount a proper defense. He was tailed and surveilled. His conversations with his lawyers were illegally recorded. He and his attorneys were not permitted to see documents they needed to review.
The U.S. government’s abuse of power was appalling and unconscionable. The government’s lawyer Roger Robb had transcripts of security interviews with Oppenheimer that dated back to the early 1940s — more than a dozen years previous. He attempted to trap Oppenheimer into providing details of past incidents that could be immediately checked against the government’s transcripts; whenever Oppenheimer’s 1954 testimony deviated even slightly from earlier accounts he was accused of lying. In a real trial, Oppenheimer would have been permitted to see every document that would be used against him and to cross-examine witnesses.
The unkindest cut of all was the testimony of Oppenheimer’s atomic rival Edward Teller, who had always resented the director’s brilliance, his elegance, his charismatic hold on fellow physicists and his nuanced ethical consciousness. He told the committee he would be more comfortable with America’s atomic secrets in the hands of another sort of man. Much of the American scientific community never forgave Teller, who went to his grave in September 2003 telling anyone who would listen that his betrayal of “Oppie” had been misunderstood.
In short, Oppenheimer didn’t stand a chance. The three review board members who sat in judgment of him voted 2-1 to strip him of his security clearance.
It was an obscene and unmistakable miscarriage of justice, something that should never have taken place in the United States, Cold War hysteria or no.
Oppenheimer never fully recovered from the blow. The man who had directed the project that hastened the end of the war and gave the United States undisputed global supremacy in the aftermath of the war lived the rest of his life under the suspicion of treason. In 1963, JFK decided to rehabilitate Oppenheimer by presenting him the Enrico Fermi Award in a White House ceremony. The award was to be bestowed Dec. 2, 1963. By then Kennedy was dead. The new President Lyndon Johnson made the presentation, gracefully saying, “I think this was one of Jack’s fondest hopes.”
When Oppenheimer’s great biographer, Kai Bird, heard the news of his vindication last year, he said, “I’m overwhelmed with emotion. History matters, and what was done to Oppenheimer in 1954 was a travesty, a black mark on the honor of the nation.”
The Christopher Nolan film, Oppenheimer, is scheduled for theatrical release on July 21, 2023.
When the blockbuster Hollywood film about Oppenheimer is released this summer, it will be interesting to see how they handle his 1954 fall and his 2022 rehabilitation.
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing email@example.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.