APS News

This Month in Physics History

June 29, 1954: Oppenheimer's Security Clearance Revoked

J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) with Major W.A. Stevens
J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) with Major W.A. Stevens on a trip to select site for Trinity, test site for first atomic bomb. (Photo by Ken Bainbridge, courtesy AIP Emilio Segrh Visual Archives, Bainbridge Collection)

An elder Oppenheimer. (AIP Emilio Segrh Visual Archives, Marshak Collection )
Few would dispute the vital contributions physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer made not just to physics, but to the national security interests of the United States. So it is an odd quirk of history that the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and former chair of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) should find himself accused of disloyalty and being a national security risk, sparking a high-profile hearing culminating in the loss of the scientist's security clearance.

Despite his long history of service on behalf of the US government, there was growing suspicion of Oppenheimer by the early 1950s. The physicist had several Communist acquaintances dating back to the 1930s, and had implicated some of his friends as Soviet agents during an inquiry back in 1942-testimony which he later admitted was "a tissue of lies". His outspoken opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb-accomplished on November 1, 1952-did little to allay suspicions, and the AEC was compiling a mounting file of Oppenheimer's alleged questionable activities. By early December, AEC representatives had removed all secret papers and documents pertaining to the General Advisory Commission from Oppenheimer's Princeton office.

Oppenheimer's troubles were further exacerbated by the onset of the McCarthy Era. A key component of the Republican Party platform in 1952 was the need to rid the Federal Government of "subversives" who had supposedly infiltrated the system, along with an overhaul of loyalty and security programs. Senator Joseph McCarthy's call for a tough anti-Communist drive at that year's convention received a standing ovation. When Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as the 34th US president, McCarthy became chairman of the Senate's Investigations Subcommittee, with broad power to choose investigative targets. Other appointees in the new administration wasted no time in unveiling a new security policy under which a government employee not only had to be judged "loyal" in order to serve the country; his or her background had to be "clearly consistent with the interests of national security."

In December 1953, just four days before Christmas, Oppenheimer was accused of having associated with Communists in the past, of delaying the naming of Soviet agents, and of opposing the building of the hydrogen bomb. A subsequent security hearing by the AEC declared him not guilty of treason but ruled he should not have access to military secrets, and his contract as an AEC advisor-his one remaining link with that body-was terminated. The AEC issued its decision and opinions on June 29, 1954, with a vote of 4 to 1 to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance, citing "fundamental defects of character", and Communist associations "far beyond the tolerable limits of prudence and self-restraint which are to be expected of one holding the high positions" he had held since 1942.

The lone dissenting opinion came from Henry DeWolf Smyth, who concluded "there is no indication in the entire record that Dr. Oppenheimer has ever divulged any secret information," despite nearly 11 years of constant surveillance that DeWolf believed was "supplemented by enthusiastic amateur help from powerful personal enemies. "In his opinion, Oppenheimer was not a subversive of questionable loyalty and moral character, but "an able, imaginative human being with normal human weaknesses and failings."

While the press was almost unanimously favorable to the AEC's majority verdict, Oppenheimer's case became a cause célèbre in the world of science because of its implications concerning the political and moral issues relating to the role of scientists in government. The Federation of American Scientists quickly came to his defense with a protest against the trial, and Albert Einstein and 25 colleagues in Princeton declared themselves "proud to give public expression" to their "confidence in [Oppenheimer's] loyalty and patriotic devotion." Ironically, in October Oppenheimer was unanimously re-elected as director of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, whose board included at least one member of the Commission who had revoked his security clearance.

Once the Communist hysteria began to fade and the Cold War to decline, Oppenheimer began to recover from that painful episode, and he spent the last years of his life developing his concept of the relationship between science and society. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Oppenheimer with the AEC's Enrico Fermi Award. Three years later the physicist retired from the Institute and died of throat cancer the following year. At his funeral, Smyth (now a Congressman) cited Oppenheimer's many contributions to the nation and expressed profound regret at the shabby manner in which the government had repaid that service: "Such a wrong can never be righted; such a blot on our history never erased."

Further reading:

Stern, Philip M., The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial (1969).
Michelmore, Peter, The Swift Years: The Robert Oppenheimer Story (1969).

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette