Editor’s note: This article, written by the Department of Energy’s historian, is a deeper dive into events of historical relevance to the Department. To learn more, visit the Energy Department Historian’s website.
In December 1953, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission suspended the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the most well-known American scientists of the twentieth century. After a four-week, closed-door hearing in April and May 1954, his clearance was formally revoked.
In June 1954, the Commission published a redacted version of its hearing transcript under the title “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing Before Personnel Security Board.” Now, 60 years later, the Department of Energy has re-reviewed the original transcript and is making its full, original text available to the public.
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Oppenheimer possessed exceptional abilities as a physicist, administrator and leader. He built and directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Manhattan Project effort to develop the atomic bomb during World War II. He was a key figure in the U.S. effort to establish international control of atomic energy after the war, and as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission’s principal advisory committee, he greatly influenced the agency’s course in its formative years.
At the same time, his connections to left-leaning individuals and groups in the 1930s and early 1940s raised questions about his loyalty. Oppenheimer belonged to several organizations infiltrated or dominated by communists, and his brother, wife and former fiancé had been communists.
Even after he became involved in the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer continued to associate with members of the Communist Party. Nonetheless, the Army in 1942 and the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 ruled favorably to grant Oppenheimer’s clearance. An FBI investigation in 1944 found no reason to revoke his clearance.
With the onset of the Cold War, however, Oppenheimer’s considerable influence on nuclear policy -- along with heightened tensions and fears of widespread communist subversion -- brought renewed scrutiny of Oppenheimer as a possible security risk.
In a February 1953 report to recently elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a State Department disarmament panel headed by Oppenheimer recommended “a policy of candor toward the American people” regarding the danger of nuclear weapons, with a straightforward statement of the facts -- including quantities of weapons and rates of increase. Eisenhower was taken with the idea, which soon became known as Operation Candor -- although implementing it while maintaining secrecy remained challenging.
Not everyone in government circles had as favorable a reaction to Candor as the President. Lewis Strauss, Eisenhower’s special assistant on atomic energy and soon to be chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and William Borden, executive director of the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, opposed any significant release of information that might help the Soviet Union. Both men also distrusted Oppenheimer for his opposition to the development of thermonuclear weapons and the creation of a second weapons laboratory. They saw attacking his security record as a way to attack Candor.
Borden left the Joint Committee at the end of May 1953, devoting most of the last few months of his time there to the Oppenheimer case, examining and re-examining the Oppenheimer security file. Separately, Strauss confided to an FBI official that Oppenheimer may not have given up his communist sympathies, and in early June he asked the FBI to send him the bureau’s summary of the Oppenheimer file.
In early November 1953, Borden -- acting as a private citizen -- sent a letter to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover stating that, in his opinion, “based on years of study of the available classified evidence,” Oppenheimer “more probably than not . . . is an agent of the Soviet Union.”
Borden did not back up his claim with any solid evidence, but these were serious charges and Hoover felt compelled to inform the White House. Deeply troubled by the news, Eisenhower immediately sent for Strauss and directed that “a blank wall” be placed between Oppenheimer and any classified information. Strauss decided to suspend Oppenheimer’s clearance but not to issue any instructions to the field until he could meet with Oppenheimer, who was in Europe, because of concerns that the scientist might defect to the Soviet Union.
Strauss met with Oppenheimer on December 21 and informed him of the suspension and his right to a formal hearing. Oppenheimer’s resignation was discussed as an alternative to a formal hearing, but Oppenheimer decided that to do so would sacrifice both integrity and honor while leaving the charges unchallenged.
The Oppenheimer Hearing
After weeks of preparation, the hearing convened before a three-person personnel security board headed by Gordon Gray, former assistant secretary of the Army and president of the University of North Carolina, on April 12, 1954. Sessions began at 9:30 each morning and often lasted until well after 5 P.M. Attendance was limited, with usually no more than 15 people in the room. The list of 40 witnesses included two former chairmen and three former commissioners of the Atomic Energy Commission, several members of the Commission’s General Advisory Committee, Nobel laureates, academic colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, leading American scientists, and former Army security officers.
Oppenheimer freely admitted to all but three of the charges. One of the three remaining allegations could not be substantiated, but the other two were the focus of the board’s deliberations and would determine Oppenheimer’s fate.
The first involved obstruction of the development of the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer’s opposition to thermonuclear weapons in 1949 on moral and technical grounds was well known, but there was little to indicate that Oppenheimer had obstructed development after President Harry Truman had authorized it. And it proved impossible to link his lack of enthusiasm for the hydrogen bomb with suspicions of his disloyalty.
The second disputed allegation involved Oppenheimer’s apparent lack of veracity in reporting and recalling the 1942 incident in which he had been the subject of a probe by a Soviet official through a close friend, Haakon Chevalier. Oppenheimer did not report the incident until the following year when he was at Los Alamos, and when he did he was not entirely forthcoming, apparently trying to protect not only Chevalier but also fellow scientists and his brother Frank. Later in 1946, when he was interviewed by the FBI, he repudiated his earlier version as a “complicated cock-and-bull story.”
Three weeks following the conclusion of the hearing, the personnel security board recommended against restoring Oppenheimer’s security clearance in a two to one decision. The board found Oppenheimer loyal and discreet but nevertheless a security risk. On June 28, in a four to one decision, the Commission made the final decision to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance.
Although Atomic Energy Commission security regulations provided for closed hearings, Strauss, through FBI wiretaps, learned that Oppenheimer and his counsel were considering releasing excerpts from the transcript most favorable to his cause. In an atmosphere of mutual distrust, Strauss obtained approval from the other commissioners to release the entire unclassified version of the transcript to the public on June 16, 1954.
The transcript, covering the entire history of nuclear development since 1942, provided significant insight into the previously secret world of the atomic energy establishment. The debate over the hydrogen bomb and much other previously classified information and activities were outlined in the transcript in vivid detail. As one journalist remarked at the time, “The Oppenheimer transcript is Operation Candor.”
The transcript that the Department released this week contains the full text, including all restored deletions, in the transcript’s original format. The transcript is being made available by the Department’s Office of Classification in collaboration with the Office of History and Heritage Resources on the OpenNet site hosted by the Office of Scientific and Technical Information. Produced in 19 volumes, the transcript is arranged in such a way that pages from which information was deleted in the published version are easy to locate with the deleted information readily identifiable.
A more detailed history of the hearing and the events leading up to it can be found in chapters 3 and 4 of Atoms for Peace and War, 1953-1961, the third volume of the official history of the Atomic Energy Commission. Additional information about the history of the Department of Energy can be found on the Department’s History webpage.