The Judgment of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Paper for Science A-17: The Astronomical Perspective, Spring 1987

Copyright 2002 by Stoler

In trying to come to some sort of understanding or judgment of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the problem of defining the grounds for an evaluation of his life and work, and the context for any conclusions about them, are particularly difficult. The issues raised in the l954 inquiry that resulted in the denial of his appeal for return of his security clearance, the effective end of his official government role, and, to a less certain degree, his disgrace and humiliation, are labyrinthine, in that they involve not only the validity of definitions of security and procedures for its maintenance that were in widespread use at the time, but a great variety of factors relating to Oppenheimer's character, conduct, and credo, whose relevance to an historical judgement is debatable. Then too, contemporary debate on Oppenheimer, and the Oppenheimer legend that has grown up since that time, have tended to lose track of some of the specifics of the case and shape themselves based on the more general questions of nuclear and security policy and the role of the scientist in formulating that policy. However, it is perhaps because the case represents a compilation, and offers examples, of so many different facets of Oppenheimer as a man, and of the system around him, that it is a convenient starting point for a critical investigation of both him and his relationship to that system. With any luck, individual factors can be evaluated, and, if not entirely relevant, "factored out," to reach the more central questions by which opinions should really be formulated. It is therefore the goal of this paper to examine the l954 hearing and the reasons for the actions, both by Oppenheimer and his accusers, which led up to it, and thus to arrive at some conclusions as to the justifiability of either.

These criteria still leave a broad range of topics and avenues of exploration that often lead back upon themselves and one another. To start with, it is impossible to deny certain facts, such as Oppenheimer's crucial role in the development of the atomic bomb in World War II, or his involvement with left-wing and Communist groups and causes during the years before the project. What is at issue is the extent of such contributions or leanings and the motives behind them. Also at issue are subjective matters such as character and judgment. Views on these diverge widely, and are far more difficult to pin down. In any case, an enumeration of some of the questions to be discussed, though probably not all completely answered, would not be out of place. They will include: Was Oppenheimer at any time disloyal to the United States? That is, did he at any time use his position and influence in a way he knew to be not in the best interests of the U.S. as they could reasonably be perceived at the time? If so, why? Was he in fact, an agent of, or a sympathizer with, Communism or the USSR whose interests he placed ahead of his loyalty and duty to, and the trust of, his country? Did he act out of personal motives of jealousy or personal egotism, believing his individual desires or relationships took precedence over obligations to his country? Or was he genuinely acting in pursuit of a higher moral goal, the good of all humanity, which he believed at some times transcended national aims? Could any of these motives be justified? Then, if he was not disloyal, why did he act in ways which could not help but cast suspicion upon his reasons? Was he simply naive, and never imagined their consequences? Or again, did he imagine himself in such a position compared to his fellow citizens as to reject their right to question and judge him, or simply believe himself above them? Would these in themselves be legitimate reasons for the inquiry and its results, and were they in reality? If not, what were the goals of the investigators -- were they seeking to protect the United States, or to destroy Oppenheimer, and if the latter, what had he done to make such enemies? And would the moral dubiousness of their aims, if it were proved, excuse any part of Oppenheimer's behavior? These, then, are the issues that I hope to begin to address in this paper, keeping in mind both the conclusions of the l954 report, and the possibility that they may have been erroneous or unfair.

"The matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer" (the expression comes from the words of the Chairman of the Board of Inquiry on opening the procedings) began on 23 December 1953 when Oppenheimer received a letter from the General Manager of the Atomic Energy Commission, Kenneth Nichols, (who, incidentally, had been Project commander General Leslie Groves's assistant during the Manhattan Project) stating that the AEC had decided to remove his security clearance. At the time, Oppenheimer had not had an official post since July l952, when he had not been reappointed to the nine-scientist General Advisory Committee to the AEC, and was now serving as a consultant with clearance to be renewed every July. Nichols's charges, twenty-four in all, each beginning "it is reported that...," basically dealt with Oppenheimer’s connections to various Communist and Communist-supported groups before the Manhattan Project, his continued contacts with individuals with leftist associations during and after the Project, when he was in a position to greatly affect the security of the country, and his failure to adequately explain to security investigators the nature of these contacts and connections. The last accusation, however, concerned his Commitee's 1949 recommendation against the development of the hydrogen bomb, or "Super", and his subsequent opinions toward it. Thus, from the start, the accusations were of a dual nature: that Oppenheimer had actually been disloyal, and that he had resisted the government's decided defense policy. This distinction was to become critical to later debate.

The story of his relations to leftist groups is a long and tangled one on which there are, naturally, conflicting reports, though the outlines and some of the particulars correlate fairly well. From 1929, when Oppenheimer arrived at Berkeley to begin teaching, until about l935, he was ignorant and apathetic towards politics, and, in fact, to everything beyond his wide but erudite intellectual interests, for, as he once asked Leo Nedelsky, "What ha[d] politics to do with truth, goodness, or beauty?" (1) Receiving no news from papers, magazines, or radio, "wholly divorced from the contemporary scene," (2) he never knew of Great Crash of 1929 until fellow physicist Ernest Lawrence mentioned it to him the next year. But he began to come out of his academic shell. After all Jewish professors in the newly proclaimed Third Reich lost their posts in April 1933, he joined with a small group of other scientists who had been invited to give a percentage of their salaries for their colleagues' support. He himself had relatives in Germany, (his father had emigrated from there in 1888) whom he tried to get out, and he developed a "continuing, smoldering fury" (3) about the Jews' treatment. Meanwhile, as he grew closer to his students, he saw how economic depression hurt them and threatened their academic careers, and how he was powerless to help them. Abroad, he also saw the start of the Spanish Civil War, and sympathized with the Republicans in their struggle against the Fascists. So he began to understand the importance of political and economic life, and to want to be apply to them some of the energy that he had heretofore reserved to academic pursuits, hardly an unworthy goal. His choice of people, and groups, however, through which to pursue this goal, proved unfortunate.

For a great number of people in the intellectual establishment of Berkeley, in the response to the growing menace of rightist Fascism and the social and economic failures of capitalism, had turned to the Communist Party, and it was to them and it that the young, naive Oppenheimer gravitated. Many of his closest friends, such as Haakon Chevalier, half-Norwegian, half-French linguist, and translator and exponent of the political thoughts of André Malraux, were members. In l936, he began seeing Jean Tatlock, daughter of an archconservative professor, who flirted on and off with the Party, and introduced him to its leaders. His wife, Kitty, had earlier been married to a Communist organizer named Joe Dallet, and had spent some time living in poverty with him while working at menial jobs for the Party. But she had soon lost interest in the Cause and had been separated from Dallet, who was later killed in Spain. Even after marrying Oppenheimer, though, she continued to have contacts with her former associates, some of whom her husband supposedly met. His brother Frank joined the Party when he married a member in l936, and though Oppenheimer, who always exerted a sort of paternal influence on his brother's life, found the move distressing, he attended at least one (probably no more than one) meeting with him. Thus, his involvement was always through personal relationships, because he liked the "companionship,"(4) and interacting with minds that were not as demanding as the ones he usually cultivated, those of his fellow physicists and intellectual peers. He was involved with, and contributed money to, various campaigns on both foreign and domestic issues (such as strikes) through the Party, but these were often conducted under the United Front, in cooperation with less extreme liberal groups. He was recording secretary of a Teachers' Union, and subscribed to People's World. But he himself, it is certain, was never a Party member, though Chevalier and others claimed at various times that he was. He was never very impressed with what transpired at the few meetings he attended, and never adopted the Party's dogma -- he was probably simply too intelligent for it.

As a result, he was soon to grow disenchanted. In the late 30's, he heard how conditions in the USSR actually were from Victor Weisskopf, who had visited there. He reacted with distaste to Stalin's purges, and with revulsion to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact ("Ça stink." (5)) He toned down his beliefs to Rooseveltism, and even persusaded Lawrence to vote for the President. He was no longer as social with his Party friends, and had stopped his affair with the unpredictable Jean Tatlock by l939. As war threatened and broke out, he was less interested in the social issues -- he was cheered by Communist-influenced unionism, but was against its extension to technical and scientific workers-- and even grew tired of Spain. It was time to be a little more serious in this grave hour; he obliged his brother to promise that he was no longer a Party member before recommending him for a job at Berkeley. He was sad at the unavoidable approach of war, but he wanted to do something to help his own country's effort in it once it had begun. It was at this point that the Manhattan Engineers' District gave him that opportunity.

It almost, though, did not; when the FBI and Military Intelligence discovered Oppenheimer's record in the course of background checks, they recommended against his approval as scientific head of the project. Although the Soviets were America’s allies, it was fairly well agreed that we did not want to risk sharing too much information with them, and Oppenheimer himself supported a policy of not hiring anyone with current Communist sympathies. During his own check, he supposedly stated "I am not a Communist, but I have probably belonged to every Communist-front organization on the West Coast," a statement which Nichols cited in his in letter charging Oppenheimer (6), and which the latter denied ever having made. Seeing him still spending time with left-wing students and friends, including Jean Tatlock, and with evidence from surveillance that the Communists knew of the Project and were interested in Oppenheimer's role in it, "the security organization [with men such as Colonel Boris Pash, who worried as to whether Oppenheimer would serve the U.S. or the USSR], was unwilling to clear him because of certain of his associations, particularly in his past." But Groves "was thoroughly familiar with everything that had been reported about Oppenheimer." He had "read all the available original evidence, and did not depend upon the conclusions of security officers," who were "not yet under [his] complete control." Because he "felt that his potential value outweighed any security risk,"(7) after consulting Lt. Col. John Lansdale, the Project security chief, who had gone undercover at Berkeley at the war's start and found Oppenheimer clean, he decided to clear him. Thus, the conclusion seems to have been generally accepted, in this case as well as in principle, that one's past associations would not be held against one in assigning Project positions. Oppenheimer himself used it as a guideline; "past Communist connections and sympathies did not necessarily disqualify a man from employment, if we had confidence in his integrity and dependability as a man." (8)

Thus, the powers that be had granted him clearance up until l953, excusing his past, especially when they considered his "deep devotion to his country in recent years." (9) This was even enough to convince J. Edgar Hoover to drop the FBI surveillance of him after he was cleared of one set of charges in 1947. For he had shown his loyalty by bringing Communist activities within the Project to Groves's attention. Right after the war, he disassociated himself from the Independent Citizens Comittee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions, which was using his name on its letterhead, when he heard of its leftist leanings, which an examining board cited as firm evidence of his break with the Party. And his patriotism over the years was fairly well documented. According to Leo Nedelsky, he "never made a secret of love for America," though it was not in fashion to do so. (10) This lends credence to his own statement of his joy on being back in America on his return from Germany in l929; while he had been there, he had apparently been constantly homesick. Perhaps the best proof, though, is simply his willingness, his eagerness, to undertake the directorship of the project, and his tireless efforts on its behalf, almost to the point of physical exhaustion. Los Alamos was not the most comfortable of places for confinement, and Oppenheimer had more restrictions placed on him than others; Groves requested he not fly in a plane or drive a car for safety reasons. As for his contribution to the Project, of all those who have glorified his energy, drive, and brilliance, as well as the personal qualities of leadership that allowed him to coordinate so many divergent personalities and interests, perhaps Groves put it best. "I do not think...anyone else could have done it better or even as well....and this opinion is almost universal among those who were familiar with the wartime operations at Los Alamos."(11) Could anyone who was not extremely devoted to his country have made the contribution to it that Oppenheimer did? Perhaps the same security investigators, such as Pash, who believed that the information he volunteered about the actitivites of those he knew was part of an elaborate ruse to put them off his scent, might see in his bomb efforts an attempt to exploit U.S. scientific resources, then turn the fruit over to the Russians, but this would be an extraordinary theory -- or so it seemed then.

But under probing and intense questioning at the hearing, Oppenheimer revealed later actions (while head of the A-bomb effort and after) that the Board could not but find disturbing: he had lied about and covered up his and others' past and current links to the Communists. The most famous example might be the so-called Chevalier incident. In 1943, Haakon Chevalier apparently told Oppenheimer in the latter's kitchen of a way of getting technical information to the Soviets. According to Oppenheimer's later testimony, he refused to even consider it, calling it treason, and Chevalier agreed. (12) After waiting six months, Oppenheimer finally mentioned to Pash that he knew of channels to the USSR, but declined to give the names of the individuals involved, as he felt this would exaggerate their involvement. When Pash pressed him on this and other occasions, he again dropped tantalizing clues, such as that the contact was on the Berkeley faculty, but also added information that proved a Red herring and a fabrication, creating roles for participants who actually had none. Eventually Groves himself got into the issue, pressing Oppenheimer to reveal the contacts, which Oppenheimer said he would only do on direct order. Meanwhile, Oppenheimer was under constant surveillance by the worried security men, who saw him at the center of a Soviet spying effort. Finally, Groves ordered Oppenheimer to reveal the names, and with great pain, he admitted his close friend Chevalier's role as the main contact, but not that he himself had been approached. But mostly, he led the security men on wild goose chases with "tissues of lies" about made-up agents, or denied knowing those about whom they had suspicions. It turned out that scientists of whose "impure" pasts Oppenheimer was aware were hired for the Project anyway. When asked at his hearing why he had deliberately lied, he could only answer, "Because I was an idiot," and stammer something about his fear of representing others as involved in ways in which they were not, and of wanting to underline the seriousness of the accusations against one man in particular. He was forced to admit his own fear of espionage by former and then-members of the Party from which he had excepted himself, and that he had seen and spent the night with Jean Tatlock in l943, which, he had to concede, was "not consonant with good security." His lawyer remembers thinking at this, "He's just destroyed himself."(13) And he had added one more recent indiscretion to those long past; during a l953 trip to France, he had actually paid a visit to his old friend Chevalier.

Still, even when these skeletons had come out of the closet, very few people had any real doubts as to Oppenheimer's loyalty. His fellow scientists rallied to his side; they voiced their glowing opinions of him at the hearing, though "Prosecutor" Robert Robb was able to catch many of them by asking their opinions on specific, seemingly trivial incidents, which they could not but condemn. The pages of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists were crammed with expressions of support. Groves wrote, "I would be greatly surprised if Oppenheimer ever consciously committed a disloyal act against the United States."(14) Ridgely Cummings, in a letter published in the New Republic 25 October l954, wrote, "One thing I'm sure of. Oppenheimer is no enemy of the people. He's not double crossing anyone." And, in the end, despite all the imputations to the contrary, the Board of Inquiry concluded that there were no grounds to question his loyalty. What made him a security risk, they found, were personal faults, defects of character and judgement.

The principle one among these was an "arrogance of judgement that frustrates and impedes the workings of the security system."(15) This criticism, probably more than any other, gets to the heart of the Oppenheimer problem. It was not simply, as Groves forgivingly put it, that he did not want to rat on a friend; the fact is, he had placed his personal commitments to various individuals, such as Chevalier, ahead of the demands of security; he had taken onto himself the right to judge their relative importance, when his government told him otherwise, and, to which, by the trust it had placed in him and that he had accepted, thought he had agreed. But what was the nature of this view of relative importances? Was it simply contempt for security? Certainly he had little use for it; even Groves admitted that he knew that he was not always observing the rules in full, but that neither were the other scientists and it was not worth it to risk losing him by making an issue of it. Roland Sawyer, writing in the Chrisatian Science Monitor, thought it pretty evident that Oppenheimer "regarded many of the security regulations under which he had to work, and the men responsible for administration, with disdain."(16) His relations with security men were never good; in a l944 letter he chided the Los Alamos security chief, Peer deSilva (later author of some of the most serious accusations against him) for his high-pressure "advice" to Personnel Director Arthur L. Hughes on staff selections. (17) Even if he were a very modest man otherwise, he still might have thought himself above the rules of security.

But he was not a modest man, far from it. One may call it pride, egotism, arrogance, or something slightly more complimentary, but almost everything we know about Oppenheimer attests that he held himself far above almost everyone with whom he came in contact. And he shows a second great fault: he was too used to, and too expectant of, having his own way, so much so, that it may almost simply not have occurred to him that there was any reason to do anything that he found inconvenient or unpleasant. His life is not only full of examples of these flaws of character, but of reasons why they would have come about. From the earliest, Oppenheimer was set apart and above. His parents were affluent and elegant, and he grew up used to the finest, and to having his every need and desire attended to. He attended elite private schools, including the Ethical Culture School in New York, where he was encouraged to freely develop considered his own standards and views, even on morals, which he seems to have done all too well. (18) He excelled in all the academic pursuits, and the few non-academic ones, to which he turned his mind or his hand. Yet he had trouble getting along with his peers as a result, and from my own experience I can attest that the development of a superiority complex is the likely result. The first major setback to his success was his being obliged to spend a year at home before going off to Harvard because of his health, which enraged and depressed him. Once finally there, the same pattern of behavior continued: fanatical devotion to studies and refining of the intellect, total social isolation, relentless pressure on himself to be the best that succeeded to a certain measure. He was known as a show-off and a snob who had little tolerance for and few relations with anyone not on his intellectual level, which meant practically everyone. After graduation, perhaps finding life without grades suddenly empty, he went into a period of depression and psychological instability, which, surprisingly enough, was never brought up later. After, however, he went on as before: in graduate study in Germany, he still associated little with his age-group. With women, this may have been as a result of his deep devotion to his mother, whose death a few years later devastated him. With men, he sought out only the finest physics minds, such as Paul Dirac, with whom he would argue for hours, and his brilliance gained him entry into the higher circles of science, in some way fulfilling his need for friends. And he was just as ostentatious about his wealth as his brains. Finally, one more factor would have added to his inflated self-image: the worship of his younger brother, who hung on every word of his almost paternal advice.

As a teacher at Berkeley a few years later, students found him haughty and arbitrary, if not impossible to follow, and he seemed to take pleasure in being seen so. He had no desire to descend to the low level of his students.(19) He could occasionally be cruel in his criticism, and reported "It is not easy to be quite free of the desire to browbeat somebody or something."(20) As time went on, however, he was to mellow somewhat. His lectures grew more comprehensible. He built up a coterie, almost a cult, of graduate students who imitated him in dress, style, and speech, and with whom he would spend hours working on problems. He had a few friends, but claimed that "I need physics more than friends,"(21) and insisted on preparing for them a spicy Indian dish that was palatable only to him -- a sort of gustatory proof of superiority. He always dominated the conversation, a habit which he was to relinquish, and then only slightly, in old age. Against this background, his involvement with leftist causes seems almost a positive development. For the first time, he was becoming friends with people other than intellectual giants, and he seemed to enjoy the reduced pressure in their company. For once, he was part of a group of equals, a community, instead of always standing far before the pack. Married to Kitty, his relationships became even more social and less intellectual; many were surprised at his ties to Chevalier, who seemed so far below him, so inconsistent with his obvious egotism.

It is odd, in fact, given this towering megalomania, that he should have been able to make friends and influence people so easily, and this ability could not have helped but reinforce his opinion of himself, assure him that he was doing something right. All who met him testified to his great charm and magnetism, whether in his appearance, his manner, or the never-failing brilliance, smoothness, and wit of his speech. Students found that he inspired an almost mystical sense of the beauty of physics. General Groves resented what he felt was the scorn of egghead scientists, and once angrily pointed out to a group of them that he had as much education as they, yet he was quite comfortable with Oppenheimer and proposed him enthusiastically for the post of Project head, even though he had neither an experimental background, nor a Nobel Prize, nor the support of his colleagues. At Los Alamos, he managed to iron out the conflicts of personalities and assuage the irate feelings aroused by restrictions, poor living conditions, and laboratory frustrations. Though he sometimes could not avoid stepping on some toes, largely through the force of his personality, he was able to weld the hundreds of employees of the Project into an effective, coordinated unit. Some found this talent almost frightening; Edward Teller described him as exploiting friendships, and using and manipulating people. Lansdale found both the Oppenheimers "phony," cold, and unemotional (the lawyer who defended him concluded the same) (22), and suspected them of playing parts. Goodchild reports that Oppenheimer deliberately set out to court Groves, coming up with a scheme, the isolated Los Alamos lab, that would satisfy both the military need for security and the scientific need for free sharing of information, but willing to accept induction of all the scientists into the army if that should prove necessary; in other words, buttering him up, employing his great finesse at handling others to obtain the post he desired. Post-war, fellow members of various committees were amazed at his persuasive powers; his views almost always carried the day, and again some believed it was the result of manipulation rather than deferential respect. Given this constant success, it would not be surprising for him to have developed the belief that there was something naturally superior, naturally right, about his judgments, just as there was, and the entire universe seemed to recognize it, about himself. With his own set of principles developed at the Ethical Culture School, or, as Lansdale put it, with no practical moral instincts, only intellect (23), he had few qualms in lying to protect his friends and himself, especially to security men.

With his prestige of his contribution to the success of the atomic bomb added to his already-present leadership talents, Oppenheimer naturally took on a new role after the War, that of conscience of, and spokesman for, the atomic, and in fact the entire scientific, community. Apparently, the realization of his responsibility in releasing the atomic genie, like the goings on in Spain and Germany in the mid-30's, and the approach of war in the early 40's, again filled him with the desire to act, to make a difference for a cause, and his position was more conducive to this goal than ever before. He began to work to protect mankind from the dangers which he had helped create. "The peoples of this world must unite, or they will perish," he said in his farewell speech at Los Alamos on 16 October 1945. His original goal was international, civilian control of atomic weapons; he did not trust either the military, or the nobility of the United States government acting alone as the international policeman, to prevent the use of the Bomb. Later, when this dream was shattered at its inception, he tried at least to curb the destructive capability of nuclear weapons, by opposing the development of the hydrogen bomb and campaigning against the military's lack of atttention to civil defense in its planning. Unfortunately, in taking on this noble crusade, he seems to have even further lost sight of the existence of alternate viewpoints, and to assume that his was the sole legitimate one, and thus unquestionable in its correctness. The old Oppenheimer cropped up in cutting remarks spoken as an expert witness before various committees, such as a l949 appearance during which he made AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss look like a fool, or a 1952 unpleasantness with David Griggs, the head Air Force Scientist, in which Griggs took offense when Oppenheimer implied that he had said that the H-bomb would lead to American world domination. An article Oppenheimer wrote for Foreign Affairs criticized the Air Force for not planning to protect American cities, and blamed the policy on secrecy and lack of thought. Years later, he was willing to appear, and even be publicly reconciled with, Teller, when the AEC honored him with its most prestigious award. Quite a few people have wondered whether his motives were quite as purely humanitarian as he presented them, or whether they might not be just as influenced by a desire for self-aggrandisement.

What made many even more suspicious were the seeming inconsistencies, and dramatic turnarounds, in Oppenheimer's views. Could the man who worked so enthusiastically to build the bomb really feel as much remorse as Oppenheimer claimed to? On a trip to Japan in the early 60's, he reported on landing that of course he felt badly, only that he "did not feel any worse than last night,"(24) meaning that his pangs of conscience were constant, rather than provoked just by the occasion. "I have blood on my hands," he once said, and the failure of the attempts at international atomic control under the Baruch Plan sent him into a depression so deep that he did not even feel like teaching.(25) Yet it had been his practical and political objections to a warning demonstration of the new weapon before its use against Japan that helped prevent such a move, though many of his fellow scientists favored it vocally on moral grounds. These same colleagues were disappointed, if not infuriated, when he supported the May-Johnson Bill, which gave the military a voice in national nuclear control. After the war, much of advice he gave to the government concerned new possibilities in the use, construction, design, or delivery of weapons. (Some of this can be defended on the grounds of pragmatism; he probably saw the Bill as the only hope for any sort of control. His support of civil defense may seem wrong in this age of SDI, but at the time, before Mutual Assured Destruction had made deterrence sacrosanct and there was a reasonable chance of using the weapons, it was not quite so crazy.)

On the question of the hydrogen bomb, his position was especially delicate. Edward Teller had studied the principles of the possible operation of the "Super" since before the fission project had even begun, but it had been put off, first because of the fear that the fusion reaction ignited would run wild in the atmosphere. Later, to avoid interference with the fission program, rapidly nearing completion, Oppenheimer had allowed Teller to go off on his own with whatever personnel wanted to join him. For in Teller he at last had a rival to fear, one who was almost as persuasive to politicians, especially certain ones who were tired enough of Oppenheimer and ready, postwar, to fund Teller in his own lab outside Los Alamos and Oppenheimer's sphere of influence. When America sought to regain the destructive lead after the Soviet nuclear explosion in l949, the pressure for H-bomb would test Oppenheimer's government influence to the utmost. Yet he resisted; first raising technical objections, that the H-bomb program would have little chance of success, (and that it would distract attention from fission bomb work -- hardly the attitude of a man of peace!!) Later, he led the nine-scientist General Advisory Committee to urge against a crash development program, saying the "Super" was not needed for security, that it was morally wrong, that the U.S. could set an example and avoid its construction by anyone ever, and that it could always be built later if it became really necessary. Yet when, in the end, he lost the battle, despite his fury, his opposition seemed to subside remarkably quickly, once Teller had some technical problems resolved. (The board found, on the other hand, that he had opposed and hindered the project, and discouraged other scientists by his stance, but that he had claimed the opposite!) All in all, it is not unreasonable to attribute much of Oppenheimer's posture on the H-bomb question to a personal rivalry with Teller. If this was so, then it could be seen as yet another case in which he placed his personal judgments ahead of the good of the country. And if his varying positions on arms control and development also were taken with the general goal of appearing humanitarian, then his motives move even farther out the column of respect and further into that of suspect.

Thus, in its report on the Board's l954 decision, TIME magazine compared him to demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy, in that he put his own judgement above the law, claiming to obey a "higher law" of human survival. Yet even if that was his constant goal, which it does not seem to have been, that would not justify lying in pursuit of it, as he apparantly did. During the inquiry, the "prosecuting attorney" (Robert Robb took on this role, though it was only a hearing, and not, officially, a trial) quizzed him closely on his statements on his feelings and pronouncements about the H-bomb, comparing them to the record, and he managed to catch him on a number of points, for which Oppenheimer, for once, at a loss for words, could provide no explanation. The change in his estimates of the Super's chances was brought up, as was his claim that he had only opposed a crash program in l949, when the report had recommended no program whatsoever at any time. This, in fact, was the Board's main reason for calling him "a security risk." In the opinion of the three members, his advice could not be trusted, as it was given with too little regard to the actual security needs of the country. This had been Nichols' s twenty-fourth point, and it was the "arrogance of judgement." But it immediately became controversial. To many, it seemed that Oppenheimer was being made a scapegoat for spy scandals, or for the Soviets' much more rapid than expected progress in nuclear technology, or purged for having opposed the policy that ultimately prevailed. In his famous testimony, I.I. Rabi pointed out that if one does not like the advice that a consultant, which Oppenheimer was, gives, one simply stops asking for it, but that there was no need to rake the consultant over the coals, and to destroy his reputation. But did the board really do any more than simply cease to avail the AEC of his services? They removed his security clearance -- three days before it was to expire anyway, as Oppenheimer's consulting appointment was at an end, and he no longer, in theory, needed it. Despite all the associations of the pre-war years, despite all the admitted lies that confounded security, despite continued contact with suspect friends, the board had not doubted his loyalty, only the soundness of his advice. Or not entirely....

For the board had one more finding in the matter of Oppenheimer; that he was "susceptible to influence." Ostensibly, this referred to several times that he had been too-easily talked into pushing for the appointment of certain personnel with leftist backgrounds. Yet it seems an odd conclusion about one who, by most reports, was such a great exerter of influence on others. But there is a better interpretation, which makes much more sense in the light of many of his actions: naivete. As frequently happens with precocious, sheltered children, Oppenheimer took a long time to grow up. He remained very much in his parents' orbit until their deaths, which affected him greatly, and did not develop much in the way of adult relationships until after. There are signs of immaturity in his lack of concern for the world, and his fascination with the Communist cause. His failure to follow security rules or to respect those who enforced them is just as well explained by a simple lack of understanding that they applied to him as by an assumption of malicious perfidity, or, as I have made, one of megalomania. Many of those who met him found him naive, almost childlike, in his outlook, and TIME applied the term to him in l954. For an action such as the last visit to Chevalier, any other explanation boggles the mind. How could he not have realized the consequences, the likely interpretation of his act? Or, how could he have written to Senator Brien MacMahon of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in l949, protesting the screening of applicants for National Research Council grants for Communist ties, on the grounds that it went against the tradition of freedom, but also that many great discoveries in nuclear science had been made by Communists, such as the Joliot-Curies, without thinking it might cast some suspicion on him? (27)

There is yet one possibility, other than that he had absolutely no appreciation of the risks he was running: that he appreciated them fully, but courted them, for the thrill of danger. He had a long history of such conduct: as a teen-ager, he would run his sailboat across the bay in the fiercest storms, and his long rides and camping trips in the mountains near Los Alamos, where he had a home, were legendary. "He had a sort of fatalism that made him indifferent to physical danger, " writes Goodchild. He worked himself to the brink of exhaustion, eating and sleeping only minimally, emaciating himself; Groves was worried far more about his "less than rugged constitution"(28) than about his potential disloyalty. Did he simply enjoy the reckless excitement of seeing how much he could get away with? If so, I will not speculate as to the chances of depressive death wishes. Others, who observed his behavior in the desperate days around the hearing, even wondered if he did not have a sort of martyr complex, a drive to appear to suffer for his beliefs. After all, he chose to appeal the removal of his clearance, to go through the agony of the "trial," even though his term was almost up. The most likely basis would seem to be his childhood frailty and humiliating post high-school illness, which he left behind with a more strenuous life in young manhood. But, quite possibly, he did not do so entirely.

In the end, I cannot help but agree with the decision of the Board of Inquiry, that Oppenheimer was a security risk, that he was not the man to be trusted with national security information of the highest importance. In doing so, I do not support the way the hearing was conducted, in the manner of a trial, and an unfair one at that. I do not support the denial of access to secret files to Oppenheimer's lawyers, and its granting to the "prosecution," nor the use of evidence obtained in violation of rights of privacy by the FBI through years of almost constant surveillance of Oppenheimer, nor the way that those whom Oppenheimer had offended or embarassed over the years set out deliberately to "get" and disgrace him, especially considering the caliber of man he could be, and his service to the country and the world. Yet, on the other hand, I could not support either the opening of the highest official secrets to a man who, for one reason or another, did not accept the implicit contract which that, in return for a position of power, responsibility, and/or prestige, he was bound to conduct himself within certain rules established by those who had given him that position. I could not support the placing of public trust in a man who could not appreciate the accountability that is inseparable from that trust. I myself, like the rest of the world, do not believe Oppenheimer was ever disloyal; I see the explanation for his actions in a combination of egotism and immaturity that was a product of his upbringing and early life. Yet whatever its source, J. Robert Oppenheimer's conduct over the years was erratic enough, that I would not have wanted to risk my security on him.


1. Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner, Editors, "Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections", pl95 Back

2. J. Robert Oppenheimer, "Reply to General Nichols' Charges", in the "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists", May 1954, p27 Back

3. Ibid., p28 Back

4. Ibid., p28 Back

5. Smith and Weiner, p210 Back

6. Kenneth Nichols, "Accusations Against J. Robert Oppenheimer", in "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists", April l954 Back

7. all quotes from Leslie R. Groves, "Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project", p63 Back

8. Oppenheimer, "Reply", p29 Back

9. "The Report of the Board of Inquiry in the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer", as quoted in TIME, 14 June 1954, p24 Back

10. Smith and Weiner, p195 Back

11. Groves, p63 Back

12. "TIME", 12 July 1954, p5 Back

13. P. Goodchild, "J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds", p256 Back

14. Groves, p61 Back

15. "Report of the Board", "TIME", p25 Back

16. Roland Sawyer, "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists", October l954, p30 originally in The Christian Science Monitor Back

17. Smith and Weiner, p274 Back

18. Goodchild, p17 Back

19. Smith and Weiner, p 133 Back

20. Ibid., p 135 Back

21. Ibid., p l46 Back

22. Goodchild, p 228 Back

23. Ibid., p 179 Back

24. Ibid., p205 Back

25. Ibid., p 207 Back

26. Smith and Weiner, p 262 Back

27. "The New Republic", 6 June l949, p33 Back

28. Groves, p63 Back


Davis, N.P. "Lawrence and Oppenheimer", New York, Simon and Schuster, 1968

Goodchild, P., "J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds",
               Boston, Houghton-Mifflin, 1981

Groves, Leslie R., "Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project",
                    New York, Da Capo Press, 1975

Smith, Alice Kimball and Charles Weiner, Editors, "Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections",
                    Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, l980

"The New Republic",  6 June l949
          "             ,  25 October 1954

"TIME", 14 June 1954
          "   ,  28 June 1954
          "   ,  12 July 1954

"The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists", May 1954
           "                         ,  June 1954
           "                         ,  October l954