On Friday, Dec. 16, United States Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm signed an order vacating a 1954 decision by the Atomic Energy Commission to revoke the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, former Manhattan Project leader who was widely credited as the “father of the atomic bomb.”
The AEC ruling, considered by many to have been unjust, biased and politically motivated, had nothing to do with security violations, mishandling of atomic secrets or the like. Instead, it was handed down based on what the commission essentially said were flaws in Oppenheimer’s personal character — namely, his association with progressive causes and opposition to developing the hydrogen bomb. Years later, as noted in Granholm’s order, the AEC judgment appears to have had much more to do with discrediting Oppenheimer in public debates over nuclear weapons policy than anything else.
“As time has passed, 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,” Granholm said in her Dec. 16 statement on the issue, noting that such political motives must have “no place” in the U.S. government’s personnel security process.
In April, Laboratory Director Thom Mason joined eight former Los Alamos directors in delivering a signed letter to Granholm offering their perspective on the subject of Oppenheimer’s clearance. They strongly suggested that the Department of Energy nullify the AEC’s decree as an “historically appropriate remedy” to the egregious errors committed by the security review board and asked the DOE to issue an apology.
“Although this brings no peace to Dr. Oppenheimer, who died long ago, it brings needed perspective to the real truth of his legacy, integrity and moral courage,” Mason said. “It also sends a message that while the U.S. government takes security seriously and expects truthfulness, it must reciprocate with a fair analysis and principled decisions.”
Security hearing outcome a ‘terrible mistake’
Reflecting on the Dec. 16 order, Laboratory Senior Historian Alan Carr said the AEC’s 1954 security hearing was a “national tragedy.”
“Like all of us, Oppenheimer had lapses of judgment; some of them quite serious. But the hearing materialized primarily as a result of conflicting personalities and McCarthy-era paranoia,” he added.
“Rather than compromise his integrity, he faced his accusers with dignity as they exposed and attacked every aspect of our first director’s life,” Carr said. “The Department of Energy’s decision to vacate the hearing is long overdue. The hearing should not have happened, and for the first time the government has chosen to formally acknowledge its terrible mistake.”
Oppenheimer’s career ended abruptly following the AEC hearing, but he never lost focus on the bigger picture. “Our country is fortunate in its scientists, in their high skill, and their devotion. I know that they will work faithfully to preserve and strengthen this country,” he said at the time.
In public, Oppenheimer showed impressive resolve. However, those who knew him said he was never the same following the ordeal. In time, he retreated from public life, dying from throat cancer in 1967. More than 600 family members, friends and colleagues attended his memorial service.
Read more about Oppenheimer here.
Petition to clear Oppenheimer’s name
While Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis L. Strauss and Oppenheimer were at the center of events before the AEC’s 1954 decision, an important part of the historical record is the heroic effort of Fred L. Ribe and 493 other Los Alamos scientists who risked their careers to protest Oppenheimer’s interrogation. Ribe wrote a one-page letter, signed by his colleagues, to President Dwight Eisenhower and the AEC commissioners “objecting the decision and the grounds for it,” he later explained.
Fred’s son, Tom Ribe, is currently chair of the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Commmittee, which has, among other things in support of Oppenheimer’s legacy, continued to help carry the torch Fred and his colleagues lit to quash the AEC outcome.
“We are gratified and grateful for those who finally righted the wrong of Oppenheimer’s security clearance revocation,” Tom said about the Dec. 16 order. “It is never too late to deliver justice. It will be important for future generations to see this acknowledgement of past errors and our hopes for honesty and integrity in such matters in the future.
The J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee has been pursuing this matter for decades through past-chairs Dr. Fred Ribe, Mary Lou Williams and others. We thank everyone who persisted and reached the goal with us.”