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In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Security Clearance Hearing

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At the end of World War II, J. Robert Oppenheimer was one of America's preeminent physicists. For his work as director of the Manhattan Project, he was awarded the Medal for Merit, the highest honor the U.S. government can bestow on a civilian. Yet, in 1953, Oppenheimer was denied security clearance amidst allegations that he was "more probably than not" an "agent of the Soviet Union." Determined to clear his name, he insisted on a hearing before the Atomic Energy Commission's Personnel Security Board.In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer contains an edited and annotated transcript of the 1954 hearing, as well as the various reports resulting from it. Drawing on recently declassified FBI files, Richard Polenberg's introductory and concluding essays situate the hearing in the Cold War period, and his thoughtful analysis helps explain why the hearing was held, why it turned out as it did, and what that result meant, both for Oppenheimer and for the United States.Among the forty witnesses who testified were many who had played vitally important roles in the making of U.S. nuclear policy: Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Vannevar Bush, George F. Kennan, and Oppenheimer himself. The hearing provides valuable insights into the development of the atomic bomb and the postwar debate among scientists over the hydrogen bomb, the conflict between the foreign policy and military establishments over national defense, and the controversy over the proper standards to apply in assessing an individual's loyalty. It reveals as well the fears and anxieties that plagued America during the Cold War era.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In the spring of 1954. . . . the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) held hearings to determine if Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the WWII atomic bomb project, should be allowed to retain his security clearance. The proceedings were initiated by a letter from the Chief of Staff of the AEC. . . . in which he suggested that Oppenheimer was an agent of the Soviet Union. . . . The 28-page introduction contains a useful discussion of the background and politics behind the hearings. The index is good, and the list of suggested reading material is useful."—Choice, September 2002

"The Polenburg edition has a number of important virtues, beginning with the fact that it brings this classic back into print, three decades after the original 1954 edition was reprinted by MIT Press in 1971. Whereas the original volume extended over a thousand pages of tiny, densely packed type and was nearly unreadable for more than a few pages at a time, the new edition is handsomely produced with a decently sized typeface and is a pleasure to read."—Steven Aftergood, Journal of Cold War Studies, Summer 2003

"The criteria of significane and balance are very well met, making the book an excellent case study in the temper of those times. . . . This book deserves high marks indeed."—Gordon L. Shull, Perspectives on Politics, Summer 2002

"This book is a wonderful resource for teaching. It is ideal for use as a core text in courses on twentieth-century American history and on the history of modern science. And it should appeal also to the general reader as an accessible version of an authentic and pivotal historical drama."—Charles Thorpe, British Journal for the History of Science

"The Oppenheimer hearings were one of the great dramas of the Cold War at home. Their outcome still affects the relationship between scientists and the state. Richard Polenberg's skillfully edited transcript proves once again that history reads better than fiction."—Gregg Herken, author of The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War, 1945–50

"This book is very valuable because it gives the full arguments of the Personnel Security Board and of the Atomic Energy Commission leading to their decision against Oppenheimer. It also gives the more important testimony during the Hearings. Professor Polenberg, in his introduction, shows how hopelessly the cards were stacked against Oppenheimer."—Hans Bethe, Professor Emeritus, Cornell University

"The Oppenheimer security clearance hearings serve as a stark reminder of the cold war state's abuses of power in its efforts to scrutinize the interior recesses of the human mind and spirit. In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Security Clearance conveys fully the drama of the case, the complex individuals involved, and the explosive combination of anti-communist ideology, nuclear fear, and old-fashioned personal resentment that led to Oppenheimer's downfall. It offers compelling reading to anyone interested in reckoning with the true meaning of loyalty amid the political pressures of the cold war and the nuclear age."—Jessica Wang, University of California, Los Angeles

"Few of the outrages of the McCarthy era were as politically and emotionally disturbing as the withdrawal of J. Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance. Though the nation's most eminent scientist, Oppenheimer was no match for the furies of the anticommunist witchhunt. By making the transcript of this hearing available again, Richard Polenberg gives us a direct entre into the supercharged atmosphere of the period, enabling us to understand how it could have produced such a devastating outcome."—Ellen Schrecker, author of Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801437830
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2002
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: "All the Evil of the Times"
The Setting and the Participants
Pt. I The Hearing
Monday, April 12 3
"The Commission has no other recourse...but to suspend your clearance until the matter has been resolved" 3
"The items of so-called derogatory information...cannot be fairly understood except in the context of my life and my work" 10
"An inquiry and not...a trial" 29
"Exploding one of these things as a firecracker over a desert" 30
Tuesday, April 13 35
"Strictly confidential" 35
"Those who are not cleared...will necessarily be excused" 38
"When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it" 41
Wednesday, April 14 49
"Both an older brother and in some ways perhaps...a father" 49
"In the case of a brother you don't make tests" 53
"Then I invented a cock-and-bull story" 61
"You spent the night with her, didn't you?" 72
Thursday, April 15 75
"I would not clear Dr. Oppenheimer today" 75
"One can be mistaken about anything" 81
"Your memory is not refreshed by what I read you?" "No, on the whole it is confused by it" 85
"Of the known leakages of information, Fuchs is by far the most grave" 93
Friday, April 16 94
"I would have done anything that I was asked to do ... if I had thought it was technically feasible" 94
"I am not sure the miserable thing will work...[but it] would be folly to oppose the exploration of this weapon" 99
"The program in 1951 was technically so sweet that you could not argue about that" 108
"We kept him under surveillance whenever he left the project. We opened his mail. We did all sorts of nasty things" 111
Monday, April 19 120
"A very human man, a sensitive man,...a man of complete integrity" 120
"Only...when the bomb dropped on Japan,...did we start thinking about the moral implications" 126
Tuesday, April 20 139
"It is only the great sinners who become the great saints" 139
"Dr. Oppenheimer's appraisal of the Russian menace...was hard headed, realistic, and thoroughly anti-Soviet" 148
"My opinion...was that one should try to outlaw the thing before it was born" 153
"Here is a man of good character, integrity, and of loyalty to his country" 156
Wednesday, April 21 166
"He is a consultant, and if you don't want to consult the guy, you don't consult him period...We have an A-bomb...and what more do you want, mermaids?" 166
Thursday, April 22 179
"A scientist wants to know. He wants to know correctly and truthfully and precisely" 179
"I don't like to see women and children killed wholesale because the male element of the human race are so stupid that they can't...keep out of war" 185
"Dr. Oppenheimer...was a natural and respected and at all times a loved leader" 188
Friday, April 23 194
"Mr. Chairman, unless ordered to do so by the board, we shall not disclose to Mr. Garrison in advance the names of the witnesses we contemplate calling" 194
"Here is a man who is being pilloried because he had strong opinions, and had the temerity to express them" 199
Monday, April 26
"I was emotionally involved in the Spanish cause" 207
"I think there is a great deal of difference between being a Communist in 1935 and being a Communist in 1954" 216
"I am afraid that wars are evil...But the question of do not have time for when you are trying to think how you fight" 221
"Dr. Oppenheimer's individual contribution was the greatest of any member of the General Advisory Committee" 225
Tuesday, April 27 228
"All of us in the war suddenly in contact with a universe we had not know before...; we suddenly were dealing with something with which one could blow up the world" 228
"I kept turning over in my mind...what was in Oppenheimer that gave him such tremendous power over these men" 237
Wednesday, April 28 244
"My feeling is that the masters in the Kremlin cannot risk the loss of their base. This base is vulnerable only to attack by air power" 244
"I would not rate Dr. Oppenheimer's importance in this field very high for the rather personal reason...that I have disagreed with a good many of his important positions" 249
"I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more" 252
Thursday, April 29 265
"He used the graphic expression like two scorpions in a bottle, that each could destroy the other" 265
"ZORC are the letters applied by a member of this group to the four people: Z is for Zacharias, O for Oppenheimer, R for Rabi, and C for Charlie Lauritsen" 271
"I realized that the program that we were planning to start was not one that the top man in the scientific department of the AEC wanted to have done" 276
Friday, April 30 283
"The adversary process which we seem to be engaged in should be carried out to the fullest extent" 289
"Dr. Oppenheimer knew the name of the man, and it was his duty to report it to me" 291
"More probably than not, J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union" 298
Monday, May 3 309
"I wish I could explain to you better why I falsified and fabricated" 311
Tuesday, May 4
"I left the Communist Party. I did not leave my past, the friendships, just like that" 327
Wednesday, May 5 333
"I felt, perhaps quite strongly, that having played an active part in promoting a revolution in warfare, I needed to be as responsible as I could with regard to what came of this revolution" 333
Thursday, May 6 346
"His life has been an open book" 346
Pt. II The Decision
The Personnel Security Board Reports, May 27 355
"We have...been unable to arrive at the conclusion that it would be clearly consistent with the security interests of the United States to reinstate Dr. Oppenheimer's clearance" 355
"Our failure to clear Dr. Oppenheimer will be a black mark on the escutcheon of our country" 362
Lloyd K. Garrison's Reply to Kenneth D. Nichols, June 1 366
"How can this be?" 366
Kenneth D. Nichols's Recommendations to the AEC, June 12 371
"I have given consideration to the nature of the cold war...and the horrible prospects of hydrogen bomb warfare if all-out war should be forced upon us" 371
Publishing the Transcript, June 13-15 376
Decision and Opinions of the AEC, June 29 378
"We find Dr. Oppenheimer is not entitled to the continued confidence of the Government...because of the proof of fundamental defects in his 'character'" 378
"This matter certainly reflects the difficult times in which we live" 383
"The General Manager has arrived at the only possible conclusion available to a reasonable and prudent man" 385
"Dr. Oppenheimer failed the test...He was disloyal" 386
"There is no indication in the entire record that Dr. Oppenheimer has ever divulged any secret information" 388
Conclusion: "An Abuse of the Power of the State" 395
Suggested Reading 399
Index 401
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