J. Robert Oppenheimer's Security Hearing and its Consequences

Ben Ho
April 10, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

J. Robert Oppenheimer Before and During WWII

Fig. 1: A rare color photograph of the Trinity Test. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds" is one of the most recognizable quotes from the 20th century. It originally comes from a famous piece of Hindu scripture called Bhagavad Gita. However, it is most notable for its famous reiteration from J. Robert Oppenheimer's lips as he watched a fiery mushroom cloud, shown in its hellish glory in Fig. 1, rise above the New Mexico Trinity test site on July 16th, 1945. [1] Oppenheimer was an American physicist who successfully oversaw and led the Allies' war efforts to create an atomic bomb for use during World War II. [2]

As a child, he was a brilliant prodigy and quickly worked his way up in academia and research. [2] During his young adulthood, he supported the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, advocated for many communist ideals, dated one woman closely associated with the Communist Party, married another who belonged to it, and had a brother also join the Party. [3] These were all concerns to the United States government, nevertheless they still asked him to head the Manhattan Project, the project that earned him extreme fame and notoriety at the time. [2]

Beginning of the Cold War

After the successful utilization of the atomic bombs, Oppenheimer remained in the upper echelons of nuclear energy research for a few years within the federal government. However, as the Soviet Union and United States grew as superpowers in the early 1950's, the United States soon found out that their eastern rival had developed and successfully tested an atomic bomb in late 1949. As a response, the Atomic Energy Commission, the governing body of atomic energy science at the time, and President Harry Truman were deciding on whether or not to develop a hydrogen bomb, a bomb based on atomic fusion that would easily surpass the destructive capabilities of the atomic bomb and would be tremendously useful if the two countries ever went to war. [3]

Oppenheimer, remembering his infamous, dreadful quote, made public his concerns about the hydrogen bomb and advised against it along with other members of the General Advisory Committee, a committee that advised on atomic energy policies. [2] This opposition greatly angered both the Atomic Energy Commission and President Truman, and as a result, coupled with his past associations with the Communist Party, the Atomic Energy Commission revoked Oppenheimer's security clearance in December 1953 which effectively barred him from entering any labs and accessing all the research on nuclear energy that he had done over the years. [4] Furious, Oppenheimer requested a security hearing to review the choice to revoke his clearance. [3]

The Hearing

The hearing took place in a very secretive setting behind many closed doors in Washington D.C. It lasted approximately three weeks and over the course of it, Oppenheimer listened to the Atomic Energy Commission's reasons for essentially firing him. They first accused Oppenheimer of being a Communist sympathizer because of his wife's and brother's membership within the party. This fact led to their questioning on whether or not Oppenheimer himself was a secret member of the party. [4] If he was a Communist, the Atomic Energy Commission reasoned, then he would have motive to oppose the hydrogen bomb because it would have given power to the United States over the Soviet Union. They were also suspicious of Oppenheimer of being an actual Soviet spy due to the 1950 confession of Klaus Fuchs, a senior German scientist and Soviet spy who worked on the Manhattan Project and gave American nuclear secrets and research to the Soviet Union. The most damning point presented, however, was the Chevalier incident where Oppenheimer in 1943 was approached by Haakon Chevalier, another scientist, about sending nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. The FBI found out and in a hearing, Oppenheimer claimed that Chevalier was innocent. It was later realized by the government that Oppenheimer had actually lied about the meeting, and his loyalty was questioned. Thus, these three facts were the main points used by the Atomic Energy Commission to revoke Oppenheimer's clearance. [3]

Oppenheimer also had time to defend himself during the hearing. He adamantly denied that his motivation for opposing the hydrogen bomb was due to divided loyalties between the United States and the Soviet Union. Instead he stated that it would be immoral to develop a hydrogen bomb because of its power and its civilian genocide capabilities. [4] Additionally, he stated that he lied about the Chevalier incident to protect Chevalier, a close friend of his. Many of Oppenheimer's fellow scientists testified during the hearing to support his claims, and in a two to one vote, the hearing judges decided that Oppenheimer was loyal to the United States. This is a very important number because it was so close. Just one vote delineated the difference between Oppenheimer going to prison or not. However, the Atomic Energy Commission still found his opposition a little suspicious, so in another vote, this time four to one, decided to keep his clearance revoked. [3]


The security hearing signified the end of Oppenheimer's position in the government and his atomic energy research within it. He essentially became an exile within the government and scientific community even though he attempted to continue to give public lectures. Despite the whole secretiveness of the actual hearing, the Atomic Energy Commission decided to release the entire transcript of the hearing to the public just a few weeks after it happened. [5] Many Americans sympathized with Oppenheimer and saw him as a victim of unfair McCarthyism. They believed that he stood up for his ideals and was punished for it, and consequently they considered him a hero. [4] However, there were still many others who questioned his loyalty to the two superpower countries and this divide became one of the most significant controversies of the Cold War. Fortunately, in 1963, President Lyndon Johnson awarded the Enrico Fermi prize to Oppenheimer for his notable work in nuclear energy. The action was interpreted by many as a sign of apology from the government, but it was never explicitly confirmed as one. [3] Today, as a result of the security hearing, Oppenheimer still remains a controversial figure and serves as a popular topic of debate between many people.

© Ben Ho. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. A. Hijiya, "The 'Gita' of J. Robert Oppenheimer," Proc. Am. Philos. Soc. 144, 123 (2000).

[2] T. Anderson, "Oppenheimer's Dilemma," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[3] R. P. Carlisle, Encyclopedia of the Atomic Age (Facts on File, 2001).

[4] K. Bird and M. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Tragedy and Triumph of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005).

[5] R. Polenberg, ed., In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cornell University Press, 2001).