Oppenheimer’s Posthumous Exoneration

When AEC hearings that ended the physicist’s security clearance were declassified, historians were amazed they contained virtually no damning evidence against him, writes Robert C. Koehler.

J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Guest Lodge, Oak Ridge, 1946. (Ed Westcott, DOE, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

By Robert C. Koehler
Common Dreams

A mere 55 years after his death, the U.S. government has restored J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance, which the Atomic Energy Commission had taken away from him in 1954, declaring him to be not simply a communist but, in all likelihood, a Soviet spy.

Oppenheimer, of course, is the father of the atomic bomb. [And is now the subject of a major motion picture]. He led the Manhattan Project during World War II, which birthed Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, killing several hundred thousand people.

What happened next, however, was the Cold War, and suddenly commies — Washington’s former allies — were the personification of evil and they were everywhere. The U.S., in its infinite wisdom, knew it had no choice but to continue its nuclear weapons program and, for the sake of peace, put the world on the brink of Armageddon and pursue the hydrogen bomb.

War, the building block of the world’s governmental entities for uncounted millennia, had evolved to the brink of human extinction. Official government policy amounted to this: So what?

Oppenheimer challenged this official policy and shattered his career. Indeed, he saw immediately, as the newly developed bomb was tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, that Planet Earth was in danger.

A team of physicists had just exposed its ultimate vulnerability and he famously noted, as he witnessed the mushroom cloud, that words from the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita had entered his mind: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

He had not opposed dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as some of the Manhattan Project scientists, such as Leo Szilard, did. But when the war ended, he became deeply committed to eliminating all possibility of future wars.

One of the first actions he took, a week after the bombings, was to write a letter to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, urging him to embrace common sense regarding further development of nuclear weapons.

“We believe,” he wrote,

“that the safety of this nation — as opposed to its ability to inflict damage on an enemy power — cannot lie wholly or even primarily in its scientific or technical prowess. It can be based only on making future wars impossible. It is our unanimous and urgent recommendation to you that, despite the present incomplete exploitation of technical possibilities in this field, all steps be taken, all necessary international arrangements be made, to this one end.”

July 2, 1940: Henry L. Stimson, left, with Sen. Morris Sheppard, during a Senate Military Affairs Committee  hearings on his qualifications to be secretary of war. (Library of Congress, Public domain)

Making future wars impossible. What if American political forces had sufficient sanity to listen to Oppenheimer? Several months after writing this letter, he paid a visit to President Harry Truman, attempting to discuss the placement of international control over further nuclear development.

The president would have none of that. He kicked Oppenheimer out of the Oval Office.

Oppenheimer maintained his commitment to transcending war, working with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to control the use of nuclear weapons — and standing firm in his opposition to the creation of the hydrogen bomb.

He continued his opposition even as the bomb’s development progressed and nuclear tests began spreading fallout over “expendable” parts of the world. But then came the McCarthy era and the accompanying Red Scare.

In 1954, after 19 days of secret hearings, the AEC revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance. As The New York Times noted, this “brought his career to a humiliating end. Until then a hero of American science, he lived out his life a broken man.” He died at age 62 in 1967.

“A key element in the case against Oppenheimer,” the Times reported,

“was derived from his resistance to early work on the hydrogen bomb, which could explode with 1,000 times the force of an atomic bomb. The physicist Edward Teller had long advocated a crash program to devise such a weapon, and told the 1954 hearing that he mistrusted Oppenheimer’s judgment. ‘I would feel personally more secure,’ he testified, ‘if public matters would rest in other hands.’”


Albert Einstein and Oppenheimer conferring, circa 1950. (US Govt. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

But of course, the “black mark of shame” that remained stuck to Oppenheimer for the rest of his life was that he was a “commie,” and maybe a spy — in other words, totally anti-American.

This was the basic lie used against those who challenged the tenets of the Cold War. The commission’s secret hearings remained classified for 60 years.

After they were declassified in 2014, historians expressed amazement that they contained virtually no damning evidence of any sort against Oppenheimer, and lots of testimony sympathetic to him. The revelations here seem primarily to expose the government’s interest in covering its own lies.

This past December Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, chairman of the department that the Atomic Energy Commission had morphed into, nullified the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, declaring the 1954 hearing a “flawed process.”

Getting the government to undo its wrong was a long, arduous process, embarked on by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the authors of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It took them about 16 years. They finally succeeded in clearing his name.

While I applaud their enormous effort and its result, there is still more to do. This is more than simply a personal matter, more than the righting of a bureaucratic wrong done to one man. The future of humanity remains at stake.

The U.S. government has spent multi-trillions of dollars on nuclear weapons development over the years, conducted a thousand-plus nuclear tests and is currently in possession of 5,244 nuclear warheads, out of an insane global total of some 12,500. Perhaps it’s time to start listening to —and hearing — Oppenheimer’s words.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer.

This article is from  Common Dreams.

Views expressed in this article and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

14 comments for “Oppenheimer’s Posthumous Exoneration

  1. wildthange
    July 19, 2023 at 21:07

    There is a religious sect that arose out of the Roman Empire that has a long history of successful witch hunting and inquisitions based on rumors and false charges. They has a lot to fear from the communist critique of religious history. They also fit seamlessly into the communist witch hunts as well as building a new military industrial empire as a culture warrior for world dominance that is still being overlooked as their culture war seems to have only increased at the demise of the USSR. They seem to think they are on a roll and no one seems to even notice. A liberal base is a cover perhaps making us think they have changed but they may be urging WWIII as a divine. intercession.

  2. Robert Emmett
    July 19, 2023 at 13:56

    Could it be Oppie was a kind of proxy to discover an edge on the whole burgeoning Hege thing, mon?

    Scientists’ brains took few pains to think it all the way through, wanted nothing to do with responsibility for how or why what they made possible was used.

    Isn’t that what Oppie meant when he said…

    “… the safety of this nation … cannot lie wholly or even primarily in its scientific or technical prowess.” ?

    Yet that is precisely where we’ve been & still are. Scientific prowess apparently has outstripped humankind’s ability or desire to control or limit it.

    “It can be based only on making future wars impossible.”

    Again, nearly the opposite of where today’s toady politico class is headed.

    Could also be the big bosses weren’t about to hold their newly broken hosses to squelch blockbuster nuclear bluster on the say-so of a Hindu quotin’ egghead.

    Secret “evidence”? Secret files hidden for decades? Historians amazed that there’s no there there?

    Also sounds about like where we’re still stuck.

    • robert e williamson jr
      July 19, 2023 at 21:10

      Robert Emmett you seem pretty interested so allow me to furnish further into here.

      Roger J Mattson – mechanical engineer – Worked on U.S. Atomic Energy Commission
      tech staff 1967 – 1974. 1976 led task force that reviewed the Apollo / NUMEC affair.

      He authored the book STEALING THE ATOMIC BOMB as I mentioned in my comment here earlier.

      He comments in the book that the incident “appears to have been an inside job”.

      For additional info – see

      hXXps://fas/publication/gao-numec/ – 5/13/2010 2 min read text by Steven Aftergood

      hXXps://www.israellobby.org/numec – lists related documents many doc good info

      hXXps://archive.org > stream > mattson – Stealing of the Atomic Bomb in it’s entirety


      As with the JFK murder files many, of the files addressing the NUMEC Affair are still unavailable to the public. Why? Why because those who keep the secrets fear the release of these materials, Mr. Mattson says it’s time to release them.

      If you investigate you will learn that NUMEC was having major problems with accounting for inventories of Special Nuclear Materials from it’s very beginning in 1957, brushing off complaints by claiming the company had grossly under estimated production losses, by 1965 this had became a very serious problem. The Mattson book tells a very intriguing story. JFK was adamantly to Israel having nukes and make no secret of his opposition.

      I have often posed the question about who would have benefited most from JFK dying. I never get a response that considers it might have been the Israelis. My question looms large when we consider how much CIA hampered the investigations into NUMEC. Remember Whitney Webbs twin vol. 1 & Vol. 2, One Nation Under Blackmail. IN 1967 John L Hadden CIA station chief in Israel helped embassy staff monitor the environs near Dimona for signs of plutonium production in Israel only to find Highly enriched U-235 HEU from Portsmith Ohio.

      As they say timing is everything and with JFK gone no one in the US government seemed a bit concerned that US HEU U-235 had been found in Israel.

      June 1968 Robert F. Kennedy would be dead. Far too many coincidences to suit me, but what do I know.

      Think big kiddies when it comes to the JFK murder.

      Thanks CN

  3. mgr
    July 19, 2023 at 08:50

    “Several months after writing this letter, he paid a visit to President Harry Truman, attempting to discuss the placement of international control over further nuclear development.

    “The president would have none of that. He kicked Oppenheimer out of the Oval Office.”

    As soon as the mad, world-ending genie of atomic destruction was introduced, the demon trolls jumped to embrace it as their own. You can almost see Truman frothing at the mouth at the idea of re-working the world in his own image, or else… Is this America’s true nature? Perhaps this is where the hideous anti-life ideology of “zero/sum” was born.

  4. July 19, 2023 at 01:33

    78 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American Empire is pushing Russia and China to the Limit. The Nordstream Pipelines , the Dnieper Dam and Attacks on the
    Kerch Bridge. 1960 the Joint Chiefs thought they could defeat Russia in a Nuclear War, obviously the Pentagon Idiots still think so , or the World Population Reduction
    Trillionaire Gargoyles have taken Washington.

  5. bardamu
    July 18, 2023 at 21:19

    Interesting piece. Oppenheimer was drummed out because he found killing very large numbers of people unpleasant and inadvisable. I suppose I’d accept the term “unamerican” if pressed.

    But the pro-empire folks got enough control to shoot JFK and likely RFK and King, to plant Bush-Reagan and Clinton and Cheney-Bush and Obama, and to return the dynasty with Biden after some funky glitches with the decidedly not-reformist or revolutionary Trump. So here the US is, looking to end the world again, or at least looking like it, without even a sporty T-shirt to show for it all.

    I doubt that making war impossible is an achievable goal, though anything in that direction is likely admirable and useful. Perhaps we might consider reworking the target threshold to “making war not appear inevitable.” The difficulty is that we have to make it not appear inevitable to a lot of people whose livings depend on imagining that it is.

    But that does seem to be the basic error. “We will fight them eventually.” People damaged in such a way as to believe that human nature requires violence ask not whether we fight WW3, but how and when.

    We have to remove them from office. Sadly, they include almost the entire government, almost the entire military, almost the entire wealthier end of the corporate sector. We have promoted madness.

    • Cal Lash
      July 19, 2023 at 00:08

      Well said!

    • Valerie
      July 19, 2023 at 04:11

      “We have promoted madness”

      And as a consequence “MAD”.

      (Btw, maybe there’s no “sporty T-shirt, but there is the new “Barbie” film.)

  6. CaseyG
    July 18, 2023 at 19:56

    Ah— yes Jennifer Granholm— you said it right—- and as Shakespeare wrote “Speak the speech I pray. thee ….trippingly on the tongue….” YES! Thank you for your well taken point. So, The American Academy of Dramatic Arts can come in handy. after all. : )

    What a horror jealous scientists can be—but finally—the TRUTH will out and Oppenheimer was right! I so look forward to his movie, and even more, perhaps his movie will inspire real scientists to ALWAYS speak up!

  7. Andrew Nichols
    July 18, 2023 at 19:01

    Oppenheimer, Ritter, Assange…all truth tellers.. all slandered, set up by the US state to suppress dissent. Nothing changes including the craven behaviour of Western Mainly White Minority World media in failing to support the persecuted.

  8. Drew Hunkins
    July 18, 2023 at 17:16

    Of course, the big film opening across the nation this Friday, “Oppenheimer” directed by Christopher Nolan, is based on the book referenced in this article: “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

  9. robert e williamson jr
    July 18, 2023 at 16:51

    I will, until the time of my death, unless other wise convinced by fact, hold that the problem with Oppenheimer was his opposition to the “super” the H-bomb, which to this days remains a scourge on the planet.

    We can learn by is stand against developing the “Super” with out addressing the cost and dangers of the bomb and non-proliferation. A man a great vision he saw what was to come. He created a mortal enemy by his opposition to the development of the Super, one Edward Teller who traveled quite ofternto Israel as did Shapiro and no one seemed to care.

    What Robert could not have known about was a covert plan, I believe birthed within the United States Atomic Energy Commission sometime during 1947-48. A plan that included the cooperation of certain individuals inside CIA and inside members of the USAEC to purposely divert SNM, Special Nuclear Materials, specifically plutonium and highly enriched U235, to Israel. One Zalman Shapiro being the primary actor in the diversion.

    Oppenheimer had many friends in the USAEC and his views on nuclear proliferation were well known by many, his mind easily grasped the dangers to come.

    Some Scientists in the program, Teller being the most concerned gathered with some USAE Commission members to set in motion a plan to oust Oppenheimer from the program. Enter the ‘Kangaroo Court!

    Read the making of THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB, DARK SUN BOTH BY Richard Rhodes. The Rickover Affect RICKOVER AFFECT by Theodore Rockwell,and maybe most importantly STEALING THE ATOMIC BOMB – How Denial and Deception Armed Israel by Roger J Mattson.

    How can I be so sure? I know about SNM materials and the safe guards used to protect them, especially in times of great mistrust and shortages of these materials, none of which were adhered to by Shapiro’s NUMEC, Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation.

    Another very interesting and revealing story is still to be told about how a certain select group of Americans allowed the theft by these materials and their shipment to Israel.

    A very interesting side note to this story is that James Jesus Angleton, CIA Chief of Counter Intelligence was head of the Israeli Desk at CIA from the inception of the desk’s existence, Day One as it were.

    Angleton the man who held a secret interest in Lee Harvey Oswald and lied consistently about his and CIA’s interest in Oswald to his death. The head of counter intelligence for CIA who never caught a spy.

    A man who is highly revered in Israel to this day.

    This is my view on this matter and has been for over the last 20 years. It is amazing what one learns when one has the opportunity to learn these histories.

    Thanks CN.

  10. Dienne
    July 18, 2023 at 14:58

    They couldn’t find anything damning on him … except that he created the bombs that killed over 200,000 civilians in Japan. But, hey, at least he wasn’t a COMMIE!!!

  11. July 18, 2023 at 14:46

    Until the American public turns toward peace and makes that clear to politicians, the US will just keep upgrading its nuclear arsenal, even though the weapons can’t be used. Everyone knows that once nukes start flying, there is no way to walk it back. So wars will remain conventional, just with the new twist of things like drones. The question everyone should be asking their representatives is why spend a trillion or more dollars making nuclear weapons, and creating all that additional radioactive pollution, if you can’t use the weapons?

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