A freshly declassified tranche of documents seemingly resolves one of the major espionage controversies of the early decades of the Cold War.
Transcripts of the 1954 hearing that ended in disgrace for Manhattan Project physicist Robert Oppenheimer were finally declassified by the Department of Energy on October 3rd.
Oppenheimer got his security clearance revoked after the hearing, and “lived out his life a broken man,” according to the New York Times.
Yet Several experts who spoke to the Times agreed that the transcripts offer nothing to justify what Red Scare-era prejudice against the legendary scientist, who had relatives and acquaintances in the Communist Party.
The physicist had led the high-stakes American effort to develop an atomic bomb during World War II. Despite his major contributions to developing the technology that would effectively end the war — “That sunlike flash illuminated him as a scientific genius, the technocrat of a new age for mankind,” read one of his obituaries in 1967 — Oppenheimer began to be ostracized even before his 19-day-long hearing in Washington, DC in the spring of 1954.
The year before, a former congressional aide accused him of being a Soviet spy in a letter sent to the FBI. President Dwight D. Eisenhower eventually revoked Oppenheimer’s access to the government’s nuclear-related information.
Oppenheimer’s aversion to further investment in the hydrogen bomb — a much more powerful device that builds on atomic bomb technology — likely fuelled suspicions against him, considering the US arms race against the Soviet Union at the time.
But it was a pragmatic, military concern that informed his resistance, rather than pacifism or Soviet allegiances.
Richard Rhodes, a historian who spoke with The Times, said the newly declassified material shows that hydrogen bomb research encouraged by Edward Teller and other nuclear physicists would have come at the opportunity cost of 80 atomic bombs (just after World War II ended, a scenario drawn up by the Pentagon estimated it would take hundreds of these weapons to deliver the Soviet Union a critical blow).
The newly released 19-volume transcript expands on a redacted version published soon after the hearing, in June 1954 (A twentieth volume includes instructions for preparing the 1954 document for public release).
Oppenheimer’s legacy benefits from the new declassification, but it was arguably secure even when the physicist was still alive: Nine years after Oppenheimer’s victimization, the Atomic Energy Commission awarded him the prestigious Enrico Fermi award.
The bigger victory may go to critics of official secrecy, since the government has offered no explanation for why the release had to wait over 60 years.
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