Bulletin statement on the Department of Energy’s Oppenheimer decision

By Rachel Bronson | January 11, 2023

On December 16th, the Secretary of the Department of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, issued an order vacating the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission decision that revoked Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance. The Bulletin applauds Secretary Granholm for her important decision.

Oppenheimer—often called the “father of the atomic bomb” for his work as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory—had a complex legacy. He was crucial in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, its testing in New Mexico, and its use in Japan. However, following the war, he joined in attempts to diminish the threat of nuclear weapons. He called for nuclear weapons and technology to be placed under international control, opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, and advocated for an ethic that acknowledges both the social benefits and potential dangers of scientific advancement. Some of this advocacy he did directly in the pages of the Bulletin.

Beyond his writing, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has a special connection to Oppenheimer and his legacy. He served as the first chair of our Board of Sponsors, a board created by Albert Einstein and the leading scientists of that time.

The order now vacated by Secretary Granholm came from a decision made in 1954 at the height of the “red scare.” That year, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), then the lead U.S. agency dealing with nuclear issues, refused to reinstate Oppenheimer’s security clearance, thereby ending his government career and falsely branding him as untrustworthy. That decision came after a panel of the AEC Personnel Security Board held 19 days of hearings that constituted, in the most charitable of assessments, a travesty of justice and a violation of basic tenets of due process.

Responsible science: What Sam Altman can learn (and not learn) from Nobel and Oppenheimer

The case against Oppenheimer was based in significant part on his opposition to early U.S. efforts to develop a hydrogen bomb. But as shown by declassified hearing excerpts released in 2014 and other public documents, Oppenheimer “opposed the hydrogen bomb project on technical and military grounds, not out of Soviet sympathies” and considered the development of hydrogen bombs to be redundant, escalatory, and wasteful.

The 1954 decision ended Oppenheimer’s government service and impugned his reputation in a process replete with ethical violations, procedural flaws, and false suggestions that he was a communist, a spy, or both.

Even at the time, this decision was widely considered problematic. It was immediately decried by many top scientists and important scientific organizations. Although he went on to a distinguished academic career, by many accounts the decision weighed heavily on Oppenheimer for years.

The Oppenheimer case was certainly not the last time that some in the US Government used personality, politics, or background to silence dissenting views. Today’s political climate that disparages experts simply for their expertise and confuses disagreement with disloyalty and a lack of patriotism is similarly corrosive and undermines our ability to effectively manage today’s menacing global challenges. It makes Secretary Granholm’s decision to vacate a nearly 70-year-old verdict uncomfortably timely and seriously brave.

At the Bulletin, we cover complex and dangerous issues every day and see how even well-researched and -reasoned opinions can differ. With all the challenges our world faces, we need more, not less, robust debate and more, not less, discussion based in fact and infused with expertise. Today’s issues are too important to ignore and too great for any one person to hold all the answers.

Not just Oppenheimer: How other scientists tried to change nuclear weapons policy for the better

The Bulletin works to support scientists and other experts who, like Oppenheimer, assist policymakers by giving fact-based advice on grave national security issues—even if, and especially when, that advice runs counter to the common wisdom or transitory political winds.

Secretary Granholm’s decision to correct this miscarriage of justice affirms that governments can work to raise the level of debate rather than silence it. We at the Bulletin applaud Secretary Granholm’s decision during this difficult political moment.

Rachel Bronson

President and CEO

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

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John Suter
John Suter
1 year ago

This reversal of an error in the past is interesting, but how does it move the ball forward on diminishing the risk of a nuclear holocaust? We have to set up a system of feedback to all leaders and those around them so that they know that any use of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world will be their end also. They should all receive notification, both public and private, of this negative feedback loop at least every 6 months. This may be the only way to get them to think and talk about how to deconstruct nuclear weapons. It… Read more »

1 year ago

Thank you for this article. It is well written, informative and thoughtful. Perhaps Mr Oppenheimer could be considered a whistleblower of sorts. The decision against him reinforces the need for everyone to be able to speak out without fear of punishment or retribution. Thank you Secretary Granholm for fixing this particular case.

Tom McCabe
1 year ago

Oppenheimer has always been an ambiguous figure. Actually what probably blew Oppenheimer out of the water was when Leslie Groves said at the hearing he wouldn’t give Oppenheimer a clearance under then existing standards.