(Originally published on January 11, 2023 on the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, https://thebulletin.org/2023/01/bulletin-statement-on-the-department-of-energys-oppenheimer-decision/.)
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 US 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.
The case against Oppenheimer was based in significant part on his opposition to early US 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.
The Bulletin works to support scientists and other experts who, like Oppenheimer, assist policy makers 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.
President and CEO
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
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