Bingaman To Acknowledge Historical Injustice to Atomic Patriot

June 25, 2004
10:44 AM
The Senate last night passed a resolution recognizing the loyal service to America of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project, but who subsequently became a political target during the 1950s. The resolution, introduced by Sen. Bingaman and co-sponsored by Sen. Domenici and Sen. Feinstein, coincides with the 100th anniversary of Oppenheimer’s birth year. Tomorrow morning, Sen. Bingaman will speak at Los Alamos at a symposium celebrating the Oppenheimer centennial. Bingaman will focus not so much on Dr. Oppenheimer’s contributions to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, but on his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb in the early years of the Cold War, and on the high price he paid for that resistance. Dr. Oppenheimer was tried by a "personnel security board" for his opinions and his past associations and, 50 years ago next Tuesday, stripped of his security clearance, barring him from any further work on the nation’s nuclear programs. Bingaman’s speech will recognize that an injustice was done. We hope you will take a moment to read it. OPPENHEIMER RECONSIDERED
Remarks of Senator Jeff Bingaman
Saturday, June 26, 2004 The story of Robert Oppenheimer is as timely as today’s news and as timeless as a Greek tragedy. He was a brilliant scientist who devoted his talents to the service of his country. He was celebrated for making the atomic bomb and vilified for not wanting to make the hydrogen bomb. He helped unlock the secrets of the atom for his country and, in the end, his Government would not trust him with those secrets. His contributions to the Manhattan Project and to Los Alamos are legendary. He came up with the idea of a central weapons laboratory, and he picked the site for it, here at Los Alamos. Although there were many brilliant scientists and engineers who made enormous contributions to the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer’s contribution was unique. He was the Laboratory’s first director; he recruited its original staff; and he led it to its wartime success. Shortly after the war, Dr. Oppenheimer spoke eloquently of the Manhattan Project as having "led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country." He left Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project once the height was scaled, but he continued to help us find our way through the new country. He felt a deep responsibility for his work on the Manhattan Project and thought it was his duty to continue to make his technical experience and judgment available to the Government. For nine years after the war ended, the Government drew heavily upon his talents. He served faithfully on numerous defense and nuclear policy committees. He chaired the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission. Under his leadership, the General Advisory Committee promoted the development of this Laboratory, the production and perfection of atomic weapons, and the development of nuclear reactors for submarines and naval propulsion. But he—and a majority of the General Advisory Committee—opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb. It was Dr. Oppenheimer’s opposition to the H-bomb, more than anything else, that made his opponents into enemies and fueled their suspicions of his loyalty. Undoubtedly, Oppenheimer had friends and relatives who were communists. Most of those associations had been formed long before the war and most had long since ended. All of them had been thoroughly scrutinized by the Army when it cleared him in 1943 and by the Atomic Energy Commission when it cleared him in 1947. They now became the basis of new allegations. In December 1953, the Atomic Energy Commission formally charged him with disloyalty and suspended his security clearance. Dr. Oppenheimer replied, with great dignity, that he had no desire to retain an advisory position if his advice was not needed, but that he could not ignore the suggestion that he was "unfit for public service." He decided to answer the charges against him and asked for a hearing to clear his name. What he got was not the objective "inquiry" called for by the Atomic Energy Commission’s rules. It was a trial—there is no other word for it — and a grossly unfair one at that. The charges against Dr. Oppenheimer were long and complex. Most involved his past associations, which had already been thoroughly and repeatedly investigations. But the Commission went further and charged him with having "expressed" views opposing the development of the H-bomb. That was the crux of the matter. Dr. Oppenheimer was tried, in secret, before a specially appointed three-member personnel security board. He was prosecuted by an aggressive former criminal prosecutor specially retained for the case. The FBI bugged Oppenheimer’s conversations with his lawyers and potential witnesses, and reported what it heard to the Commission. Evidence was withheld from Oppenheimer and his attorneys. Legal standards were lowered to meet the evidence. The whole affair was carefully orchestrated by the AEC’s chairman, Lewis Strauss. In the end, all three board members found Oppenheimer loyal, but two of the three concluded that he was a security risk and recommended that his security clearance not be restored. They found that his failure to give "enthusiastic support" to the H-bomb program and his "highly persuasive influence" among fellow scientists were not in "the strongest offensive military interests of the country." Dr. Oppenheimer appealed the board’s decision to the five-member Atomic Energy Commission. The Commission, by a four-to-one vote, found Oppenheimer to be loyal, but by a different four-to-one vote, found him to be a security risk. The Commission steered clear of the H-bomb charges, though they probably played a role in its decision. Instead, the majority based its decision on Oppenheimer’s character and his associations. On June 29, 1954, fifty years ago on Tuesday, the Atomic Energy Commission formally revoked Dr. Oppenheimer’s clearance, forever ending his involvement in the atomic energy program. Ironically, Dr. Oppenheimer’s term on the General Advisory Committee had expired two years before. His only remaining contact with the AEC was a consulting contract, which was scheduled to expire, along with his security clearance, the next day anyway. History will be a fairer judge and will reach a truer verdict than the Commission. Robert Oppenheimer will be remembered, I believe, as a brilliant scientist who applied his talents loyally and unstintingly to our national defense. He will be remembered, too, as one who thought deeply about the forces unleashed by the Manhattan Project, and realized how essential it is for mankind to use wisely, in his words, "the new powers, the new alternatives, of an advancing mastery of nature" for "his welfare and his freedom, and not his destruction." The clouds over Robert Oppenheimer’s reputation have long since begun to dissipate. His many friends and supporters, both in the Government and in the scientific community, never doubted his loyalty. One such supporter was Senator Clinton P. Anderson. When President Eisenhower nominated Dr. Oppenheimer’s nemesis, Lewis Strauss, to be the Secretary of Commerce, Senator Anderson led the opposition to the nomination. Lewis Strauss had given Senator Anderson many reasons to oppose his nomination over the years, but his abusive treatment of Dr. Oppenheimer was chief among them. The Senate rarely rejects a cabinet nomination, but at Senator Anderson’s urging, the Senate rejected Lewis Strauss’ nomination in 1959. In 1963, President Kennedy selected Dr. Oppenheimer to receive the Enrico Fermi award, which President Johnson bestowed on him after President Kennedy was assassinated. In 1994, the FBI publicly announced that allegations that Dr. Oppenheimer had shared secrets with the Soviets were "unfounded." I have sought to add to these efforts by sponsoring, along with Senator Domenici and Senator Feinstein, a Senate resolution recognizing Dr. Oppenheimer’s loyal service and contributions to the nation. The Senate unanimously agreed to the resolution Thursday evening. In closing, I commend the Atomic Heritage Foundation for holding this conference and for its efforts to preserve the Manhattan Project properties here at Los Alamos and at other sites. I support those efforts and have sponsored legislation in the Senate to have the Secretary of the Interior consider adding the major Manhattan Project sites to the National Park System. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved the bill in April and it is now awaiting action by the full Senate. I think it is important that we save this significant part of our history and our heritage for future generations.

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