The Oppenheimer Trial

Pauling's copy of the Oppenheimer hearing transcript.

Pauling’s copy of the Oppenheimer hearing transcript.

[Part 2 of 3]

J. Robert Oppenheimer achieved prominence, first in the scientific community and later with the public at large, for his work in Los Alamos, New Mexico as the director of the civilian branch of the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. In the spring of 1942, he was asked to lead the project to develop an atomic bomb for use against the Germans, who were feared to be developing one as well. After the program succeeded, he was praised and showered with respect for his scientific work and managerial skill during the war.

In the years immediately following the war, Oppenheimer remained an important voice on nuclear policy, serving as a member of the Board of Consultants to the Atomic Energy Commission. Oppenheimer’s stature was also strong within the world of academia, and in 1947 he became director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, home to Albert Einstein among many other luminaries.

However, in December 1953, less than a decade after the war’s end, Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked. Alleged to be maintaining communist ties and admonished for his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer was effectively exiled from the atomic community. As a result, a blank wall was erected between Oppenheimer and the secret data to which he once had access, and his sterling public reputation was put at severe risk.

The government’s about-face on Oppenheimer was a direct result of a redefinition by President Dwight Eisenhower of what it meant to be a loyal American. President Harry Truman had issued the first loyalty order in 1947, and under his definition, security risks were largely outlined as being political. With Eisenhower’s redefinition six years later, the risk was viewed as more general and based on character, stability, and reliability.

The language of Eisenhower’s new loyalty order, issued in April 1953, empowered the government to levy charges against Oppenheimer, based almost entirely on past suspicions of Oppenheimer’s loyalties. In 1947 Oppenheimer had admitted an association with the Communist Party in the 1930s, but within the constructs of Truman’s loyalty definition, Oppenheimer was allowed to continue his work.

In 1953, emboldened by the change in context brought about by Eisenhower, charges were brought against Oppenheimer by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), led by Chairman Lewis Strauss. This despite the fact that no breaches of security had been traced to the scientist.

In late December 1953, Oppenheimer was told that his security clearance had been revoked and secret documents that he held in Princeton were withdrawn. Given the chance to resign his AEC affiliation or face a hearing, Oppenheimer refused to step down, believing that doing so would serve as an admission of guilt.


The AEC hearing prompted important questions about the relationship between science and politics during the Cold War.  Of the twenty-four charges brought against Oppenheimer, only one was new.  Oppenheimer’s past ties with communism were known to many, having been voiced by the scientist to the House Un-American Affairs Committee in 1947. What was new, however, was the allegation that Oppenheimer squarely opposed the H-bomb. This allegation effectively served as the entry point for Eisenhower’s new definition of risk, as Oppenheimer’s essentially moral objections to the weapon were now under trial.

Many other questions also clouded the hearing, among them the problem of using old information for new allegations.  The charges that were brought against Oppenheimer likewise commonly included vague claims, many of which began “it was reported…” and involved hazy dates or unidentified witnesses.

The charges were further countered by the prevailing belief within the scientific community that, without Oppenheimer, the first atomic bombs would not have been built as quickly as they were and that, even though he was against the development of the H-bomb at first, he never purposefully slowed down its development.

It would seem as well that Oppenheimer’s perspective was hardly unique. In fact, even Edward Teller, commonly referred to as “The Father of the Hydrogen Bomb,” explained in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the difficulties that were encountered with recruiting scientists to work on the weapon largely stemmed from their general dislike for the H-bomb.

Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1954.

Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1954.

The Oppenheimer hearing began on April 12, 1954 and lasted for four weeks. Already a high profile affair, its atmospherics became more pitched through the self-insertion of Senator Joseph McCarthy himself. McCarthy, as pointed out in a contemporary piece written by syndicated columnist Drew Pearson,

decided to jump into the Oppenheimer story only after the AEC investigation was well under way.  As a result, Strauss was scared to death last week over where his probe he started is heading.

Indeed, McCarthy’s involvement and the trial’s placement in the public spotlight changed its nature dramatically. No longer was the hearing simply about Oppenheimer’s loyalty. Now the entire role of scientists in politics and the standards to which they were to be held was being examined. As Pearson’s column suggested, Commissioner Strauss came to regret having stirred up this particular hornet’s nest, worrying that his actions might alienate the scientists who were central to his success as AEC chairman.

Furthermore, Strauss’s hearing likely played into McCarthy’s hands by creating an opportunity for him to get involved in the debate.  McCarthy had wanted to go after Oppenheimer before, but was advised not to primarily because his record had already been cleared in 1947.  However, with the trial opened by a different party, McCarthy could now talk more freely about suspected spies in the atomic bomb program. If he was challenged, he only needed to mention Oppenheimer’s suspension as evidence for his point of view.

After nearly one month spent collecting testimony – including some twenty-seven hours given by Oppenheimer – the hearing finally concluded and, on May 27, the committee issued its decision: Oppenheimer’s security clearance was permanently revoked. The facts damning Oppenheimer’s position had not changed since they were first recorded six years earlier, but the conclusions drawn from these facts were new, abetted by Eisenhower’s revised security standard. In our next post, we will examine the broader reaction to the committee’s decision, including Linus Pauling’s very public response to the trial of his former friend.

Featured Document: Angry and Frustrated, Pauling Considers a Run for the U.S. Presidency

Linus Pauling. Oslo, Norway. December 21, 1963

Linus Pauling. Oslo, Norway. December 21, 1963

Though often encouraged to, Linus Pauling never ran for elected office. From the vantage point of his peace work, Pauling believed himself to be a far more effective agent for change when working in an environment that was essentially unencumbered by political considerations. Of at least equal importance was the fact that the time commitments demanded by government service would surely diminish Pauling’s capacity to pursue his first love, scientific inquiry.

For a very brief period however, Pauling certainly did consider running for the highest office in the land — the United States Presidency. Deeply angered by his treatment at the hands of Senator Thomas Dodd and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, the frustrated scientist made, as it turned out, a temporary decision to pursue a position in the Oval Office. The three pages of notes that follow were written — as per Pauling’s annotation — on the flight home to southern California following Pauling’s first appearance before the Dodd subcommittee.

Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge each page of this fascinating manuscript.

I have decided to run for the office of Pres. of the U.S. I cannot bring myself to vote for either the Dem. or the Rep. candidate. I shall vote for myself. I invite people everywhere to help me. I do not care who they are or what they have done in the past, I pro only that they believe in what I state as my beliefs. I promise that I will not reward them in any way. If the satisfaction of having done what they think is right is not enough, I do not want them. One advantage that I have is that I know what the world of 1960 is like. No one can fool me the way Dr. Teller fooled Pres. Eisenhower.

Page 2

[Tangential Notes: We need a law that no former FBI agents should be elected to Congress. Perhaps only professors. I am shocked with the revelation that has come to me of the quality, caliber, nature of our Senators. Respect – ] It is not necessary that the Pres. be a vassal of the Rep. party or the Dem. party. I shall be the servant only of the people of the U.S. – and only then if they are unselfish.

Page 3

I have held no office. The presidency differs so much from other offices that this is not important. I can think – I shall get good advice – but I will make the decisions. We need leadership unhampered by politics. Pres. Eisen was unhampered but he did not grasp his opportunity.

Pauling and the Presidents

rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. January 26, 1984

Notes re: rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. January 26, 1984

I respectfully request that you grant me an appointment in order that I may talk with you for a short while about the present opinion that scientists hold about the testing of nuclear weapons, and related questions, and about the petition urging that an international agreement to stop the testing of nuclear weapons be made, as a first step toward a more general disarmament.”
– Linus Pauling. Letter to Dwight D. Eisenhower. February 19, 1958.

Linus Pauling felt the international peace movement to be the single most important cause of its time. As a result, he believed peace work to be deserving of the attentions of political and social leaders around the globe, none more so than that of the U.S. Presidents who controlled the most powerful military in the world.

Over the course of his life as an activist, Pauling had occasion to correspond with every U.S. President from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. Pauling’s requests were often ignored and his letters unanswered, but his convictions demanded that the leaders of his country understand the need for peace.

Pauling believed that, as members of a democratic nation, American citizens had the right to maintain discourse with their nation’s leaders. As a result, Pauling often addressed open letters to public officials as a means of bringing the public into the discussion.

The earliest example of this approach is the “Open Letter to President Truman,” issued on February 9, 1950, in which Pauling and his co-authors state that the President’s “decision to manufacture the hydrogen bomb has thrown a shadow of horror across the homes and minds of all Americans.”

More than forty years later, “An Open Letter to President Bush,” (January 18, 1991), written solely by Pauling, reached a similar conclusion about the ongoing hostilities of Operation Desert Storm

“The war in the Middle East is getting out of hand. It may become a great war, fought not only with high explosives but also with poison gas, bacteria and nuclear weapons. It may liberate worldwide radioactive fallout, damaging the whole human race.”

Pauling also wrote a great deal of private correspondence to his nation’s chief executive, including a series of unsuccessful appeals to President Eisenhower for an Oval Office appointment to discuss the United Nations Bomb Test Petition, (Pauling later concluded that Eisenhower had been a dupe of Edward Teller) and a similar request to President Johnson regarding the Vietnam War.

(Pauling likewise wrote a number of emotionally-charged letters to President John F. Kennedy, the nature of which will be discussed in a future post on this blog.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pauling did not harbor a great deal of goodwill for President Nixon, attacking him (in biographer Tom Hager’s words) “for everything from the bombing of Cambodia to his policy in Pakistan – then [telling] reporters that Nixon should take more vitamin C.” Pauling also assumed, with much justification, that Nixon himself had twice denied Pauling the National Medal of Science, despite the recommendations of the President’s own advisory group. Not until the second year of the Ford administration would Pauling be granted this highly prestigious decoration.

Of all the American Presidents, Pauling seemed to most enjoy pillorying Ronald Reagan, a fellow Californian whose career Pauling had closely followed over three decades. These excerpts from a series of untitled notes written in the 1980s are characteristic of Pauling’s attitude toward the fortieth U.S. President.

“President Reagan. I’ve wondered what his problem is. When I was his age, my hair was white. I saw him on TV saying that we had to increase our nuclear destructive power. He didn’t have a single gray hair. He seems to have a simple problem. I think that he is a case of arrested development…”

It is important to note that Pauling did not limit his communications to leaders within the United States. At various points in his life, he corresponded with the likes of North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh and Nikita Khrushchev, former premier of the Soviet Union. In his mind, global solutions required a global dialogue and, with varying degrees of effectiveness, Pauling pursued this end for most of his life.

Read more about Pauling’s relationships with world leaders on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement.”