Efforts to Clear J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Name
On June 29, 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission announced its decision not to renew the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, having made a political and erroneous determination that he was a security risk. In 2004, Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, authors of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book American
Prometheus: the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, contacted the JROMC asking for our help in clearing Oppenheimer’s name. Their careful research into the misdeeds by the AEC chair Lewis Strauss convinced us to join in this effort.
A legal remedy was first explored with the prestigious D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter. Their pro bono study to determine the viability of a legal remedy was led by Jim Fitzpatrick, a senior partner who lived part-time in Tesuque. They found little hope of a court settlement.
A legislative solution was then sought through Senator Jeff Bingaman’s office. The Senator had been advocating on behalf of Oppenheimer for some years. He gave a talk in Los Alamos on June 26, 2004, entitled “Oppenheimer Reconsidered” on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Oppenheimer’s birth, and had introduced Senate Resolution 321 requesting that “the United States Government declare null and void the June 29, 1954, decision of the Atomic Energy Commission not to renew the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”
Sam Fowler, Chief Counsel for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources of which Bingaman was chair, alerted us that further progress would require an Executive Branch solution, specifically from the Department of Energy (the successor agency to the former AEC where the decision had originated). Sam explained that his office had drafted a twenty-page request to Energy Secretary Chu, signed by Senator Bingaman. By January 2014, there was still no DOE resolution and the terms of retiring Senator Bingaman and Secretary Chu ended. However, newly elected Senator Heinrich’s Outreach Director, Michael Sullivan, contacted us in early 2014 saying he wanted to continue this effort.
An executive branch solution was now the only route forward. An appeal to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was made through Senator Heinrich’s office. The JROMC solicited letters of support from former LANL Directors, prominent researchers, Lab Fellows, and academics from around the nation. This completed packet was presented to several possible advocates.
On January 18, 2017, Secretary Moniz announced a DOE pilot program that would be renamed “The Oppenheimer Science and Leadership Program” to honor “leadership qualities [that] we seek to identify and nurture in this initiative.” Moniz acknowledged Oppenheimer’s influence in “shaping today’s DOE and its national laboratories” with “his legacy of science serving society.” However, the DOE did not void the original clearance determination.
Thus, the thirteen-year JROMC effort to clear Oppenheimer’s name ended with much less than hoped for. We join Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird in this disappointment but will always be grateful to them for further raising the nation’s and our appreciation of this great man, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Editor’s Note: The Committee is ever grateful for the efforts of Mary Lou in spearheading our Committee’s efforts to right this injustice.
Before the Committee took on the effort to clear Oppenheimer’s name, there have been several notable instances of protest of how he was treated. A local example is the effort by Fred Ribe, in 1954 a young scientist at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. For an article retelling this story, click here. A reminiscence by Dr. Ribe about his efforts was recorded in a seminar at Los Alamos National Laboratory, available here.
Update December 2022: In 2022, Senator Leahy reinvigorated the effort to clear Oppenheimer’s name. The J. Robert Oppenheimer Committee is pleased to share the news that DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm signed a Secretarial Order December 16, 2022 vacating the 1954 AEC decision In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The Secretarial Order is available here and the associated DOE press release here. Senator Leahy’s response following this Order is found here.