We republish a 1955 Tribune article on the interrogation of Dr Oppenheimer which defends the father of the atom bomb and concludes the ‘accusing finger of history is pointed at the statesmen, not at the scientists’.

US nuclear physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967), testifying before the Special Senate Committee on Atomic Energy. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

‘We have a record of your voice’ said the inquisitor’ by John Beddoe, Tribune (16 December 1955)

The place: Washington. The date: April 14, 1954. The question before the Security Board of the Atomic Energy Commission: whether Dr Robert Oppenheimer may safely be allowed continued access to secret information.

Oppenheimer is testifying for the third day running. He is under cross-examination (the official record uses this term) by Roger Robb, counsel for the Board. Robb has just cited an admission made by Oppenheimer in 1943 that he knew of, and did not rush to disclose, a channel for passing atomic data to the Soviet consul.

Robb: Do you recall saying that in substance?

Oppenheimer: I certainly don’t recall it.

Robb: Would you deny you said it?

Oppenheimer: No.

Robb: Is there any doubt now that you did mention a man attached to the Soviet consul?

Oppenheimer: I had completely forgotten it. I can only rely on the transcript.

Robb: Doctor, for your information, I might say that we have a record of your voice.

Oppenheimer: Sure.

Robb: Do you have any doubt you said that?

Oppenheimer: No.

There was never, of course, any suspicion that Oppenheimer — wartime head of the atom bomb project and America’s leading physicist — had himself been tempted to give away secrets, even when the Russians were our gallant allies. An allegation to this effect had sparked off the enquiry, but was dismissed by the Board as too hare-brained for investigation.

No, what made the doctor a security risk was a mass of scattered facts and may-be-facts, roughly of three kinds:

In the thirties, long before entering Government service, he had associated with Communist front organisations and had Communist friends.
When a university colleague of extreme Left views (never himself accused of spying) told Oppenheimer that he knew how to get stuff to the Russians, Oppenheimer showed little enthusiasm for helping the FBI to follow this up, and even less for incriminating his friend.
Much later, in 1949, with the atom bomb stacking up fast in the American arsenal, Oppenheimer advised concentration on tactical atomic weapons rather than an effort to make the hydrogen bomb.

Such a record was quite enough to make him a possible security risk, even though scientists and generals of high degree vied in choosing superlatives to describe his services to America. And when the enquiry was all over, both the Board and the Commission itself decided by majority vote that he was indeed unfit to know what was going on in the laboratories he had been foremost in creating.

Official America, which emerges without dignity from the story, may be congratulated on one thing: on publishing the record of the enquiry. If this had happened in Britain, the document would be released to selected historians in 1990. An efficient abridged version had been made by Mr Michael Wharton and published under the title of A Nation’s Security.

I do not think it is decent to examine a distinguished scientist, accused of no crime, in a way that would be considered harsh at the Old Bailey.

Or to hide dictaphones in rooms where he is talking. Or to bring his wife to the witness-stand and ask her when and where she fell in love with her first husband and how she reacted when he was killed in Spain.

It stinks. I hope the record will be read in Britain by officials and MPs as well as by private citizens, and remembered as a lesson in what not to do.

But I hope that readers will not get too angry to raise a smile at the solemn self-parodying of the security hawks. One colonel in what they oddly call Intelligence, reporting adversely on Oppenheimer, wrote:

‘This Office is still of the opinion that Oppenheimer is not to be fully trusted and that his loyalty is divided. It is believed that the only undivided loyalty that he can give is to science.’

One page of this book, however, is inspiring. It tells us what the outstanding scientists who were asked in 1949 whether the H-bomb should be made, really said at the time.

They all said No. Oppenheimer and three others said it like this:

‘In determining not to proceed with the super bomb, we see a unique opportunity of providing by example some limitations on the totality of war and thus of eliminating the fear and arousing the hope of mankind.’

Professors Fermi and Rabi were yet more far-seeing:

‘The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon makes its very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing . . . We think it wrong on fundamental ethical principles to initiate the development of such a weapon.’

Those words remain to testify that the accusing finger of history is pointed at the statesmen, not at the scientists.

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