Jun 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Senators urge vindication for J. Robert Oppenheimer

Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer
J. Robert Oppenheimer. Photo: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images.

Four U.S. senators signed a letter to President Biden on June 16 urging the exoneration of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who in 1954 was the government’s top atomic physicist when he came under suspicion as a Soviet spy.

The big picture: The letter asks Biden to issue an executive order to rescind the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) characterization of Oppenheimer as "untrustworthy and unfit to serve his country."

  • The letter is signed by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeffrey Merkley (D-Ore.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Flashback: After 19 days of secret hearings in April and May of 1954, the AEC revoked Oppenheimer's security clearance, per the New York Times.

  • 60 years later in 2014 the Department of Energy released declassified transcripts of the AEC security board’s hearings, which offered "no damning evidence against him," per the NYT.
  • One element used in the case against Oppenheimer was his resistance to early work on the hydrogen bomb. The declassified material released in 2014 suggests he opposed work on the bomb out of technical and military concerns, not Soviet sympathies, per the NYT.

What they're saying: "The flawed judgment and the decision-making process in the hearing of J. Robert Oppenheimer were tragic products of their time," the senators write. "Only a clear nullification of the AEC’s politically contrived and grossly unjust 1954 decision can erase this “black mark” on the nation’s honor."

  • "We can never wholly right the wrongs of history. Nonetheless, we urge you to issue an executive order to vacate the Atomic Energy Commission’s erroneous decision that Dr. Oppenheimer was untrustworthy and unfit to serve his country," the senators write.
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