J. Robert Oppenheimer at the time of the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves look over the world's first atomic blast site.

An old Oppie, in Princeton in the '60s.

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Key documents in the Oppenheimer security case
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1953: 'Security risk'
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
In 1953, the world's most valuable stash of atomic secrets was locked away not within government vaults, but in the mind of a single man -- J. Robert Oppenheimer.

He was "Father of the Atomic Bomb," a wisp-thin scientist who had steered the super-secret Manhattan Project to success in the blinding flash of the world's first nuclear blast.

From Princeton, where he lived and served as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, to Washington, where he advised presidents and generals, Oppenheimer had become the expert on the atomic weaponry he created.

But in 1953, at the height of Cold War anxiety, the federal government branded J. Robert Oppenheimer a security risk and told him to get lost.

"His associations with persons known to him to be Communists," the government explained, "have extended far beyond the limits of prudence and self restraint."

How Oppenheimer suffered his incredible fall is a story of bare-knuckled politics, fears and back-stabbing. But it is also a story about the bad judgment and personal betrayals by none other than J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The "J" in his name stood for nothing, one of the many enigmas about the shy, delicate child born to German Jewish immigrant parents in New York City on April 22, 1904.

Possessing an inexhaustible energy for reading, he plowed his way through Harvard and five post-graduate colleges, dazzling professors with the broad range of his intellect.

By his 25th birthday, Oppenheimer was a professor of physics at Caltech and a leading authority on quantum theory.

He could speak six languages, including ancient Sanskrit, and ruminate on spiritual themes in any one of them. In deep thought, he would chain-smoke, jangle his spindly arms and mutter "nim-nim-nim" noises. To his friends, he was "Oppie," a delightful, sharp-witted bundle of energy.

Yet he could be callow and naive. As he later admitted, he knew almost nothing of politics or current affairs as a young man. "I never read a newspaper," he said. "I had no radio, no telephone. I learned of the stock market crash of' 1929 only long after the event."

His awakening to the world beyond the ivory tower came through acquaintances, especially his vivacious wife, Kitty, whom he married in 1940.

She'd been a Communist Party member in the '30s, when other dreamy-eyed activists looked to Soviet Russia as an earthly paradise, and her previous husband was killed fighting Fascists in Spain. Oppenheimer's brother, Frank, was a Communist too.

Oppenheimer  joined a variety of  Communist front groups in California, but he came to detest Communist  dogma as rigid and anti-individual. When America was plunged into  World War II in 1941, the military establishment overlooked his leftist affiliations and recruited him  for its crash program to develop an atomic bomb.

As director of the atomic lab at Los Alamos, N.M. -- a site he personally selected for its isolation and soothing desert vistas -- Oppenheimer threw himself into his work.

He recruited the nation’s top physicists and helped them crack the tremendous problems involved in splitting atoms. Under the strain, his weight -- previously a mere 130 pounds on a 6-foot frame -- fell to 115 pounds. It was super-sensitive work, and the Army required every man to undergo rigorous background checks.

In 1943, Oppenheimer reported to Army intelligence that Soviet agents were trying to root out information on the A-bomb. They had approached a friend of his, he said, a languages professor named Haakon Chevalier. Then, Chevalier had come to him with inquiries about getting data on microfilm, inquiries that went nowhere.

J. Robert Oppenheimer at the time of the Manhattan Project.

Army intelligence never went after Chevalier. Oppenheimer soon recanted his whole tale as a “cock-and-bull story” but never explained why he offered it. It was forgotten in the rush to build the A bomb, but would later come to stain Oppenheimer's reputation.

On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated. Oppenheimer, trembling nervously in an underground bunker, felt the rumble of the mightiest weapon ever devised by man, a blast with the power of' 20,000 tons of TNT.

His mind went to a line from India's national epic, the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds."
Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves look over the world's first atomic blast site.
The experience of using science as a fiery instrument of death haunted Oppie. "The physicists have known sin," he said, "and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose."

Yet, he never doubted the wisdom of using the A bomb to incinerate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 200,000 Japanese civilians by fire and radiation. It performed its mission  - winning the war and served as testimonial to what atomic weapons could do, he reasoned.

The success of the A bomb made Oppenheimer a national hero. From a wide choice of government and academic jobs, he took an offer from Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, an oasis of pure contemplation where scholars like Albert Einstein worked.

There, Oppenheimer could study physics and Eastern philosophy all he wanted, away from the pressures of the military industrial complex.

Oppie, his wife and two young children moved in 1947 in Olden Farm, a rambling white mansion on Olden Lane. An institute professor, Deane Montgomery, mockingly called it "Bourbon Manor" because of the booze that flowed freely there.

While Oppenheimer liked the academic atmosphere in Princeton, he also cherished his opportunity to serve as the government's chief scientific adviser on nuclear policy and chief consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission.

He used his considerable influence to urge the military to declassify more information so nuclear power could be used for peaceful purposes. But he enraged the bureaucrats and the brass with his arrogance.

For instance, in June 1949, Oppenheimer testified before Congress in favor of releasing radioactive isotopes to Norway for scientific study. Couldn't these materials be used for military purposes? he was asked.

"No one can force me to say you cannot use these isotopes for atomic energy," he said, sarcasm visible in his voice. “You can use a shovel for atomic energy. In fact, yon do."

A turning point came in September 1949, when the Soviets exploded their first A-bomb.

No longer did the United States enjoy a monopoly on the atomic secret. And the fact that the Soviets used spies to pry away precious data from Los Alamos compounded America's panic about its security.

President Harry S. Truman ordered the Los Alamos lab to embark on a new program to build a hydrogen bomb, a nuke whose explosive yield would be measured in millions, not thousands of tons.

Oppenheimer objected, on moral and practical grounds. The bomb, under the direction of Oppie’s old friend Edward Teller, was built anyway.

On Nov, 7, 1953, William Borden, the executive director of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, wrote a letter to the FBI.

In it he said that Oppenheimer was "a hardened Communist" and that "more probably than not he has been functioning as in espionage agent."

It was nonsense. But it gave pause for Dwight Eisenhower, the new president who was taking heat from Sen. Joe McCarthy for supposed failure to hunt down Communist security risks.

On Dec. 3, Ike ordered the feds "to place a blank wall" between Oppenheimer and all government agencies.

Oppenheimer's "Q" clearance, the pass that gave him access to top secret information, was swiftly suspended.

His Olden Lane home was wiretapped and placed under surveillance. Oppie fought back to the AEC, which filed a formal list of charges against him.

No. 1 on the list was Oppie's known association with Communists  - true enough, but something the feds had conveniently overlooked back in 1941.

No. 2 was the fact that the scientist had showed "insufficient enthusiasm" for the H bomb project, which could be said of dozens of other public officials.

The No. 3 charge was the most serious. It a alleged that Oppenheimer had lied, either by accusing his friend Chevalier of being a spy or by then denying it. It was a charge that Oppenheimer could not defend himself against.

In an AEC  hearing in Washington, where Oppie tried to get his clearance, he came under withering cross examination.

Was the story about Chevalier a lie? "Yes," Oppenheimer said.

Why did you tell it? "Because I was an idiot.”

Dozens of leading physicists around the nation, including Einstein, rallied to the defense of the "Father of' the Atomic Bomb."

But Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, sandbagged his old friend. He testified before the AEC that Oppenheimer seemed "confused and complicated."

"I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more," Teller said.

On June 29, 1954, the AEC formally took away Oppenheimer's security clearance. The scientist's deviousness, his opposition to hydrogen bombs and his ties to Communists were all cited. Oppenheimer never got the clearance back.

He went back to Princeton, a drained, mellower man whose hair had gone completely white in the political battle.

Oppie lacked much of his old sharpness, but still plunged himself into managing the Institute for Advanced Study and keeping up with physics advances.
In 1967, Oppenheimer died of throat cancer. He was 62.

"Scientists are not delinquents," he said in one of his last interviews. "Our work has changed the conditions in which men live, but the use made of those changes is the problem of governments, not of scientists."