Even individuals who had proven their loyalty in the war effort were under suspicion. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb himself, became embroiled in the hysteria of the early Cold War.1
Before accepting a position as chief scientific administrator on the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer had supported the Communist party in the United States, though he never became an official member. Despite having cut off his political associations, he was placed under surveillance through his time directing the Manhattan Project and service as chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's General Advisory Committee. And regardless of his support for the American cause during World War II, his leftist political leanings were never forgotten by his superiors. Oppenheimer was eventually required to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. There, he admitted his past ties with the Communist party but denied involvement in espionage activities. Despite refusing to name Communist members, no punitive actions where taken against him by HUAC.
It was not until several years later that Oppenheimer was successfully attacked by anti-Communist officials. In 1954 his Top Secret security clearance was suspended by the AEC on the recommendation of Lewis Strauss and Edward Teller.2 Under pressure to resign, Oppenheimer demanded a hearing in which he could request the reinstatement of his clearance. The hearing began on April 12, 1954 and encompassed testimony on his political affiliations, contact with a Soviet spy during his time on the Manhattan Project, and his personal relationships with Communist party members. Ultimately, Oppenheimer’s clearance was revoked and he left the AEC.3 After the fall of the Soviet Union, KGB documents were released suggesting that Oppenheimer had never worked as a Soviet spy despite requests that he do so.
It was not until the late 1950s that the Red Scare began to calm. During that time, several politicians including John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and, most famously, Senator Joseph McCarthy were made household names through their anti-Communist activities.
At the time it was difficult for American security agents to discern the scope and impact of Soviet espionage. Soviet nuclear progress spoke for itself, however. Despite a number of arrests and heavy social and political backlash against openly leftist American citizens, the Soviet Union conducted its first atomic bomb test in 1949 and had built an impressive arsenal by the mid-1950s, doing so years before American experts had anticipated.
- 0576. Major, John. The Oppenheimer Hearings. New York: Stein and Day, 1971. QC16.O62 M3 1971. Return to text ↑
- 0587. United States Atomic Energy Commission. In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Texts of Principal Documents and Letters of Personnel Security Board General Manager Commissioners. Washington, D.C. May 27, 1954-June 29, 1954. Washington, D.C.: USGPO, 1954. Return to text ↑
- 0591. Wilson, Thomas W. The Great Weapons Heresy. The Struggle Behind our Present Nuclear Dilemma as Reflected in the Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. QC16.O62 W5 1970. Return to text ↑