Science and Invention

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Why was Oppenheimer investigated for disloyalty to the United States?

American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967), who had directed the Los Alamos, New Mexico, laboratory where the first atomic bomb was developed and built, was investigated by the government in 1953 and 1954 because of his opposition to the United States’ development of a hydrogen bomb. He was also suspected of having ties with the Communist Party, and therefore was viewed as a security risk.

Following World War II (1939–45), Oppenheimer, seeing the devastating and awesome power of the atomic bomb his laboratory had created, became a vocal advocate of international control of atomic energy. When the United States began developing the hydrogen bomb (also called a “thermonuclear bomb” because of the high temperatures that it requires in order to create a reaction), Oppenheimer objected on both moral and technical grounds: The hydrogen bomb is a far more destructive weapon than the atomic bomb.

In 1953 Oppenheimer was suspended from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) because he was believed to pose a threat to national security. Hearings were held, but the New York-born scientist was cleared of charges of disloyalty. A decade later, in 1963, the organization gave Oppenheimer its highest honor, the Enrico Fermi Award, for his contributions to theoretical physics. Indeed, Oppenheimer had done much to further the science during his lifetime: As a member of the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, he established a center for research in theoretical physics; he also taught at the California Institute of Technology; and he served as director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, from 1947 to 1966. There he knew German-born physicist Albert Einstein (1879–1955), who accepted a position at the institute in 1933 and remained there until his death in 1955.


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