Grudges Were Behind the Drive To Topple Oppenheimer

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Less than a year after the United States exploded two atomic bombs in Japan, the federal government established agencies to oversee the future of this powerful but short-lived monopoly.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who directed the bomb's development, chaired one body, the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. Serving with him were other scientists, making the GAC the most influential and respected panel on atomic energy.

By the end of April 1954, Oppenheimer would be denied further input into U.S. nuclear policy, his strongest enemy would be hailed (wrongly) as the "father of the H-bomb," and the arms race he predicted on the spot where the first A-bomb was tested was in full and dangerous advance.

Patricia McMillan, a historian at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, focuses on the campaign to discredit Oppenheimer, an effort that received strong support from both President Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

As McMillan proves, the FBI was used legally and probably illegally to build a case against the scientist. Agents not only wiretapped Oppenheimer's phones but also bugged privileged conversations between him and his attorney and gave the information to his prosecutors.

Two months before his contract with the Atomic Energy Commission would expire in '54, a kangaroo court of the AEC canceled Oppenheimer's security clearance, something that would have happened automatically when his contract ended.

McMillan argues that the move was purely punitive and personal, orchestrated by AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss and supported by Edward Teller, a former Manhattan Project colleague.

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