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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 122-124

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Richard Polenberg, ed., In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Security Clearance Hearing. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002. 409 pp. $45.00.

Shortly after the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) voted in 1954 to deny reinstatement of J. Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance in the wake of a tumultuous four-week hearing, a reporter asked the eminent physicist for his assessment of the AEC decision against him. "People will study the record of this case and reach their own conclusions," Oppenheimer replied. "I think there is something to be learned from it." Indeed there is. The Oppenheimer case was the very template of an official security investigation run amok, in which the full weight of the government security bureaucracy was brought to bear against a single individual on a questionable andshifting pretext, the norms of due process were discarded, and an absurd conclusion was reached: that Oppenheimer, the man who did more than anyone else to ensure the success of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, was unfit to hold a security clearance.

The transcript of the proceeding is a dark jewel of many facets. It is, to begin with, an exceptionally engaging legal drama, featuring a resplendent cast of characters who come to praise or to bury Oppenheimer. "It is only the great sinners who become the great saints," observed George F. Kennan (p.147), when urging the AEC Personnel [End Page 122] Security Board to place Oppenheimer's past radical associations and security infractions in perspective. Perhaps the most famous portion of the hearing was the damning testimony of Edward Teller, who said "I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more" (p.253). Yet even Teller did not believe that there was any security basis for denying his old friend and adversary a clearance: "Dr. Oppenheimer's character is such that he would not knowingly and willingly do anything that is designed to endanger the safety of this country" (p.264).

One is driven inescapably to the conclusion that the entire proceeding was only nominally about Oppenheimer's fitness to handle classified information. Rather, despite the Board's insistence to the contrary, it seems clear that security clearance procedures were employed in this case to regulate the boundaries of expert opinion, especially opinion about the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

Beyond the particulars of Oppenheimer's record, the transcript of the proceeding is a rich primary source on the wartime history of the nuclear bomb program, the scientific and political controversy over the development of the hydrogen bomb, the elements of U.S. military strategy in the early Cold War, the role of scientific advisers in the policy process, and of course the nature and function of the personnel security system during the McCarthy era. Richard Polenberg's new edition of the Oppenheimer hearing transcript presents approximately one-quarter of the original text. It includes most of the testimony from the most significant witnesses but excludes various procedural digressions and other material deemed secondary. The Polenberg edition has a number of important virtues, beginning with the fact that it brings this classic back into print, three decades after the original 1954 edition was reprinted by MIT Press in 1971. Whereas the original volume extended over a thousand pages of tiny, densely packed type and was nearly unreadable for more than a few pages at a time, the new edition is handsomely produced with a decently sized typeface and is a pleasure to read.

Polenberg also provides a helpful introduction to orient readers who have forgotten or never knew the historical context of the proceeding, and he offers a capsule interpretation of its larger meaning. Naturally, this brief survey cannot substitute for the kind of full-scale exegesis of the hearing memorably provided by Philip M. Stern in his 1969 book The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), which is cited by...