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In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer

October 31, 2011

I found another treasure for my bookshelves recently, and I want to talk about it on this blog. 

One of my favorite books was published in 1954 by the Government Printing Office (for the US Atomic Energy Commission) in two parts: 

  • In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer:  Transcript of Hearing before Personnel Security Board (Washington DC, April 12, 1954 through May 6, 1954); and
  • In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer:  Texts of Principal Documents and Letters of Personnel Security Board, General Manager, Commissioners (Washington DC, May 27, 1954 through June 29, 1954)

oppenheimerAs I discuss below, these volumes quickly became rare, so MIT Press in 1970 republished them (photo-offset from the original GPO publication) in a single volume together with a preface by Philip Stern, a new index, and for materials from the second volume, a dual page numbering system (pages both as numbered originally and in continuous numbering from the start).

I have owned the MIT volume in paperback since I was in graduate school, and it has become an old friend – indeed, I wore out several copies; but I found a hardcover copy in nearly perfect condition, which should serve me for many, many years.  (The image is of the MIT paperback edition.)

The volume is a record of a hearing held by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) on the security clearance for J. Robert Oppenheimer, a Berkeley physicist who was appointed the head of the secret Los Alamos laboratory that developed the atomic bomb in World War II (ultimately used against Japan.)  After the war, Oppenheimer remained a consultant to the AEC (initially he was chair of its General Advisory Committee) where he opposed development of the hydrogen bomb – a recommendation that was not followed (indeed, then President Harry Truman personally ordered a crash program for its development.)  Oppenheimer attracted many enemies, and during the McCarthy period he was attacked for indirect links with the Communist Party – his brother Frank and some of his students had been party members during the Depression.  In a split 2 to 1 division, Oppenheimer’s security clearance was lifted, which removed him from government work.

Stern describes how the volume came to be printed by the GPO in the first place:

Initially, the transcript of the hearing was never intended for publication.  Indeed, from the opening moments of the case, Chairman Gray both admonished and assured those present that the proceedings were to be kept strictly confidential.  But … the existence of the trial became public knowledge on its second day, and the publication of both the AEC’s [Atomic Energy Commission] charges, and later, of the Gray Board’s adverse verdict caused wide-spread public controversy.  The Gray Board opinion, in particular, came under particular fire for its apparent inconsistency in finding Oppenheimer both loyal and unusually discrete with secrets, but nonetheless a “security risk.”  Shortly after that opinion became public, the AEC decided to publish the transcript, notwithstanding Gray’s assurance that this would not be done.  This was rationalized in part by a purported fear that some extensive excerpts from the transcript, lost by one of the AEC Commissioners, might suddenly become public.  But, since the missing document was recovered intact in a matter of hours, many believe that the AEC’s real motive was to soften the public criticism of its prosecution of Oppenheimer and, particularly, of the Gray Board opinion….

Although the Government Printing Office (which performed a printing miracle by typesetting, printing and binding this massive book in about 48 hours) …

Let’s stop there for a moment.  Please recall that this book was published in 1948, so without any computer support, typesetting, printing, and binding the 1065 pages that form these two books was remarkable indeed (the MIT addition has about 35 pages of additional material).

Although the Government Printing Office (which performed a printing miracle by typesetting, printing and binding this massive book in about 48 hours) printed several thousand copies of the transcript and sold all of them, as the years went by the document became almost mysteriously fugitive.  Although it was available in the public library, copies in the hands of private persons interested in the case almost always seemed to have disappeared, been thrown out or, often, lent to some forgotten (and forgetful person and never returned.  I am told that the Editors of The M.I.T. Press even had difficult locating a copy from which to print this volume.

Now, I suppose I should here defend discussing this book on this blog – it clearly is not related to the Bible or Translation, so it must fall under the category of Literature.  What is the literary merit of this volume?

The transcript of the hearing itself forms a type of natural literature.  The story itself is a tragedy and parable on many levels, and seems to be as relevant today (even in our post-Cold War period) as it was in 1954 or 1970.  Indeed, the material has received at least four adaptations that come to mind:

Stern, in his MIT Press foreword, says that the volume may be important to various audiences:

It is of interest to the historian, for in these pages the reader will find remarkable insights into, if not miniature portraits of, three distinct and important periods of twentieth century American history:  first, the depression-ridden thirties, with the attendant disillusionment about the American system and the attraction toward the Left; second, the immediate postwar period, when our “gallant wartime ally,” the Soviets, became our cold war adversaries and the political mood shifted sharply rightward; and third, the era of “McCarthyism,” at the height of which the Oppenheimer proceeding took place….

This volume also holds special interest for lawyers, for, as the only complete public transcript of a security hearing, it lays bare the procedural injustices inherent in the so-called loyalty-security system….  In particlar this hearing revealed in unique detail the shocking extent to which the United States government in the name of “security” can and does pry into the most intimate details of a citizen’s life.  For eleven years Oppenheimer’s mail was opened; his telephone calls were monitored; his office and his home were “bugged”; his every movement was followed, even extending to a night spent with a former fiancée in Berkeley following the war.  All of this official snooping is justified as protecting our “freedom” from totalitarian control.

Novelists (and, perhaps, psychologists too) may be drawn to the human elements of this trial – especially the portrait of that most remarkable and enigmatic man, J. Robert Oppenheimer.  His intellectual brilliance is almost legendary; so, to a lesser extent, is his reputation for arrogance.  Why, then, did he permit himself to be bested, cornered, browbeaten by Roger Robb, and finally driven, bent over, wringing his hands, to blurt out that he had been “an idiot” (page 137)?  Oppenheimer’s self-deprecatory posture is the more remarkable when compared with his appearance, just five years earlier, before the House Un-American Activities Committee, when his self-assured answers to many of the same questions wholly persuaded the hard-bitten members of that Committee, including the then-Congressman Richard Nixon.

In short, the transcript of this hearing is drama of the first order – all the more remarkable when one considers it is a transcript of a hearing.  It may be that for most readers this is too much (each page contains about 70 lines of tiny print with up to 20 words per line –- so the work is much more massive than its 1000+ pages indicate), and they may be better served by Polenberg’s abridgement (as mentioned before, a quarter of the size of the original and currently on sale at Amazon for less than $10.)  But for me, I find myself drawn into the exciting details of the case and the transcript vividly evokes the personalities quoted inside it. 

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