We should have listened to Oppenheimer
J. Robert Oppenheimer’s San Francisco grandson shares lessons from his
grandfather he believes are still relevant today
Dec. 22, 2022
On Dec. 23, 1953, J. Robert Oppenheimer received a letter informing him
his security clearance was suspended as an Atomic Energy Commission
(AEC) consultant pending either a security hearing or his resignation.
His response: “Though of course I would have no desire to retain an
advisory position if my advice were not needed, I cannot ignore the
question you have raised, nor accept the suggestion that I am unfit for
By June 1954, the secret hearing had concluded and results became public
— revoking his security clearance and his service to the AEC only 32
hours before it would expire. This was shocking news at a time when he
was known as a famous war-hero scientist.
Making less news but still surprising: 68 years later, last week, the
Department of Energy (which replaced the AEC) announced that it has
reversed the decision to remove his security clearance.
Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm summarizes in the announcement:
“Historical evidence suggests that the decision to review Dr.
Oppenheimer’s clearance had less to do with a bona fide concern for the
security of restricted data and more to do with a desire on the part of
the political leadership of the AEC to discredit Dr. Oppenheimer in
public debates over nuclear weapons policy.”
As his grandson, I welcome the decision on behalf of the family,
although the primary advocates were not the family but his scientific
colleagues, historians, politicians and the very facts themselves. With
such a public and historical figure, family members often have little
control over what is said or portrayed. Over the coming year, there will
likely be more attention on JRO (as we call him) than in any time since
the 1950s — in no small part due to the Christopher Nolan “Oppenheimer”
movie scheduled to be released in July 2023 — and the fact that he
continues to be a man and a myth that people want to talk about.
While others generally speak for him instead of the family by writing
books, advocating legally, making operas and movies, I believe that we
have a role too in sharing his values and wisdom — especially in dealing
with the problems that we face today.
Persecuting scientists for not having enough enthusiasm in bomb creation
has been a black mark on our country and correcting that is a hopeful
improvement. Could we be on the cusp of a growing respect and trust for
science? Last week, the DOE also announced a breakthrough in fusion
energy in addition to this decision — a great week and great leadership
If we are able to learn from the history of nuclear policy, let’s look
back before my grandfather’s security hearing, to the end of World War
II and listen to scientists such as my grandfather and Niels Bohr.
JRO often spoke of the sense of duty and responsibility for the science
and technology we humans create. He thought deeply about that, and I’d
hope his words and actions might be looked at for inspiration by
technology creators today.
He believed in and loved science: “The deep things in science are not
found because they are useful: They are found because it was possible to
find them,” he said. Duty was the guiding principle in his life. During
a war, there was no question that he would fight with his countrymen
using all of his skills, including science. He never apologized for his
role in war, but his sense of duty didn’t end with victory. He continued
to feel he had a tremendous responsibility in dealing with the effects
of nuclear technology.
He wasn’t alone. The scientific community had clear foresight of what
could happen with nuclear technology — before the first bomb was
finished during the Manhattan Project in 1945. The Interim Committee
Scientific Panel provided their advice only days after the war ended.
They stated nuclear weapons would proliferate and get more powerful —
but never make us safer. They understood that there was no effective
defense against them, and the only way to deal with their threat was
international cooperation, based on science and openness.
The scientists’ advice wasn’t followed in the post-war years when JRO
had peak influence as a scientific war hero and governmental adviser.
Despite his efforts advocating for international control of nuclear
energy, we plunged into the nuclear arms race. The military-industrial
complex eventually ended Oppenheimer’s policy influence by revoking his
security clearance, a move now officially recognized as corrupt.
But he was right. The politicians and bureaucrats who believed the U.S.
could have a monopoly on nuclear weapons were proven wrong in a few
short years, to the peril of us all. We have since teetered on the edge
of destruction, with a peak of more than 70,000 nuclear weapons in the
1980s and many near misses. Although there has been progress — a series
of treaties and international agreements have helped reduce nuclear
arsenals to about 13,000 today — the danger is clearly still there, only
minutes away from destruction.
With some of our biggest existential threats including climate change
and nuclear weapons, it strikes me that the solution to both could be
what the progenitors of the technology suggested in the first place:
more scientific cooperation, more energy, and less bombs.
Some problems require urgency — and climate change has produced more
talk than action. We need action, and we could look at using the
original Manhattan Project as a model of an urgent effort, with some of
the best technologists recruited to lead it, against this existential
threat with high levels of funding and commitment. Reaching a
commensurate level of urgency and funding against climate change as the
Manhattan Project would be a start. That project cost about $34 billion
in today’s dollars. Today, we spend $60 billion annually in the U.S. on
nuclear weapons. There is plenty of room for prioritizing things that
make the world better, not worse.
If we could revive the level of cooperation that the scientists offered
as the solution to dealing with nuclear threats in 1945, we will have a
much better and safer future in front of us.
As J. Robert Oppenheimer said: “Mankind must unite — or we will perish.”
I see as much hope as peril in that statement.
Charles Oppenheimer is J. Robert Oppenheimer’s grandson who lives in San
Francisco. You can follow him on Twitter and visit the Oppenheimer