Secrecy News

Transcript of 1954 Oppenheimer Hearing Declassified in Full

The transcript of the momentous 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing that led the AEC to revoke the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who had led the Manhattan Project to produce the first atomic bomb, has now been declassified in full by the Department of Energy.

“The Department of Energy has re-reviewed the original transcript and is making available to the public, for the first time, the full text of the transcript in its original form,” according to a notice posted on Friday.

The Oppenheimer hearing was a watershed event that signaled a crisis in the nuclear weapons bureaucracy and a fracturing of the early post-war national security consensus. Asked for his opinion of the proceedings at the time, Oppenheimer told an Associated Press reporter (cited by Philip Stern) that “People will study the record of this case and reach their own conclusions. I think there is something to be learned from it.”

And so there is. But what?

“No document better explains the America of the cold war — its fears and resentments, its anxieties and dilemmas,” according to Richard Polenberg, who produced an abridged edition of the hearing transcript in 2002 based on the redacted original. “The Oppenheimer hearing also serves as a reminder of the fragility of individual rights and of how easily they may be lost.”

It further represented a breakdown in relations between scientists and the U.S. government and within the scientific community itself.

“The Oppenheimer hearing claims our attention not only because it was unjust but because it undermined respect for independent scientific thinking at a time when such thinking was desperately needed,” wrote historian Priscilla J. McMillan.

First published in redacted form by the Government Printing Office in 1954, the Oppenheimer hearing became a GPO best-seller and went on to inform countless historical studies.

The transcript has attracted intense scholarly attention even to some of its finer details. At one point (Volume II, p. 281), for example, Oppenheimer is quoted as saying “I think you can’t make an anomalous rise twice.” What he actually said, according to author Philip M. Stern, was “I think you can’t make an omelet rise twice.”

The Department of Energy has previously declassified some portions of the Oppenheimer transcript in response to FOIA requests. But this is said to be the first release of the entire unredacted text. It is part of a continuing series of DOE declassifications of historical records of documents of particular historic value and public interest.

The newly declassified portions are helpfully consolidated and cross-referenced in a separate volume entitled “Record of Deletions.”

At first glance, it is not clear that the new disclosures will substantially revise or add to previous understandings of the Oppenheimer hearing. But their release does finally remove a blemish of secrecy from this historic case.

3 thoughts on “Transcript of 1954 Oppenheimer Hearing Declassified in Full

  1. I support them putting things online, but the way they handled this case is super frustrating. I located these files — they were lost in the NARA system for many years, having been miscategorized. I had been looking for them since seeing Polenberg give a talk in 2004 in which he said that they were apparently lost.

    The markings at NARA indicate that a declassification effort was apparently begun in the 1990s but stopped for some unknown reason; several volumes were declassified but many were not. I filed asked NARA to review the remaining volumes in a FOIA request filed in 2009. NARA sat on the FOIA request for 3 years doing nothing with it (despite me asking them about its progress, and emphasizing its academic importance, at regular intervals). Finally they sent it on to DOE to evaluate in 2012. They released a few other volumes in 2013. No new information was given to me about the remaining files until they posted them online — giving me no notice whatsoever, and giving me no credit in locating them, and make it look like it was the result of an internal interest in the files rather than prodding from an outside historian.

    I am all in favor of the DOE declassifying historical records and making them public. I just wish they could give a little credit where it was due, and maybe not use posting things online as a way of skirting around the FOIA process, especially for scholars, where our ability to make use of the material makes a big difference from a career point of view, and it is misleading of them to make it look like they released this just as a matter of course, and not as the result of a FOIA request.

  2. If you read “Special Tasks” you get the other side of the story from the man who ran the program for the Soviet government. “Priority One for the Soviet Union” was the name of the project. Oppenheimer was given a list of 6 people to get on the project and he did get them on it despite strenuous objections by military intelligence on at least 2 of the people. His handler worked out of the Mexico City embassy. Guilty as sin at least according to the man who ran the project from the other side.

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