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.