Oppenheimer security hearing
The Oppenheimer security hearing was a 1954 proceeding by the United States Atomic Energy Commission that explored the background, actions and associations of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American scientist who had headed the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb for the United States during World War II. The hearing resulted in Oppenheimer's top secret security clearance being revoked.
The hearing was a product of longstanding doubts about Oppenheimer's loyalty, and suspicions that he was a member of the Communist Party and might even have spied for the Soviet Union.
The proceedings were initiated after Oppenheimer refused to voluntarily give up his security clearance and was still working as an atomic weapons consultant for the government, under a contract due to expire at the end of June. A number of Oppenheimer's colleagues testified at the hearings, and as a result of the 2 to 1 decision of the hearings' three judges, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance shortly before his consultant contract was due to expire. The panel found that Oppenheimer was unusually discreet with atomic secrets, but that he was a "security risk."
The hearing marked the end of his formal relationship with the government of the United States and generated considerable controversy regarding whether the treatment of Oppenheimer was fair, or whether it was an expression of anti-Communist hysteria.
The hearing has been dramatized as a play and as a BBC television miniseries, and has been the subject of several books.
- 1 Background
- 2 The hearing
- 3 The board's decision
- 4 Aftermath and legacy
- 5 Notes
- 6 References
- 7 External links
The hearing, by an AEC Personnel Security Board, was a culmination of incidents in Oppenheimer's life dating back to the 1930s, when Oppenheimer was a member of numerous Communist front organizations and was associated with Communist Party members, including his wife and his brother. His associations were known to Army Counterintelligence at the time he was made director of the Manhattan Project. Postwar anti-Communist sentiment highlighted those concerns.
The hearing took place at a time of heightened concern over Communist infiltration of the U.S. government, at the height of the era of McCarthyism.
The Chevalier incident
One of his Communist associates in the years before World War II was a colleague at the University of California at Berkeley, a professor named Haakon Chevalier. In early 1943, after he had been named director of the Manhattan project, Chevalier had a brief conversation with Oppenheimer in the kitchen of his home. Chevalier told Oppenheimer that there was a scientist, George Eltenton, who could transmit information of a technical nature to the Soviet Union. Oppenheimer rejected the overture, but failed to report it for eight months.
Oppenheimer failed to promptly report the conversation. Instead, in August 1943, Oppenheimer volunteered to Manhattan Project security officers that three men at Los Alamos National Laboratory had been solicited for nuclear secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union, by a person he did not know who worked for Shell Oil, and who had Communist connections. He gave that person's name: George Eltenton. However, when pressed on the issue in later interviews with General Groves, who ordered him to give the names of these men and promised to keep their identity from the FBI, he finally identified the only contact who had approached him, as his friend Haakon Chevalier, a Berkeley professor of French literature who he said had mentioned the matter privately at a dinner at Oppenheimer's house. Oppenheimer would be asked again in 1947 for interviews related to the "Chevalier incident", and he gave contradictory and equivocating statements, telling government agents that actually only one scientist had been approached at Los Alamos, and that person was himself. This was by Chevalier, who at the time had supposedly said that he had a potential conduit through Eltenton for information which could be passed to the Soviets. Oppenheimer claimed to have invented the other contacts in order to conceal the identity of Chevalier, whose identity he believed would be immediately apparent if he named only one contact, but whom he believed to be innocent of any disloyalty. General Groves during the war had thought Oppenheimer too important to the ultimate Allied goals to oust him over this suspicious behavior; he was, Groves reported, "absolutely essential to the project." The 1943 fabrication and the shifting nature of his accounts figured prominently in the 1954 inquiry.
In his role as a political adviser, Oppenheimer made numerous enemies. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had been following his activities since before the war, when he showed Communist sympathies as a radical professor. They were willing to furnish Oppenheimer's political enemies with incriminating evidence about Communist ties. These enemies included Lewis Strauss, an AEC commissioner who had long harbored resentment against Oppenheimer both for his activity in opposing the hydrogen bomb and for his humiliation of Strauss before Congress some years earlier, regarding Strauss's opposition to the export of radioactive isotopes to other nations. Strauss and Senator Brien McMahon, author of the 1946 Atomic Energy Act, pushed President Eisenhower to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance. This came following controversies about whether some of Oppenheimer's students, including David Bohm, Joseph Weinberg, and Bernard Peters, had been Communists at the time they had worked with him at Berkeley.
Oppenheimer was called to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he admitted that he had associations with the Communist Party in the 1930s, where he named some of his students as being Communists or closely associated with them. Frank Oppenheimer was subsequently fired from his university position, could not find work in physics for five years, and became for a time a cattle rancher in Colorado, and later the founder of the San Francisco Exploratorium.
Oppenheimer had also found himself in the middle of more than one controversy and power struggle, in the years from 1949 to 1953. Edward Teller, who had been so uninterested in work on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during the war that Oppenheimer had (instead of firing him) actually given him time instead to work on his own project of the hydrogen bomb, had eventually left Los Alamos to help found, in 1951, a second laboratory at what would become the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. There, he could be free of Los Alamos control to weaponize and develop the hydrogen bomb (the first of which had actually been developed at Los Alamos). Livermore laboratory would go on to develop long-range jet-bomber delivered thermonuclear "strategic weapons" (city-destroyers) which would necessarily be under control of the relatively new Air Force. By contrast, Oppenheimer had pushed for smaller "tactical" nuclear weapons which would be more useful in a limited theater against enemy troops, and which would be under control of the Army. As these two branches of the service fought for control of nuclear weapons, often allied with different political parties, the Air Force, with Teller pushing its program, had begun to gain ascendance in the Republican controlled government, after the election of Eisenhower in 1952.
The Borden letter
In November 1953, J. Edgar Hoover was sent a letter concerning Oppenheimer by William Liscum Borden, former executive director of Congress' Joint Atomic Energy Committee. In the letter, Borden stated his opinion "based upon years of study, of the available classified evidence, that more probably than not J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union."
The letter was based upon the government's massive investigative dossier on Oppenheimer, which had included "eleven years' minute surveillance of the scientist's life." His office and home had been bugged, his telephone tapped and his mail had been opened.
Borden's letter stated as follows:
This opinion considers the following factors, among others.
1. The evidence indicating that as of April 1942: (a) He was contributing substantial monthly sums to the Communist Party; (b) His ties with communism had survived the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Soviet attack upon Finland; (c) His wife and younger brother were Communists; (d) He had no close friends except Communists; (e) He had at least one Communist mistress; (f) He belonged only to Communist organizations, apart from professional affiliations; (g) The people whom he recruited into the early wartime Berkeley atom project were exclusively Communists; (h) He had been instrumental in securing recruits for the Communist Party, and (i) He was in frequent contact with Soviet Espionage agents.
2. The evidence indicating that: (a) In May 1942, he either stopped contributing funds to the Communist Party or else made his contributions though a new channel not yet discovered; (b) In April 1943 his name was formally submitted for security clearance; (c) He himself was aware at the time that his name had been so submitted and (d) He thereafter repeatedly gave false information to General Groves, Manhattan District, and the FBI concerning the 1939-April 1942 period.
3. The evidence indicating that: (a) He was responsible for employing a number of Communists, some of them not technical, at wartime Los Alamos; (b) He selected one such individual to write the official Los Alamos history; (c) He was a vigorous supporter of the H-bomb program until August 6, 1945, (Hiroshima), on which day he personally urged each senior individual working in this field to desist; and (d) He was an enthusiastic sponsor of the A-bomb program until the war ended, when he immediately and outspokenly advocated the Los Alamos Laboratory be disbanded.
4. The evidence indicating that: (a) He was remarkably instrumental in influencing the military authorities and the Atomic Energy Commission essentially to suspend H-bomb development from mid-1946 through January 31, 1950 [the date of President Truman's public announcement that the United States, in answer to the new Soviet atomic bomb, would seek to build an H-bomb] (b) He has worked tirelessly, from January 31, 1950, onward to retard the United States H-bomb program; (c) He has used his potent influence against every postwar effort to expand capacity for producing A-bomb material; (d) He has used his potent influence against every postwar effort directed at obtaining larger supplies of uranium raw material; and (e) He has used his potent influence against every major postwar effort toward atomic power development, including the nuclear-powered submarine and aircraft programs as well as industrial power projects.
The letter also pointed out that Oppenheimer had worked against development of the hydrogen bomb, and had worked against postwar atomic energy development, including nuclear power plants and nuclear submarines. The letter concluded:
1. Between 1939 and mid-1942, more probably than not, J. Robert Oppenheimer was sufficiently hardened Communist that he either volunteered espionage information to the Soviets or complied with a request for such information. (This includes the possibility that when he singled out the weapons aspect of atomic development as his personal specialty, he was acting under Soviet instructions.) 2. More probably than not, he has since been functioning as an espionage agent; and 3. More probably than not, he has since acted under a Soviet directive in influencing United States military, atomic energy, intelligence, and diplomatic policy.
The contents of the letter were not new, and some had been known when Oppenheimer was first cleared for atomic war work. Yet that information had not prompted anyone to seek Oppenheimer's removal from government service.
Despite the lack of new evidence, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered that a "blank wall" be placed between Oppenheimer and the nation's atomic secrets.
On December 21, 1953, Oppenheimer was told by Lewis Strauss that his security file had been subject to two recent re-evaluations because of new screening criteria, and because a former government official had drawn attention to Oppenheimer's record. Strauss said that his clearance had been suspended, pending resolution of a series of charges outlined in a letter, and discussed his resigning. Oppenheimer chose not to resign, and requested a hearing instead. The charges were outlined in a letter from Kenneth D. Nichols, general manager of the AEC. Pending resolution of the charges, Oppenheimer's security clearance was suspended. Oppenheimer told Strauss that some of what was in Nichols' letter was correct, others incorrect.
Board composition and procedures
The hearing was held at a temporary building near the Washington Monument housing offices of the Atomic Energy Commission. It began on April 12, 1954, and lasted four weeks. The AEC was represented by Roger Robb, an experienced prosecutor in Washington, and Arthur Rolander, while Oppenheimer's legal team was headed by Lloyd K. Garrison, a prominent New York attorney. The chairman of the Personnel Security Board was Gordon Gray, president of the University of North Carolina. The other members of the hearing panel were Thomas Alfred Morgan, a retired industrialist, and Ward V. Evans, chairman of the chemistry department at Northwestern University. The hearing was not open to the public and initially was not publicized. At the commencement of the hearing, Gray stated the hearing was "strictly confidential," and pledged that no information related to the hearing would be released. However, a few weeks after the conclusion of the hearing, contrary to this assurance, a verbatim transcript of the hearing was released by the AEC. Oppenheimer and Garrison also breached the confidentiality of the hearing, by communicating with New York Times journalist James Reston, who wrote an article on the hearing that appeared on the second day of the hearing.
Garrison applied for an emergency security clearance prior to the hearing, as one had been granted to Robb. However, no clearance was granted during the course of the hearing, which meant that Oppenheimer's attorneys were not granted access to the secrets that Robb was able to see. On at least three occasions, Garrison and his co-counsel were barred from the hearing room for security reasons, leaving Oppenheimer unrepresented, in violation of AEC regulations. During the course of the hearing, Robb repeatedly cross-examined Oppenheimer's witnesses utilizing top-secret documents unavailable to Oppenheimer's lawyers. He often read aloud from those documents, despite their secret status.
The AEC's former general counsel Joseph Volpe had urged Oppenheimer to retain a tough litigator as his attorney. However, Garrison's demeanor was gentle and cordial, while Robb was adversarial. Garrison voluntarily provided the board and Robb with a list of his witnesses, but Robb refused to extend the same courtesy. This gave Robb a clear advantage in his cross-examination of Oppenheimer's witnesses.
Members of the hearing panel met with Robb prior to the hearing to review the contents of Oppenheimer's FBI file. This was because the "blank pad rule," which was applied to most federal agencies in 1946, did not apply to the hearing. Garrison asked for the opportunity to review the file with the panel, which was rejected.
One observer commented that Robb "did not treat Oppenheimer as a witness in his own case, but as a person charged with high treason."
Scope of testimony
As outlined in the 3,500-word Nichols letter, the hearing focused on 24 allegations, 23 of which dealt with Oppenheimer's Communist and left-wing affiliations between 1938 and 1946, including his delayed and false reporting of the Chevalier incident to authorities. The twenty-fourth charge related to his opposition to the hydrogen bomb. By including the hydrogen bomb, the AEC changed the character of the hearing, by opening up an inquiry into his activities as a postwar government adviser.
Oppenheimer testified for a total of 27 hours. His demeanor was far different than it had been in his previous interrogations, such as his appearance before the House Un-American Activities. Under cross-examination by Robb, who had access to top-secret information such as surveillance recordings, Oppenheimer was "often anguished, sometimes surprisingly inarticulate, frequently apologetic about his past and even self-castigating."
One of the key elements in this hearing was Oppenheimer's earliest testimony about George Eltenton's approach to various Los Alamos scientists, a story that Oppenheimer confessed he had fabricated to protect his friend Haakon Chevalier. Unknown to Oppenheimer, both versions were recorded during his interrogations of a decade before, and was surprised on the witness stand with transcripts of these, which he had had no chance to review. Under questioning by Robb, Oppenheimer admitted that he had lied to Boris Pash, an Army counterintelligence officer, concerning the approach from Chevalier. Asked why he had fabricated a story that three people had been approached for espionage, Oppenheimer responded, "Because I was an idiot."
General Leslie Groves, testifying as a witness for the AEC and against Oppenheimer, reaffirmed his decision to hire Oppenheimer. Groves said that Oppenheimer's refusal to report Chevalier was "the typical American school boy attitude that there is something wicked about telling on a friend." Under questioning from Robb, Groves said that under the security criteria in effect in 1954, he "would not clear Dr. Oppenheimer today."
Much of the questioning of Oppenheimer concerned his role in the hiring for Los Alamos of his former students Rossi Lomanitz and Joseph Weinberg, both members of the Communist Party.
Edward Teller was opposed to the hearing, feeling it was improper to subject Oppenheimer to a security trial, but was torn by longstanding grievances against him. He was called by Robb to testified against Oppenheimer, and shortly before he appeared he showed Teller a dossier of items unfavorable to Oppenheimer. Teller testified that he considered him loyal, but that "in a great number of cases, I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer act – I understand that Dr. Oppenheimer acted – in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand. I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated. To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more." Asked whether Oppenheimer should be granted a security clearance, Teller said that "if it is a question of wisdom or judgment, as demonstrated by actions since 1945, then I would say one would be wiser not to grant clearance." This led to outrage by many in the scientific community and Teller's ostracism and virtual expulsion from academic science.
Many top scientists, as well as government and military figures, testified on Oppenheimer's behalf. Among them were Enrico Fermi, Isidor Isaac Rabi, Hans Bethe, John J. McCloy, James B. Conant and Vannevar Bush, as well as two former AEC chairmen and three former commissioners. Also testifying on behalf of Oppenheimer was John Lansdale, Jr., a former Army counterintelligence officer who was involved in the Army's surveillance and investigation of Oppenheimer during the war. Lansdale testified that Oppenheimer was not a Communist, and that he was "loyal and discreet". Ernest Lawrence said he was unable to testify at the hearing because of illness. On April 26, Lawrence suffered his most severe colitis attack yet. The next day, Lawrence called Lewis Strauss and told him that his brother, a doctor, had ordered him to return home and he would not be testifying. Lawrence suffered with colitis until his death, on August 27, 1958, while undergoing colostomy surgery.
The board's decision
Oppenheimer's clearance was revoked by a 2–1 vote of the panel. Gray and Morgan voted in favor, Evans against. The board rendered its decision on May 27, 1954, in a 15,000-word letter to AEC General Manager Kenneth Nichols. It found that 20 of the 24 charges were either true or substantially true. The board found that while he had been opposed to the bomb and that his lack of enthusiasm for it had affected the attitude of other scientists, that he had not actively discouraged scientists from working on the H-bomb, as had been alleged in Nichols' letter. It found that "there is no evidence that he was a member of the [Communist] party in the strict sense of the word," and concluded that he is a "loyal citizen." It said that he "had a high degree of discretion, reflecting an unusual ability to keep to himself vital secrets," but that he had "a tendency to be coerced, or at least influenced in conduct, for a period of years."
The board found that Oppenheimer's association with Chevalier "is not the kind of thing that our security system permits on the part of one who customarily has access to information of the highest classification."
The board concluded that "Oppenheimer's continuing conduct reflect a serious disregard for the requirements of the security system," that he was susceptible "to influence which could have serious implications for the security interests of the country," that his attitude toward the H-bomb program raised doubt about whether his future participation "would be consistent with the best interests of security," and that Oppenheimer had been "less than candid in several instances" in his testimony.
In a brief dissent, Evans argued that Oppenheimer's security clearance should be reinstated. He pointed out that most of the AEC charges were in the hands of the AEC when it cleared Oppenheimer in 1947, and that "to deny him clearance now for what he was cleared for in 1947, when we must know he is less of security risk now than he was then, seems to be hardly the procedure to be adopted in a free country." Evans said that his association with Chevalier did not indicate disloyalty, and that he did not hinder development of the H-bomb. Evans said he personally thought that "our failure to clear Dr. Oppenheimer will be black mark on the escutcheon of our country," and expressed concern about the effect an improper decision may have on the country's scientific development.
Nichols findings and AEC decision
In a harshly worded memorandum to the AEC on June 12, 1954, AEC General Manager Kenneth Nichols recommended that Oppenheimer's security clearance not be reinstated. In five "security findings," Nichols said that Oppenheimer was "a Communist in every sense except that he did not carry a party card," and that the Chevalier incident indicated that Oppenheimer "is not reliable or trustworthy, and that his misstatements might have represented criminal conduct. He said that Oppenheimer's "obstruction and disregard for security" showed "a consistent disregard of a reasonable security system." The Nichols memorandum was not made public or provided to Oppenheimer's lawyers, who were also not allowed to appear before the AEC.
On June 29, 1954, the AEC upheld the findings of the Personnel Security Board, with five commissioners voting in favor and one opposed. The decision was rendered 32 hours before Oppenheimer's consultant contract, and with it the need for a clearance, was due to expire.
In his majority opinion, Strauss said that Oppenheimer had displayed "fundamental character defects." He said that Oppenheimer "in his associations had repeatedly exhibited a willful disregard of the normal and proper obligations of security," and that he "has defaulted not once but many times upon the obligations that should and must be willingly borne by citizens in the national service."
Despite the promise of confidentiality, the AEC released the full transcript of the hearing in June 1954, after press publicity of the hearing.
Aftermath and legacy
Oppenheimer was seen by many in the scientific community as a martyr to McCarthyism (named for Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin), an intellectual and progressive who was unjustly attacked by warmongering enemies, symbolic of the shift of scientific creativity from academia into the military. Wernher von Braun summed up his opinion about the matter with a quip to a Congressional committee: "In England, Oppenheimer would have been knighted."
Most popular depictions of Oppenheimer view his security struggles as a confrontation between right-wing militarists (symbolized by Edward Teller) and left-wing intellectuals (symbolized by Oppenheimer) over the moral question of weapons of mass destruction. Many historians have contested this as an oversimplification. In 1964, when a German playwright produced a play on the hearing, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer reacted bitterly to his portrayal as a martyr. He said, "The whole damn thing [his security hearing] was a farce, and these people are trying to make a tragedy out of it."
Time magazine literary critic Richard Lacayo, in a 2005 review of two new books about Oppenheimer, said of the hearing: "As an effort to prove that he had been a party member, much less one involved in espionage, the inquest was a failure. Its real purpose was larger, however: to punish the most prominent American critic of the U.S. move from atomic weapons to the much more lethal hydrogen bomb." After the hearing, Lacayo said, "Oppenheimer would never again feel comfortable as a public advocate for a sane nuclear policy."
Cornell University historian Richard Polenberg, noting that Oppenheimer testified about the left-wing behavior of his colleagues, speculated that if his clearance had not been stripped, he would have been remembered as someone who had "named names" to save his own reputation.
A 2002 book by Gregg Herken, a senior historian at the Smithsonian Institution, based on newly discovered documentation, contended that Oppenheimer was a member of the Communist Party. In a seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Institute on May 20, 2009, and based on an extensive analysis of the Vassiliev notebooks taken from the KGB archives, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev concluded that Oppenheimer never was involved in espionage for the Soviets. The KGB tried repeatedly to recruit him, but never was successful. Allegations that he had spied for the Soviets are unsupported, and in some instances, contradicted by voluminous KGB and Venona documentation released after the fall of the Soviet Union. In addition, he had several persons removed from the Manhattan project who had sympathies to the Soviet Union.
Oppenheimer died of cancer in 1967, having received the 1963 Enrico Fermi Award from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, but still without security clearance.
The hearing was dramatized in a 1964 play by German playwright Heinar Kipphardt, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer objected to the play, threatening suit and decrying "improvisations which were contrary to history and to the nature of the people involved," including its portrayal of him as viewing the bomb as a "work of the devil." His letter to Kipphardt said, "You may well have forgotten Guernica, Dachau, Coventry, Belsen, Warsaw, Dresden and Tokyo. I have not." In a response, Kipphardt offered to make corrections but defended the play.
The play premiered on Broadway in June 1968, with Joseph Wiseman in the Oppenheimer role. New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes called it an "angry play and a partisan play" that sided with Oppenheimer but portrayed the scientist as a "tragic fool and genius."
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