Heritage talk recalls Oppenheimer hearings

-A A +A
By Roger Snodgrass

Introduced by archivist Roger Meade as one of the “giants of our past,” a former division leader of Los Alamos National Laboratory gave an insider story of the community’s reaction to the revocation of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance more than half a century ago.

Oppenheimer was the lab’s first director during World War II and the Manhattan Project’s race to build the atomic bomb.

Fred Ribe began working at the laboratory in 1951, where he worked for 26 years before going on to teach at the University of Texas and the University of Washington.

The subject he chose for a talk in the lab’s Heritage Series July 21, was about events surrounding the Oppenheimer hearings of the Personnel Security Board of the Atomic Energy Commission. Ribe played a role in the controversy during the first years of his own career.

During “a political climate that condoned witch hunts,” as Meade called it, Oppenheimer’s personal loyalties and political sympathies were called into question during a grueling month in Washington in 1953.

Although the board, chaired by Gordon Gray, came to the “clear conclusion” that Oppenheimer was “a loyal citizen,” it concluded that his past associations and his “susceptibility to influence” and his “conduct in the hydrogen bomb program” were disturbing enough to raise doubt about whether his future participation would be in the best interest of national security.

Ribe’s talk focused on the published transcripts of the hearings, as he carefully set the stage and identified the cast of characters, including the numerous lab-related witnesses who provided testimony, as well as the former director’s supporters in Los Alamos.

His reading of the transcripts highlighted the contradictions and contrary evidence, particularly in the matter of the hydrogen bomb. He noted Commissioner Ward Evans’ minority view that Oppenheimer statement “did not hinder (progress on the hydrogen bomb) and there is nothing in the testimony to show that he did.”

After the Gray board’s recommendation, Ribe said. “We had to work fast if the Gray commission were to do anything, so we got right busy. I forwarded a petition from my little old house on 41st Street….”

The petition said that the signers “were deeply disturbed by the recommendation.”

“Not exactly an inflammatory document,” Ribe remarked.

The petition, which ultimately collected nearly 500 signatures, also stated, “The new requirement of enthusiastic conformity has no place in an American personnel security system.”

The Gray board’s recommendation to the Atomic Energy Commission was eventually approved by a 4-1 vote, that Oppenhemer “is not entitled to the continued confidence of the Government and of this Commission because of the proof of fundamental defects in his character.”

The petition, on which Ribe’s name appears first, was sent to President Eisenhower and to members of Congress. Afterward, Eisenhower wrote to the lab and AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss visited to express assurances that the nuclear work there was still appreciated.

Ribe agreed with those historians who consider the persecution of Oppenheimer to have been a personal vendetta by Srauss. He also thought the testimony of Edward Teller, while ambiguous, was especially influential on the hydrogen bomb issue, because he was a nationally prominent physicist.

Very few people at the lab, including the speaker, chose to resign over the Oppenheimer matter.

“The plain truth was that before the hearings, Oppenheimer had largely faded into the background,” Ribe said, less and less of a factor at the laboratory.

The talk given in the National Nuclear Security Building was classified, but following a security review an electronic recording was made available to the Monitor after a request.

A member of the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee, Ribe also encouraged the audience to attend this year’s lecture. Martin Sherwood, co-author with Kai Bird of the Nobel-prize-winning biography of Oppenheimer, “American Prometheus,” will give the talk Monday at 7:30 p.m. in the Duane Smith Auditorium at Los Alamos High School.