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J. Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance was wrongly revoked, energy secretary says

American nuclear physicist and father of the atom bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer is pictured in the 1940s.
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American nuclear physicist and father of the atom bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer is pictured in the 1940s.

The Biden administration is reversing a 1954 decision that revoked J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb, of his security clearance and ultimately ended his career as a physicist.

The famed physicist became one of the world's leading researchers in theoretical physics — and became an integral figure in the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II — but later arose suspicion due to his association with progressive causes and opposition to developing the hydrogen bomb.

During the height of anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission, which preceded the Department of Energy, launched an investigation that stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance. The 1954 decision irreversibly damaged his career.

But now the Department of Energy is revoking its previous decision — calling the investigation a "flawed process that violated the Commission's own regulations," Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a press release on Friday.

"As time has passed, more evidence has come to light of the bias and unfairness of the process that Dr. Oppenheimer was subjected to while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed," Granholm said.

The decision comes after decades of lobbying from the scientific community to clear Oppenheimer's reputation.

"History matters and what was done to Oppenheimer in 1954 was a travesty, a black mark on the honor of the nation," Kai Bird, co-author of the Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus, told The New York Times. "Students of American history will now be able to read the last chapter and see that what was done to Oppenheimer in that kangaroo court proceeding was not the last word."

Granholm said the Department of Energy is also reversing the decision because of a "responsibility to correct the historical record and honor Dr. Oppenheimer's profound contributions to our national defense and the scientific enterprise at large."

Oppenheimer died in 1967. A new film about the famed physicist, titled Oppenheimer, is scheduled to hit screens in July.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Giulia Heyward
Giulia Heyward is a weekend reporter for Digital News, based out of New York. She previously covered education and other national news as a reporting fellow at The New York Times and as the national education reporter at Capital B News. She interned for POLITICO, where she covered criminal justice reform in Florida, and CNN, as a writer for the trends & culture team. Her work has also been published in The Atlantic, HuffPost and The New Republic.