Loyola University Chicago

College of Arts & Sciences

Oppenheimer: The Loyola Connection

Chemistry professor inked the lone dissent in defense of J. Robert Oppenheimer during Red Scare case

A black-and-white, aerial photograph of Lake Shore Campus from the 1950s

As moviegoers flock to cinemas to view Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated 2023 summer blockbuster, “Oppenheimer,” which details the development of the atomic bomb by the United States during World War II, under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a long-dormant link between the physicist and Loyola University Chicago has been unearthed. 

The connection lies with Ward V. Evans, PhD, a former professor, chair and advisor of what is now the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Loyola University Chicago. Evans served on the Personal Security Board created by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1954 to determine whether Oppenheimer should continue to receive clearance for highly classified information in the wake of Cold War paranoia.

Oppenheimer’s Political Ties

In the years leading up to World War II, the global order had been shaken up by the rise of a novel political theory: communism.

As communism successfully took root in countries like Russia (then called the Soviet Union) and Korea, it triggered the decades-long Cold War and a phenomenon of paranoia about the global spread of communist influence in the U.S. This paranoia, called the “Red Scare,” reached its height in the early 1950s when Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin began a series of investigations and hearings to identify, expose, and denounce communist influence and Soviet espionage within American institutions.

Coined “McCarthyism,” this campaign – now considered political repression and persecution – generated widespread fear and suspicion of communism among Americans across the country. Employees of the U.S. government with far-left political beliefs were accused, though often lacking sufficient evidence, of espionage or other traitorous behavior. Although most subjects of McCarthy’s investigations did not belong to the Communist Party, many lost their jobs and were blacklisted or ostracized.

While Oppenheimer himself had wide-ranging political beliefs, he had both family and friends who would be accused of being members of the Communist Party or Soviet spies during the Red Scare. Due to these connections, Oppenheimer himself was accused of being a member of the Communist Party in late 1953. As a result of these accusations, the Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy and President Eisenhower charged Oppenheimer and suspended his security clearance. Oppenheimer, though, would have the right to a hearing to clear the charges.

Oppenheimer and Evans

Oppenheimer ultimately chose to pursue a hearing, which was held by the Personal Security Board. The board was composed of three members: Gordon Gray, President of University of North Carolina, the chairman of the board, as well as Thomas A. Morgan, an military industrialist, and Ward V. Evans, who at the time served as an advisor for Loyola's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

These three men would conduct the hearing and eventually decide whether or not to recommend to the AEC if Oppenheimer’s security clearance should be reinstated. After hours of testimony and thousands of pages of evidence throughout the spring of 1954, the Personal Security Board ruled two-to-one to recommend that Oppenheimer’s clearance should be permanently suspended.

The lone dissenter? Evans, of course.

While all three members of the Personal Security Board stipulated that Oppenheimer was a “loyal citizen” with a “high degree of discretion,” Gray and Morgan said that his conduct showed disregard for the national security system and expressed concern over his susceptibility to influence and the “disturbing” nature of his development of the atomic bomb.

Evans, on the other hand, shared in a lone, bold dissent that to permanently remove Oppenheimer’s clearance would be a “black mark on the escutcheon of the country.” Evans also highlighted that the AEC was fully aware of Oppenheimer’s political ideology and connections when they selected him to lead the Manhattan Project and begin developing the atomic bomb.

“Yet they cleared him,” Evans wrote. “They took a chance on him because of his special talents and he continued to do a good job. Now when the job is done, we are asked to investigate him for practically the same information. He did his job in a thorough and painstaking manner. There is not the slightest vestige of information before this board that would indicate that Dr. Oppenheimer is not a loyal citizen of this country.”

Ward V. Evans poses for a photo with the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, standing in the top row second in from the right.
Ward V. Evans, top row and second in from the right, poses for a yearbook photo with the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in 1950.

Despite Evans’ dissent, which sparked a global discourse, the AEC eventually recommended to the Joint Congressional Commission on Atomic Energy that the Personal Security’s verdict be accepted. In June of 1954, the Commission issued its decision to permanently suspend Oppenheimer’s clearance.

Just a few years after this hearing was held, the tide seemed to have turned in the court of public opinion as evident in a 1957 editorial in The Washington Post upon Evans' death, which heralded Evans for, "his pungent dissent from the majority finding against Dr. Oppenheimer, written in early language, stands as a model of clarity and common sense.”

The Washington Post also went on to declare, “Conservative in his politics and personal views, Dr. Evans had a refreshing tolerance for disagreement and idiosyncrasy once basic loyalty was established. He knew that a narrow conformity in thought and action produces stereotyped minds. He followed his own philosophy of tolerance, and those who were exposed to it will not soon forget him."

Now, almost 70 years on, Oppenheimer’s work and this case continue to generate controversy and debate, including Christopher Nolan’s $100 million movie that has already brought in $40 million to the box office over its opening weekend.

Chicago, which Axios refers to as "the birthplace of the scientific discovery that would eventually lead to Oppenheimer becoming the 'Father of the Atomic Bomb,'" continues to play a role in the world of nuclear energy. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists will co-host a panel and screening of Oppenheimer at the Music Box Theatre on Saturday, July 29. Tickets are sold out, but spots are still available for a webinar discussion in early August.

As the world continues to grapple with the legacy of Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, Loyola’s connection to the scientist has helped reintroduce a different avenue of discourse about the complicated intersection of an individual’s political ideology, the impact of nationalist paranoia, and the integrity of our institutions.


About the College of Arts and Sciences

The College of Arts and Sciences is the oldest, largest and most academically diverse of Loyola University Chicago’s schools, colleges, and institutes. More than 150 years since its founding, the College’s academic departments and interdisciplinary programs and centers span an array of intellectual pursuits, ranging from the natural and computational sciences to the humanities, the social sciences, and the fine and performing arts. 

Our students and faculty are engaged internationally at our campus in Rome, Italy, as well as at dozens of University-sponsored study abroad and research sites around the world. Home to the departments that anchor the University’s Core Curriculum, the College seeks to prepare all of Loyola’s students to think critically, to engage the world of the 21st century at ever deepening levels, and to become caring and compassionate individuals. Our faculty, staff, and students view service to others not just as one option among many, but as a constitutive dimension of their very being. In the truest sense of the Jesuit ideal, our graduates strive to be “individuals for others.” 

For further information about the College of Arts and Sciences, please visit our website.