On December 10, 1954, University of Washington President Dr. Henry Schmitz (1892-1965) disapproves the nomination of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) as a visiting lecturer. During World War II, Oppenheimer directed the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb for the United States government. Schmitz never publicly explains his decision, but Oppenheimer opposes the development of nuclear weapons and his loyalty to the United States is questioned. The decision sets off a controversy over academic freedom and the role of the faculty at the University.
Oppenheimer had passed all security checks as head of the Manhattan Project, and as an adviser to Congress, the Pentagon, and the White House, but his views and associations troubled security officers. Oppenheimer's wife and brother were members of the Communist Party, and Oppenheimer supported several Communist front organizations.
After World War II, the physicist advocated international control over nuclear energy and he opposed the development of thermonuclear weapons. Politicians and journalists questioned whether he should be granted access to nuclear secrets.
In 1936, Washington lumberman E. G. Ames and his wife Maude Walker Ames endowed a fund at the University of Washington to retain "the scholarly and educational services of the most distinguished minds available." The money was used to bring guest lecturers and professors to Seattle to teach.
In 1952, the English Department nominated literary critic Kenneth Burke (1897-1993) as a Walker-Ames Lecturer, but University President Schmitz vetoed the invitation. In 1953, 14 University of Washington physicists -- 10 of whom had worked on the Manhattan Project -- nominated Oppenheimer as a visiting lecturer, but Oppenheimer never accepted and the offer lapsed.
In 1954, the Physics Department again nominated Oppenheimer to come to the University the following May for one week to lecture graduate students. Schmitz said no, but gave no reason. At that same time, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) ordered Oppenheimer's security clearance suspended and the physicist was forced to undergo another loyalty examination.
Members of the faculty asked Schmitz for an explanation, which he declined to provide. He wrote that he made his decision "after long and careful study of [Oppenheimer's] governmental relationships," implying that the issue was Oppenheimer's loyalty. Professors claimed that academic freedom was being threatened. The story broke in February 1955 in The Seattle Times.
Among the issues were the role of the faculty in faculty appointments, Oppenheimer's loyalty, Communist infiltration of the University, and who should run the University, the faculty or the parents and taxpayers. The faculty was sharply divided over the issue. Schmitz characterized the matter as "an internal power struggle" (Sanders).
The Board of Regents unanimously supported Schmitz as did Governor Arthur Langlie and the two Seattle daily newspapers. Academics around the country began shunning the University of Washington. Seven prominent biochemists refused to attend a symposium at the medical school and the event was indefinitely postponed. Six physiologists cancelled attendance at a Zoology Department symposium.
Oppenheimer permanently lost his security clearance in 1955 and no longer worked in the nuclear program. He appeared at the University in 1956 at the International Congress of Theoretical Physics, but only to attend a lecture.