Major, John 1936-

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MAJOR, John 1936-

PERSONAL: Born 1936.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Cassell, 125 Strand, London WC2R 0BB England.

CAREER: Author, historian, and lecturer. University of Hull, Kingston-upon-Hull, England, lecturer in history.


(With Anthony Preston) Send a Gunboat! A Story of the Gunboat and Its Role in British Policy, 1854-1904, Longmans (London, England), 1967.

(Editor) The New Deal, Barnes & Noble (New York, 1967).

The Contemporary World: A Historical Introduction, Methuen Educational (London, England), 1970.

The Oppenheimer Hearing, Stein and Day (New York, NY), 1971.

Cementing the China Vase: David Hartley and America, 1774-1784, Departments of History, Adult Education/American Studies in the University of Hull (Kingston-upon-Hull, England), 1983.

Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903-1979, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1993.

(Editor, with Robert Love, Jr.) The Year of D-Day: The 1944 Diary of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, University of Hull Press (Hull, England), 1994.

(With M. J. Cohen) History in Quotations, Cassell (London, England), 2004.

SIDELIGHTS: Historian John Major started his writing career with two books oriented toward teaching high-school seniors and first-year college students about the twentieth-century world. The New Deal presents excerpts from historical documents, including legislative acts, memoirs, periodicals, and monographs—with Major's own introductory comments to place them in their historical context. A Social Education reviewer commented that Major "not only introduce[s] the sources but provide[s] a continuous narrative." Major's The Contemporary World introduced students to twentieth-century world history and balance between democracies and totalitarian powers.

Major turns to a much more focused subject in The Oppenheimer Hearing, which describes atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer's removal from his government post following allegations concerning his loyalty to the U.S. government. Oppenheimer was a leading member of the Manhattan Project, the group of scientists whose mission it was to develop a deployable atomic bomb for the United States during World War II. In 1943, when that work was fully underway, Oppenheimer was warned by friend Haakon Chevalier that Chevalier had been approached by Russian agents and asked about Oppenheimer's secret work (Chevalier himself was not aware that Oppenheimer was working on the atomic bomb). Oppenheimer, recognizing what the Russians were trying to do, wanted to warn the U.S. government of this peril without implicating himself in any way that might lead to his removal from the Manhattan Project. His caution was tempered by the fact that his previous sympathies with the Communist Party had already made him enemies in the U.S. military, and he knew that if he were removed from the Manhattan Project its chances of success were much less secure. Oppenheimer concocted a story that would be taken seriously without raising concerns about himself.

Unfortunately, according to a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, in doing so he inadvertently raised "the completely false suggestion that Chevalier himself was a Russian agent." Although Oppenheimer worked to set the story straight and clear Chevalier's name after the war, his task proved impossible. Instead, Chevalier's name came to be used against Oppenheimer himself by his enemies in the military and among his former cohorts in the Manhattan Project, in order to imply that he was a security risk. It was an era of extreme paranoia about Communism, with Senator Joseph McCarthy and others seeking to destroy the careers of any prominent individual who could be implied to have had any connection to the once-popular Communist party. Oppenheimer was railroaded out of his post on the Atomic Energy Commission, where he had the ear of President Eisenhower and other high-level government officials. To avoid a drawn-out investigation and scandal within his administration, Eisenhower revoked Oppenheimer's security clearance, effectively ending the brilliant scientist's public career.

In his book Major concentrates on the hearing before the Atomic Energy Commission's Personnel Security Board, which Oppenheimer requested to attempt to challenge the fairness of Eisenhower's decision. Although the hearing was not a trial, it was treated like one by Oppenheimer's enemies. According to the Times Literary Supplement reviewer, "The AEC's legal representative, Roger Robb, cast himself as prosecuting counsel, and was allowed to do so by the Board. Oppenheimer and his counsel were thus thrown on the defensive from the start; yet, because of the procedure laid down, they had none of the protection afforded to a defendant by the common law. . . . Charges were made on the basis of classified documents which the defense were not allowed to see." The hearing was evaluated by a board of three men, none of whom were lawyers able to grasp the legal irregularities of the hearing. The Times Literary Supplement, reviewer went on to say that indeed, one board member, Air Force General Nichols, was "one of the chief initiators of the assault on Oppenheimer . . . as it was, Nichols judged a case in which he was also a plaintiff." The board, predictably, upheld Eisenhower's decision, and Oppenheimer retired in disgrace. The obvious unfairness of the hearing was apparent to many observers even at the time, and led to reforms of the hearing process. Although in 1963 Oppenheimer was awarded the Fermi Prize in recognition of his extremely valuable services to his country, his public career was not revived.

Major summarizes the lesson he takes from this episode in American history in his conclusion: "The Oppenheimer case did grave damage to the principles that the United States claims to cherish," he writes in The Oppenheimer Hearing. "Above all, perhaps, it indicated that the interests of the state could not be reconciled with the freedom of an individual. It may, of course, be that they are irreconcilable, even in a democracy professing full respect for individual rights."

An Economist reviewer noted that while the book contains "not very much that seems new but a great deal that has been well and usefully organized," the work is designed "for scholars, and only the most devoted Oppenheimer buffs." Conversely, the Times Literary Supplement reviewer wrote that "Major's is neither the first nor, we may be sure, the last book on the Oppenheimer affair, though it is likely to remain one of the best." A reviewer in Choice called The Oppenheimer Hearing "one of the best of the several recent studies of the Oppenheimer case."

In Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903-1979, Major chronicles the sociopolitical history of the great man-made waterworks from the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt to that of Jimmy Carter. A reviewer in Historian noted that the early chapters explore the United States' "interest in the isthmus from 1826 through the aftermath of the Panama Revolution of 1903." The book also explores efforts on the parts of Teddy Roosevelt and John Hay to secure treaties with Panama in order to establish U.S. control over the zone in which the canal would be built. The Historian reviewer added that "the heart of the book focuses on U.S. administration of the zone and on governmental and economic relations with Panama from 1904 to 1955."

These middle chapters also demonstrate how "blatant racism and discrimination favored white Americans over Panamanians and West Indian contract workers" in the area. Efforts to unionize workers were strongly opposed. The fiscal policies of the United States effectively subsidized U.S. interests and workers in the Canal Zone, cutting off Panamanian merchants and creating what amounted to an independent U.S. commercial center in the zone. While these unfair practices sparked protests that the United States eventually answered by giving up its official power in the canal zone, it maintained an influence that Major calls "pervasive and inescapable." The concluding chapters argue that the United States' 1979 treaty, which allowed for reversion of power in zone back to Panama, in 1999 came as the result of U.S. embarrassment over accusations of its colonizing presence in Panama and its sense of the decreasing military and economic importance of the canal.

Reviewers placed Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903-1979, in the context of other history books about the canal. Thomas H. Appleton, Jr., writing in Library Journal, called the book a "considerable achievement." Gustave Anguizole, reviewing the book in Journal of American History, found moments of confusion in the text and flaws in the index, but concluded that such "oversights do not diminish the importance of this study" and its conclusions. Anguizole added that Major's book "is a jewel of information," while Joseph A. Fry, reviewing the book in Historian, called it a "well-researched, methodical, and informative account," especially in regard to the mid-century events in the zone, as well as a "solid contribution" to the field.



Major, John, The Oppenheimer Hearing, Stein and Day (New York, NY), 1971.


Choice, April, 1972, review of The Oppenheimer Hearing, p. 275.

Economist, October 23, 1971, review of The Oppenheimer Hearing, p. 67.

Historian, winter, 1995, Joseph A. Fry, review of Prize Possession: The United States and the Panama Canal, 1903-1979, pp. 391-392.

Journal of American History, March, 1995, Gustave Anguizola, review of Prize Possession, pp. 1778-1779.

Library Journal, September 15, 1993, Thomas H. Appleton, Jr., review of Prize Possession, p. 90.

Social Education, January, 1969, review of The New Deal, p. 123.

Times Literary Supplement, October 2, 1970, review of The Contemporary World: A Historical Introduction, p. 1146; October 19, 1971, "The Hubris of the Clever Man and the Revenge of the Fools," review of The Oppenheimer Hearing, p. 1446.*