Closing the Oppenheimer Case

The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial

by Philip M. Stern
Harper & Row, 591 pp., $10.00

The Swift Years: The Robert Oppenheimer Story

by Peter Michelmore
Dodd, Mead, 273 pp., $6.95

The Great Weapons Heresy

by Thomas W. Wilson Jr.
Houghton, Mifflin, 275 pp., $5.95

Oppenheimer: The Story of a Friendship

by Haakon Chevalier
Braziller, 219 pp., $5.00

Lawrence and Oppenheimer

by Nuel Pharr Davis
Simon & Schuster, 384 pp., $7.50

The death of J. Robert Oppenheimer three years ago was bound to prompt another look at his already well-chronicled security hearing of 1954. Countless members of the American intellectual community recalled it as the episode that touched them most closely in an era of general political squalor—or perhaps, as the private counterpoint, played behind closed doors, of the Army-McCarthy hearings, which were staged almost simultaneously and which caused ordinarily conscientious people to drop their labors and cling to their television sets for days. These hearings marked both the apex of power and the start of the downhill slide for the master demagogue of the 1950s. At the time of his ordeal, Oppenheimer and his counsel could not possibly have known that Joe McCarthy’s end was so close; nor could they tell that a great revulsion of public sentiment on “security” matters would come within a half decade. They played their roles partly blind and partly in panic—like the rest of us. We should do well to remember this when, with the serenity of hindsight, we are tempted to find fault with their defense.

Not that Oppenheimer lacks defenders today: the dominant tone of the recent writing on him is overwhelmingly in his favor. Moreover, the peculiar circumstances of the late 1960s have given that writing a tone of renewed urgency, a sense of being back once again in the tormented atmosphere of a decade and a half ago—this time with the torments more intense and the danger of rightist reaction compounded by the antics of an irresponsible left that plays directly into its hand. Under these circumstances, it is almost inescapable that Oppenheimer’s “trial” should be viewed as a morality play. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with such a view: the question, rather, is what kind of morality play it was.

Philip M. Stern’s book on the case itself is altogether admirable—by far the best of the current crop. Thoroughly documented, carefully organized and reasoned, it is that rare and always welcome phenomenon, the work of a non-historian which amply meets professional requirements. After a compact but adequate biographical sketch, it presents a thorough analysis of the hearings in both their legal and their moral aspects, to which it appends three extraordinary chapters on how the “fallout” from this event changed the lives of those who had come into close contact with Oppenheimer. I have only two minor criticisms to lodge against Stern’s work: the style occasionally lapses into journalistic cliché; and the frontal attack on the American security system with which it concludes, while commanding my entire sympathy, is implicit in everything the author has said up to that point and clashes with the tone of scrupulous detachment he has earlier tried to adopt.

It is not Peter Michelmore’s fault—it is merely his misfortune—that his book on Oppenheimer should have been published at the same time as Stern’s. Had it appeared alone, it might have been …

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Letters

Oppenheimer September 24, 1970