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Closing the Oppenheimer Case

Now I confess to feeling less troubled by this lie—a single lie, not a “tissue” of them—than many of Oppenheimer’s defenders appear to be. Only people who are dishonest with themselves do not recognize that at some point in their lives they have told a lie. And in this case there is no evidence that Oppenheimer’s untruth did any damage to the national war effort. The vast pother about the Chevalier incident strikes me as excessively moralistic. If that was the very worst that could be charged against a man who had served his country with matchless talent and total loyalty for eleven years of devastating responsibility, surely the case against Oppenheimer was feeble indeed. The incident with his pro-Communist friend—plus his own fellow-traveling past—provided exactly the ammunition required for bringing him down. But it is difficult—for me, impossible—to believe that it was the real reason why his enemies wanted to do so.

The real reason is not far to seek. With varying emphases, all authors agree that it was postwar differences on weapons policy that induced otherwise respectable men to band together to break Oppenheimer’s vast but mostly informal influence as a government consultant. These included a minority of leading scientists, more particularly Teller, who was in the course of perfecting the hydrogen bomb; the top brass in the Air Force; and Lewis L. Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, whom Oppenheimer with characteristic arrogance had humiliated before a Congressional committee. Indeed, in most cases, personal dislike reinforced loftier and more patriotic reasons to produce a burning conviction that Oppenheimer must go.

Once we have said that, the temptation is overwhelming to cast him in the role of a martyr in the cause of peace—to see him as the casualty of a premature attempt to halt the arms race. And this is especially true in the present intellectual atmosphere of hostility to the Pentagon and disgust with the Vietnam war. Wilson’s Great Weapons Heresy, for all its cautious, State Department tone, entertains no doubts about the reasons why Oppenheimer was called on the carpet. Davis’s duo-biography, in its racier fashion, accuses President Eisenhower of trying to snap “the link of respect and confidence that bound the scientific community to Oppenheimer” by forcing him “to concur in his own repudiation.”

This is strong stuff: the last phrase evokes Darkness at Noon. It is precisely here that Stern, despite the indignation he evidently shares, checks his own emotions. He refrains from writing of Oppenheimer’s fate as melodrama. And in so doing he quietly introduces a series of additional considerations that have persuaded me at least to regard the case as something more complex than what we might conclude from David Lilienthal’s angry comment that “There hadn’t been a proceeding like this since the Spanish Inquisition” or from Davis’s claim that it ended a “strong, often successful seven-year endeavor to turn the country to sane nuclear courses.”

  1. Oppenheimer never lost his livelihood or his high status in American society. After being deprived of his government consultantship, he continued in his dignified and well-paid position as director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, surrounded by the esteem of the scientific community. In this he was more fortunate than his own younger brother and several former co-workers, whose broken careers Stern recapitulates in grisly detail—not to mention countless derelicts from the late 1940s and early 1950s whose biographies remain unknown to history. Most of these have never been rehabilitated. Oppenheimer, in contrast, had the satisfaction three years before his death of receiving the Fermi Award from the President himself at a ceremony in the White House.

  2. His “trial” was not that of a man who had doubts about the cold war. On the contrary, Oppenheimer’s views on Soviet foreign policy in the last years of Stalin’s rule were irreproachably orthodox. Nor did he consistently oppose the effort to build the hydrogen bomb. On this score some of the scientists who testified in his favor—notably James B. Conant and Isidore I. Rabi—were more convinced and outspoken than he. The “heresy” that won him the enmity of the Air Force rested on technical and fairly narrow grounds. It amounted to challenging the big weapons fetish of “more bang for a buck” and advocating in its place a diversified armory, including tactical nuclear weapons. This was the doctrine which was to triumph in the early 1960s under President Kennedy—and which incidentally made possible the American intervention in Vietnam.

  3. Oppenheimer’s ordeal was not that of a man who had worried from the start about the moral aspects of devising weapons of mass destruction. At Los Alamos he had known how to soothe the occasional qualms of his staff and to snuff out the incipient protest launched by Leo Szilard. When it came time to decide how the atomic bomb was to be used against Japan, he advised against a demonstration or warning drop—in this case too with the technical argument that there was a strong chance that the bomb would not function and that the demonstration would fail. Subsequently he fought hard for the international control of atomic energy, but when the Baruch Plan was turned down by the Russians, he apparently concluded that there was nothing further to be done.

His great statements on the dangers of the arms race came after he had been stripped of nearly all his power—from his famous figure of speech in 1953 comparing the United States and the Soviet Union to “two scorpions in a bottle” to his confession in 1960 that he found himself “profoundly in anguish over the fact that no ethical discussion of any weight or nobility” had “been addressed to the problem of atomic weapons.” Oppenheimer usually chose as his own point of entry into such a debate the question of official secrecy: he was passionate in his conviction that the nation’s military policy needed to be thrashed out in the open. As Wilson puts it, in a fair-minded summary that catches Oppenheimer’s uneasy blend of hesitation and sense of mission: he “looked ahead and foresaw…sterility and…futility. He did not know what to do about it; but he wanted to discuss it out loud on the assumption that rational debate might somehow discover an exit from a blind alley.”

As the irony of events contrived it, the man who so detested secret proceedings was obliged to have his own fate settled behind closed doors. Or was he really so obliged? At the time I believed—and I find my earlier hunch confirmed by what I have read subsequently about the case—that it would have been better for Oppenheimer simply to have resigned rather than to have submitted to the indignity of a security hearing. He had tried to do so more than once before; President Eisenhower had already ordered a “blank wall” placed between him and any classified information; his term as a government consultant was due to expire in a few weeks. Such in substance was the view of the practical-minded former general counsel of the Atomic Energy Commission, Joseph Volpe, who gave Oppenheimer good (and unheeded) advice on two separate occasions—initially, in trying to dissuade him from going through the hearing procedure at all; a few weeks later, in urging him to walk out of it when it had become clear that the cards were stacked against him.

The counter-argument was the one so depressingly familiar in that era—that not to fight the charges would be in effect to “accept and concur” in them. There was also the practical consideration that if Oppenheimer refused to appear in private before a board of inquiry, he would almost inevitably be called to testify in public before the horrendous McCarthy. (It seems to have been tacitly understood between the senator and the Administration that McCarthy would lay off Oppenheimer if the Atomic Energy Commission would do the shabby job itself.) Nor was it unreasonable to suppose that Gordon Gray and his colleagues would treat the “defendant” more fairly than Senators McCarthy, Jenner, and Mundt would have done. After all, the hearing was billed as “an inquiry, not a trial.” Yet precisely this was the most sickening aspect of the whole business. The promised looseness of procedure which had reassured Oppenheimer and his counsel turned out to have just the opposite effect of what they had anticipated. The atmosphere was that of a court of law—but with all the advantages on the side of the “prosecution,” including access to key documents which had been denied to the defense. In the end, the Board “permitted Robb to deal with a former senior official of the United States Government after the manner of a county prosecutor cornering a petty thief.”

McCarthy’s bludgeoning tactics under klieg lights could scarcely have been more damaging—and certainly less intelligent—than the surgical pitilessness of Roger Robb in the hypocritical privacy of the hearing room. And the inquiry would have been exposed for what it was in fact, a personal vendetta with no pretense of gentlemanliness about it. Moreover, if Oppenheimer had chosen to take his chances before McCarthy, he would have been better able to mobilize sentiment in his favor—as he and his counsel tried to do both before and after the Gray Board hearing by rather inept leaks to the press. The attitude of the wider public was on the verge of turning: it was in the interval between the Board’s verdict and the review of the Oppenheimer case by the Atomic Energy Commission that Joseph N. Welch uttered the now famous words that finally proved it possible for a mere citizen to stand up to McCarthy: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Had he decided on this other course, Oppenheimer might even have taken the very high ground recommended in retrospect by Malraux: he might have declared at the outset, “Je suis la bombe atomique,” and have challenged his enemies to do their worst. He could have maintained that opinions and associations—even a lie—all of which predated that achievement, were totally irrelevant. But in order to pursue such a course of action Oppenheimer would have had to perform a mental operation which for him—as for nearly everyone else in the early 1950s—was quite impossible: to have refused to enter the moral universe of those sitting in judgment upon him. The almost universally accepted view at the time was the one expressed by Oppenheimer’s own counsel: “If a man’s clearance is taken away from him…that is the end of that fellow for the rest of his life.” Little could either of them know that by the late 1960s to have old security charges still hanging over one might come to be thought of as a badge of honor!

In consenting to being judged by the Gray Board, Oppenheimer “concurred” in those charges still more explicitly than he would have done had he chosen to treat them with contempt. The latter was doubtless the way he really felt—as his rather cavalier attitude toward security officers during the war suggested. Subsequently, however, he had come to know Washington and to wield power: he apparently enjoyed both. And he also quite understandably began to share the assumptions of his new associates. In addition, his own eminence and the caliber of his high-level friends gave him an illusion of invulnerability. Long before 1954, government officials were being dismissed from service for far less than what was sitting like a time bomb in Oppenheimer’s security file. When it finally exploded, it caught him emotionally unprepared. Having wandered without apprenticeship into the jungle of politics and only dimly aware of the peril in which he had moved for a half-decade, Oppenheimer evidently thought that he could once more outwit his questioners as he had done so often in the past.

The reverse happened: confronted with his lie, he collapsed on the witness stand and blurted out, “I was an idiot.” The scene distressed all those who have reported on it—including Roger Robb himself, who said he “felt sick.” But Oppenheimer’s more significant collapse had come earlier and more gradually: it had come when he reluctantly began to “give names.” Such was the deadly moral drama of the 1950s. It was not enough to confess one’s own past sins; one had also to tell on one’s friends.

The result, as Stern bluntly puts it, was to allow oneself “to become the instrument of the security system.” From the ravages of that particular misfortune, not even a man of Oppenheimer’s prestige and independence was immune. In his case as in so many others, public and personal loyalty gave contrary promptings. For more than a decade Oppenheimer had tried to keep the two in uneasy balance, protecting his old friends as best he could while giving his government the minimum of information he thought he could get away with. In the end Robb brought this precarious structure crashing to the ground. What Oppenheimer had lived for eleven years was not, as Chevalier would have it, the hunted existence of a man under constant threat of official blackmail: it was the torment of an insoluble ethical dilemma.

So the case turns out to be a morality play after all—of a special kind, which lacks a clear hero or martyr. Yet I have no intention of closing on a note of condemnation. A self-righteous conclusion would fit the militant temper of today; it would also echo across the years, from the opposite political side, the tone of Oppenheimer’s judges. I prefer to remember him as an enormously gifted and vulnerable human being who eventually succumbed to the inhuman accumulation of contradictory pressures that were bearing down upon him. He managed to survive, with his prestige among his peers—the only ones who should have counted—virtually intact. And in the early 1950s, as the Abbé Sieyès said of the Reign of Terror, mere survival was in itself an achievement.

Some of his enemies fared less well. Teller suffered grievously from the disapproval of his scientific colleagues. Strauss failed of confirmation by the Senate when he was appointed Secretary of Commerce in 1959—and for reasons ironically reminiscent of the most telling charge against Oppenheimer five years earlier. The story is full of such reversals and perplexities. (Richard Nixon, for example, who defended Oppenheimer on at least three occasions,2 comes out extraordinarily well.) But the main riddle remains the one posed by the physicist himself. Sensitive, a cultural snob, accident prone, and subject to physical wasting, Oppenheimer was the exact opposite of the sort of man who might have been expected to emerge as the efficient director of the key scientific enterprise of a nation at war.

At Los Alamos he and his co-workers had lived the strangest kind of privileged existence. Isolated, overworked, they had thrown themselves into their researches with such good spirit as to screen out from full recognition the ghastly nature of the endeavor in which they were engaged. Oppenheimer in particular had had the unique and unrepeatable satisfaction of combining his twin passions for physics and the New Mexican desert. Two years of unremitting tension and exaltation had come to an end with the blinding flash of proved success—a supreme moment that Oppenheimer greeted in characteristic fashion with a recollection from the Sanskrit. (The comment by one of his aides, “Now we’re all sons-of-bitches,” was pithier and more to the point.)

Beyond that moment, what was there left for Oppenheimer to do? For him, as for so many men born in the early part of the century, everything that happened after 1945 was to be a stale anticlimax. Year by year he saw his hopes blighted—for international control of atomic energy, for a “rational” weapons policy, for some way in which the Hindu principle of Ahimsa, of doing harm to no living thing, could be squared with the terrible secret he had discovered. By 1954 what he had striven for, however fumblingly, lay in ruins. And he may have sensed that he had been profoundly mistaken in imagining that with the cold war at its zenith, it had ever stood any real chance. Perhaps that was a deeper, unconscious meaning of his anguished murmur: “I was an idiot.”


Oppenheimer September 24, 1970

  1. 2

    Once in congratulating Oppenheimer on his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949, once during his own campaign for the Senate in 1950, and finally in an off-the-record answer to a question at the very time the Gray Board hearings were in progress!

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