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Opinion | The Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

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One day in the spring of 1954, J. Robert Oppenheimer ran into Albert Einstein outside their offices at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. Oppenheimer had been the director of the Institute since 1947 and Einstein a faculty member since he fled Germany in 1933. The two men might argue about quantum physics — Einstein grumbled that he just didn’t think that God played dice with the universe — but they were good friends.

Oppenheimer took the occasion to explain to Einstein that he was going to be absent from the Institute for some weeks. He was being forced to defend himself in Washington, D.C., during a secret hearing against charges that he was a security risk, and perhaps even disloyal. Einstein argued that Oppenheimer “had no obligation to subject himself to the witch-hunt, that he had served his country well, and that if this was the reward she [America] offered he should turn his back on her.” Oppenheimer demurred, saying he could not turn his back on America. “He loved America,” said Verna Hobson, his secretary who was a witness to the conversation, “and this love was as deep as his love of science.”

“Einstein doesn’t understand,” Oppenheimer told Ms. Hobson. But as Einstein walked back into his office he told his assistant, nodding in the direction of Oppenheimer, “There goes a narr [fool].”

Einstein was right. Oppenheimer was foolishly subjecting himself to a kangaroo court in which he was soon stripped of his security clearance and publicly humiliated. The charges were flimsy, but by a vote of 2 to 1 the security panel of the Atomic Energy Commission deemed Oppenheimer a loyal citizen who was nevertheless a security risk: “We find that Dr. Oppenheimer’s continuing conduct and association have reflected a serious disregard for the requirements of the security system.” The scientist would no longer be trusted with the nation’s secrets. Celebrated in 1945 as the “father of the atomic bomb,” nine years later he would become the chief celebrity victim of the McCarthyite maelstrom.

Oppenheimer may have been naïve, but he was right to fight the charges — and right to use his influence as one of the country’s pre-eminent scientists to speak out against a nuclear arms race. In the months and years leading up to the security hearing, Oppenheimer had criticized the decision to build a “super” hydrogen bomb. Astonishingly, he had gone so far as to say that the Hiroshima bomb was used “against an essentially defeated enemy.” The atomic bomb, he warned, “is a weapon for aggressors, and the elements of surprise and terror are as intrinsic to it as are the fissionable nuclei.” These forthright dissents against the prevailing view of Washington’s national security establishment earned him powerful political enemies. That was precisely why he was being charged with disloyalty.

It is my hope that Christopher Nolan’s stunning new film on Oppenheimer’s complicated legacy will initiate a national conversation not only about our existential relationship to weapons of mass destruction, but also the need in our society for scientists as public intellectuals. Mr. Nolan’s three-hour film is a riveting thriller and mystery story that delves deeply into what this country did to its most famous scientist.

Sadly, Oppenheimer’s life story is relevant to our current political predicaments. Oppenheimer was destroyed by a political movement characterized by rank know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues. The witch-hunters of that season are the direct ancestors of our current political actors of a certain paranoid style. I’m thinking of Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel, who tried to subpoena Oppenheimer in 1954, only to be warned that this could interfere with the impending security hearing against Oppenheimer. Yes, that Roy Cohn, who taught former President Donald Trump his brash, wholly deranged style of politics. Just recall the former president’s fact-challenged comments on the pandemic or climate change. This is a worldview proudly scornful of science.

After America’s most celebrated scientist was falsely accused and publicly humiliated, the Oppenheimer case sent a warning to all scientists not to stand up in the political arena as public intellectuals. This was the real tragedy of Oppenheimer. What happened to him also damaged our ability as a society to debate honestly about scientific theory — the very foundation of our modern world.

Quantum physics has utterly transformed our understanding of the universe. And this science has also given us a revolution in computing power and incredible biomedical innovations to prolong human life. Yet, too many of our citizens still distrust scientists and fail to understand the scientific quest, the trial and error inherent in testing any theory against facts by experimenting. Just look at what happened to our public health civil servants during the recent pandemic.

We stand on the cusp of yet another technological revolution in which artificial intelligence will transform how we live and work, and yet we are not yet having the kind of informed civil discourse with its innovators that could help us to make wise policy decisions on its regulation. Our politicians need to listen more to technology innovators like Sam Altman and quantum physicists like Kip Thorne and Michio Kaku.

Oppenheimer was trying desperately to have that kind of conversation about nuclear weapons. He was trying to warn our generals that these are not battlefield weapons, but weapons of pure terror. But our politicians chose to silence him; the result was that we spent the Cold War engaged in a costly and dangerous arms race.

Today, Vladimir Putin’s not-so-veiled threats to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine are a stark reminder that we can never be complacent about living with nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer did not regret what he did at Los Alamos; he understood that you cannot stop curious human beings from discovering the physical world around them. One cannot halt the scientific quest, nor can one un-invent the atomic bomb. But Oppenheimer always believed that human beings could learn to regulate these technologies and integrate them into a sustainable and humane civilization. We can only hope he was right.

Kai Bird is the director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography and co-author with the late Martin J. Sherwin of “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” He is now working on a biography of Roy Cohn.

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