Sixty-eight years after he was disgraced and his reputation ruined, brilliant physicist and atomic bomb architect J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose security clearance with the Atomic Energy Commission was revoked on the grounds that he was a supporter of Communism, has been finally declared innocent of that charge. Declassified documents, the Department of Energy has ruled, show that the investigation that rendered the American hero a broken man (he died 12 years later at the age of 62) was biased and flawed.
Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm said in a statement that “ evidence has come to light of the bias and unfairness of the process that Dr. Oppenheimer was subjected to while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed.”
That’s nice. My immediate thoughts when I read this:
- Gee, I wonder what government investigations smearing current Americans of note will be shown to be biased and flawed 68 years from now, after the damage is done and irreparable?
- Ah, yes, the McCarthy Era. The American period of mass hysteria most similar”The Great Stupid.”
- My father’s favorite epitaph (of William Jay): “He was right, dead right, as he sped along, But he’s just as dead as if he were wrong.”
In the 1930s, like many political liberals, Oppenheimer belonged to groups led or infiltrated by Communists; his brother, his wife and his former fiancée were party members. He also supported the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders. No, sorry, I was confused there for a moment. He led the team of phsysicists that perfected the atomic bomb, and later, as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission’s main advisory body, he helped direct the nation’s postwar nuclear developments. But when the Red Scare hit, and accusing people of being Communists was a near infallible way to get then canceled, a former congressional aide charged in a letter to the FBI that the celebrated physicist was a Soviet spy.
Oddly, the FBI, which we now know to be trustworthy and infallible, accepted the accusation at face value. President Dwight D. Eisenhower then ordered that Oppenheimer be prevented from access to nuclear secrets. No evidence existed to substantiate the spy charge, but the security board were suspicious of Oppenheimer’s doubts about the ethics and military value of the hydrogen bomb. Documents declassified in 2014—nobody is really sure why they were classified— indicated that Oppenheimer’s opposition to the hydrogen bomb project were not rooted in Communist sympathies.
“History matters and what was done to Oppenheimer in 1954 was a travesty, a black mark on the honor of the nation,” said historian Kai Bird, an Oppenhiemer biographer. “Students of American history will now be able to read the last chapter and see that what was done to Oppenheimer in that kangaroo court proceeding was not the last word.” Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., told the New York Times of the official exoneration, “I’m sure it doesn’t go as far as Oppenheimer and his family would have wanted. But it goes pretty far. The injustice done to Oppenheimer doesn’t get undone by this. But it’s nice to see some response and reconciliation even if it’s decades too late.”
As I said.
But acknowledging an injustice after the damage has been done doesn’t accomplish anything unless lessons are learned. Based on the current political environment—the current effort to disbar Rudy Giuliani comes to mind for some reason—I see little evidence that the lessons of the McCarthy Era have been heeded at all.
Source: New York Times