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    Op-Ed
    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Today’s leaders should look at Oppenheimer’s example

    This Sept. 9, 1945, file photo shows Gen. Leslie R. Groves, right, and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who cooperated on the development of the atomic bomb, survey the area in Alamogordo, N.M., where a tower once stood before the test bomb exploded. (AP Photo/File)
    J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the Manhattan Project that gave us the first atomic bomb, is a hero because he fought ferociously for what he believed in, lost the battle and then quietly left the battlefield. He didn't whine. He didn't complain. He just left. Maybe “leaders” today should take note.

    Today, as both political parties, supported by their favorite media outlets, claw at each other, taking their opponents' statements out of context and assigning the worst possible motives to their political stances, it’s helpful to remember that public policy was not always the province of cheap shot artists, hysteria mongers and nasty tweeters.

    Unlike the manufactured problems that we see today, we were facing life and death problems in the 1940s and 1950s, when Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were at the helm and serious people like J. Robert Oppenheimer dominated the public discourse. Oppenheimer, who developed the first nuclear bomb as scientific director of the World War II-era Manhattan Project, challenged Truman and Eisenhower over nuclear policy, which sharpened arguments over building the hydrogen bomb.

    Despite their fierce disagreements, Truman and Oppenheimer never took cheap shots at each other. Neither did Eisenhower and Oppenheimer.

    Several months ago, many Americans became acquainted with the physicist through the release of the blockbuster movie titled “Oppenheimer.” Oppenheimer’s work on the atomic bomb earned him great praise, but he immediately began working to stop the United States from building the more powerful hydrogen bomb, earning him great scorn.

    Accolades were showered on Oppenheimer after the first atomic bombs were dropped, sparing the United States a bloody invasion of Japan. The media loved him. Corporations and academia wanted to hire him.

    Oppenheimer didn't share the joy. To him, what started out as a scientific challenge ended up being the most powerful instrument of death that the world had ever seen, and he was sick about it. The casualty reports and heartbreaking pictures transmitted from Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunted him. Oppenheimer committed himself to making nuclear disarmament the key part of United States foreign policy.

    On Oct. 25, 1945, Oppenheimer took his first swim in the treacherous waters of post-war politics, when he met Truman at the White House to discuss nuclear weapons. It was a rough meeting. Oppenheimer told Truman that the United States, through the United Nations, should establish an international agency to restrict further development of nuclear weapons, a position Truman didn't endorse. Oppenheimer added that he felt he had "blood on his hands" for the deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which prompted Truman to respond that only he, as president, had "blood on his hands."

    Following the meeting, Truman called Oppenheimer a "crybaby scientist" and told his staff that he never wanted to see Oppenheimer in his office again. Oppenheimer resigned from the Manhattan Project in November 1945 to teach in California.

    Government expert

    Oppenheimer soon got an unwanted education in politics from Truman. On Jan. 24, 1946, the United Nations established the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, which was created to produce a program for world nuclear disarmament. Accordingly, Secretary of State James Byrnes asked Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Tennessee Valley Authority Chairman David Lilienthal to draft a disarmament plan for the United States.

    Acheson and Lilienthal recruited Oppenheimer to write much of the plan.

    Under the proposed Acheson-Lilienthal Plan, the United Nations would oversee facilities throughout the world that produced nuclear weapons. But after consultation with key Truman advisers such as Bernard Baruch, a modified plan (Baruch Plan) was presented to the world that contained two "poison pills" sure to kill the idea of disarmament.

    One poison pill was a provision that permitted the United States to maintain its entire nuclear arsenal until all of the terms of the Baruch Plan had been fully implemented. Full implementation of the Baruch Plan would have taken many years to achieve, allowing the United States to maintain its nuclear monopoly for the foreseeable future.

    The other poison pill was a provision that the United Nations Security Council could, by a majority vote, sanction any country that failed to comply with the Baruch Plan. This provision was a huge exception from the existing Security Council rule that stated that any one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — United States, Great Britain, France, Taiwan and the Soviet Union — could veto a Security Council resolution even if it was outvoted by the other members of the Security Council.

    On Dec. 31, 1946, the Baruch Plan was rejected by the Soviet Union, fearing the loss of its veto power on the issue of disarmament and believing, perhaps correctly, that the four other members of the United Nations Security Council would gang up on the Soviet Union.

    Some historians believe that Truman put the poison pills in the Baruch Plan to ensure that the Soviet Union would reject it. That way, Truman could blame the Soviet Union for rejecting a disarmament plan, while allowing the United States to continue expanding its nuclear arsenal.

    For its part, the Soviet Union was so committed to building an atomic bomb that it would have almost certainly rejected the Baruch Plan even without the poison pills.

    With the Baruch Plan tossed into the dustbin of history, the Soviet Union continued building an atomic bomb, which it successfully tested in 1949. The United States continued its preliminary work on the much more powerful hydrogen bomb.

    On Aug. 1, 1946, Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act. The Atomic Energy Act created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which was a panel of business, government and academic executives who were charged with regulating nuclear research in the United States.

    The next year, in 1947, Lewis Strauss, a wealthy businessman who served as a trustee of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University, hired Oppenheimer to serve as director of the institute. The work was not too taxing, allowing Oppenheimer to serve on several government boards and commissions at the same time, including being named as Truman’s first chairman of the General Advisory Committee (GAC), which was created to give scientific advice to the AEC. Truman named Strauss an initial member of the commission.

    Simply put, the members of the GAC were technocrats and the members of the AEC were bureaucrats. The Atomic Energy Act gave the president the power to overrule the AEC in all instances involving military matters.

    In 1949, the GAC and AEC backed Truman into a corner over building a hydrogen bomb. With the Soviet Union successfully testing an atomic bomb in 1949, Truman wanted to advance development of the hydrogen bomb in the United States from a research phase to a construction phase. As Truman was preparing to announce his decision to build the hydrogen bomb, the GAC, headed by Oppenheimer, submitted a report to the AEC saying that the United States should not build a hydrogen bomb.

    The GAC's report was unanimous. The GAC based its recommendation on technical and moral grounds, mixing physics with politics, always a dangerous thing to do. The GAC feared that building a hydrogen bomb would fuel an arms race between the United States and Soviet Union.

    The AEC quickly endorsed the GAC's report by a 3-2 vote, but referred the final decision to Truman in a meaningless gesture since, under the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, the president had the right to reject the report in any case.

    Slyly, Truman assembled a “special committee” to discuss the conflicting views on building the hydrogen bomb, a panel stacked with Truman loyalists. With Congress strongly in favor of building the hydrogen bomb, the end result was inevitable. On Jan. 31, 1950, a unanimous special committee approved building the hydrogen bomb.

    Truman did not renominate Oppenheimer for another position on the GAC when his term expired in 1952. The United States successfully tested a hydrogen bomb on Nov. 1, 1952. The Soviet Union successfully tested a hydrogen bomb on Aug. 12, 1953.

    Cut down

    By then, Eisenhower had succeeded Truman as president of the United States. While far apart on most issues, Eisenhower and Truman agreed about building the hydrogen bomb.

    On July 2, 1953, Eisenhower named Strauss chairman of the AEC. From the early days of his chairmanship, Strauss pushed to strip Oppenheimer of his top secret security clearance to keep him from working on government and government-funded nuclear projects. Strauss believed that Oppenheimer's long association with communist supporters made him a security risk.

    In November 1953, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover confirmed Strauss's fears, telling the Eisenhower administration that Oppenheimer was a serious security risk. In response, on Dec. 3, 1953, Eisenhower suspended Oppenheimer from working on federal and federally-funded nuclear projects, pending further investigation.

    About three weeks later, the AEC informed Oppenheimer of the charges against him and gave him an opportunity to respond. On March 4, 1954, Oppenheimer responded to the charges, which triggered a security hearing by the AEC.

    At the outset of the AEC security hearing, Americans had every reason to fear the Soviet Union. Following World War II, the Soviet Union installed puppet governments in countries that the Soviet Union had liberated from the Nazis only to create, in Winston Churchill's words, an "Iron Curtain" dividing free Western Europe from enslaved Eastern Europe. Behind the Iron Curtain, dissidents were imprisoned, murdered or sent to "reeducation" camps.

    The security hearing was conducted in secret by the AEC's Personnel Security Board in Washington D.C. The hearing began on April 12, 1954, and ended on May 6. It produced no bombshells or "a-ha" moments. Everything about Oppenheimer was well known before the hearing; Oppenheimer admitted to much of the AEC's evidence and tried to put the evidence in its proper context.

    The unspoken fact overshadowing the entire hearing was that the real reason the AEC wanted to revoke Oppenheimer's top secret clearance was that he didn't support building the hydrogen bomb. The AEC feared Oppenhheimer because, as "father of the atomic bomb" who later regretted his fatherhood, his opposition to the hydrogen bomb greatly influenced liberals in the United States, making difficult to form a broader consensus to build the hydrogen bomb.

    The Personnel Security Board issued its decision on May 27, 1954, voting 2-1 to recommend that the full AEC revoke Oppenheimer's top secret security clearance. The Personnel Security Board didn't find that Oppenheimer was a communist or that he had betrayed the United States; rather, it found that his relationships with American communists, coupled with his strident opposition to the hydrogen bomb, made him a security risk.

    One of the saddest notes from the security hearing is how AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss turned against Oppenheimer, his one time friend. In 1947, Strauss named Oppenheimer Director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. In 1954, Strauss pushed to revoke Oppenheimer's top secret security clearance.

    What changed over the course of seven years? Was it because Strauss was a conservative and Oppenheimer was a liberal? Was it because Strauss backed the hydrogen bomb and Oppenheimer didn't? Was it because Strauss was an observant Jew and Oppenheimer was an indifferent Jew? Was it because animosities had built up between the two men while Strauss served as a member of the AEC at the same time Oppenheimer served as chairman of the GAC?

    Many claim to know the answers to these questions but no one really knows. The only thing that's certain is that they were friends in 1947 and foes in 1954.

    Sunset

    Stripped of his top secret security clearance, Oppenheimer still remained the Director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University where he supervised the work of scholars researching and publishing articles. Wealthy through inheritance, Oppenheimer, in 1955, purchased property on the island of St. John's, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

    St. John's was raw and undeveloped with just 800 permanent residents, a perfect place to get away from the dull routine of the institute and the nastiness of Washington. Oppenheimer and his wife, Katherine, rested on the beach; sailed around the island on their boat; mixed potent island cocktails; and hosted many informal dinner parties, inviting high society residents as well as island laborers.

    Oppenheimer was, at a minimum, a heavy social drinker; Katherine was a troubled alcoholic.

    Oppenheimer split his time between Princeton and St. John's. Oppenheimer generally stayed out of the limelight, delivering a few lectures and appearing for rare television interviews. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy invited Oppenheimer to the White House to honor over 40 Nobel Prize winners (Oppenheimer never won a Nobel Prize). Kennedy's invitation was widely viewed as an implicit apology for Oppenheimer's mistreatment by the government.

    Ironically, the following year the GAC awarded Oppenheimer its 1963 Enrico Fermi Award, which Congress had established in 1954 to recognize outstanding scientific achievement. The award included a stipend of $50,000 ($450,000 in 2020 dollars). Kennedy wanted to present the award to Oppenheimer but was assassinated in a Dallas motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, presented the award to Oppenheimer on Dec. 2, 10 days after Kennedy was killed.

    Oppenheimer, a four-packs-per-day cigarette smoker, was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1965. He battled valiantly against the disease but to no avail. He died on Feb. 18, 1967. Katherine poured his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean.

    Reasonable people can disagree whether or not the hydrogen bomb was necessary (I side with Truman). Oppenheimer could have taken the easy way out by suppressing his beliefs and supporting a bomb he didn't actually support. By doing so, he would have remained in good standing in Washington, corporate America, academia and the media. Pleasure would have jumped ahead of pain.

    But Oppenheimer didn't take the bait. Instead, he fought hard for his beliefs and lost badly, personally and professionally. Like an untrained boxer, he led with his face, not his fists. He took the blows. He was a loser. He was a man.

    Mark Shea is a retired attorney from Moodus.

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