Robert Oppenheimer, Communism, Secular Humanism, and the Nuclear Bomb

While J. Robert Oppenheimer was only one of the outstanding scientists whose work made the atomic bomb possible, his singular combination of managerial, scientific, and technical brilliance made him the most important. The eponymous film, released on Friday, has returned public attention not only to Oppenheimer’s life and achievement, but also to the controversy surrounding him, which culminated in the revocation of his security clearance due to his Communist sympathies. In her review, the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis concludes from the movie that its protagonist was a victim “anti-Communist attacks” who eventually fell prey to “political gamesmanship, the vanity of petty men, and the naked anti-Semitism of the Red scare.”

In 2005, James Nuechterlein reviewed the scholarly biography on which the film Oppenheimer is based, and came to very different conclusions:

The immediate world that shaped the young Oppenheimer was the world of the Ethical Culture Society, an offshoot of Reform Judaism that allowed its adherents to escape what its founder, Felix Adler, had dismissed as Judaism’s “narrow spirit of exclusion.” Oppenheimer’s parents, upper-middle-class immigrants from Germany, had been married by Adler, and they immersed their son in the Society’s nonreligious religion of “deed, not creed,” a universal humanism committed to the ideals of social justice, rationalism, and free-thinking critical inquiry.

Was he a Communist? He always denied membership in the party, and the government, despite thorough investigation, never proved otherwise. But if he was not a Communist, he was, by his own testimony, about as fervent a fellow-traveler as could be imagined.

Nuechterlein demonstrates that the men who revoked Oppenheimer’s security were engaged in anything but a McCarthyite “witch-hunt” (as Dargis calls it); the leading figure in the investigation was in fact a Democratic opponent of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and all involved proceeded judiciously. And then there is the matter of Oppenheimer’s own political judgment:

Even more dubious is the assumption that Oppenheimer was a prophetic and wise critic of American policy. That assumption rests on a soft revisionist view of the cold war that supposes the conflict could have been avoided, or at least greatly ameliorated, if alternative policies had prevailed. In this view, the nuclear arms race—in which America always led the way—was central to the hardening of cold-war attitudes, and the failure of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to heed Oppenheimer’s urgings of greater openness and flexibility toward the Soviet Union represented a “missed opportunity” to dispel mutual suspicions.

All of which brings us back, the long way around, to his grounding in Ethical Culture, itself an early variant of what would later come to be called secular humanism. The ideals of disinterested rationalism and the objectively self-evident social values on which Oppenheimer had been raised prepared him admirably for a life in science, but not at all for a life in politics. They also gave him, as they still give those who think like him, a quite undeserved presumption of moral superiority.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Communism, Film, Nuclear Bomb, Science

An Israeli Buffer Zone in the Gaza Strip Doesn’t Violate International Law

 The IDF announced on Thursday that it is safe for residents to return to some of the towns and villages near the Gaza Strip that have been abandoned since October 7. Yet on the same day, rocket sirens sounded in one of those communities, Kibbutz Mefalsim. To help ensure security in the area, Israel is considering the creation of a buffer zone within the Strip that would be closed to Palestinian civilians and buildings. The U.S. has indicated, however, that it would not look favorably on such a step.

Avraham Shalev explains why it’s necessary:

The creation of a security buffer along the Gaza-Israel border serves the purpose of destroying Hamas’s infrastructure and eliminating the threat to Israel. . . . Some Palestinian structures are practically on the border, and only several hundred yards away from Israeli communities such as Kfar Aza, Kerem Shalom, and Sderot. The Palestinian terrorists that carried out the murderous October 7 attacks crossed into Israel from many of these border-adjacent areas. Hamas officials have already vowed that “we will do this again and again. The al-Aqsa Flood [the October 7th massacre] is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth.”

In 2018 and 2019, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad organized mass marches towards the Israeli border with the goal of breaking into Israel. Billed by Palestinians as “the Great March of Return,” its name reveals its purpose—invasion. Although the marches were supposedly non-violent, they featured largescale attacks on Israeli forces as well as arson and damage to Israeli agriculture and civilian communities. Moreover, the October 7 massacre was made possible by Hamas’s prepositioning military hardware along the border under false cover of civilian activity. The security perimeter is intended to prevent a reprise of these events.

Shalev goes on to dismantle the arguments put forth about why international law prohibits Israel from creating the buffer zone. He notes:

By way of comparison, following the defeat of Nazi Germany, France occupied the Saar [River Valley] directly until 1947 and then indirectly until reintegration with Germany in 1957, and the Allied occupation of Berlin continued until the reunification of Germany in 1990. The Allies maintained their occupation long after the fall of the Nazi regime, due to the threat of Soviet invasion and conquest of West Berlin, and by extension Western Europe.

Read more at Kohelet

More about: Gaza Strip, Gaza War 2023, International Law, Israeli Security