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

Israel’s Retaliation against the Houthis Sends a Message to the U.S., and to Its Arab Allies

The drone that struck a Tel Aviv high-rise on Thursday night is believed to have traveled over 2,000 kilometers, flying from Yemen over Egypt and then above the Mediterranean before veering eastward toward the Israeli coast. Since October, the Houthis have launched over 200 drones at Israel. Nor is this the first attempt to strike Tel Aviv, only the first successful one. Noah Rothman observes that the Houthis’ persistent attacks on Israel and on international shipping are largely the result of the U.S.-led coalition’s anemic response:

Had the Biden administration taken a more proactive and vigorous approach to neutralizing the Houthis’ capabilities, Israel would not be obliged to expand to Yemen the theater of operations in the war Hamas inaugurated on October 7. The prospects of a regional war grow larger by the day, not because Israel cannot “take the win,” as President Biden reportedly told Benjamin Netanyahu following a full-scale direct Iranian attack on the Jewish state, but because hostile foreign actors are killing its citizens. Jerusalem is obliged to defend them and the sovereignty of Israel’s borders.

Biden’s hesitancy was fueled by his apprehension over the prospect of a “wider war” in the Middle East. But his hesitancy is what is going to give him the war he so cravenly sought to avoid.

In this context, the nature of the Israeli response is significant: rather than follow the American strategy of striking isolated weapons depots and the like, IDF jets struck the port city of Hodeida—the sort of major target the U.S. has shied away from. The mission was likely the furthest-ever carried out by the Israel Air Force, hitting a site 200 kilometers further from Israel than Tehran. Yoel Guzansky and Ilan Zalayat comment:

The message that Israel sent was intended to reach the moderate Arab countries, the West, and especially the United States. . . . The message to the coalition countries is that “the containment” had failed and the Houthis must be hit harder. The Hodeida port is the lifeline of the Houthi economy and continued damage to it will make it extremely difficult for this economy, which is also facing significant American sanctions.

Read more at National Review

More about: Houthis, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy