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.