Why Anti-Intellectual, Xenophobic Politics Makes Oppenheimer Story Relevant

Witch-hunters of J Robert Oppenheimer in the 1950s represented the demagoguery that has come to characterize the politics of the likes of former US President Donald Trump—paranoid, anti-intellectual, and xenophobia

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Until the summer of 2015, the United States (US) was just another country for me. I had much more interest in my immediate neighborhood of South Asia personally as well as part of my job at The Times Of India. That changed when I spent time in the US in September 2015 on an East West Center fellowship.

The fellowship catalyzed my keen interest not only in the US but the wider world given the influence America has exerted globally since the Second World War. It was sort of a crash course on subjects such as American constitutionalism and included law professor David L Hudson Jr’s lecture at Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center in Nashville on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition in the US.

Over the years, I learnt more about America, its founding fathers, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, the influence of republicanism, and the European Enlightenment, on them, the balance of executive and legislative power, and the independent judiciary.

I also have had my share of problems along the way of understanding America. Political jargon and terms such as McCarthyism were among them. I do not remember hearing the term during the fellowship but noticed its frequent usage after President Donald Trump took office in 2017.

Trumpism, or ‘hysterical intolerance‘, as the City University of New York Professor Peter Beinart described it in The Atlantic, would begin drawing parallels with McCarthyism. Trump built his political career ‘on demagoguery, intimidation, and a cult of personality—not tangible achievements or coherent ideas.’

The term McCarthyism was coined over 70 years back in the 1950s when Joseph R McCarthy, a Republican Senator from Wisconsin, began using dubious means to prosecute government employees after publicly accusing them of disloyalty.

McCarthy was an obscure senator until February 1950 when he claimed to have a list of 205 card-carrying Communists in the US Department of State. The period of heightened paranoia about Communism would come to be referred to as the ‘Red Scare.’ McCarthy held hearings on Communist subversion as the Senate Permanent Investigation Subcommittee chairman. He probed ‘Communist infiltration’ of the American armed forces.

McCarthy died in May 1957 three years after the US Senate censured him. But the terms McCarthyism and McCarthy’s tactics would enter the lexicon. They are used to describe witch hunts involving public accusations of disloyalty or subversion without sufficient proof and unfair methods of probe to suppress opposition.

McCarthy has been back in the spotlight following the release of Christopher Nolan’s movie on American quantum physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. The movie has received rave reviews with The New York Times calling Nolan’s complex, vivid portrait of Oppenheimer ‘a brilliant achievement in formal and conceptual terms.’

Before McCarthy brought him down, Oppenheimer was celebrated as a hero of science in America. Oppenheimer headed the research and development of the atomic bomb amid fears that Hitler’s Nazi Germany would do it first during the Second World War.

Nazis were, however, defeated and Americans ended up dropping atom bombs on Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people dead. Many scientists associated with the bomb project thought there was no need to drop the bombs on Japan. Oppenheimer was not among them. But he would later make statements against nuclear weapons and become a victim of the McCarthy witch-hunts.

Oppenheimer was suspected of being a Soviet spy amid fears over the strides the Soviets had made in atomic weaponry and Communist subversion at home during the Cold War. Oppenheimer chose to defend himself at a secret hearing against charges of being a security risk, ignoring fellow physicist Albert Einstein’s suggestion against doing so.

Einstein thought Oppenheimer had no obligation to subject himself to the witch hunt having served his country well. Oppenheimer told Einstein he could not turn his back on America. Einstein thought Oppenheimer was foolish in subjecting himself to a kangaroo court.

Oppenheimer was publicly humiliated in 1954. The Atomic Energy Commission deemed Oppenheimer to be a security risk by a vote of 2 to 1 as he spoke out against a nuclear arms race. Oppenheimer criticized the building of a ‘super’ hydrogen bomb and said the Hiroshima bomb was used ‘against an essentially defeated enemy.’

Oppenheimer called the atomic bomb a weapon for aggressors and earned the ire of the American national security establishment that charged him with disloyalty. The Atomic Energy Commission revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954 after 19 days of secret hearings, blocking his access to atomic secrets and ending his career. Oppenheimer died 13 years later in 1967 at 62.

Oppenheimer’s resistance to early work on the hydrogen bomb was cited as a key element in the case. As no evidence came to light to back the spy charge, the 1954 revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance was nullified in December 2022.

Oppenheimer was cleared of the charges in December 2022 as they were found to be the result of a ‘flawed process’ violating regulations. American Secretary of Energy Jennifer M Granholm cited more evidence and said bias and unfairness of the process come to light. She added the evidence of Oppenheimer’s loyalty and patriotism has been affirmed.

Oppenheimer’s early views on the hydrogen bomb were found to have had an adverse effect on the recruitment of scientists and the progress of the scientific effort. Material declassified in 2014 suggested that Oppenheimer opposed the hydrogen bomb project on the basis of technical and military grounds. It had nothing to do with Soviet sympathies.

The celebrated physicist was cleared of the allegations of being a Soviet spy months before the movie on him based on Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer was released.

Bird told The New York Times that he was overwhelmed with emotion over the clearance. In a separate op-ed in the Times titled ‘The Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer’, Bird on July 17, 2023, called Oppenheimer’s life story relevant to current political predicaments as a political movement characterized by rank know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues destroyed the scientist.

Bird called the witch-hunters of the 1950s direct ancestors of current American political actors of a certain paranoid style. He referred to Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel, who tried to subpoena Oppenheimer in 1954, only to be warned that this could interfere with the impending security hearing.

Bird noted Cohn taught Trump his ‘brash, wholly deranged style of politics‘ while recalling the former president’s fact-challenged comments days before The Economist called plans for Trump’s second term alarming in its July 15-21, 2023, edition. He called this a worldview proudly scornful of science. Bird wrote what happened to Oppenheimer also damaged their ability as a society to debate honestly about scientific theory — the very foundation of the modern world.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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