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Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin: Oppie Was Fighting the Same Forces Many Are Today

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (4-11-05):

[Kai Bird is a biographer and contributing editor to The Nation. Martin J. Sherwin is a professor of history at Tufts University. Their book, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf.]

Despite the menacing weather and bitter cold that chilled the Northeast on February 25, 1967, 600 friends and colleagues gathered in Princeton, N.J., to celebrate the life and mourn the death of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Some knew him as a gentle teacher and affectionately called him "Oppie." Others knew him as a great physicist, a man who in 1945 had become the "father" of the atomic bomb, a national hero, and an emblem of the scientist as public servant. And everyone remembered with deep bitterness how, just nine years later, the new Republican administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower had declared him a security risk -- making Oppenheimer the most prominent victim of America's anti-Communist crusade and an enduring symbol of the self-destructive tendencies that can seize a government too consumed by considerations of national security.

The last eulogy was given by George F. Kennan, veteran diplomat, the architect of America's postwar containment policy against the Soviet Union, and a longtime friend and colleague of Oppenheimer's at the Institute for Advanced Study. "In the dark days of the early 50s," Kennan said, "when troubles crowded in upon him from many sides, and when he found himself harassed by his position at the center of controversy, I drew his attention to the fact that he would be welcome in a hundred academic centers abroad and asked him whether he had not thought of taking residence outside this country. His answer," Kennan recalled, "given to me with tears in his eyes: 'Damn it, I happen to love this country.'"

On December 23, 1953, Oppenheimer's love for his country was severely tested. Summoned to the office of the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis L. Strauss, "the father of the atomic bomb" was given a letter that charged him with being a security risk. The 34 enumerated accusations ranged from the ridiculous -- in the late 1930s he had been a member of the Friends of the Chinese People -- to the pointedly political -- in 1949-50 he had opposed and therefore delayed a program to build the hydrogen bomb. As numerous books and articles have made clear, Oppenheimer's lack of enthusiasm for a hydrogen-bomb program was at the heart of the security-board hearing that he would endure for six weeks beginning on April 12, 51 years ago this week.

The letter of charges handed to Oppenheimer on that dark winter afternoon was the culmination of Strauss's carefully planned effort to eliminate Oppenheimer's influence from the fierce debate that had raged for five years over nuclear-weapons policy. Oppenheimer and Strauss had been on opposite sides of that debate from its inception, and, in the process, they had come to deeply dislike and distrust each other. Oppenheimer had emerged as the leading advocate of diplomatic initiatives to reign in the escalating arms race while keeping a limited nuclear arsenal sufficient for deterrence. Strauss, on the other hand, was a consistent advocate of a bigger and better nuclear arsenal that could overwhelm the Soviet Union and its satellites in a crisis. Since the inauguration of President Eisenhower in January 1953, it had become increasingly apparent that Oppenheimer was on the losing side. The meeting was about to confirm the full extent of Strauss's triumph.

Strauss's plan to silence Oppenheimer reflected a growing consensus among hardliners -- Democrats as well as Republicans -- that America's nuclear advantage was the foundation of the country's military policy and that opponents who argued otherwise posed a danger to the nation's security. Those who were convinced that a superior nuclear arsenal was the only effective antidote to the Soviet Union's large army chafed at Oppenheimer's condemnations of the Strategic Air Command's massive-retaliation strategy (he called it "genocidal") and at his calls for a public debate on issues related to war and peace in the nuclear age.

A Democrat who shared Strauss's view was a senator from Washington, Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson, recently elected in 1952. Representing the state that was home to both a major nuclear-weapons facility (Hanford) and the company that supplied America's bombers, "the Senator from Boeing" was not only a supporter of the Air Force's strategy; he was also to become -- along with the University of Chicago scholars Leo Strauss and Albert Wohlstetter -- one of the founding fathers of the neoconservative foreign policy that dominates the current Bush administration.

Indeed, there is a seamless connection between the early nuclear-weapons debate of the late 1940s -- most especially the debate in 1949-50 over whether to institute a crash program to build a hydrogen bomb -- and the Bush administration's insistence that American national security requires unilateral action -- even preventive wars. It is astonishing how clearly the issues raised in the sharp debate 55 years ago have been echoed by the men who took us to war in Iraq.

But that should not be surprising. Many of them, including Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and other proponents of the war worked for, or were tutored by, the late Senator Jackson. From Jackson those neoconservative acolytes drew the belief that nuclear weapons had tilted the diplomatic-military equation so heavily toward the military side that diplomacy could no longer be considered a strategy of first resort. Unilateral military action -- including preventive war if necessary -- was the only policy that could guarantee American security. It was a view that Oppenehimer publicly opposed.... [He also opposed the building of the Super, the hydrogen bomb.]

According to [Jackson's] biographer, Robert G. Kaufman,"He never forgot the experience of well-meaning but naïve scientists arguing against building the H-bomb." Richard Perle, who served as Jackson's top foreign-policy adviser between 1969 and 1979, told Kaufman,"His [Jackson's] enthusiasm for building missile defense, his skepticism about détente and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), all stemmed from his previous experiences and the lessons he drew from it: that had we listened to the scientists who had opposed the hydrogen bomb, Stalin would have emerged with a monopoly, and we would have been in deep trouble."

Like Jackson, Perle believes that the Soviet Union was deterred only by America's nuclear superiority, and that the ability to fight and win a nuclear war is as important today as it was during the cold war. Given the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of rogue states, failed states, or nonstate adversaries like al-Qaeda, it was a small step in logic for Perle and his colleagues to apply the unilateral Jackson-McMahon-Strauss logic of the hydrogen-bomb debate to the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's arsenal.

Indeed, in the late 1990s Perle and Douglas J. Feith (another neoconservative intellectual who would become a high-ranking Pentagon official in the current Bush administration) signed a report urging Israel to focus on"removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq." Such an agenda, they argued, would"signal a clean break by abandoning a policy which assumed exhaustion and allowed strategic retreat by re-establishing the principle of pre-emption, rather than retaliation alone." Later, in November 2001, Perle said that Saddam Hussein"has weapons of mass destruction. The lesser risk is in pre-emption. We've got to stop wishing away the problem."

Oppenheimer had not sought to"wish away" either nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union, or any of the other serious issues he confronted as an adviser to the AEC and the armed forces. But he did believe that diplomatic initiatives and agreed-upon treaties were essential to an intelligent and viable national-security policy. Any effort to secure peace by force of arms alone was inherently unstable and particularly dangerous in the nuclear age. That is an argument that governments of the new Europe appear to have drawn in the 21st century from the history of war-ravaged"old Europe." It is an approach that Oppenheimer had advocated a half-century earlier, but one that a government narrowly focused on another approach succeeded in silencing.

Back in the autumn of 1945, Harry Truman said that the atomic bomb would be held by the United States as a"sacred trust" for the rest of the world, and"we shall not give our approval to any compromises with evil." In response, Oppenheimer said he disliked Truman's triumphalist tone:"If you approach the problem and say, 'We know what is right and we would like to use the atomic bomb to persuade you to agree with us,' then you are in a very weak position and you will not succeed ... you will find yourselves attempting by force of arms to prevent a disaster." And it was as likely as not, he implied, that those policies would give rise to the very disaster you had sought to prevent. That may very well turn out to be the story of our unilateral actions in Iraq. With respect to principles, at least, the debate over U.S. unilateral actions in Iraq is the hydrogen-bomb debate all over again.