A Prophet, Finally With Honor

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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A Prophet, Finally With Honor
A Prophet, Finally With Honor Owing to our long lead times here at The Canyon Chronicle, as you read this you will have already seen the “Barbenheimer” blockbusters (the first and last time you’ll hear me use that term), if you were interested, and maybe even more than once. I don’t begrudge anyone a little light-hearted summer fun, but if you really think coughing up hundreds of millions of dollars to Warner Bros. for an overhyped movie built around a 64-year-old toy doll is somehow smashing the patriarchy and empowering women, then bless your heart. No surprise that Barbie is boffo at the box office, and at this writing is outgrossing Oppie nearly 2-1. I’m no marketing genius, but even I know that a three-hour fact-based drama about the physicist who helped make possible nuclear annihilation isn’t your typical summer fare. “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds,” the 40-year-old J. Robert Oppenheimer famously ruminated after the successful “Trinity” A-bomb test in July 1945, citing Hindu scripture (a polymath, by the age of 25 he was already a physics professer at Caltech and fluent in six languages, including ancient Sanskrit). That’s enough to harsh anyone’s mellow. Yet I find myself thinking a lot more about Oppenheimer than I ever expected to. It raises profound and unresolved questions about weapons of mass destruction, forbidden scientific knowledge, and how crass politics has a way of indiscriminately ruining people and policy alike. But it’s also an incredibly compelling narrative throughout its entire running time. Our audience apparently thought so, too. They sat there rapt and silent, offering scattered applause at the end. The film is based on a Pulitzer-winning 2005 historical biography; author Kai Bird survives his co-author Martin Sherwin, and is gamely making the rounds to promote it. The film in general hews pretty close to the accepted facts, allowing for some unavoidable simplification of a complex and tangled life story. But like a lot of great films, it sent me back to the stacks to explore some of the original source material and the historical record to consider its dramatic departures. To be clear, it’s not a documentary. For that, I would suggest hunting down a library or streaming copy of Jon Else’s excellent 1981 doc, “The Day After Trinity,” which features many interviews with Manhattan Project physicist colleagues of Oppenheimer’s, including his younger brother Frank, whose membership in the Communist Party later led to his blacklisting. And there are earlier dramas worth viewing for a compare-and-contrast, including the interesting but inferior “Fat Man and Little Boy” (1989), and the seven-part BBC series “Oppenheimer” starring Sam Waterston. Additionally, a PBS American Experience doc, “The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” focused on the way Oppenheimer’s well-known left-wing past was repurposed against him in 1954 to pretextually strip him of his security clearance and effectively end his active career as a nuclear physicist. In the new film, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss (an almost unrecognizable Robert Downey, Jr. in an Oscar-caliber performance) engineers Oppenheimer’s downfall out of personal animus. Strauss is smarting over his perceived humiliation by Oppenheimer at a congressional hearing five years before; he also believes Oppenheimer ruined Strauss’s reputation with Albert Einstein. While much of their interaction tracks with the Bird-Sherwin source book, it doesn’t entirely track with the recollections of one who should know: Harold P. Green, who was the AEC’s staff counsel for the agency’s security division, and tasked with writing the fateful 1953 letter informing Oppenheimer of the security charge and laying out his option for a closed-door hearing on whether to revoke his security clearance. In Green’s detailed account, published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1977 and reprinted this year, the reality was more complicated. Green argues that political and policy differences between Strauss and Oppenheimer, and an overly rigid interpretation of an Eisenhower national security directive, ultimately doomed Oppenheimer. Strauss and Oppenheimer had worked together, but also experienced personal conflicts; Oppenheimer DID have a left-wing past with plenty of Communist associations documented in his security file (including his former lover Jean Tatlock, his wife Kitty, his brother Frank and sister-in-law Jackie, all dues-paying CPUSA members.) And there were significant security breaches at the Los Alamos lab involving at least four known Soviet spies (although there were no allegations or findings that Oppenheimer, as the project director, was in any way responsible or even knew about them.) Oppenheimer also disagreed with American policy after the war to develop an H-bomb, a nuclear weapon a thousand times more powerful than the atom bomb, and believed nuclear technology should be shared under international supervision of an arm of the UN. He also made the mistake of expressing guilt and remorse for the thousands of deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a meeting with President Truman, who had personally ordered and taken responsibility for the atomic attacks that successfully ended the world war with American victory and unconditional Japanese surrender. Truman was disgusted by “the crybaby scientist” who had enabled him to win the war. The spring 1954 security clearance hearing produced no new evidence against Oppenheimer, and indeed concluded that he was a loyal American. But in post-war America, he and his left-wing politics were superfluous and unacceptable at the height of McCarthyism and anti-communist hysteria. The personnel hearing board voted 2-1 to strip his clearance, and the full AEC accepted the recommendation on a 4-1 vote. He quietly withdrew from public life to run the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, from which he retired, in failing health, in 1966. In 1967, Robert Oppenheimer died of throat cancer only weeks shy of his 63rd birthday—not from radiation exposure, but from his longtime five-pack-a-day smoking habit. His brother Frank, also a heavy smoker, was later diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent a lobectomy to remove part of a lung before dying of cancer himself at the age of 73 in 1985. Even before his death, Robert Oppenheimer eventually found himself on the road to rehabilitation. In 1963, President Kennedy had won support from the AEC and its General Advisory Committee for his decision to present Oppenheimer with the Enrico Fermi Medal, an award for scientific contributions that also carried a tax-free $50,000 prize. Tragically, Oppenheimer had been scheduled to receive Kennedy’s presidential honor on November 22. The following month, President Johnson honored his late predecessor’s intention and presented the Fermi Medal himself. In a show of gratitude and humility, and perhaps even a little hard-earned political wisdom, Oppenheimer graciously accepted the award, declaring, “[W]e are engaged in this great enterprise of our time, testing whether men can both preserve and enlarge life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and live without war as the great arbiter of history. In this enterprise, no one bears a greater responsibility than the President of the United States. I think it just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today.” Last December, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm finally vacated the 1954 decision revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance, declaring the hearing process flawed and violating the agency’s own regulations. Over time, Granholm said in her statement, “more evidence has come to light of the bias and unfairness of the process that Dr. Oppenheimer was subjected to while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed.”
Joel Bellman

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