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     May 10, 2006
SPEAKING FREELY
The tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer
By C Mott Woolley

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

In American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer [1], Toni, Oppenheimer's "very sweet" daughter, is described as having "acquired a near-perfect command of West Indian Calypso, the Creole English common in the islands. She loved the island's steel-band music. As a young adolescent, she was a dead-serious child, with beautiful smooth features, tragic dark eyes, long lustrous dark hair, and the condescending politeness of a princess. Extremely shy, she hated to have her



photograph taken." In 1977 on the island of St John in the US Virgin Islands, Toni hanged herself. She was 33 years old.

A graduate of Oberlin College, proficient in German, French, Italian and Spanish, Toni had wanted to become a translator at the United Nations but could not because the US government denied her a security clearance. This may be the closest Toni ever got to her father: he, too, had been denied a security clearance in 1954.

That year, the Atomic Energy Commission, in scrutinizing Toni's father, found him to be loyal to the United States, but unfit to be entrusted with atomic secrets because of his past communist associations and opposition to developing a hydrogen bomb. Never mind that her father had earlier been entrusted to lead the development and successful detonations of the first atomic bombs during an hour of grave peril.

At the time of her father's ordeal in 1954, Toni was 10 years old; she, along with her older brother Peter, was sent to Rochester, New York, to the home of Dr Louis and Eleanor Hempleman; there they remained throughout the inquiry as to their father's trustworthiness. Oppenheimer's wife, Kitty, mother of these small children, did not visit or call Rochester; she limited her care and time to Robert and bottle on bottle of whiskey.

After being denied a security clearance, Oppenheimer repaired with his family to St John, where he bought land and built a bungalow. As was his wish, when he died, his ashes were spread in a bay beyond the bungalow - well beyond the border of the United States. Wanting to be closer to her father, Toni had earlier tried, unsuccessfully, to drown herself in the bay where she knew her father's ashes to be, or at least to have been.

How can it be that such a profound mind - arguably the greatest scientist in US history, would shun his nation and elect not to be entombed in his once-beloved United States? What hidden secrets lie behind his escaping to a bungalow far from US shores - the bungalow in which Toni hanged herself?

The bomb goes off
At the instant the first atom bomb detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, scores of thousands of families were incinerated. At the instant the second atom bomb detonated over Nagasaki three days later, thousands and thousands more families were incinerated. To put a finer point on it: the first bomb killed 66,000-78,000 people, injured 80,000, and exposed 300,000 more to the effects of radiation. The second bomb killed 74,800 people, and so on.

Visiting Tokyo in 1960, Oppenheimer, asked how he felt, said, "I do not regret that I had something to do with the technical success of the atomic bomb. It isn't that I don't feel bad; it is that I do not feel worse tonight than I did last night."

Shortly after Toni's birth in Los Alamos, New Mexico, on December 7, 1944, her mother, Kitty, a woman with communist leanings, left Los Alamos and stayed away for several months. During her mother's absence, Toni was left in the care of Patricia Sherr, a Los Alamos friend whom Oppenheimer would visit as time allowed. As Prometheus notes:
Robert of course was working long hours, so he came by only twice a week to visit his baby daughter ... "It was all very strange," remembered Pat Sherr: "He would come and sit and chat with me, but he wouldn't ask to see the baby. She might as well have been god knows where, but he never asked to see her." Finally, one day I said, "Wouldn't you like to see your daughter? She's growing beautifully." And he said, "Yeah, yeah." Two months went by, and then during one of Robert's visits, he said to Sherr, "You seem to have grown to love [Toni] very much" ... Sherr was stunned when Oppenheimer then asked, "Would you like to adopt her?"
Kitty was married to another man when she first met Oppenheimer. Her husband was teaching at the same university in California where Oppenheimer taught. During a break in the academic year of 1939, without her husband, Kitty and Oppenheimer spent two months in Pecos, New Mexico, at his mountain cabin. Shortly after learning she was pregnant with Oppenheimer's child, Kitty divorced her husband in Las Vegas, Nevada, and married Oppenheimer the next day. When his son Peter was born, Oppenheimer nicknamed him "Pronto".

Shortly after Peter's birth, Prometheus notes: "Oppie and Kitty approached the Chevaliers [friends of Oppenheimer] to ask an enormous favor. Kitty badly needed a rest, Robert explained. Would the Chevaliers take two-month-old Peter while he and Kitty escaped to [New Mexico] for a month?"

In an interview during the war with army counterintelligence officer Boris Pash in 1943, it was this same Chevalier, also a teacher at Oppenheimer's university in California, whom Oppenheimer identified as the person he knew to be a communist seeking secret information to be passed to Josef Stalin; for that reason Chevalier had approached Oppenheimer during his directorship of the Los Alamos bomb project. This interview, and the man Chevalier, would come to figure prominently later.

Torrid affairs
Before meeting Kitty, Oppenheimer had been entangled in a horrid relationship with Jean Talock, a brilliant medical student at Oppenheimer's California university. Three times, Oppenheimer asked her to marry him but she refused. While married to Kitty, Oppenheimer had last seen Jean Talock in California in June 1943 during one of his trips from Los Alamos to California on bomb business.

On the 12th of that month of June 1943, Oppenheimer and Jean spent the night together in her California apartment. Outside her apartment, all that night, a government agent monitored them. In January 1944, Jean Talock committed suicide.

Before the war, while a professor in California, Oppenheimer befriended physics professor Richard Tolman, who was married to a particularly attractive woman, Ruth. During the war, Oppenheimer and Ruth commenced an affair while Oppenheimer was married to Kitty. This devastated Richard Tolman. Not all of the letters between Ruth and Oppenheimer were destroyed; those that survive are quoted in the Prometheus biography. They leave little to the imagination.

After Oppenheimer died in 1967, Kitty took up living with a former student of Oppenheimer, and later his closest friend, Robert Serber, whose wife, a close acquaintance of Oppenheimer, had also committed suicide years earlier. After Oppenheimer's death, Kitty and Robert Serber spent time together on St John island in the Caribbean bungalow. They had planned to sail together around the world, but never did.

A highlight of Kitty's life after Robert's death was the 1985 sale of a painting by Vincent Van Gogh that Oppenheimer had inherited from his father. It fetched US$9 million. The inherited art had been collected by Oppenheimer's mother, an artist herself but one born without a right hand. When Robert's younger brother Frank fell on hard times during World War II, he too sold valuable inherited art. An admitted member of the Communist Party, Frank used his money to buy a cattle ranch near Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

Because Frank was a member of the Communist Party, when he was in Colorado, federal agents in Pagosa Springs monitored him closely. Ironically, the smooth transfer of this art, these monies, and their enjoyment by the Oppenheimer family may be the simplest and most direct explanation for why the atomic bomb was built and later detonated.

Kitty's first husband, predecessor to her second husband at the time of Peter's conception, was also a communist; that husband was killed in Spain fighting Francisco Franco. Jean Talock, as noted, was also a member of the Communist Party. She had asked Oppenheimer to join the party, but he opted instead, repeatedly, to give money to the party rather than join officially.

The Chevaliers, Peter's custodians soon after his birth, were also members of the Communist Party. After Oppenheimer became director of the war effort to build the atomic bomb, Chevalier approached Oppenheimer at the behest of a British-born KGB agent to obtain bomb secrets for use by Stalin. What Oppenheimer did when so approached would figure largely, as Oppenheimer's security clearance was taken away by the US government in 1954.

The essential fact to bear in mind is that everything related above was known by the US government, unequivocally, at the time Oppenheimer was selected to lead the effort to build the atomic bomb.

General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, although aware of Oppenheimer's background, stated in a letter on July 20, 1943: "In accordance with my verbal directions of July 15, it is desired that clearance be issued for Julius Robert Oppenheimer without delay, irrespective of the information which you have concerning Mr Oppenheimer. He is absolutely essential to the project."

Jeremy Bernstein says in his biography Oppenheimer:
It is important to emphasize that when Groves appointed Oppenheimer, he had seen the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] reports on him. He knew that Oppenheimer's brother Frank had been a member of the Communist Party, as had Frank's wife. He knew that Oppenheimer's own wife, as well as his former lover Jean Talock, had been members. He knew that some of Oppenheimer's students had been members and that he had contributed sums of money to communist front organizations.
During the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) security-clearance hearing, Groves testified that Oppenheimer's security clearance should be terminated. This change in attitude was not due to new information about Oppenheimer; in 1954 Groves and the AEC hearing panel had before them the same information Groves had had when selecting Oppenheimer in 1943. Why, then, was Oppenheimer's security clearance taken away? The short answer is: Oppenheimer refused to support building the more powerful hydrogen bomb, which Edward Teller (a man Oppenheimer despised) advocated.

Moreover, Oppenheimer had taken to advocating a halt to further nuclear development until all nations first ceded jurisdiction over such development to an international body; otherwise, he said, nuclear proliferation would ensue, increasing the risk of errant use. Of this concern Prometheus notes:
Asked in a closed Senate hearing room "whether three or four men couldn't smuggle units of an [atomic] bomb into New York and blow up the whole city", Oppenheimer responded, "Of course it could be done, and people could destroy New York." When a startled senator then followed by asking, "What instrument would you use to detect an atomic bomb hidden somewhere in a city?" Oppenheimer quipped, "A screwdriver" [to open each and every crate or suitcase]. There was no defense to nuclear terrorism and he felt there never would be.
Historians agree that Oppenheimer cannot be implicated in the passage of atomic secrets to Stalin. Why then did Groves in 1954 switch his views - under oath - and testify that Oppenheimer had become a security risk? In a nutshell, Groves was coerced by the US government to testify against Oppenheimer. He changed his view because AEC chairman Lewis Strauss (who pronounced his name "Straws") reached a different conclusion about Oppenheimer than did Groves when reviewing FBI files.

Unlike in 1943, when the US military had exclusive jurisdiction over all atomic questions, by 1954 such matters were under civilian control as provided in the Atomic Energy Act - a board of five members appointed by the president. Lewis Strauss headed that board.

Unfit for duty
Oppenheimer's wartime affair with Ruth Tolman, his illicit evening with Jean Talock while married to Kitty, his contributions of money to communist causes, and his disinclination to bring his talent to bear in developing the hydrogen bomb despite Stalin's atomic capability, condemned Oppenheimer in Strauss' mind.

In Strauss's view, the FBI files showed Oppenheimer to be an immoral, cruel man who put his selfish interests first. Yet the more intriguing question is, how did Strauss get Groves to recant and testify against Oppenheimer? Strauss uncovered new information about Groves, not Oppenheimer.

A close review of the Oppenheimer file showed that Oppenheimer, during the war, had informed Groves of contacts Oppenheimer had had with known communists, which Groves failed to pass on to the FBI. This was a felony, potentially, and Strauss knew it. Strauss put the matter to Groves bluntly: either testify against Oppenheimer or face felony charges.

Oppenheimer's lawyers in the hearing (there were four of them, working pro bono) did not have access to the secret files utilized by Lewis Strauss to pressure Groves because Strauss would not grant to them a security clearance. Consequently, they could not be sure what the FBI files said. This is memorably recounted by Jeremy Bernstein:
The AEC had chosen as its attorney a tough prosecutor named Roger Robb, who had been an assistant US attorney. They had obtained for Robb, in eight days, an emergency Q clearance. Once the hearing got under way, Garrison [Lloyd Garrison, Oppenheimer's lead lawyer] asked for the same, but he was never cleared. This led to the following Orwellian situation. When classified information was discussed, Garrison and the rest of Oppenheimer's attorneys were required to leave the room. But Oppenheimer, whose clearance had been suspended, was allowed to stay.
If Oppenheimer had shared with his lawyers what had occurred in the hearing during their absence, he would have been in breach of security regulations.

In point of fact, during the war while Oppenheimer was at Los Alamos, a particular communist did solicit secret information from him. This was Chevalier, the man who had taken care of Oppenheimer's baby boy, Peter. During the war, Oppenheimer told Groves that Chevalier was seeking secret information for Stalin. However, before disclosing Chevalier's identity to Groves, Oppenheimer had exacted from Groves a promise that Groves would not disclose Chevalier's identity to the FBI. Oppenheimer did not want to hurt Chevalier. On that condition, but only on that condition, Oppenheimer told Groves that Chevalier had asked Oppenheimer for secret bomb information.

Honoring Oppenheimer's condition - Groves needed Oppenheimer on the bomb project - Groves never did tell the FBI what Oppenheimer had revealed; however, Groves did tell John Lansdale, a fellow Manhattan Project military man, what Oppenheimer had revealed. Lansdale passed this information on to the FBI, but did not tell Groves he had done so. In Lansdale's mind, duty to country came first.

As noted, Oppenheimer's Byzantine condition was exacted because he did not want to hurt the person who had approached him - Chevalier was Oppenheimer's friend. Instead, Oppenheimer tried simultaneously to protect Chevalier and comply with the regulatory requirement to report to Groves possible security breaches. There is in this some decency. Thus Groves was told by Oppenheimer that an illicit approach had been made, but, Oppenheimer assured Groves, no information had been transferred. Groves trusted Oppenheimer. For that reason, Groves honored Oppenheimer's condition and did not disclose to the FBI what he had learned. To Groves, this complication was acceptable because Oppenheimer's bomb work was indispensable; also, Oppenheimer's every move was being watched by the FBI on Groves' order.

A further constraint plagued Oppenheimer's lawyers. When Oppenheimer first alerted Groves of the approach that had been made to Oppenheimer, Groves did alert army counterintelligence officer Boris Pash, and Pash set up an interview with Oppenheimer. Unbeknownst to Groves and Oppenheimer, Pash taped this interview. Oppenheimer gave to Pash a version of how he had been approached that differed from the version given to Groves. In the version given to Pash, Oppenheimer did not disclose Chevalier's identity, but Oppenheimer did tell Pash that he, Oppenheimer, and "three others" had been approached by Chevalier for secret information.

Despite Pash's insistence that Oppenheimer disclose identities, Oppenheimer refused to do so. Pash complained bitterly to Groves about this and recommended that Oppenheimer be removed from the bomb project. In the event, to halt further investigation of Oppenheimer by a now suspicious Pash, Groves ordered Pash to Europe to head up the Alsos mission to determine how far Germany had got in developing an atom bomb. Groves wanted Pash gone to keep Oppenheimer at Los Alamos; without Oppenheimer, Groves feared, Germany might develop an atomic bomb first. Oppenheimer was that important.

When asked about this on cross-examination during the hearing, the transcript reflects:
Q: Did you [Oppenheimer] tell Pash that X had approached three persons on the project?
A: I am not clear whether I said there were three Xs or that X approached three people.
Q: Didn't you say that X had approached three people?
A: Probably.
Q: Why did you do that, Doctor?
A: Because I was an idiot.
Poisoned apples
When Oppenheimer was a graduate student at Cambridge in England (having completed his Harvard undergraduate study in three years), he developed a dislike of a certain Professor Patrick Blackett. Prometheus states:
In the fall of 1925, Oppenheimer poisoned an apple with chemicals from the laboratory and put it on Blackett's desk ... As Robert's parents were still visiting Cambridge, the university authorities immediately informed them of what had happened. Julius Oppenheimer [Robert's father] frantically - and successfully - lobbied the university not to press criminal charges. After protracted negotiations, it was agreed that Robert would be put on probation and have regular sessions with a prominent Harley Street psychiatrist in London. This Freudian analyst diagnosed dementia praecox, a now archaic label for symptoms associated with schizophrenia. He concluded that Oppenheimer was a hopeless case and that "further analysis would do more harm than good".
Jean Talock at the time of her death was a psychiatrist.

Describing Oppenheimer at Cambridge, Jeremy Bernstein says in his biography Oppenheimer:
Whatever dam had been holding his psyche burst. The most dramatic manifestation of this occurred on a vacation trip to Paris in the fall of 1925. There Oppenheimer met with a good friend, Francis Fergusson. In the course of a conversation about personal matters he suddenly made an attempt to strangle Fergusson. This was not a joke. Fergusson was able to fight him off. This episode has never really been explained ...
Of this Prometheus says:
Soon, Robert's emotional crisis took another violent turn. Sitting in his Paris hotel room with Robert, Fergusson sensed that his friend was in "one of his ambiguous moods". Perhaps in an attempt to divert him from his depression, Fergusson showed him some poetry written by his girlfriend, Frances Keeley, and then announced that he had proposed to Keeley and she had accepted. Robert was stunned with this news, and he snapped. "I leaned over to pick up a book," Fergusson recalled, "and he jumped on me from behind with a trunk strap and wound it around my neck. I was quite scared for a little while. We must have made some noise. And then I managed to pull aside and he fell on the ground weeping."
Nuclear fallout
During his postwar directorship of Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study, in a variety of settings, Oppenheimer articulated why the US government, along with all other nations, should cede exclusive jurisdiction over development and use of atomic power to a newly created international body.

This conviction - that all matters nuclear be ceded to an international body - grew out of Oppenheimer's discussions with his mentor, Niels Bohr. Like Oppenheimer, Bohr met with little success in promoting the idea. As explained by Bernstein:
The following May [Bohr] was able to explain his vision to [British prime minister] Winston Churchill. The meeting, which was a disaster, inspired Churchill to contemplate having Bohr locked up.
As noted by Prometheus, when Oppenheimer explained the same idea to president Harry S Truman in the Oval Office, "An awkward silence followed this exchange, and then Truman stood up to signal the meeting was over ... He [Truman] later told Dean Acheson [under secretary of state], "I don't want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again."

It is now known that while Alger Hiss served as president Franklin Roosevelt's translator at Yalta for the meeting with Churchill and Stalin in 1945, he was a Soviet agent routinely passing classified information to Stalin. This betrayal continued during Hiss's tenure at the Department of State in Washington, and enabled Stalin to proceed more boldly in Eastern Europe with a reduced fear of reprisal.

Stalin was being told by Hiss, and others, that the West would not wage war to end Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Hiss's treachery did not become known until the mid-1950s. By that time, Klaus Fuchs' delivery of atom-bomb secrets to Stalin during Oppenheimer's watch at Los Alamos had enabled Stalin to build and detonate his own atomic bomb. No link between Fuchs and Oppenheimer has ever been established.

To many Americans, the postwar international-agency idea of Oppenheimer and Bohr seemed inconsistent with the measures needed against Stalin. Had Oppenheimer's idea been possible to implement, the nuclear danger now posed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, might not exist.

In Oppenheimer's time, however, it was feared a complacent United States would embolden Stalin to do to the US what Adolf Hitler had done to Europe and what Stalin was doing, undeniably, in Eastern Europe. Those who would doubt the ambition of Stalin were able, with some force, to cite the example of Hitler and the error of the West in appeasing Hitler.

To many, Hitler and Stalin had become interchangeable. The price paid in failing to assess timely and correctly the nature of Hitler had resulted in untold death and destruction. It had brought within view a return to the Dark Ages. The measure taken to prevent a recurrence of this was to not let Stalin do what Hitler had done. Thus, in addition to the felt need not to appease, there was a felt need steadily to arm further because Stalin was doing so. There was also a felt need to find and expel persons in the US government sympathetic to Stalin.

By the time of Oppenheimer's security hearing it was known that there had been several such persons who had escaped detection, Hiss and Fuchs to name a few.

Moreover, by the time of the Oppenheimer hearing, China had been "lost" to Mao Zedong (the US had backed the wrong horse, a corrupt Chiang Kai-shek). Indeed, the same Mao, with material and financial aid from Stalin, dispatched communist Chinese into Korea to chase the US Army as it retreated, ignominiously, southward. This retreat, said Dean Acheson, by then secretary of state, was the worst defeat the United States had suffered since Bull Run in the American Civil War. And it was.

Yesterday's man
Shortly after being elected, the file of J Robert Oppenheimer was brought to the attention of president Dwight D Eisenhower. After this briefing, Eisenhower ordered that Oppenheimer's access to classified material be terminated. In Eisenhower's phrase, "a wall" had to be erected between Oppenheimer and the nation's secrets. This "wall" was erected, at Eisenhower's behest, in the 1954 security hearing.

Oppenheimer's disinclination to support Teller in the development of a hydrogen bomb baffled Eisenhower. Whereas the atomic bomb Oppenheimer had built represented 10,000 tons of TNT, the hydrogen bomb represented 10 million tons of TNT. In Eisenhower's time, Stalin had test-detonated both.

Oppenheimer, in several public statements, contended the atomic bomb was well suited for military targets, but the hydrogen bomb could only be used effectively against larger civilian targets: use of the hydrogen bomb, Oppenheimer contended, would be an act of genocide. Eisenhower's concern was that Stalin would prefer the hydrogen bomb for just that reason.

Immediately on Eisenhower's order, it became known that Oppenheimer kept next to his bed at Princeton a loaded .22-caliber pistol. This was duly noted by a government agent as he illegally tapped Oppenheimer's Princeton home telephone. This new wiretap was needed by the government to gather up-to-date evidence for use in its hearing to terminate Oppenheimer's security clearance.

Strauss wanted current information to use against Oppenheimer at the upcoming security-clearance hearing. Although the FBI knew this tapping of Oppenheimer's phone was unlawful, the step was approved because of the exigencies of the day. Despite the FBI's misgiving, Strauss also ordered a wiretap to be put on the phone of the lawyers engaged by Oppenheimer in the April 1954 hearing.

Certainly, the public knew nothing at the time of Strauss's unlawful wiretaps. Neither did Oppenheimer. Neither did his lawyers. It is troubling to picture Strauss, the AEC staff, AEC legal counsel and FBI agents listening in as Oppenheimer and his lawyers prepared for and conducted Oppenheimer's evidence during the hearing. This specter, however, has reappeared in the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Climates of fear
To the United States' founders, none of this would have come as a surprise. What the Russian Revolution was to 20th-century America, the French Revolution had been to 18th-century America: in the Cold War, the Soviet Union was to Eisenhower and Strauss what the Quasi-War with France (1798-99) had been to John Adams and Alexander Hamilton.

Fear that the ideology ignited by the French Revolution would spread to America moved some of the United States' founders to enact the Alien and Sedition Acts. These barred all dissent from president John Adams' decision to put the US on a war footing for what he and many Americans believed was an imminent French invasion.

Recall that French agents were active at this time throughout America, recruiting Americans aggrieved by the tilt toward England. Their charge was to raise an army on American soil to further France's imperialistic cause. France was at war with England; and the US, despite its avowed neutrality, had tilted in the Jay Treaty toward England.

Recall further that Napoleon Bonaparte had vanquished Italy (sending to Paris the entire archive of the papacy) and was on the march along the Nile while Edmond Charles "Citizen" Genet was in the US imploring the populace to oust president George Washington from office and join France in seizing British ships and Spanish territory along the Mississippi River.

In the 1798 Congressional Report Defending the Alien and Sedition Laws, reasons are given for Adams' suspension of the Bill of Rights as a way to counteract the seditious threat posed by France. To grasp the American mind of 1954, one need only substitute the Soviet Union for France in the 1798 Report, which states:
The alien and sedition acts, so-called, form a part of, and in the opinion of the committee an essential part, in these precautionary and protective measures adopted for our security. France appears to have an organized system of conduct towards foreign nations, to bring them within the sphere and under the dominion of her influence and control. It has been unremittingly pursued under all the changes of her internal polity.

Her means are in wonderful coincidence with her ends: among these, and not least successful, is the direction and employment of the active and versatile talents of her citizens abroad as emissaries and spies ... The necessity that dictated these acts [Alien and Sedition Acts], in the opinion of the committee, still exists. So eccentric are the movements of the French government, that we can form no opinion of their future designs towards our country. They may recede from the tone of menace and insolence to employ the arts of seduction, before they astonish us with their ultimate designs.

Unfortunately for the present generation of mankind, a contest has arisen, and rages with unabated ferocity, which has desolated the fairest portions of Europe and shaken the fabric of society through the civilized world. From the nature and effects of this contest, as developed in the experience of nations, melancholy inferences must be drawn, that it is unsusceptible of the restraints which have either designated the objects, limited the duration, or mitigated the horrors of national contentions. In the internal history of France, and in the conduct of her forces and partisans in the countries which have fallen under her power, the public councils of our government were required to discern the dangers which threatened the United States, and to guard not only against the usual consequences of war, but also against the effects of an unprecedented combination to establish new principles of social action, on the subversion of religion, morality, law and government.
Reading this, the measures taken against Oppenheimer in 1954 are not entirely at odds with part of America's heritage. The American public, on learning Stalin had atomic weapons, was terror-ridden. So too was the nation terror-ridden in 1798: it had no army or navy to withstand the feared invasion by a demonstrably expansionist and powerful France. Indeed, the ground for fear in 1798 was greater by many degrees than the ground for fear in 1954: at least in the fifth decade of the 20th century the nation had in its arsenal some 20 nuclear weapons and a standing army and navy.

As compared with the relative power of the Soviet Union in 1954, France in 1798, then on the march, and having dispatched agents to the US to do harm, was decidedly more powerful and certainly just as threatening. Lest there be doubt as to the reality of the threat, one need only recall that the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed by Adams, were the supreme law of the land.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison rejected the Congressional Report Defending the Alien and Sedition Acts. To their mind, the idea that in 1798 France posed a threat to the United States was utter hysteria. It was the McCarthyism of their day. In their view, the threat to the nation was embodied in the Alien and Sedition Acts, not the French Revolution or Napoleon. To address the real danger, Jefferson and James Madison went underground.

Being more suspicious of the US government than Oppenheimer had been, they encoded their correspondence so that federal agents could not track their plotting to resist the supreme law of the land by state legislation they planned to introduce in Virginia and Kentucky declaring void the federal Alien and Sedition Acts; and, if need be, calling for an outright dissolution of the Union.

In a letter delivered by hand to Madison, Jefferson said that failure to rally the people around "the true principles of our federal compact" would compel that we "sever ourselves from that union we so much value, rather than give up the rights of self government which we have reserved, and in which alone we see liberty, safety and happiness".

Because both Madison and Jefferson were convinced that federal agents, on order of president Adams, were reading their correspondence, they also stopped using the United States Postal Service. As noted by James Morton Smith in Volume II, The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison 1776-1826:
For almost six months - between March and late August - Madison and Jefferson exchanged no letters. Throughout January and February, while Jefferson was in Philadelphia, both men suspected that their mail was being tampered with. "The suspicions against the government on this subject," Jefferson cautioned, "are strong." When Madison failed to receive his newspapers on time, he concluded "that there is foul play with them". A close inspection of the seals on Jefferson's letters showed that they were not "very distinct".

"I [Jefferson writing to Madison November 22, 1799] shall trust the post offices with nothing confidential, persuaded that during the ensuing 12-month [leading to the election of 1800] they will lend their inquisitorial aid to furnish matter for new slanders."
In Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration, Adrienne Koch suggests that "there were probably frequent meetings and secret messages exchanged, which may have been instantly destroyed and were never recorded in Jefferson's epistolary ledger, in order to guard the secrecy they so much required".

In the mid-1950s when Oppenheimer found himself called on to defend his views, he failed. So did his lawyers. Oppenheimer did not heed the example of Jefferson and Madison in repudiating the US government. It is at times a government well worth resisting. No more than Jefferson's having bedded a slave and sired mulattos diminishes his greatness can Oppenheimer's philandering diminish his.

At Los Alamos, Oppenheimer gave his life's breath to save his nation. Regardless of Oppenheimer's silly condition in the Chevalier affair, the fact is no secrets got from Oppenheimer to the enemy: not one. The tragedy of Oppenheimer is how he derived an almost perverse pleasure in witnessing his government's folly.

As most everyone realized at the time, what the government had in the way of classified information about atomic weapons was in large part known to the government only by reason of Oppenheimer himself. In the words of Eric Sevareid, spoken after the government's finding that Oppenheimer had become a security risk: "He [Oppenheimer] will no longer have access to secrets in government files, and government, presumably, will no longer have access to secrets that may be born in Oppenheimer's brain."

Oppenheimer and his lawyers should have fought their government with the vigor of Jefferson. They should have conversed in code. Perhaps Oppenheimer's ultimate revenge was enough - selecting for his ashes a final resting place outside the United States.

Note
1. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin, Knopf (April 5, 2005).

C Mott Woolley is a practicing lawyer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is a graduate of the School of International Service at the American University in Washington, DC, and, prior to entering law school, served as an intern in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Near East/South Asia Division, Department of State.

(Copyright 2006 C Mott Woolley.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.


The US's geopolitical nightmare (May 9, '06)

 
 



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