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Was the US Right to Revoke Oppenheimer's Security Clearance? Both Sides

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Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster biopic “Oppenheimer” has presented audiences with a sympathetic portrait of a legendary physicist, Julius Robert Oppenheimer, who directed America’s atomic bomb project during World War II and then suffered humiliation when U.S. officials unjustly stripped him of his security clearance amid the anti-communist hysteria of the early Cold War.

More than a month after its theatrical release, “Oppenheimer” has carried its message to an enormous global audience. Through Tuesday, the film had grossed an astonishing $777.9 million worldwide, including $299.2 million domestically.

In light of this success, the film’s pro-Oppenheimer narrative appears safely ensconced in the public mind. But should it be?

How might an ordinary viewer with a reasonable understanding of history reach the conclusion that U.S. officials acted properly in 1953-54 when they suspended and then revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance?

Earlier this month, Ben Shapiro released a review of the film that encapsulated much of the historical argument against Oppenheimer. According to Shapiro, U.S. officials had good reason to regard Oppenheimer as a security risk.

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Shapiro did not categorize his assertions. Nor did he elaborate on some of them. Nonetheless, it might be useful to identify his basic arguments and address them one at a time.

First, Shapiro noted that Oppenheimer was “deeply embedded in and surrounded by tons of communists.”

This both overstates and understates the case. Oppenheimer surrounded himself not only with communists, but with Communists.  The lowercase variety merely supported leftist goals and sympathized with aspects of Marxist ideology. In the 1930s, an era of deep economic depression and rising fascism, many liberals flirted with communistic ideas and causes.

Uppercase Communists, on the other hand, joined the Communist Party and submitted to party discipline. There is no evidence that Oppenheimer ever joined the party, but many around him certainly did. Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s emotionally troubled lover, joined the Communists. So did his brother and sister-in-law, Frank and Jackie Oppenheimer.

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The reality remains complicated, however, because Tatlock, Frank, Jackie and Oppenheimer’s other Communist friends do not appear to have submitted themselves to party directives originating with Moscow. In this sense, too, the line between communist and Communist was quite blurry in the 1930s.

Second, Soviet spies infiltrated the Los Alamos atomic laboratory during Oppenheimer’s directorship between 1943 to 1945.

This is true. Scientists Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall actively spied for the Soviet Union. Apologists might answer that the Soviets and Americans functioned as allies during the war. The espionage, however, did occur, though no evidence exists to suggest that Oppenheimer knew about it.

Third, scientists as a group were surprisingly and alarmingly sympathetic to communism.

This represents Shapiro’s strongest point as it pertains to the security-clearance question. At the University of California-Berkeley alone, Oppenheimer mentored a number of scientists who either harbored communist sympathies or joined the Communist Party.

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At first glance, this might seem like an addendum to the first argument of guilt by association. After all, scientists may harbor whatever opinions they choose.

Shapiro noted, however, that scientists have no moral authority in their capacity as scientists. Thus, they have no special claim to affect policy. Oppenheimer, in fact, often acknowledged as much.

In his 1961 Farewell Address, President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation against allowing a “scientific-technological elite” to wield disproportionate influence. Shapiro regarded this broader sentiment as part of the case for revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance.

Fourth, Oppenheimer received his wartime security clearance in 1943 for the limited purpose of directing Los Alamos. He therefore had no right to a security clearance once the war ended.

This makes sense as a general proposition but does not stand up to closer scrutiny of the details. After the war, Oppenheimer chaired the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. He served by presidential appointment. Presidents could accept or reject his advice as they saw fit, but they obviously valued that advice. Even when his work became less urgent, therefore, Oppenheimer’s advisory position required a security clearance.

More importantly, by the time Oppenheimer’s case came up for review in 1953 and 1954, his security file included very little that Army intelligence officials had not already known when he received his original clearance in 1943.

There was only one exception.

Oppenheimer opposed the U.S. hydrogen bomb program.

This was the only new item in Oppenheimer’s 1953-1954 security file. Though Shapiro took it at face value, it made the entire case shockingly weak and reduced Oppenheimer’s security hearing to a grotesque and extrajudicial inquisition.

During the war, a scientist named Edward Teller began to dwell on the prospect of building a weapon of unimaginable lethality. A fusion-based hydrogen bomb would produce a gargantuan thermonuclear explosion. Teller became obsessed with the thermonuclear superbomb.

At Los Alamos, Oppenheimer opposed the superbomb on practical grounds. They had no time. The Allies needed an atomic weapon quickly. After the war, Oppenheimer vehemently opposed the superbomb on moral grounds. He regarded it as nothing more than a weapon of genocide.

Shapiro contended that “history proves all of Oppenheimer’s critics basically correct.” Wartime casualties since 1945 have decreased drastically. According to Shapiro, this proves that the mere threat of the nuclear bomb made wars less costly.

It would be difficult to imagine a flimsier and more dangerous pretext for revoking Oppenheimer’s security clearance.

For one thing, Shapiro might or might not be correct. We cannot prove a counterfactual, so we cannot know that Americans suffered fewer wartime casualties after 1945 because of the nuclear weapons. No one knows how history would have unfolded without thermonuclear weapons.

The historical problem, however, pales in comparison to the core objection. Oppenheimer made an argument that “Super” enthusiasts, both civilian and military, did not want to hear. So they silenced and humiliated him.

If anyone doubts that censorship and excommunication motivated Oppenheimer’s antagonists, consider one thing. In 1953, Oppenheimer no longer sat on the General Advisory Committee. He functioned only as a contract consultant. If the AEC and GAC did not want his advice, they did not have to consult him.

Thus, the purpose of revoking his security clearance was not to protect sensitive information. Oppenheimer would have seen that information only if those committees chose to share it with him. Indeed, the purpose of the inquisition that led to Oppenheimer losing his clearance was to ensure that the anti-superbomb argument had no place in government councils.

Oppenheimer lost his clearance because of his political opinion, not because he posed a security threat.

Ironically, Oppenheimer’s primary objection to postwar atomic policy transcended all of these details.

The 1954 hearing focused on whether or not Oppenheimer should have a security clearance. The very idea of a security clearance, however, offended the physicist’s deepest sensibilities.

Oppenheimer pleaded for transparency. A regime committed to secrecy, he believed, could produce nothing but fear and distrust.

In that sense, therefore, the most crucial question is not whether Oppenheimer should have had a security clearance.

The most crucial question is whether such intense security should exist at all.

This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.

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