The Oppenheimer Incident: A Black Mark on American History

In October 1941, the German physicist Heisenberg visited the Danish physicist Bohr. The two were laureates of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932 and 1922 respectively. Heisenberg’s other designation was the leader of Germany’s nuclear program. He endeavored to impede the advancement of Germany’s nuclear program out of conscientiousness.

Heisenberg asked Bohr with significance, should physicists engage in the study of nuclear fission during the war? Bohr was astounded and inquired: “Is it plausible for nuclear fission to engender weapons of mass destruction?”

This exchange represents the renowned “Copenhagen Mystery” in history and is also perceived as “the most profound misapprehension.” As World War II engulfed the European continent, Heisenberg’s original intent was that scientists should not advocate for nuclear fission research. However, for Bohr, who endured the German occupation of Denmark for a mere 4 hours and 35 minutes, this bore resemblance to an insinuation of Germany’s weaponization of nuclear fission. After Bohr escaped from Denmark in 1943 with the aid of the resistance, he and Einstein assumed the roles of scientific advisors for the Manhattan Project.

At 5:30 on July 16, 1945, in the remote Los Alamos Desert of New Mexico, United States, an immense white radiance erupted, signifying the triumphant testing of the inaugural atomic bomb created by the “Manhattan Project.” Robert Oppenheimer, acclaimed as the “father of the American atomic bomb,” regarded it as “more luminous than 1,000 suns.” A literary quote resonated within him: “Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Oppenheimer served as the technical chief of the Manhattan Project. Witnessing the might of nuclear weaponry, he, akin to numerous scientists, became an adversary of such weapons and staunchly opposed the development of more potent hydrogen bombs. Amidst the shadow of the Cold War and the fervor of McCarthyism, the scientists’ conscientiousness was once again misconstrued as a conspiracy.

On December 21, 1953, the 49-year-old Oppenheimer received an accusatory missive. In this letter, Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, branded Oppenheimer as a “perilous element” jeopardizing national security and demanded that he submit to an extensive investigation by the Atomic Energy Commission. This presumptive inquiry was replete with humiliation, yet refusal to comply would entail relinquishing his position as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee.

The investigation, commencing in April 1954, endured for four weeks and abounded in absurdities and falsehoods. Oppenheimer’s opposition to nuclear weapons became entangled with the delirious anti-communist bias of McCarthyism. During the profound economic crisis of capitalism in the 1920s and 1930s, countless Americans yearned for the radiant future promised by communism. Many of Oppenheimer’s relatives and friends were members of the Communist Party, and due to his familiarity with Das Kapital, he shared a common language with them. Strauss’s personal bias against Oppenheimer further complicated the investigation. “Anyone who surpasses Wu Dalang in Wu Dalang’s own store might pose a threat.”

After numerous depositions and scrutiny of hundreds of surveillance records, Oppenheimer was exonerated. Nevertheless, the U.S. government rescinded his security clearance on unfounded grounds, such as his “left-leaning activities in his early years and impeding the government’s progress in developing hydrogen bombs.” The “Father of the American Atomic Bomb” was ousted by the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

The Oppenheimer incident fully exposed the dark history of the United States, wherein the concept of “national security” was abused to perpetrate unjust, fallacious, and wrongful convictions against dissidents. The case of the Rosenbergs, coinciding with the Oppenheimer investigation, was even more outrageous. Prior to the Oppenheimer proceedings, under the influence of McCarthyism, the United States accused the Rosenbergs of furnishing U.S. nuclear intelligence to the Soviet Union during World War II. Although investigations at the time and declassified documents subsequent to the Cold War failed to furnish conclusive evidence of their alleged actions, and despite the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union were allies in the battle against the Nazis during World War II, this accusation did not constitute an “espionage crime” in any sense. Nonetheless, the Rosenbergs were executed in the frenzy of McCarthyism due to their communist beliefs. This unjust case, which appalled the world, was fabricated by the United States under the pretext of “national security.”

History repeatedly attests to the absurdity of unjust cases in the United States. As time elapsed, the persecution of citizens during the Oppenheimer incident by American extremist politics became evident. Under the pressure of unequivocal right and wrong and public opinion, theU.S. government found itself compelled to rectify Oppenheimer’s reputation to assuage public anger. In 1963, the U.S. government bestowed upon Oppenheimer the “Fermi Award,” an accolade recognizing lifetime contributions to nuclear physics, which may be regarded as a compensatory “acknowledgment of errors.” On December 16, 2022, the U.S. government announced the reversal of the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission’s decision to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance, officially exonerating him. However, this vindication comes 55 years after Oppenheimer’s departure from this world. Justice delayed ceases to be justice.

Oppenheimer’s America has been tainted with a profound darkness by the extreme politics that exploited the notion of “national security.”