The Open Mind

Teacher, physicist, and administrator, J. Robert Oppenheimer was Director of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos from March, 1943, to October, 1945. During those years he directed a force of nearly 6000 scientific and military employees under conditions which were seldom free from intense mental strain. Certainly he knows as much about the potential of atomic energy as any living American, and his urge for peace, his belief that we must be governed by open-mindedness in our international responsibility for the atomic bomb, are characteristic of what Secretary Stimson termed his "genius and leadership."
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Yet we recognize that in this action more is involved, which we will come to understand in the measure in which the nature and purposes of our own preoccupation with the problem become clearer. In part, at least, the Assembly asked that this problem of the atom not be let lapse because it touches in a most intimate, if sometimes symbolic, way on the profoundest questions of international affairs, and because the Assembly wished to reaffirm that these problems could not be dismissed, that these issues could not be lost, whatever the immediate frustrations and however obscure the prospects. The Assembly was in fact asking that we let time and nature, and human reason and good example as a part of that nature, play some part in fulfilling the age-old aspirations of man for preserving peace.

In any political action, and surely in one as complex and delicate as the international act and commitment made by the United States with regard to atomic energy, far more is always involved than can or should be isolated in a brief analysis. Despite all hysteria, there is some truth in the view that the steps which we took with regard to atomic energy could be understood in terms of the terror of atomic warfare. We have sought to avert this. We have further sought to avert the probable adverse consequences of atomic armament for our own institutions and our freedom.

Yet more basic and more general issues are involved, which, though symbolized and rendered critical by the development of atomic energy, are in their nature not confined to it; they pervade almost all the key problems of foreign policy. If we are to seek a clue to the misgivings with which we tend to look at ourselves, we may, I think, find it just in the manner in which we have dealt, in their wider contexts, with these basic themes.

The first has to do with the role of coercion in human affairs; the second with the role of openness. The atomic bomb, born of science, a way of life, fostered throughout the centuries, in which the role of coercion was perhaps reduced more completely than in any other human activity, and which owed its whole success and its very existence to the possibility of open discussion and free inquiry, paradoxically appeared at once a secret and an unparalleled instrument of coercion.

These two interdependent ideals, the minimization of coercion and the minimization of secrecy, are, of course, in the nature of things, not absolute. Any attempt to erect them as absolute will induce in us that vertigo which warns us that we are near the limits of intelligible definition. But they are very deep in our ethical as well as our political traditions, and are recorded in earnest, eloquent simplicity in the words of those who founded this nation. They are in fact inseparable from the idea of the dignity of man to which our country, in its beginnings, was dedicated, and which ahs proved the monitor of our vigor and of our health.

These two ideals are closely related, the one pointing toward persuasion as the key to political action, the other to free discussion and knowledge as the essential instrument of persuasion. They are so deep within us that we seldom find it necessary, and perhaps seldom possible, to talk to them. When they are challenged by tyranny abroad or by malpractice at home, we come back to them as the wardens of our public life—and for many of us they are as well wardens of our private lives.

In foreign affairs, we are not unfamiliar with either the use or the need of power. Yet we are stubbornly distrustful of it. We seem to know, and seem to come back again and again to this knowledge, that the purposes of this country in the field of foreign policy cannot in any real or enduring way be achieved by coercion.

We have a natural sympathy for extending to foreign affairs what we have come to learn so well in our political life at home: than an indispensable, perhaps in some ways the indispensable, element in giving meaning to the dignity of man, and in making possible the taking of decision on the basis of honest conviction, is the openness of men’s minds and the openness of whatever media there are for communion between men, free of restraint, free of repression, and free even of the most pervasive of all restraints, that of status and of hierarchy.

In the days of the founding of this republic, in all of the eighteenth century which was formative for the growth and the explicit formulation of our political ideals, politics and science were of a piece. The hope that this might in some sense again be so was stirred to new life by the development of atomic energy. In this it has throughout been decisive that openness—openness in the first instance with regard to technical problems and to the actual undertakings under way in various parts of the world—was the one single essential precondition for a measure of security in the atomic age. Here we met in uniquely comprehensible form the alternative of common understanding or the practices of secrecy and of force.

In all this I pretend to be saying nothing new, nothing that has not been known to all thoughtful men since Hiroshima; yet is has seldom come to expression. It has been overlaid with other preoccupations, perhaps equally necessary to the elaboration of an effective international control, but far less decisive in determining whether such a control could exist. It is just because it has not been possible to obtain assent, even in principle, even as an honest statement of intent or purpose, to these basic theses that the deadlock in attempting to establish control has appeared so serious, so refractory, and so enduring.

These words have an intent quite contrary to the creation of a sense of panic or of doom. We need to start with the admission that we see no clear course before us that would persuade the governments of the world to join with us in creating a more and more open world, and thus in establishing the foundation on which persuasion might so largely replace coercion in determining human affairs.

We ourselves have acknowledged this grim prospect and have responded by adopting some of the very measures that we had hoped might be universally renounced. With misgivings—and there ought to be misgivings—we are rearming, arming atomically, as in other fields. With deep misgivings, we are keeping secret not only those elements of our military plans, but those elements of our technical information and policy, a knowledge of which would render us more subject to enemy coercion and less effective in exercising our own.

There are not many men who see an acceptable alternative to this course, although there apparently are some who would regard it as a proof of the shallowness and insincerity of our earlier renunciation of these ways. But whether, among our own people or among our friends abroad or even among those who are not our friends, these measures which we are taking appear excessive, or on the whole insufficient, they must have at least one effect. Inevitably they must appear to commit us to a future of secrecy and to an immanent threat of war.

It is true that one may hear arguments that the mere existence of our power, quite apart from its exercise, may turn the world to the ways of openness and of peace. Btu we have today no clear, no formulated, no in some measure credible account of how this may come about. We have chosen to read, and perhaps we have correctly read, our past as a lesson that a policy of weakness has failed us. But we have not read the future as an intelligible lesson that a policy of strength can save us.

When the time is run, an that future has become history, it will be clear how little of it we today foresaw or could foresee. How then can we preserve the hope and sensitiveness which could enable us to take advantage of all that it has in store? Our problem is not only to face the somber and the grim elements of the future, but to keep them from obscuring it.

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