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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Our recent election has seemed to touch this deep sense of the imponderable in the history of the future, this understanding that we must not preclude the cultivation of any unexpected, hopeful turnings. Immediately after the election people seemed stirred even less by the outcome itself than by the element of wonder. They tended to say things like: “Well, after this perhaps we need not be so sure that there will be a war.” This sense that the future is richer and more complex than our prediction of it, and that wisdom lies in a sensitiveness to what is new and hopeful, is perhaps a sign of maturity in politics.

The problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown is of course not unique to politics. It is always with us in science, it is with us in the most trivial of personal affairs, and it is one of the great problems of writing and of all forms of art. The means by which it is solved is sometimes called style.

It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and with humility. It is style which makes it possible to act effectively, not absolutely. It is style which, in the domain of foreign policy, enables us to find a harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us, and the regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light. It is style which is the deference that action pays to uncertainty. It is above all style through which power defers to reason.

We need to remember that we are a powerful nation. We need to remember that when the future that we can now foresee deviates so markedly from all that we hope and all that we value, we can, by our example, and by the mode and the style with which we conduct our affairs, let it be apparent that we have not abandoned those hopes or forsaken those values; we need to do this even while concrete steps to which we resort to avert more immediate disaster seem to negate them.

Our past is rich in example. In that other agony, that civil war where the foundations of our government were proved and reaffirmed, it was Lincoln who again and again struck true the balance between power and reason. By 1863, the war and the blockade had deepened the attrition of the South. They had also stopped the supplies of cotton to the English mills. Early that years Lincoln wrote a letter to the workingmen of Manchester. He wrote:—

“It is not always in the power of governments to enlarge or restrict the scope of moral results which follow the policies that they may deem it necessary for the public safety from time to time to adopt.

“I have understood well that the duty of self-preservation rests solely with the American people; but I have at the same time been aware that favor or disfavor of foreign nations might have a material influence in enlarging or prolonging the struggle with disloyal men in which the country in engaged. A fair examination of history has served to authorize a belief that the past actions and influences of the United States were generally regarded as having been beneficial toward mankind. I have, therefore, reckoned upon the forbearance of nations. …”

Fifteen months later, a year before Lincoln’s death, the battle had turned. He could say:—

“When the war began, three years ago, neither party, nor any man, expected it would last till now. Each looked for the end in some way, long ere today. Neither did any anticipate that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. But here we are; the war has not ended, and slavery has been much affected—how much needs not now to be recounted …

“But we can see the past, though we may not have claim to have directed it; and seeing it, in this case, we feel more hopeful and confident for the future. …”

In such magnanimity even Grant, at Appomattox a year later, looking beyond the bitter slaughter, looking to nature and to time, could say to Lee that his troops were to keep their horses; they would need them for the spring plowing.

Each of us, recalling our actions in these last critical years, will be able to find more than one instance where, in the formulation or implementation of policy, we have been worthy of this past. Each of us will mourn the opportunities that may seem to him lost, the doors once open and now closed. Not even in critical times can the sense of style, the open mind, be fostered by issuing directives; nor can they rest wholly on soliciting great actions not yet taken, great words not yet spoken. If they were wholly a matter for one man, all could well rest on his wisdom and his sensitiveness. They neither are, nor can, nor should be.

The spirit in which our foreign affairs are conducted will in the large reflect the understanding and the desires of our people; and their concrete, detailed administration will necessarily rest in the hands of countless men and women, officials of the government, who constitute the branches of our foreign service, of our State Department, and of the many agencies which now supplement the State Department, at home and abroad. The style, the perceptiveness, the imagination, and the open-mindedness with which we need to conduct our affairs can only pervade such a complex of organizations, consisting inevitably of men of varied talent, taste, and character, if they are a reflection of a deep and widespread public understanding.

It is in our hands to see that the hope of the future is not lost because we were too sure that we knew the answers, too sure that there was no hope.

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