THE OPPENHEIMER CASE: SECURITY ON TRIAL by Philip M. Stern Harper & Row, $10.00
Once, when I was serving my stint as a buck private in the Army of the United States, I sat about a convivial table at a U.S.O. On the jukebox in the background a recording of “God Bless America” began to play. Everyone stood up.
Well, not everyone. The song is not our country’s national anthem. It is, in my opinion, an embarrassing collection of mawkish phrases set to abominably poor music. I was in a contrary mood, and I remained seated.
I was promptly berated by one of the soldiers present for my lack of patriotism.
On another occasion, the conversation in the barracks turned upon the various means and stratagems for getting Army property back home to the profit of the individual soldier.
I listened with gathering disapproval as it became apparent that I was the only one in the barracks not doing tin’s. Virtuously, I expressed my opinion that tin’s was theft and that stealing from the government was stealing from the American people.
I was promptly berated by one of the soldiers present for my lack of intelligence.
You are right. Same soldier.
What is patriotism, anyway, to the average man? I have long been puzzled, for I have a naive mind that is easily confused.
During the war, for instance, we were all urged to buy war bonds as a matter of patriotism. In the period when I was a civilian, I therefore bought Avar bonds regularly. I was bothered, though, by the fact that the bonds carried interest and that we were therefore making a profit out of patriotism. Should we not have donated our money without interest?
I asketl someone that and was told that hardly anyone would be patriotic enough to buy, without interest promised in return.
We were also told that the war bonds were needed to buy war materiel. My own personal bonds, I was given to understand, would go toward a tank to fight the enemy?
But, I asked, suppose the government ran short of bond money with which to buy tanks? Would the tank manufacturer then refuse to sell a tank to the United States on a promise to pay later? Where was his patriotism?
Someone explained, when I asked this, that all that stuff about buyingtanks and planes was just a sales pitch. Actually, the important thing was to buy bonds and withdraw money from circulation, thus preventing wartime inilation.
So I asked why the income taxes weren’t simply raised sufficiently to make such inflation impossible. That way, money would be withdrawn in due proportion from all, instead of only from those who lacked sales resistance where war bonds were concerned. Furthermore, if inflation were fought by income tax alone, all the effort put into war bond promotion could be put directly into the war itself. And besides, bond money would have to be returned after the war, with interest added, and it would then contribute to postwar inflation, while income tax money, nonreturnable, would do no harm afterward.
No answer was even considered necessary to that one. The person I questioned simply walked away.
I have gathered since that paying income taxes is not considered an effective way of demonstrating patriotism by most people. Nor is evading income taxes considered unpatriotic.
Can it be, then, that that which counts as patriotism to most of us is not a foolish refusal to steal from the government, but a wicked refusal to stand when Kate Smith sings “God Bless America”! ?
Is it the little touches that cost nothing that make the average patriot: a salute, a song, a cheer, a sneer at foreigners and dissenters? Nothing more?
And what about the more than average? What about the policymakers within government? What defines patriotism for them?
I have noticed, for instance, that Air Force officials, in their totally sincere desire to serve America best, fight hard for an increased role, money, and power for the Air Force at the expense of the Navy. Navy officials, equally patriotic, do the same in reverse.
The heads of each department of the executive branch, each committee of the legislature, fight for increased shares of the public pie for the segment of the government they head, out of an undoubtedly firm conviction that in so acting they are doing their patriotic best for their country.
It is inconceivable that they would want this power if they thought it was to the harm of the country, yet how is it they always come to the conclusion that it is precisely increased power for themselves that is for the public good? I can only marvel at the Divine Providence (nothing else will account for the coincidence) which gives each person in the government a sincere concern for the commonweal that just happens to parallel tire aggrandizement of his own role.
If, as in my case, you have the unsettling habit of thinking of these things, Philip Stern’s powerful volume will give you no solace. Rather, it will deprive you of sleep, as it did me.
The book centers upon the security hearings of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a man who, according to the common admission of all who worked with him, did more than any other man to gain for the United States possession of the fission bomb, and without whom, many are quite sure, the Soviet Union would have had it first.
To be “father of the A-bomb” might be considered worth the gratitude of the nation (given the situation of the early 1940s), but such deeds, apparently, are equivalent to filing a reasonably honest income tax return. They are not considered a satisfactory measure of patriotism.
Never mind Oppenheimer’s deeds; how did he feel about “God Bless America”? Oppenheimer had leftist associations prior to the war, and during and after the war he refused to throw his friends to the wolves. No one ever proved, in the hearings or elsewhere, that his friendships and associations ever led to a single act that could be interpreted as being against the interest of the United States: indeed, all his acts, insofar as their effects could be measured, worked to the country’s enormous benefit and never to its harm.
The suspicions against Oppenheimer were alive from the start. The points against him were well known to the government all through World War II, and he was employed nevertheless. He was bugged and shadowed to exhaustion, and no act of his was ever demonstrated to be treasonable.
What happened after the war, then, to make it necessary to bring up the suspicions of his thoughts, opinions, and associations, as though they had been freshly discovered, and to reward him for the fission bomb by destroying him?
There was another bomb in prospect after the war, you see—a fusion bomb, a hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer was somewhat opposed to this. In the opinions of some, he delayed action upon it, influenced others against it. He had, indeed, on various occasions supported the research but with what was considered to be lack of enthusiasm.
In short, Oppenheimer did (in effect) stand up when “God Bless America” was played, but not rapidly enough.
Yet why Oppenheimer? There were other physicists who were more confined and more open in their opposition to the hydrogen bomb. There were others who had had leftist associations in their youth. There were others whose devotion to the nation was not so notoriously deserving of reward. Why, then, Oppenheimer?
Well, Oppenheimer was a demigod, not a man. It was not merely ordinary men who felt, when with him, that they were in the presence of an intellectual superior. Nobel Prize winners felt the same way. His lucidity, his insight, his intellectual power, put him in a class by himself—and not everyone liked that.
What’s more, Oppenheimer, far too often, felt himself the demigod and, with a flick of lightning, would demolish a lesser being in public. He made enemies in this way; enemies who would not and could not forget: and in the fullness of time, they patriotically clawed him clown.
For the mid-fifties came, the era of McCarthyism, when, in the name of patriotism, any deed could be done; any deed at all, however damaging to America.
In The Oppenheimer Case, Stern tells the story in single-minded concentration on the hearings. Oppenheimer’s biography is given in a series of flashes that illuminate just those events which were later to play a part in the hearings. The background of others, and of national events, are also given sparingly and only to the extent that they contributed.
The effect is of a straightforward undeviating slide, slow at first, then rapid and more rapid, toward catastrophe. That catastrophe looms from the start, visible, horrifying, inevitable. The matter is superbly handled.
The author, who is plainly and emphatically on the side of Oppenheimer, does not bother to pillory individuals as villains. It is the system of “security” that he opposes; it is the climate of pygmy patriotism that horrifies him.
The hearings, as he painstakingly and abundantly (even achingly) makes clear, were a grimly unfair travesty of traditional American justice. It was a case where the prosecution was given all the weapons, and where the defense was bound hand and foot and then (when the knots were tested and found tight) kicked in the head, Oppenheimer himself, bludgeoned mercilessly, without any of the safeguards that are set about a prisoner in a court of law, broke, and was never less the demigod than at his hearings.
In that dark time there were many others who suffered as Oppenheimer had done, and worse (though few deserved it less at the hands of an ungrateful nation), and the liberties of Americans generally were eroded in consequence.
And all in the name of patriotism. For as long as patriotism is, for most people, a thing of show rather than reality, and a vehicle for rewarding oneself and punishing one’s enemies, the darkness can never pass. Insofar as pygmy patriotism remains, this book should be read for its application to today, and if it keeps you awake nights (and it should), let it be not over Oppenheimer’s tragedy, but over the continuing danger to America’s liberties and the possible tragedy of us all.