Washington, July 30 : J. Robert Oppenheimer’s legacy as an American hero was fully restored last December, when the US government overturned its 1954 decision stripping him of his security clearance.
Lewis Strauss, the man behind Oppenheimer’s fall, remains covered in disgrace. In fact, ‘Oppenheimer’, the film, may have sealed his fate as a villain for history.
Strauss (played by Robert Downey in ‘Oppenheimer’) passed away in 1974, and Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) passed away in 1987.
The two men had disagreed on hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer lobbied against it arguing atomic bombs are enough. Strauss argued for the thermonuclear bomb as a deterrent against the Soviet Union.
Strauss, as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, the top nuclear agency at the time, was opposing the decisive break during a congressional hearing on the export of isotopes.
Oppenheimer did not only support it, but appeared to have mocked Strauss in his testimony as chairman of AEC’s General Advisory Committee. He had said: “No one can force me to say that you cannot use these isotopes for atomic energy. You can use a shovel for atomic energy, in fact you do. You can use a bottle of beer for atomic energy, in fact you do. But to get some perspective, the fact is that during the war and after the war, these materials played no significant part, and in my knowledge, no part at all … My own rating of the importance of isotopes in this broad sense is that they are far less important than electronic devices but far more important than, let us say, vitamins, somewhere in between.”
Strauss was enraged, enough to begin plotting to take down Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer’s troubles, however, went back further. To the 1930s, in fact, when he flirted with left-wing causes while heading up a department on quantum mechanics the University of California, Berkeley, where he was before heading up the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in New Mexico.
He attended meetings of the Communist Party USA, whose members included his wife Katherine Oppenheimer Vissering (played by Emily Blunt in the Oppenheimer film), brother Frank Oppenheimer and his wife Jacquenette Yvonne Quann. FBI opened a file on him after he came on their radar as they were surveilling known members of the communist party.
One of these contacts — not his family — pitched Oppenheimer an offer to pass over information to the Soviet Union when he was heading the Manhattan Project. He declined the offer.
But a British scientist who had access to the Los Alamos project was actually spying for the Soviet Union and may have passed on critical information.
The Soviet Union tested an atom bomb in 1949, four years after Oppenheimer-led Manhattan Projects first test of an atom bomb in July 1945. A few months later two of these bombs — named Little Boy and Fat Man — were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And he ended the second world war,
At the peak of the a phase in US politic called the “second red scare”, Oppenheimer was told by Strauss, who was now the chairman of the AEC, in late 1953 he had been stripped off his security clearance.
Oppenheimer appealed, triggering a highly partisan hearing in which his lawyers were denied information available to the other side on grounds of their lack of clearance. At the end, Oppenheimer was held patriotic but untrustworthy.
Strauss had had his victory.
But a few years later, that sham hearing caught up with him and at the worst time in his career, when he was up for confirmation as President Dwight Eisenhower’s nominee for secretary of commerce.
He was rejected, primarily on the testimony of a scientist (played by Rami Malek) about Strauss’ role in bringing down Oppenheimer.
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