J. Robert Oppenheimer, säkerhet och politik från 1930-tal till 1950-tal

Jag håller på att läsa Birds och Sherwins Oppenheimerbiografi, och 250 sidor in i boken är det ett slags påbörjad inläsning inför sommarens film om Oppenheimer med Christopher Nolan vid regirattarna.1 Filmen – den sägs bli tre timmar! – lär bygga på sagda Pulitzerprisade biografi.

Förutom biografin är jag även nyfiken på Alex Wellerstein, Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States.2 Hans bok tror jag kan ge andra inblickar i den storskaliga nukleära arkipelagen med dess tekniska, politiska, vetenskapliga och andra dimensioner än en biografi över en förvisso central men ändå enstaka individ ger.

Än så länge har jag bara följt delar av Wellersteins bloggande i ämnet, som exempelvis den här bloggposten, som jag klipper in delar av här:

But. Once you ask the question, Did J. Robert Oppenheimer comport himself according to the standards for a nuclear security clearance in 1954?, it is, in my opinion, very hard to answer “yes.” This is not a referendum on his contributions as a scientist or advisor, or even a referendum on his personality. It is, perhaps, a referendum on the security standards of the time — one can argue they were overly strict and driven more by a hysterical fear of losing “the secret” than practical security. But Oppenheimer’s actions in the 1930s and 1940s definitely did not set him up for a favorable evaluation in the 1950s.

He did have a lot of Communist and near-Communist “associations.” This is just the truth of the matter. His brother, his wife, his sister-in-law, his ex-girlfriend, his students, his colleagues… there’s a lot of Red and Pink in that list! There are really good historical and contextual explanations for that, and the timing matters (Great Depression, etc.). It doesn’t actually mean Oppenheimer was a Communist — though he did probably have closer connections to the Communist Party of the United States than he ever admitted, even if he doesn’t appear to have ever been a card-carrying member — and definitely doesn’t mean he was a spy. But it’s hard to imagine someone in the middle of McCarthyism looking at all that and saying, “this is fine.” This is more of an indictment of McCarthyism than Oppenheimer, to be sure. But even today it would be hard to imagine a director of Los Alamos having that many “associations” with people in radical groups of any political stripe. If it came out tomorrow that the director of a weapons laboratory had family and friends connected to the Proud Boys, for example, there would be some legitimate cause for concern!

And he did exhibit really questionable judgment from the perspective of security. And not just by the standards of the 1950s! He admitted lying to security officers repeatedly about the Chevalier affair. When asked why he did this, Oppenheimer offered up nothing more than, “because I was an idiot.” That is not a strong defense! (The real answer likely was: “Because I was trying to protect my brother.” Which is still a bad answer, but at least a relatable and plausible one.)

  1. Bird, Kai, och Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus: the triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. New York: Vintage Books, 2006. []
  2. Alex Wellerstein, Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States. First edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021. []
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