More on whether Oppenheimer was a Communist?

In response to my “Was Oppenheimer Indeed a Communist?” post, historian Jerome Sternstein passed along the following:

I noticed you called attention to the piece in the SF Chronicle about Oppenheimer. You might want your readers to see this link where they can parse the new, fascinating documents uncovered by Gregg Herken and mentioned in the Chronicle article and now being debated. They could thus make up their own minds about the evidence of whether Oppenheimer was a member of the CPUSA. After reading them and other things, I’ve concluded he was.

I thought I’d pass it along, for those who are interested.

     A bit more on the broader point: I don’t know much about who was a Communist and who wasn’t, and I’m not terribly interested in the details. As best I can tell, the McCarthy era was filled with lots of abuses, including lies about who was a Communist, and restrictions that did indeed violate the First Amendment. It’s good that we use that era as a cautionary tale, and the reminder of how even originally narrow restrictions end up spreading over time, from out-and-out Communist conspirators to Communist sympathizers to fellow travelers and on.

     At the same time, I balk at casual condemnations of McCarthyism as a “witch hunt.” Witch hunts are unambiguously bad because we know there are no witches. If there were witches, in the standard sense of people who could use black magic to harm the rest of us, then of course we ought to hunt them.

     And in the McCarthy era, there were indeed Reds, not under every bed but in some important places. Consider, among others, Klaus Fuchs, a Communist physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, and he passed some of the A-bomb secrets to the Soviets; in the words of the Encyclopedia Britannica, “His espionage is credited with saving the Soviets at least one year’s work in their own program to develop the atomic bomb.” He was arrested in 1950; he confessed, and served 9 years in prison.

     While I wouldn’t have excluded Communists, past Communists, or Communist sympathizers from all federal jobs (not because I like them, but because of the First Amendment), I surely think it’s perfectly constitutional and proper to exclude them from secret nuclear weapons research. If Oppenheimer, who is often painted as having been unfairly victimized by McCarthyism’s excesses, had indeed been a Communist, then the Communist hunters may well have been quite right to have gone after him, even if they may have been quite wrong as to many others. And this is so even if he was quite loyal by 1950; in this field, the government is entitled to err on the side of caution.

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