Most people remember J Robert Oppenheimer as the mastermind behind the atomic bomb, says Kai Bird in The New York Times. But his later life was marked by political tragedy. In 1954, he was hauled before a “kangaroo court” in Washington DC, forced to defend himself against charges that he was a security risk. The evidence was at best “flimsy”: while a student, Oppenheimer had attended a few left-wing events and had a relationship with a Communist. Most people now agree he was targeted because of his vocal opposition to building an even more deadly weapon – the hydrogen bomb – capable of destroying all humanity. Nevertheless, a vote of 2-1 stripped Oppenheimer of his security status, accusing him of harbouring “a serious disregard” for national secrets. He became the “chief celebrity victim” of the McCarthyite anti-communist “maelstrom”.
Oppenheimer’s downfall is poignantly relevant to our current political predicament. He was destroyed by a movement characterised by “rank know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues” – some of whom went on to serve as political mentors to Donald Trump. His fate created an environment in which scientists are afraid to speak out, and policymakers dismiss intellectuals they don’t agree with as politically motivated. Today, officials don’t listen to experts like Sam Altman on the risks of AI, for example, and plenty of leading health figures with dissenting views were silenced during Covid. That’s the “real tragedy of Oppenheimer”: his persecution illustrates the way politicians can close down the kind of civil discourse we desperately need to help us make wise decisions on new tech.