In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Politics, Rhetoric, and Self-Defense

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Politics, Rhetoric, and Self-Defense

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Politics, Rhetoric, and Self-Defense

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Politics, Rhetoric, and Self-Defense

Synopsis

In contrast to historical and political explanations of the Oppenheimer case, Rachel Holloway explores the role that rhetoric played in Oppenheimer's removal from government service. In doing so, the author draws attention to the symbolic nature of politics and character and highlights the significant interaction of political and scientific terminologies in American discourse.

Excerpt

On 23 December 1953, General Nichols delivered a letter to Oppenheimer. On the surface, the letter was to inform Oppenheimer that the AEC had suspended his security clearance, present the reasons for the suspension, and offer Oppenheimer the opportunity to challenge the AEC's decision through a personnel security hearing. At the strategic level, however, the letter was intended to lay the groundwork for what proved to be one of the most famous security hearings in the nation's history, and as such, it was a carefully crafted accusation that called Oppenheimer's professional career and his character into question.

Nichols accepted a significant rhetorical challenge when the AEC asked him to suspend Oppenheimer's security clearance. Oppenheimer was one of the best known and most admired scientists in the nation. No matter how the accusations were framed, the nation, and especially the scientific community, would be shocked. Oppenheimer's popularity alone made the case a potential political powder keg. A second concern would be the possible counteraccusations against the AEC, which Nichols would need to preempt. Oppenheimer's alliance with the "finite containment" nuclear weapons philosophy was well known, both within government and to the general public. Any attack on him could be interpreted as an attempt by "infinite containment" advocates to eliminate the vocal opposition. To identify someone as a "security risk" due to support of an unpopular policy was unjust at best, and could easily be labeled undemocratic. Nichols's accusations must focus clearly on Oppenheimer's personal character and trustworthiness, not on the quality of his advice. Given Oppenheimer's past, McCarthy's "red . . .

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