Is it something in the genes? Does it come from some kind of national paranoia or insecurity? Is it because we are so "young" as a nation, as people keep saying? Or is it something that we share with others of our species, but exaggerated because we are so big? From the decimation of our native tribes to our rash invasion of Iraq, it seems we are prone to be quick to anger, aggressively defensive, and bellicose in our response to the least provocation. (That this proclivity is--though often inadequately--matched by a generous, peace-loving trait in our national character is not at issue here.)
These troubling thoughts were prompted by last night's special on the PBS series, American Experience, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which tells the story of the post-World War II persecution of the man who successfully directed the development of America's atomic bomb. It was he who famously said, after the Trinity test that proved the devastating efficacy of the bomb, "You know the Bhagavad-Gita? 'I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.'" A poet, a man of conscience, and an obviously eccentric, difficult person despite his scientific genius, Oppenheimer was one of the many intellectuals of the 1930s whose social views led them into a loose affiliation with the Communist Party. He was enlisted easily into the war against worldwide fascism, however, and was unquestioningly complicit in the use of his bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Awed--and horror-struck--by the power of the weapon his team had created, Oppenheimer evidently listened once more to his conscience after the war, and publicly expressed opposition to the development of the even more powerful and destructive hydrogen bomb promoted by his hawkish colleague, Edward Teller. According to this version of the story, Oppenheimer's position was that this was a bomb too far, unnecessary in view of the growing stockpile of atomic weapons and the supremacy of American firepower. This view brought down upon him the ire of the hawks in the American government, who managed successfully, by deceit and merciless bully tactics, to smear him with past communist associations and deprive him not only of his security clearance but of his reputation and his standing in the scientific world.
Oppenheimer's last years, it seems were lived out as a beaten, bitter, dis-abled man. Meanwhile, our country was driven by the paranoia politicians know well how to exploit, swaggering on into the Cold War, shaking the sword of its nuclear arsenal and daring the Soviet Union to follow suit. What a shame and a waste, that so much of the 20th century, which had already given us enough death and devastation to have learned the basics of peace, should have been devoted to the enactment of this senseless charade--in the name of maintaining American supremacy. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq... How many more such horrors will it take?