The Aftermath of WO II

—The beginnings of the Cold War—

Technology and Culture, 8-11-2005 Thieme Hennis

To start with a short history will be handled leading to the growing fear of communism and communists in the United States, which grew slowly the first few years after the war and reached its peak in the ’50s, in the McCarthy era. McCarthy was US Senator and led a demagogic crusade against communism, thereby harming many innocent people. The Cold War tensions and the broad anti-Communist propaganda created a unbearable climate for anyone who had even some affection with communist ideas in this time. This, as you would expect, had some severe implications in the American culture, high valued democracy ideas being snowed under by the general anti-Communist feelings. Two important consequences of this political climate will be discussed. First the infamous trial of the communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg will be handled and then the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance.


History (1)
A short explanation follows regarding the growing anti-Communist sentiment in the US from a historical perspective. Anti-Communist feelings and ideas are as old as communism itself, and the first time there was a general ‘Red Scare’ in the US was just after WO1, but only shortly. After that communism was still generally considered as an utopia, totally countering the capitalistic river of free enterprise thoughts that fed the American economy and society, but you cannot speak anymore of a ‘Red Scare’. During and before WO2 there was even some positive propaganda regarding communism and in this time it won even some popularity in the US at young left-winged students. Still, you could say that communism was something totally anti-American, as for people being American implied being anticommunistic. Even though the war in Europe was ended with help of the Russians, the friendship did not last long. During the Yalta-conference, which dealt merely with Japan issues, the US with his allies, represented by Roosevelt and Churchill, secretly made some concessions to Stalin about Eastern Europe, and agreements about free elections. The following year, a plan, also known as the Baruch-plan, was presented by the US to the United Nations regarding atomic matters. The original plan, made by (amongst others) Oppenheimer, that more or less calls for a worldwide control on atomic energy, the immediate halt of production of atomic weapons and destruction of existing ones, was altered in such a way by Government advisor and Wallstreet broker Baruch, that the outcome of the proposal could be determined beforehand, which is a refusal by the Soviets. This paved the way for a nuclear arms race. Truman later admitted: ‘asking Baruch was the worst mistake I ever made.’ After this sorrowful waste of opportunity, Stalin focussed on expanding communism and his power, meanwhile not granting free elections in East-Europe and oppressing and even assassinating political enemies, or suspected political enemies, acting like a true dictator. A milestone in the beginning of the Cold War occurred in 1949. The Russians had made a replica of ‘Fat Man’, using information provided by Western spies. Now the Soviet Union had proved their nuclear power, and its domain covering nearly half of the Northern hemisphere, you can imagine the terror that grew within the minds of Americans. The Cold War was well on its way. When then subsequently Mao takes control in China and North-Korean forces invade South-Korea the expansion of communism is felt deeply, within normal American citizens as well as within the government. Just before the Korean War a very important report was written that later was to be considered the blueprint for the Cold War. It said that the Soviet Union tried to spread communism worldwide and to stop this, the US should adopt a policy of containment, that signifies involving actively worldwide to stop further spread of communism. The theory that Truman held, the ‘Domino theory’, claimed that if one country gets into communistic hands, others will follow.


Figure 1: Map division East-West in 1952 (Wikipedia) During this highly tensed time some very troubling cases of treason and espionage came to light. Due to the breaking of codes the communication between the Soviet Consulate and the KGB could be deciphered (also known as the Venona-project), what led to a chain of arrests. Even high government officials were involved in espionage, such as White (IMF), Hiss (UN), MacLean and Burgess. The danger now lay not only outside the US, but had found its way into even the highest circles of the own government. The scare intensified enormously during this time and McCarthyism, which we will be handled in the following part, flourished.


Red Scare – McCarthyism
Senator Joseph McCarthy, until after WO2 not a very significant political figure, felt just as most of the people in America honestly threatened by the expanding communism and new cases of treason and espionage. By intensifying the atmosphere of fright, where his words were received with delight, his political status rose exponentially. You could call Senator McCarthy the answer to the Red Scare as well as the Red Scare itself, the latter because his investigations and accusations were partially unjustified. In a way he needed the general feeling of insecurity to satisfy his political appetite. By intensifying the feeling of angst, he could rise his influence enormously. Apparently a popular and successful way to empower yourself, because we have all seen that history has repeated itself in this matter, unfortunately on the highest level you can get. But let us not go into that matter.

Figure 2: Political cartoon McCarthyism 1950 (Wikipedia); The Elephant, that represents the Republican Party, being by the leading Republicans in that time. First appearance of the term McCarthyism. When in ’52 McCarthy became chairman of the Senate’s Investigation Subcommittee, a new policy was introduced under which a government employee not only had to be loyal, but his or her background “clearly consistent with the interests in national security”. In short this wave of anti-communism meant the loss of jobs for a lot of persons at universities, government posts or other places and more people being discredited or harassed in any way under the pretext of maintaining national security. Even though McCarthy had a point in saying that there was a serious communist threat and that there were more than a few government officials involved, in his Red Hunt a great number of innocent persons were prosecuted, on low and high levels, their lives being brought down. His popularity went as it came and even turned into a general averse for his person. As most of his victims fell pray to the power of the media, in 1954 he himself was portrayed rather negatively, and numerous cases of people whose lives were ruined unjustly were brought to the public. In the end even some Republicans denounced him.


Red Scare – Rosenberg trial
Two cases will be discussed that happened in this period of severe anti-communism. Before we get to the case of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, which I think is the most interesting, one of the most publicized cases of that decade, that of the suspected espionage of the Rosenberg couple, will be handled. In the worst time possible husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were indicted by authorities and accused for passing on information to the Russians about production of nuclear weapons. As mentioned before Americans successfully intercepted conversations between the Soviet Consulate and the KGB in the Venona-project. Hundreds of persons, amongst others high American government officials, were discovered of having transferred top-secret information and one of them was the British scientist Klaus Fuchs, a former employer of Oppenheimer in the Manhattan Project. One thing led to another, numerous persons were caught and charged, and the Rosenbergs found themselves on the benches facing death penalty. Julius as Ethel were both fervent communists, involved actively in the communist party in New York for more than a decade before they dropped out of the party in 1943. Even before Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, began working at Los Alamos, he was approached by his brother-in-law about conducting espionage activities. One has to remember that during that time, the general feeling about communism and the Soviet Union was rather positive, being its ally in the war and even high officials praising the Russians. David Greenglass gave in and provided over a period of time notes about a certain production process of nuclear weapons. Julius Rosenberg remained active after the war in espionage activities, as mentioned earlier, the public opinion about communism changed drastically. It was in 1950, when the Red Scare controlled the people of America, when Julius Rosenberg was arrested, following a chain of arrests, the last link through David Greenglass, the brother of his wife. While the testimonies and evidence against Julius piled up, there was nearly nothing that could lead to the arrest of his wife. But because of Julius’ stubbornness and refusal to cooperate, the FBI needed other ways to get him talking. This was the reason a case was built up against his wife, Ethel, with help of her brother David Greenglass. The case against Ethel was extremely weak, the only ‘evidence’ provided by her brother and his wife Ruth. Even this ‘evidence’ was very weak, for it said no more than that Ruth had been seen typing notes from Los Alamos and being present at some conversations about espionage. When Ethel’s arrest did not have the effect the FBI longed for and Julius remained uncooperative, the Government was committed to the prosecution of her as well. They were both accused, in the light of the Red Scare hysteria, of a crime worse than murder, of providing the Soviet Union with weapons that they could use to destroy the US. A death-penalty followed not only for Julius, but for Ethel as well. After 2 years of useless appeals, in 1953 Julius and Ethel were sent of this world. Although even Julius sentence could be justified even by our standards, it remains one of the greatest failures in the American history of law that with such scarce evidence the same destiny was implored to Ethel. Later evidence made abundantly clear that Julius did, in fact, was a spy. The case against his wife, which rested on the Greenglasses testimonies, lost all credibility when Greenglass admitted to giving false testimonies in order to save himself.


Oppenheimer’s Security Clearance Revoked
A less fatal, but equally unfortunate fate waited for Oppenheimer, during this period of paranoia. In spite of all his contributions to the national security of the US, earning him a Medal for Merit, the highest civilian award in WO2, he wasn’t saved from the sentiment that proved lethal for his political life. As the Cold War came into full extend, the opposition to Oppenheimer grew as well. His ideas regarding the development of the ‘super’, also known as the hydrogen bomb, had irritated a lot of influential people. Many think he was against the hydrogen bomb, he was not. In fact, his opposition was on its development as a deliverable weapon, not on research. He changed his opinion in 1951, because of breakthrough discoveries in the field and the advancement on nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union. But you can consider that the damage was done and there were enough right-winged people who rather saw him leave. When the time was right, these people used their power and information what led to the disappearance of Oppenheimer from the political stage. They brought up many old acquaintances of Oppenheimer, who were Communists, trying to prove his Communist ties. To please certain persons in the government, Oppenheimer had even testified against some of his former colleagues and students, but this did not help him in retaining his influential position as official advisor of the government on nuclear matters. The most crucial in this process was Oppenheimer’s contradictory testimony regarding his old friend Haakon Chevalier, who had ties with Communists. He belatedly informed security agents about a conversation they had regarding the possibility of having contacts between American and Soviet scientists outside official channels and then delivered contradictory statements. This is even more astonishing when you think of the fact that (1) all this had been known to General Groves during the Manhattan Project (2) the whole AEC granted clearance in 1947 to Oppenheimer when this all had been known. Years later though, this somewhat controversial background , which could be interpreted as not ‘clearly consistent with the interests of national security’, and equivocative statements now were to be used by his enemies to get rid of him. His earlier opposition of the H-bomb and his liberal leftist thoughts were not in accordance with the political sentiment at the time. In 1953 his fall was foreshadowed by an article in Fortune, which consisted of an extensive accusation from officers of the Air Force who were opposed to Oppenheimer’s defense policy. There were even some influential persons who claimed that Oppenheimer was a spy, one of whom was Borden, who was Executive Director of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (AEC) between 1949 and 1953. During this time he got convinced that Oppenheimer was a critical threat to the country. In 1953 he wrote a letter to FBI-boss Hoover claiming that ‘based upon years of study, of the available classified evidence, that more probable than not J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union’ He also mentioned in the letter that The central problem is not whether J. Robert Oppenheimer was ever a Communist; for the existing evidence makes abundantly clear that he was..’ , which shows the extremely fanatic anti-Communistic sentiment of the time, that ever being a Communist is already considered a problem. Another enemy of Oppenheimer and AEC-member Lewis Strauss, pushed with the help of his political friends President Eisenhower to revoke Oppenheimer’s Security clearance in 1953. Eisenhower asked Oppenheimer to resign, which was refused, instead Oppenheimer asked for a hearing. During this hearing many of his friends and enemies were questioned. Important figures as Strauss, who felt resentment over Oppenheimer’s political ideas, but maybe even more over his humiliation by Oppenheimer before Congress some years earlier and Teller, with whom Oppenheimer had a very difficult relationship during the Manhattan Project and disagreed on more than one point, testified against him. The outcome is well known.


After his fall from the political stage, he focussed again on science, giving lectures, write and work on physics. He demonstrated his skills again as a director of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. In 1963 he was awarded the AEC Enrico-Fermi award, the highest award on nuclear physics by President Lyndon Johnson, which many consider as a gesture to make up the injustice done to him. He was put forward by, amongst others, Edward Teller, who won it the year before.


The lack of an international nuclear agency, controlling the production of nuclear bombs world-wide (as suggested by Oppenheimer before the end of the war), made it possible for the two biggest powers in the world (America and Russia) to develop nuclear arms separately, posing a threat on each other and the rest of the world. I think this is one of the most important reasons for the creation of the tension, which was justified by the danger posed by both nations, and ultimately led to the downfall of Oppenheimer. So my thesis is that his controversial history and possible ties with communism were only partly cause of his downfall. Said more clearly:

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The change of the plan by Baruch caused the first and most important break between ‘East’ and ‘West’. This led to the change in environment into a very hostile one towards Communism. In this environment several thoughts were not wished for or even considered dangerous. These include;

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opposition to H-bomb or opposition to the arms race in general leftist thoughts or background

The reason of the revocation is that some people were opposed to Oppenheimer politically, and others were honestly concerned with his loyalty. Within the described environment, an objective outcome of Oppenheimer’s case, but undoubtedly as well that of the Rosenbergs, was highly improbable.

A final remark will be that I do not mean that there would not be a Cold War, but that the scare would be significantly less, because of the fact that the whole nuclear issue would not play such a great part of it.