‘Those That Fail to Learn from History Are Doomed to Repeat It.’
“Oppenheimer,” a biopic written and directed by Christopher Nolan, has spun box office gold and surpassed $602 million globally since it debuted three weeks ago — an amazing feat for a two-hour-long film based on a historical figure. The film brought moviegoers back to the theaters. What about McCarthygoers? History is indeed a mirror, reflecting the past and shining a light on its absurdities being repeated today.
Oppenheimer’s contribution to the United States is beyond any doubt. His life story as a legendary scientist, as well as the disastrous consequences brought about by his political stance, are something we should carefully reflect upon today. As the “father of the atomic bomb” (1945), Oppenheimer’s work was of significant importance in ending World War II. Despite ongoing debates and differing opinions regarding the use of atomic bombs on Japan, it was estimated at the time that not using a-bombs could have resulted in the risk of a scorched-earth resistance by the Japanese, leading to the sacrifice of over a million more American soldiers’ lives.
When the war ended, haunted by immense destruction and mass fatalities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer advocated against further nuclear research, especially the hydrogen bomb tests, aiming to prevent a nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. His left-leaning stance led him to face attacks during the McCarthy era, some politicians accusing him of being “disloyal to the United States.” He and his family endured government surveillance of their lives, phone calls, and letters for a lengthy period of over thirteen years. From April to May of 1954, he underwent a secret trial. Much of the evidence used against him during the trial came from anonymous sources and illegal wiretapping.
Albert Einstein, who once worked as a researcher on Oppenheimer’s team, believed that Oppenheimer had no obligation to make himself a political victim; Einstein stated that Oppenheimer had rendered his country great service, and should take the unjust reward he had been given and throw it in the country’s face.” However, Oppenheimer disagreed with Einstein’s perspective, replying that he couldn’t abandon the United States. Oppenheimer’s secretary was a witness to this conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein.
Oppenheimer, who suffered humiliation pinat the hands of the McCarthy-era “security hearings,” didn’t experience any semblance of vindication until nine years later when President Kennedy conferred him the Enrico Fermi Award. This can be seen as a tragic turn of events that should never have occurred.
Oppenheimer was not alone. In the midst of the McCarthy era’s frenzy, the incident of Qian Xuesen, a.k.a., Hsue-Shen Tsien, also emerged. The US-trained “Father of Chinese Rocketry”, Qian was accused of communist sympathies and put on house arrest for five years before he was deported in 1955 in exchange for the repatriation of American pilots who had been captured during the Korean War. Zhang Chunru, a.k.a., Iris Chang, the Chinese American author of the renowned book “The Rape of Nanking,” wrote in another book titled “Thread of the Silkworm,” that, “Looking back, it’s not surprising at all that Qian Xuesen became a victim of the Cold War hysteria in the United States.”
It’s profoundly thought-provoking that Zhang Chunru, who held a sympathetic attitude towards Qian Xuesen, might, if she were alive today, also face harsh criticism and even be vilified. She could potentially become a victim of today’s new McCarthyism, perhaps even by those who previously supported her. This is because Qian Xuesen is regarded as the “Father of Chinese Rocketry”, and Zhang Chunru would likely be labeled as “pro-China.”
Einstein’s honesty as a scientist is evident in his view that Oppenheimer was a “fool” to have such a strong love for the United States after facing the merciless blows of McCarthyism. Looking back at the movie “Oppenheimer,” the intention is not to debate whether Oppenheimer or Einstein were right or wrong. Instead, it’s an opportunity to deeply reflect through history: should hysterical McCarthyism be allowed to resurface today?
In fact, some reliable reports from mainstream American media have highlighted how baseless suspicions, exclusion, and secretive investigations of Asian-American scientists under the pretext of “national security” have compelled many outstanding scientists to leave the U.S. and return to Asia due to concerns for their own safety. This is legitimate risk-averse behavior but has had a significant impact on America’s technological innovation. McCarthyism benefits the side that it intends to oppose.
The movie is also an alarm to Canada that it should not tread the path of American McCarthyism. We possess a robust legal framework and national security laws to safeguard Canadian interests. We have national security agencies and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to uphold our national security, and those who violate the law must face the consequences and be punished by the law. Thus, there’s no room for hysterical individuals to label and create an atmosphere of terror against Asian Canadians without any evidence.
The success of the film “Oppenheimer” is once again prompting people to reflect on the tragic aspects of the McCarthyism era by gaining a renewed understanding of Oppenheimer’s life. This is undoubtedly a positive sign of putting McCarthyism to an end.
(Guo Ding, Journalist and Historian based in Vancouver)
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