The Open Mind (Reprinted from 1949)

Historians in the News
tags: nuclear weapons, J. Robert Oppenheimer

In an essay originally printed in The Atlantic  in 1949, the nuclear physicist discusses the United States's new obligations as a nuclear power. 

A few weeks ago the president of a college in the prairie states came to see me. Clearly, when he tried to look into the future, he did not like what he saw: the grim prospects for the maintenance of peace, for the preservation of freedom, for the flourishing and growth of the humane values of our civilization. He seemed to have in mind that it might be well for people, even in his small college, to try to take some part in turning these prospects to a happier end; but what he said came rather as a shock.

He said, “I wonder if you can help me. I have a very peculiar problem. You see, out there most of the students, and the teachers too, come from the farm. They are used to planting seed, and then waiting for it to grow, and then harvesting it. They believe in time and in nature. It is rather hard to get them to take things into their own hands.”

Perhaps, as much as anything, my theme has to do with enlisting time and nature in the conduct of our international affairs: in the quest for peace and a freer world. This is not meant mystically, for the nature which we must enlist is that of man; and if there is hope in it, that lies not least in man’s reason.

What elements are there in the conduct of foreign affairs which may be conducive to the exercise of that reason, which may provide a climate for the growth of new experience, new insight, and new understanding? How can we recognize such growth, and be sensitive to its hopeful meaning, while there is yet time, through action based on understanding, to direct the outcome?

Such difficult questions one treats only modestly and incompletely. If there are indeed answers to be found, they will be found through many diverse avenues of approach—in the European Recovery Program, in our direct relations with the Soviet states, in the very mechanisms by which our policies are developed and determined.

Yet it will not seem inappropriate to consider one relatively isolated, yet not atypical, area of foreign affairs—atomic energy. It is an area in which the primary intent of our policy has been totally frustrated. It is an area in which it is commonly recognized that the prospects for success with regard to this primary intent are both dim and remote. It is an area in which it is equally recognized that this failure will force upon us a course of action in some important respects inconsistent with our original purposes. It is an area in which the excellence of our proposals, and a record in which we may and do take pride, have nevertheless not managed quite to quiet the uneasy conscience or to close the mind to further trouble.

Our policy and our efforts toward international atomic control are public; far more important, they have from the first aroused widespread interest, criticism, and understanding, and have been the subject of debates in the Congress and the press, and among our people. There may even be some notion of how, if we had the last years to live over again, we might alter our course in the light of what we have learned, and some rough agreement as to the limits within which alternative courses of action, if adopted at a time when they were still open to us, could have altered the outcome. The past is in one respect a misleading guide to the future: it is far less perplexing.

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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