Robert Oppenheimer and Andrei Sakarov

By | July 6, 2011

Two Nuclear Scientists, Robert Oppenheimer and Andrei Sakarov, played leading roles in the development of nuclear bombs (A-Bomb for R.O. and the H-Bomb for A. S.) for their respective governments, and then experienced similar reversals in their views of the wisdom and morality of the nuclear weapons programs in their respective nations.

Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project which developed and built the first Atomic bomb in the mid 1940s, later became a voice of moderation and opposed development of the even more powerful thermonuclear bomb (H-Bomb). He felt that US superiority in stockpiling A-Bombs was sufficient for national defense, but he was opposed by strong voices in and out of government who favored the H-Bomb project; he was eventually discredited, lost his security clearance, and had no further influence on US nuclear arms policy. The US government took the advice of Edward Teller, one of Oppenheimer’s scientific colleagues, and proceeded to develop the H-Bomb. Meanwhile (in the 1950s) Oppenheimer’s loyalty to the United States was questioned and he was generally discredited as a leading scientist and adviser to the government. His contributions both for defense and as a spokesman for moderation were not given due recognition until much later (1990s) during the time of the Clinton administration.

The leading scientist in the Soviet development of the thermonuclear bomb was Andrei Sakarov, known as the “father of the H-Bomb” in the Soviet Union. After successful above-ground testing of the most powerful nuclear device ever exploded, he also had second thoughts. He criticized the whole arms program of the Soviet Union, argued strongly for bilateral nuclear treaties with the United States, criticized Soviet policies, and the Soviet authorities. In 1975 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but the leaders of the USSR were not pleased. Eventually he was arrested and sentenced to “internal exile.” But with the later developments and moderation in the Soviet Union, Sakarov was recognized for his work on behalf of Human Rights. I believe that the American Humanist Association named him “Humanist of Year” in 1980.

It is ironic to note that in each case we have two leading scientists, whose moral, social conscience got them in trouble with the authorities in their respective countries. Each came out as a spokesman for moderation and opposed his respective nation’s mad dash into the nuclear arms race. Both paid the price that is often exacted on anyone who raises moral questions about his country’s weapons programs and anyone who opposes the military policies of their governments, especially when officials claim that national security hangs in the balance.

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