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Society & Culture

Lessons from Oppenheimer and Sakharov

Sep 08, 2023
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

Christopher Nolan’s biographical film “Oppenheimer,” which made its debut in China in late August, has been a sensation among Chinese audiences, getting a 8.7 rating on the popular movie review channel of It’s a thought-provoking work of art. As the father of America’s atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer’s personal tragedy reflected the political biosphere for American scientists during the Cold War.

This was very much like Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, Oppenheimer’s Soviet contemporary, who was known as father of the Soviet Union’s hydrogen bomb. Both nuclear physicists had made outstanding contributions to nuclear weapons development in their respective countries, yet both fell victim to government suppression at home.

From the perspective of consequences, however, Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance, but he was still able to deliver speeches and continue his studies. The Soviet government, by contrast, not only nullified Sakharov’s honorary title but sent him into exile. Attitudes toward scientists in the United States and Soviet Union had to a great extent determined the outcome of the Cold War — the former becoming the world’s sole superpower, while the latter collapsed.   


Causes of tragedy 

Personal tragedies are often closely tied to specific historical circumstances. A fundamental cause of Oppenheimer’s and Sakharov’s personal tragedies was that they lived in a time of a superpower Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union were vying for global hegemony. After WWII, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union sought to expand their respective global spheres of influence, taking advantage of military strength to prevent the other from launching large-scale conventional offensives. Developing nuclear weapons gradually became a pressing priority.

Thanks to his awareness of the devastating potential damage of nuclear weapons on humanity, Oppenheimer used his role as chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission General Advisory Committee to lobby the international community against nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race between the United States and Soviet Union. However, because his view contradicted that of the U.S. government, his security clearance was canceled in 1954, and his political impact subsequently dwindled.

Sakharov began to participate in the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program in 1948, and was later honored as the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb for his instrumental role in its development. He began to fight against the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the 1960s. In a letter to then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, he suggested the Soviet Union accept the U.S. proposal that both sides forsake the research and development of anti-ballistic missiles; otherwise the risk of nuclear war could increase. He was soon prohibited from participating in military-related research, and was arrested for protesting Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. He was exiled to the Gorky secret administrative district (present-day Russia’s Nizhni Novgorod). 

Cold War relations 

Nuclear deterrence played a role in stabilizing the bipolar global regime, yet both the United States and Soviet Union used nuclear disarmament negotiations as a tool for preserving their selfish interests. U.S. interest groups used the negotiations to influence Congress and voters; the Soviet Union used them as a bargaining chip against the U.S.

For instance, while Richard Nixon’s February 1972 visit to China was a first step toward normalizing relations, formal diplomatic relations were not established until January 1979. This was because the Soviet Union had always been against America’s improving relations with China and wished the U.S. would cooperate with it to suppress China.

The Soviet Union created troubles in disarmament talks with the U.S., warning it not to cooperate with China against Moscow. After Deng Xiaoping’s U.S. visit to America as China’s vice premier, the Soviet Union indicated to the U.S. via its Pravda newspaper that “the orientation of China-U.S. relations will affect the process of Soviet Union-U.S. negotiations on disarmament.” 

Powers rise and fall 

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.jpg

Paul Kennedy wrote in “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” that economic and technological development were the major factors in determining great power status. The Soviet Union once narrowed the gap between its national strength and that of the U.S. during the competition for hegemony. However the gap gradually widened afterward and became irreversible by the 1980s. Take the computer industry, for example: The Soviet Union didn’t lack the basic mathematical knowledge for computer design, but it lacked capability for the mass production of quality computers and for turning basic mathematical knowledge into software designs.

More important, the Soviet policy environment fettered the creative potential of science and technology workers and resulted in an exodus of intellectual elites. In the 1970s and 1980s, mathematicians from the Soviet Union accounted for 50 percent of foreign mathematicians in the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S. also realized the significance of suppressing innovative progress in the Soviet Union. For this purpose, the U.S. embargoed advanced computers, preventing them from being exported to the Soviet Union and its satellite states. The USSR’s weaknesses in knowledge innovation and development proved a heavy drag on modernizing its manufacturing, agriculture and military industries. For example, in 1980 a single American farm worker could produce enough grain to meet the needs of 65 people, while his Soviet counterpart could produce enough for only eight. So the Soviet Union had to spend a tremendous amount of money on grain imports. Finally, the U.S. won out, and the Soviet Union vanished 69 years after it was born.

The personal tragedies of Oppenheimer and Sakharov during the Cold War mirrored the trajectories — both the rise and fall — of two major powers. Their stories tell us proactively that creating an innovative environment in a benign circle is the correct path upon which any country can become stronger. In major power relations, an inclusive, tolerant environment is of critical importance for a country that wants to achieve strategic competitive advantages. 

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