Freedom of Assembly and Speech in the Age of Trump: A learnable lesson for 2017?

Part 2 of 2


The following is a relevant, personal, cautionary tale from that time of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. In the 1950s, I got to know Princeton Professor J. Robert Oppenheimer (of Manhattan Project fame). A statistical wizard, he was quite a baseball fan and came to many a university game. Out of the blue one day, he asked me, “Would you please teach my 12-year-old daughter, Toni, how to play baseball?” 

This came as a surprise as I ran track and did not play baseball, although sometimes I worked inside the university’s giant baseball scoreboard, pulling weights to record changes in innings, balls, strikes, runs and outs (before the days of electronics). In retrospect, Prof. Oppenheimer must have realized that I was a nephew of his friend and sometime publisher of Scientific American, Gerard Piel of Lakeville. 

In any event, I said yes, and he provided us with new baseball gloves so we could practice throwing and catching in simulated baseball games. Later, I realized that one reason for this request was to help rehabilitate Toni’s right arm, as she was recovering from a bout of polio incurred four years earlier when she was eight. Thanks in part to baseball, Toni Oppenheimer’s physical recovery was 100 percent.

Toni Oppenheimer went on to do very good academic work at Miss Fine’s School in Princeton and Oberlin College in Ohio, where she was proficient in music, history, sciences and languages. I then lost track of both Oppenheimers. 

After her father died, around 1967, Toni inherited a small house on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and she applied and was accepted to become a language interpreter (not just a “translator”) with the United Nations. She met the UN’s rigorous standards. But now comes the rub:

During the Sen. Joe McCarthy era, Professor Oppenheimer was pursued and persecuted for his beliefs, namely that (1) all scientific knowledge about atomic physics should be openly shared among all scientists worldwide, and (2) there should be a universal convention outlawing the further development and use of all nuclear weapons, with immediate worldwide effect.

During World War II, the enduring effects of nuclear radiation had been completely underestimated. It was time for reason to prevail. For this, Robert Oppenheimer was dragged in front of the infamous “Un-American Activities Committee” and other investigating authorities questioning his loyalty. 

Under similar suspicion, my uncle Gerard Piel was subjected to an FBI “security check” and review by a federal “Loyalty Board,” which determined that he was “a subversive, and disloyal to the United States.” Among several charges levied against him was the fact that Gerry had published in Scientific American potentially “subversive” scientific articles written by Professors Hans Bethe (at Cornell) and J. Robert Oppenheimer. These were scientific articles, not political ones.

For example, one article by Hans Bethe explained why the next generation of nuclear weapons would be hydrogen bombs. The McCarthyites attacked, claiming that this gave away “state secrets” to foreign enemies. Bethe, Oppenheimer and Piel countered by pointing out that all this was already in the scientific press, and the intent of Scientific American was now to reach a discerning, intelligent lay readership.

Meanwhile, Gerry’s lawyer brother, William Piel Jr., provided legal advice to Gerry as to how to handle this absurd situation. For this, and this alone, brother William lost his hard-won security clearance necessary to serve as general legal counsel to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The U.S. National Security Apparatus followed this up by trying to get Princeton University to fire Oppenheimer, but the University did not waiver.

Nevertheless, the spooks did not stop there after the death of Robert Oppenheimer. The FBI, in particular, continued to hound his daughter, Toni Oppenheimer, for her father’s beliefs. They got the U.S. government to block Toni’s appointment as an interpreter for the UN. They helped break up her marriage. 

She was devastated. Toni wrote out a will leaving the house in St. John as a local community center for the public (which it still is today), and then she committed suicide. All this because she shared her father’s belief in science, sharing of knowledge, peace and social justice.

There must be a lesson here from the Oppenheimer story of the 1950s to ’60s to apply in 2017 and beyond. Can we learn from it? 

Sharon resident Anthony Piel is a former director and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization.