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Oppenheimer and After
Also: China’s brain drain isn’t America’s brain gain.
“There is a necessary conflict between philosophy and politics if the element of society necessarily is opinion.” — Leo Strauss, “What is Political Philosophy?”
There are two tales in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. The first is about the Manhattan Project: J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the atomic bomb research in Los Alamos, was conflicted about the power of the hydrogen bomb, which helped secure Allied triumph. This near-impossible technological development was made possible by US government power and military investment in scientific research.
The second story is about McCarthyism. After World War II ended, the US Atomic Energy Commission launched a series of hearings on Oppenheimer due to his ties to left-wing political organizations, leading to the revocation of his security clearance in 1954. His reputation was tarred, detaching him from political life.
Oppenheimer’s life after 1945 wasn’t a tragedy exactly—he got to retire in the US Virgin Islands, after all. But JRO wasn’t the only victim in this Cold War paranoia but was among the many US intellectuals who flirted with leftism in the 1930s. As the Soviet Union became Washington’s clear security rival—the terms of that rivalry being morally grounded—the McCarthy investigations against the scientific community were just as impactful as its contributions to US military power during wartime. As the late Lawrence Badash puts it, “[p]eople whose flirtation with socialism or even communism in the 1930s had been nothing to be ashamed about, suddenly found themselves in the late 1940s to be objects of dread and hatred.” Scientists who were once given complete access to work on the most sensitive technologies during the war suddenly found themselves summoned to court, testifying before Congress, or banned from international travel.1
Frank Oppenheimer, Robert’s younger brother who also worked at Los Alamos as a physicist, appears in the Christopher Nolan film. As a graduate student at Caltech he regularly attended Communist Party meetings—organized mostly by Sidney Weinbaum, a physicist who studied under Linus Pauling. In 1949, Weinbaum’s security clearance was revoked due to his political involvement; he was charged of perjury in 1950 and remained in jail until 1953.
Frank Oppenheimer testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1949, revealing that he had once been a party member. Consequently, he lost his professorship at the University of Minnesota. Unable to continue his career as an academic and effectively banned from leaving the US, one of the nation’s best scientists became a cattle rancher in Colorado.2
Another man in Weinbaum’s group—known as Professional Unit 122—was Frank Malina. An aeronautical engineer from Texas, Malina was part of the Caltech “suicide squad,” a group of early rocket scientists known on campus for their dangerous experiments. Led by the Hungarian-American aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán, the squad would eventually become the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), later merged into NASA. During McCarthyism, Malina moved to Paris to lead scientific research at UNESCO before rebranding himself as a kinetic painter.
Malina’s former party affiliations led to his indictment by the US government, rendering him an American refugee in France. His son, the UT Dallas physicist Roger Malina, wrote in a now-deleted blog entry, “In 1953, [Frank Malina] was forced to resign from UNESCO following the issuance of an arrest warrant by the FBI.” He reminisced the story of agents “watching our front door in Paris” and “watching the comings and goings in our home.”3 (Nolan visualizes this in the scenes of agents going through JRO’s garbage.)
Qian Xuesen, known then as Hsue-Shen Tsien, was a member of the “suicide squad.” Qian was close to both Malina and Frank Oppenheimer, having gone to Weinbaum’s party unit. He was suspected of being a communist in 1949—he denied it then, though evidence now shows he had likely been a card-carrying member. He was charged of perjury in 1950 and thus ordered to be deported, but the State Department, which banned Chinese scientists from leaving the US during the Korean War, blocked his deportation. He wasn’t allowed to leave Los Angeles County until Chinese delegates at the Geneva Conference negotiated for his return to China, in 1955, in a de facto prisoners-of-war exchange.
During the five years of limbo, Qian—who had lost his security clerance—wrote Engineering Cybernetics and reworded operations research he’d learned as a US military scientist in cybernetic terms. In Beijing, he was instrumental in leading China’s development of strategic weapons—including the “Two Bombs, One Satellite” (the atomic bomb and ICBM, and the artificial satellite) programs—under Nie Rongzhen even during the Cultural Revolution.
Qian was, admittedly, a man of many stories and many lives. I wrote about one of them—his tragic departure from the US—in Foreign Policy four years ago, and I plan to write many more. He was arguably the most influential scientist in the People’s Republic. After retirement, he became obsessed with extrasensory perception, or what he called somatic science—it led to a controversial qigong fever in the late 1980s and early 90s that led to the widespread success of the Falun Gong.4
The memories—and aftermath—of the McCarthy trials live on. The militarized state didn’t want the scientists; it wanted the technologies they built.
Last week, Lux Capital’s Josh Wolfe, testified before the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party:
The American Dream is our greatest asset in the global competitive landscape, and we must continue our tradition of seeking and attracting ambitious individuals from everywhere.
Many of Lux’s brightest contributors are immigrants, from Vietnam, Pakistan, India, Israel, and yes, even China.
With intention, America should be attracting defectors and accelerating China’s brain drain to our national benefit by welcoming the best talent on the planet to the U.S.
Talent—human capital—like financial capital, goes where it is welcome and stays where it is well treated.
The case that America needs high-skilled immigrants for its technological competition with China is increasingly popular in US tech and science policy circles. For years I’ve argued that openness to immigration is one of America’s greatest strengths vis-à-vis China in terms of technological development. Whereas China has a larger native-born talent base, Silicon Valley is far better at attracting talent from around the world. In the field of artificial intelligence, for example, US has a net gain of human capital between the undergraduate level and post-grad work, according to Macro Polo; China, by contrast, has a net loss.
The nuanced reality, however, makes Wolfe’s position a dangerously paradoxical one. This case for immigration is predicated upon an expanded definition of national security. But this broadened scope of national security, alongside heightened Sinophobia in general, has been responsible for increased scrutiny of Chinese individuals or those with ties to China.
The China Initiative—the Department of Justice’s moniker for its anti-espionage program—under Trump has led to controversial persecutions of ethnic Chinese scientists. While the Biden administration ended the program following accusations of racial profiling, the myriad security legislations intended to curb Beijing’s technological advancement—from the Department of Commerce’s growing list of restricted entities to the semiconductor blockade last year—has effectively incentivized tech firms to run in-house China Initiatives, only without the public oversight.
In recent years, narratives of economic decoupling and arms race legislations have fostered a strong sense of insecurity among Chinese in America. Chinese students and researchers from top US universities are debating where they’d continue their career. It is true that China’s economic stagnation, tightened state control over private industries, and Beijing’s catastrophic insistence on the Zero-Covid Policy in 2022 did turn the tide towards America.
But choosing the US means living precariously. Almost everyone knows someone who, after a family visit, is stuck abroad for months, if not longer, due to visa complications—prolonged administrative processing or rejections that are increasingly common, especially for those working in critical technology sectors. Many have heard stories of researchers being subject to investigations and watch closely the cases of Professor Gang Chen among others. Some have not seen families for years due to risks of being turned away at the border when they return. In some states, the paranoia around China has led to comprehensive bans on Chinese nationals from owning houses—legislations that affect everyone from an actual spy who, for whatever reasons, needs to own a property to carry out espionage, to a Chinese academic in at a Florida university. (One of them is more likely.)
Are Chinese immigrants spies or defectors? American policymakers can’t seem to make up their mind about it. When an increased number of Chinese political refugees crossed the Darién Gap to illegally enter the US border—a life-threatening expedition—due to Beijing’s tightened control, the Republican Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee insisted, without evidence, that “military-age men” were quietly invading the US.
Among high-skilled immigrants there are few “defectors.” What was the last time a Chinese scientist defected abroad? For those with no government ties in the first place, political views aren’t binaries; it shouldn’t be surprising that most highly educated Chinese talent is neither fully supportive of the Chinese government nor an American economic war with it.
Will immigration reform alone address these problems? Perhaps some, but I don’t think it’s structurally possible if the reform adopts a security-centric approach—which further undermines the American openness as part of the nation’s appeal.
After Qian Xuesen’s return to China in 1955, his fellow Caltech scientist Qian Weichang was labeled as a right-winger in his debate with fellow Tsinghua University administrator Jiang Nanxiang, who was much more of an ideologue, during the Anti-Rightist Movement in 1957. Qian Xuesen himself was found killing sparrows during Mao’s Four Pest campaign; as a US repatriate and the husband of a Kuomintang official’s daughter, he survived decades of political turmoils that targeted the intellectual elite.
For those who get to choose, the case for China isn’t that appealing either. Yes, China has a series of programs to lure its expatriates to return—such as the Thousand Talent Plan—but most of them target established academics and scientists, not those earlier in their career. Many Chinese universities still haven’t lifted some of their Covid-era restrictions—including the visitor policy, as far as I’m concerned—which serve as a reminder of the Covid mismanagement in Shanghai and elsewhere. At Chinese universities, international exchange is increasingly seen with suspicion, and political priorities often trump research agenda; those with foreign experience find it harder to obtain jobs in government-related agencies. If anything, there is a dangerous convergence between the US and China towards a security-driven view of technological development.
I suspect that other countries that are not direct antagonists in a potential US-China conflicts will benefit from a floating talent population fed up with both US and Chinese policy. It is true that China and the US are the main players in the most critical sectors—and that the best, brightest, and most ambitious from China will likely still choose between the two powers. But places like the UK, Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong have introduced favorable immigration policy in recent years to lure talent over. Their greatest charm: Immigrants aren’t seen as geopolitical pawns in an increasingly perilous arms race.
The US State Department denied passports for individuals with left-wing associations—this included Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize laureate and an associate of J. Robert Oppenheimer who defended Sidney Weinbaum. See Lawrence Badash, “Science and McCarthyism.” Minerva 38, no. 1 (2000).
Frank Oppenheimer later went back to academia, taking up a professorship at the University of Colorado. He founded the San Francisco Exploratorium in 1969.
I can’t find the blog post anymore; the link’s dead and hasn’t been archived by the Wayback Machine. Thankfully, when I browsed this webpage in 2019, Zotero kept a snapshot of it; here’s a PDF. For more on Malina, see Fraser MacDonald, Escape from Earth: A Secret History of the Space Rocket (2019).
If you think that’s wild, consider the involvement of another member of the “suicide squad,” Jack Parsons, with L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology.