Guest Essayist: James P. Pinkerton


Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


The new movie Oppenheimer offers us a window into the past: Into a key moment in the evolution of our national defense—and along the way, the film underscores the importance of fending off treason.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution, steeped as they were in history, knew all about the danger a nation faced from betrayal. In particular, the Catilinarian Conspiracy of the ancient Roman Republic loomed large in their minds, such that in the 18th century, “Catiline” became synonymous with “traitor.” Yet that same knowledge of history told the Americans that oftentimes in the past, mere dissent, peaceful and legitimate, had been labeled as treachery, the easier to crush the dissenters. So Article Three, Section Three, of the Constitution carefully circumscribes the offense; it declares that treason “shall consist only in levying War against [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” Explaining this narrowly constructed language in The Federalist Papers, the essays aimed at encouraging the ratification of the Constitution, James Madison wrote, “Artificial treasons have been the great engines by which violent factions . . .  have usually wreaked their alternate malignity on each other.” That is, bad regimes were too easily tempted to label troublemakers as traitors. Seeking to reassure Americans that their rights and liberties would be protected, Madison pledged that the Constitution establishes “a barrier to this peculiar danger, by inserting a constitutional definition of the crime, fixing the proof necessary for conviction of it, and restraining the Congress, even in punishing it, from extending the consequences of guilt beyond the person of its author.” In other words, no overbroad definition of treason, and no collective punishment—no reigns of terror—for the acts of an individual.

The Constitution’s sense of moderation and due process informs the new movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., which developed the atomic bomb during World War Two. Oppenheimer was a scientific genius blessed with, in addition, great skills of organization and leadership. And he was also at least something of a communist. Thus the paradox in the film: Oppenheimer was needed for national defense, and he was also a potential security threat.

Beyond any reasonable doubt, the atomic bomb has been vital to defending America and protecting American lives. During World War Two, there was reason to believe that Nazi Germany was building an atomic weapon, and we had to have the bomb before Hitler. And even after that satanic regime was crushed, the other enemy, Japan, was still fighting, still killing Americans; the Okinawa campaign of April-June 1945 led to the death of some 12,500 GIs, as well as more than 110,000 Japanese. Yet despite these terrible defeats, Japan showed no inclination to give up its hopeless fight—until the U.S. used atomic bombs in August 1945. The carnage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki notwithstanding, Japan’s surrender saved hundreds of thousands of American lives, and many millions of Japanese lives. To illustrate the depths of the challenge the U.S. faced, in 1946, Karl Compton, president the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported on his conversation with a Japanese military officer who suggested that were it not for the intervening surrender, every Japanese would have died combating Americans. “We would have kept on fighting until all Japanese were killed, but we would not have been defeated,” the officer told Compton. The population of Japan at the time was 77 million.

So Oppenheimer was a hero of our national defense, just as Americans were heroes for mobilizing the resources needed to build the bomb. The Manhattan Project employed a total of 610,000 Americans. And some of those Americans were traitors, spies for the Soviet Union. Only after World War Two, with the onset of the Cold War against the Soviets, did we discover the espionage of such figures as Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass, and Ted Hall. All had worked at Los Alamos under Oppenheimer.  Fuchs and Greenglass were tried, convicted, and imprisoned—but in both cases, for less than a decade (Fuchs served his time in Britain). As for Hall, he was stripped of his security clearance, but allowed to continue his career as a physicist.

This pattern of treachery, of course, reflected on Oppenheimer himself. In 1954, after a quasi-judicial proceeding lasting two months—complete with witnesses to be examined and cross-examined by lawyers—Oppenheimer was stripped of his security clearance. Yet even so, he was free to live his life; he wrote a book, lectured widely, toured the world (although not the USSR or any other communist country), and even received an award from President Lyndon Johnson in 1963. He died in 1967.

So we can see: The Constitution’s carefully crafted words about treason—and the overall tone of restraint applied to the charge—prevented any of these convicts and suspects from drastic punishments.  (Other spies of that era were treated more harshly.)

The freedoms accorded to us by the Constitution have made us prosperous, of course, in no small part because liberty makes the U.S. a magnet for talent from around the world—four of the top Manhattan Project scientists were born in Hungary, and none of them were spies. Those strengths give us the capacity to build wonder-weapons such as the atomic bomb. And yet that same freedom makes it harder for us to keep secret our secrets.

So this is our Republic: If we can keep it.

James P. Pinkerton worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in their 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. In 2008, he served as a senior adviser to Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign. From 1996 to 2016, he was a Contributor to the Fox News Channel. A frequent contributor to Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and The American Conservative, he is a senior fellow at the America First Policy Institute. He is finishing a book on directional investment.

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