Oppenheimer: invoking McCarthyism under the banner of rethinking McCarthyism


The entire narrative of the Oppenheimer film is that Oppenheimer had no substantial relationship with the communists, whether American or Spanish, and did not give them information, nor take orders from them.

The narrative, the subtext, is saying that fortunately Oppenheimer was wrongly accused, and that if he had gone one step further, if he did have anything to do with the communists, then his treason would have been well-deserved. Even so, the fact that he slept with a communist and that his brother is a communist are not substantial, but intimate enough relationships to justify his humiliation and isolation.

Not one word of the movie, from beginning to end, explains why communists and those who have substantial relationships with them are guilty. The movie has made this the default knowledge in American society today, and in the “free world” in general, which needs no explanation, just constant repetition and reinforcement.

In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal of Dennis v. United States, a case involving 12 members of the Communist Party of the U.S.A., including General Secretary Eugene Dennis, who had been arrested in 1948, and upheld Attorney General Tom Clarke’s charge that the leaders of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. were guilty by reason of willful intent to destroy the Communist Party of the United States.

That the leaders of the Communist Party of the United States violated the Smith Act by knowingly distributing and teaching Marxist-Leninist classics, such as the Communist Manifesto, “to conspire to advocate the violent overthrow of the government,” and by knowingly forming the Communist Party of the United States with that goal in mind.

The defendants were sentenced for their membership in the Communist Party, for organizing Communist Party rallies, and for advocating the violent overthrow of the United States Government. This case set the tone for the anti-Communist trend of McCarthyism, namely, that the dissemination of Communist ideology constituted a clear and present danger to the American regime and did not fall within the protection of free speech under the First Amendment.

McCarthyism wasn’t such a simple thing in this movie. Just distributed and teached the Communist Manifesto then one was guilty. It was a time when blacks and Jews were subjected to wanton police searches just for walking down the street, immediate arrests, loss of jobs for family and friends, and endless interrogation and persecution just for retrieving a copy of the Communist Manifesto from their person.

As many as 20 million people throughout the United States had been maligned and persecuted, involving the State Department, the Department of Defense, the judicial system, universities, Hollywood, the news media, and various progressive civic organizations. The black movement, the feminist movement, LGBTQ, and other groups also suffered from McCarthyism.

It was the communists who were hardest hit by McCarthyism. By 1955, at least 44 states had passed or amended anti-Communist bills prohibiting the Communist Party of the United States and its subgroups from publicly promoting Marxism-Leninism or organizing public meetings, and violators could be sentenced to life imprisonment or even death in some states. Communists were denied the right to vote in 35 states and the right to teach, lead labor unions, and be licensed to practice law in 13 states.

Forty-one leaders of the Communist Party of the United States were arrested and a total of 145 party members were charged, 108 of whom were convicted. The marathon of proceedings drained the party’s resources and created a climate of fear within which everyone was at risk.

Continuous resignations from the party reduced its members from 60,000 in 1948 to about 24,000 in 1953, and its staff structure continued to age. The foundation of American communism was completely destroyed during McCarthyism, and it has never since been able to become the dominant ideology in American society.

In addition, the social democrats, who were a progressive force, were also devastated by McCarthyism. Eventually, they chose to separate themselves from the communists. McCarthyism succeeded in destroying the united front between communists and social democrats.

Thereafter, the social democrats gradually focused on their respective narrow issue areas, lost their class consciousness, and fell into the trap of identity politics. Since then, there has been no more opposition to the bourgeoisie in the United States, and the road to neoliberalism has been paved ever since.

In June 1957, the Supreme Court, in the appeal of 14 leaders of the California branch of the Communist Party of America (Yates v. United States), held that the teaching of an abstract doctrine, such as Marxism, did not constitute solicitation to commit an unlawful act or conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. This case marked the end of McCarthyism.

The difference between 1951 (Dennis v. United States) and 1957 (Yates v. United States) is that the roots of American communism had been destroyed, and the American progressive left was terrified.

As the movie plays out, at Oppenheimer’s security hearing in 1954, his wife sobbed and confessed that she had been too naive in her youth to be tricked into joining the party by the communists. She found out that the Communist Party wasn’t at all what she thought it was, so she had already quit the party long ago. Even then, she was annoyed that she hadn’t decisively destroyed her party membership card when confronted with pointed questions. This was the effect McCarthyism was trying to achieve: the Oppenheimers were already busy defending their jobs and rushing to draw a line in the sand with the communists.

In this sense, the movie Oppenheimer is actually a cheer for the great achievements of McCarthyism. The true communists had been purged, those associated with them had been punished, and the left no longer dares to talk about any class struggle. This was a great victory for the bourgeoisie and neoliberalism.

During the period of McCarthyism, Hollywood was the friend of the communists. Charlie Chaplin, Bertholt Brecht, Dalton Trumbo, and other progressive literary figures were victims of McCarthyism. Now in Hollywood, Nolan, Robert Downey Jr., and Matt Damon… are swooning over similar movies that welcome McCarthyism. Then they turn around and support the strike organized by SAG-AFTRA. Are they unaware that one of the major outcomes of McCarthyism back then was the effective intimidation of labor unions?

Today, McCarthyism has resurfaced in American politics and society. Acts like the Taiwan Travel Act, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and the Innovation and Competition Act all point towards China. The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a relic from the Cold War era, has been revived to conduct targeting China in ideological domains including academia and media.

All it takes is one positive remark about China without conclusive evidence. For example, in 2020, then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr suggested that Apple should be labeled as a foreign agent due to its “willingness to cooperate with the Communist Party of China.”

Given the current political and societal climate with its anti-Chinese sentiments, it’s important to recognize that Oppenheimer, while appearing to reflect on McCarthyism and some of its implementation flaws, also serves as a mirror to the unjustifiable hostility in American society towards communism.

Some people think that McCarthyism was a traumatic experience for American society and that Americans should learn from the lessons and avoid repeating them. Completely wrong. The ruling class in the United States considered McCarthyism in the 1950s to be a great victory that laid a solid foundation for the triumph of the Cold War and the subsequent rise of neoliberalism.

So, when the U.S. ruling class feels threatened again, they will evoke the memory of history, and once more wield McCarthyism as a weapon to purge their perceived threats, targeting any imaginary enemies – and to punish all those associated with them. That’s the true message of the movie Oppenheimer.

(Source: People’s world, Teen Vogue, History, CD)