Oppenheimer’s controversial legacy

CIA veteran John Lauder drew on his experience in intelligence and arms control monitoring for a program at the Kent Town Hall Saturday, March 9. Seated is Kent native Sarah Chase, who served as moderator for the discussion.

Leila Hawken

Oppenheimer’s controversial legacy

KENT — The threat and the reality of nuclear proliferation around the world drew the interest of Kent residents presented with a pair of events sponsored by the Kent Memorial Library.

A screening of the Oscar-winning film “Oppenheimer” was held at the library Friday, March 8, well-timed in advance of the Academy Awards programming scheduled for the following Sunday.

The film showing was scheduled as a companion to a talk Saturday, March 9, at the Town Hall that drew an audience of 50 residents to hear CIA veteran John Lauder recount his experience in intelligence and arms control monitoring. Serving as moderator for the program was Kent native Sarah Chase.

Titled “The Oppenheimer Legacy: Nuclear Threats, Deterrence, and Arms Control in Today’s World,” Lauder’s focus, guided by Chase, was just that.

Using the film as a springboard to discussion, and in reply to Chase’s first question, Lauder said that the movie raises new important questions about the impact of the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.

“This will not be a feel-good talk,” Lauder cautioned his audience.

“If Oppenheimer came back, he would be astonished that 80 years have passed and we haven’t blown up the world, nor have we had major conflicts between nuclear powers,” Lauder said.

“It’s still a very scary world,” Lauder noted, adding that with the spread of nuclear capability to other countries including North Korea, Iran, India and others, “a world free of nuclear weapons is now perhaps out of reach in the modern day.”

“It’s not that nuclear war is unimaginable; it is not imagined enough,” he said.

About national security, Lauder said that during the 1980s, when the U.S. and Russia were the sole powers with massive nuclear stockpiles, the state of affairs was “perilous but predictable.”

Now, nuclear weapons have proliferated in other more volatile regions, Lauder explained.

As for artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, they can complicate nuclear deterrence, Lauder said, opening the possibility of tampering with signals that could warn of an impending attack.

“There is good news and bad news in all of these advances,” Lauder warned.

When the floor opened to audience comments and questions, the Kent audience rose to the moment with well-informed questions. Topics included the environmental and health effects surrounding the handling of radioactive materials at Los Alamos in New Mexico, growing global mistrust of government entities, polar divisiveness among peoples, and the threat of nuclear war breaking out because of a mistake or miscalculation.

“I love the town of Kent,” Lauder said of his first visit to the town, noting that he had worn a nuclear physics-themed necktie for the occasion. In conversation following the program, he said that he has another tie from Great Britain depicting swords being beaten into plowshares, but the designer leaves in doubt whether it might be the other way round.

Lauder and Chase are alumni of Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, home of the James A. Garfield Center for Public Leadership, founded by Lauder to prepare students for careers in public service. The center is named for President Garfield, also a Hiram graduate, who served as an early head of school.

Lauder is now associated with the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

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