“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds!”
The much-extolled biopic, Oppenheimer, begins with these words, uttered just after the first nuclear explosive device was successfully tested on July 16, 1945, in a barren, uninhabited area of the state of New Mexico -- named such by the Spanish Conquistadores Jornada del Muerto (translated roughly as the path of the dead). The film is the most sophisticated and sombre film biography I have ever seen, and an appropriately sombre and complicated depiction of one of the most brilliant and complicated men in American history, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “Father” of the atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer wrote these words in his journal sometime after he had witnessed Trinity, the first test of nuclear power, certainly realising the effort he had led since 1942 would lead to the first use of a new and fearsome weapon of war many times more powerful and deadly than had ever been seen or used before. In fact, two bombs were used less than a month later. The conduct of war suddenly became infinitely more complicated and consequential than had ever been contemplated, as had the statecraft of international relations and the duty of science to protect human life itself.
Oppenheimer, a polymath if there ever was one, wrote in his journal, “We walked out of the shelter, and then it was extremely solemn. We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed; a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhavadad-Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, he takes on his multiarmed form and says, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or the other.”
This is a perfect version of the Prometheus legend in which he steals fire from the Gods and gives to human technology, knowledge, and civilisation
The film has two parts; the first part begins when he is a young man and runs quickly through the early years of a polymath, a high-flying academic wunderkind who was sought by the finest of academic institutions, to whom everything seemed to come very easy. It runs basically through the years leading up to the Trinity test and the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The second half is the fall of Oppenheimer from political and popular favour after WW2. This is a perfect version of the Prometheus legend in which he steals fire from the Gods and gives to human technology, knowledge, and civilisation; and for his transgression against the Gods as well as his sympathy for humanity, Prometheus is condemned to eternal torment. As with Prometheus’ punishment, Oppenheimer’s fall from grace stems clearly from the soft side of his nature, illustrated by his writings of concern about the future of humanity after the Trinity test and his political behaviour from about the time he landed at Berkeley.
There is also his political emphasis on left-wing concerns, social reform, the rise of fascism, and other issues that were also concerns of the American communists during the great depression of the 1930s, when the communist movement attracted many American intellectuals. To even have flirted with communism became, however, after the end of WW2 and the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, a serious political problem. This was the period known as McCarthyism, a very dark period in American history in which Oppenheimer became a victim as well.
From the movie, as well as from the serious reading I have done on the subject of creating this mega-weapon, it is clear to me that, after the Trinity test, for the rest of his life, Oppenheimer was torn between pride in his intensely difficult accomplishment of building the bomb and guilt for being instrumental in building it. That he led the team that built, in a remarkably short time, the weapon that changed the world forever and which stopped WW2 abruptly, saving at least a million lives, was something to be proud of. But, on the other hand, he could not escape feeling guilty for having brilliantly led the effort to produce a weapon so terrible, the power of which could be magnified many times and even, theoretically at least, destroy the world.
Physicists throughout the Western world understood when WW2 began that such a bomb could be constructed, but it would be far from easy, very expensive, and take a very long time. Those who worked on it were almost uniformly motivated by Nazi Germany’s known bomb programme, led by the celebrated German physicist Werner Heisenberg. The Nazis had abandoned it, considering it too difficult and expensive to make a difference before the end they envisioned of the war. This was unknown to the West.
Oppenheimer was a clearly uniquely talented man whose interests stretched across science and the humanities in almost equal proportion
The movie makes clear that though he did not look it, Oppenheimer was a singular individual, blessed with a wealth of both acute scientific knowledge, ability, and insight on the one hand and leadership ability on the other. He was certainly one of the few men, if not the only one, who could have succeeded in less than three years in accomplishing the task of bringing a conceptual bomb to reality from nothing more than theoretical suspicion and a diverse scattering of experimental multinational scientific breakthroughs.
The guilt seemed to grow after the successful test and, probably, even more after the bomb was used twice in the space of just a few days – on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When he was taken to meet President Truman soon after the war, he blurted out, “Mr. President, I feel that I have blood on my hands,” a statement that infuriated Truman, who had not even known about the bomb project until he had succeeded to the office on the death of Franklin Roosevelt. The president probably imagined some slur on his decision to use the bomb. He had actually made the political decision to use the bomb to end the war despite serious pushback from parts of his administration and the scientific community that wanted an effort to find a way to use the knowledge of the bomb and its terrible power to persuade Japan to surrender. There is a scene in the movie of the meeting with Truman, which I felt should have portrayed Truman more sympathetically.
One doesn’t come across a theoretical physicist who can quote Sanskrit scripture from memory very often. Oppenheimer was a clearly uniquely talented man whose interests stretched across science and the humanities in almost equal proportion. Some of his friends thought he was actually more drawn to mysticism than to strictly scientific pursuits, and his knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita is evidence of that. He had learned to read Hindi as a young man in order to read it in its original language. He is known to have told people that this Hindi mythical work had greatly influenced his philosophy of life.
I believe that Oppenheimer was sympathetic to the idea of using the bomb as a threat. But it is my understanding that his statement, which alienated Truman, was not meant to criticise the president’s decision.
From the film, this duality in his intellect can be seen, if not fully understood. His brilliance in theoretical physics was one reason he was able to manage the large, complicated mission that was the Manhattan Project — the building of the bomb. This is, for the most part, given little space in the film, and there is little reference to his many achievements as an academic in the science of physics, especially the fields of quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and the theory of electrons and positrons. Perhaps the most lasting will be his early contributions to the theory of neutron stars and black holes, which some scholars believe would have led to the Nobel Prize in Physics if he had lived long enough for these early papers to have led to the modern, sophisticated work that is now going on. Yet his relationship to physics was, evidently, not full-blooded. He made no secret that he did not like lab work and much of his contribution to science came in the form of what one friend called “apercus,” which are brief surveys or intuitive insights.
Oppenheimer, it appears to me, is as much a victim of his own nature as of a society whose politics have changed dramatically to toxic for those inclined towards the left
The film’s two parts are both connected to the duality of his intellect. The first part, his great success at leading the Manhattan Project to success much sooner than most other scientists, seems to have largely connected to his brilliance at science and physics. This beginning part also focuses on the growth of his political beliefs and behaviour, which became another part of his persona and is largely connected to the second half of the movie.
In the second part, moviegoers see Oppenheimer acting on his guilty feelings by working politically to try to get an agreement for an international agency to control all international nuclear matters in the belief that this would make proliferation subject to international controls. He made many political enemies by opposing and working against the proposal to build a “super bomb,” a thermonuclear Hydrogen bomb. He was not on the winner’s side on either issue. The policy of working internationally for non-proliferation was imploding due in part to Soviet recalcitration but in part also to American recalculation caused by a perception, perhaps a reality of threat as the Cold War bloomed.
The second part of the film is the sad part, not only because it depicts how shortsightedness drove the international community to miss some opportunities to build barriers to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but also because it depicts the slow defenestration of an admirable man who is trapped by his own nature that cannot stop feeling guilty over creating a monster weapon and yet pride in having been able to manage its creation because of inherent talent. Oppenheimer, it appears to me, is as much a victim of his own nature as of a society whose politics have changed dramatically to toxic for those inclined towards the left.
The Friday Times readers will wonder if this film has anything to say to South Asians. Of course, there is the Pakistan-India connection – because its two largest countries are nuclear powers with their arsenals aimed at each other and frequent threats to use them. Readers should once again reflect on how much better things would be if the non-proliferation efforts of Oppenheimer and many others had not been scrapped because of Cold War jitters on all sides, neither country possessed a nuclear arsenal.
What I find interesting, however, is that South Asian mysticism has been part of the intellectual structure since the beginning of the nuclear era.
Perhaps this fact is exemplified by a quote that Oppenheimer wrote in a journal two days before the Trinity test, evidently worried about his historical legacy if the test worked. This quotation from a fifth century Hindu linguistic philosopher, Bhartrhari:
In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him