Oppenheimer's Guilt And The Tragedy Of The Atom Bomb

Oppenheimer's Guilt And The Tragedy Of The Atom Bomb
The life of the putative father of the atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, is explored in great depth in the three-hour long eponymous biopic which is now being screened worldwide. The film brings to life one of the 20th century's most important and controversial scientists.

I first heard of his name in my physics classes at the Adamjee Science College in Karachi in the late 1960s. That is where I also heard the names of many physicists who appear in the film or whose names are mentioned in it: Albert Einstein, Ernest Lawrence, Enrico Fermi, and Neil Bohr, just to name a few.

But I knew little about his life until I saw the film. He emerges as a man who was born and raised in New York and who went on to become a theoretical physicist because he was no good in the lab. Oppenheimer studied at the best institutions in the US and Europe and was justifiably proud of his intellectual skills. When someone referred to Albert Einstein as the greatest scientist of the time, he corrected him, saying that Einstein was the greatest scientist of his time nearly two decades ago.

Oppenheimer was not your typical physicist. He was a man with a wide range of interests that spanned women, leftist politics and languages. He learned Sanskrit so that he could read the sacred Hindu text, Bhagavad Gita, in the original script.

During the Second World War, Hitler posed a big threat to the Western powers as did Japan. Germany had many excellent physicists and there was a fear they would develop the atom bomb for Hitler. But, as Oppenheimer opined: Hitler was very antisemitic and many of the scientists in Germany were of Jewish origins. So, there was hope but no guarantee that Hitler would not get the dreaded weapon in time.

After a careful screening process, Oppenheimer was appointed to head the top-secret Manhattan Project, charged with building an atom bomb. He picked a remote site in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atom bomb would be built. He had owned a ranch in that desolate part of the US and was familiar with the terrain. Oppenheimer had hoped the bomb would be used against Hitler, and so had Einstein. But before that could happen, Hitler committed suicide just as Berlin was about to fall to the Soviets.

Attention now turned to Japan. The hardliners in Washington, headed by President Truman, were concerned that Japan would not surrender unless it was hit with an atom bomb. He and his advisors weighed the pros and cons of hitting a Japanese city where thousands of civilians who had done no harm to the US would be killed.

Once the bomb had been successfully tested at a site called Trinity near Los Alamos, a decision was made to drop it from a B-29 on Hiroshima, supposedly to save American and, yes, even Japanese lives.

Oppenheimer was fully aware of the role he had played in the bomb’s development and the devastation it would unleash on innocent civilians. But there is no evidence he objected to its use over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945.

In the film, no footage is provided of the devastation unleashed on the innocent people of Hiroshima when it exploded in the air above them at 8:45 am. The horrifying images, preserved for generations at the museum in Hiroshima, never make it to the screen.

In the movie, we see a man who is not just haunted by the past but a man who is overcome with paranoia about the future of the human race

How could Oppenheimer not have known what the bomb did to the Japanese? How could he have missed the strong condemnations it drew in the US, which are documented here and here? None of this is shown in the film.

On 7 August, the day after, General Douglas MacArthur, who would later accept the Japanese surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, said he was “appalled and depressed by this Frankenstein monster.” Later, he would say, that there was “no military justification for the dropping of the bomb.”

On 8 August, before the second bomb was dropped over Nagasaki, former President Herbert Hoover wrote, “The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul.”

John Foster Dulles, who would serve as Secretary of State under President Eisenhower, urged President Truman to forgo additional use of the new weapon because it carried out “indiscriminate obliteration of human beings.”

“If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals,” said US Air Force General Curtis LeMay. “We had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages,” Fleet Admiral William Leahy, chair of the chiefs of staff under both presidents Roosevelt and Truman, wrote in his autobiography, I Was There. Admiral Chester W Nimitz, the commander in chief of the US Pacific fleet, insisted that the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and just three days later over Nagasaki were “of no material assistance in our war against Japan.” The official Strategic Bombing Surveys in 1946 concluded that “Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped.”

Years later, in 1963, former President Dwight Eisenhower, who was the Allied commander in Europe during World War II, recalled that in July 1945 he had opposed using the atomic bomb on Japan during a meeting with Secretary of War Henry Stimson: "[...] I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon." He said they were “completely unnecessary” and “no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.” In his memoir, The White House Years, Eisenhower would write that he had “grave misgivings” about the morality of the bombings.

As the first explosion took place at Trinity, according to some accounts, he is believed to have said, “Now, I am become death: the destroyer of the worlds”

These statements must have haunted Oppenheimer for years and for decades. While awake, he must have been assailed with doubts about what he had done. While asleep, he must have been racked with nightmares.

In the movie, we see a man who is not just haunted by the past but a man who is overcome with paranoia about the future of the human race. He keeps on saying that it’s just a matter of time before the Soviets develop their atomic bomb and the pressure mounts on the US to develop the hydrogen bomb, a weapon that would be several times more devastating than the atom bomb. Sure enough, that day came to pass. It was tested in November 1952 under the leadership of Edward Teller.

Years later, Albert Einstein would comment: “Mankind invented the atomic bomb, but no mouse would ever construct a mousetrap.”

Oppenheimer died at the young age of 62 from throat cancer, leaving behind a burning legacy. There is no doubt he was a brilliant scientist and that he did a remarkable job administering and managing a team of egotistical and mercurial physicists at Los Alamos. Without him, the atom bomb might not have been developed for years.

The movie then shifts to showing another aspect of his life. He had leftist sympathies and the hawks in the US political circles did their best to discredit him for being a communist and a Soviet agent. The inquiries to besmirch his name dragged on for years. Ultimately, his loyalty was accepted but his security clearance was revoked. Decades later, it would be restored posthumously during the Biden administration.

He may have been a loyal American citizen, a man of integrity, a brilliant physicist and an amazing administrator. But history is not going to be kind to him. It is unlikely to absolve him of the sin of developing a weapon the likes of which the world had never seen and a weapon which would be used not once but twice to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children, some immediately, some years later, and some decades later. In addition to those who died, there were hundreds of thousands of others, if not millions, whose lives were devastated.

Eventually, as Oppenheimer had feared, the Soviets developed their own atomic bomb in 1949, and in 1953, their own hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer had kindled a fire that no one could put out. It did not stop there. The weapon went on to trigger a never-ending arms race between the US and the USSR that was increasingly dangerous and expensive.

If all the billions and billions being spent on nuclear weapons had instead been spent on human and social development, the quality of life of the world’s 8 billion residents today would have been so much better.

Of course, the arms race did not remain confined to the US and the USSR. In 1952, the UK exploded its first atomic bomb. France followed suit in 1960 and China in 1964. In 1966, Israel is believed to have tested its first atomic bomb. In 1974, India exploded its first atomic bomb, just miles away from the border with Pakistan. The operation, for reasons best known to the Indians, was named “Smiling Buddha.” In 1998, India went on to explode five atomic bombs. Pakistan, always anxious to do a one-up on India, exploded six. Today, the list of countries that are on the verge of developing nuclear weapons extends to Iran and North Korea.

Oppenheimer passed away in 1967 of throat cancer, aged only 62. He must have been a deeply troubled man, seeing that he had opened the veritable Pandora’s Box. Atomic creatures were flying uncontrolled from continent to continent, terrorising and threatening humanity on every continent.

But what he had once said to Einstein on the shores of a lake in Princeton, New Jersey, may yet come to pass. There, even before the first atomic bomb had been tested, a pensive Oppenheimer had confided to Einstein that the atomic bomb could set off a chain reaction, setting the entire globe on fire.

As the first explosion took place at Trinity, according to some accounts, he is believed to have said, “Now, I am become death: the destroyer of the worlds.” The fact that it did not happen in his life does not mean that it will not happen in our lives.

California’s former governor, Jerry Brown, and former Defense Secretary William Perry put it in plain English just three years ago, “A nuclear war that could end civilisation – whether it is started intentionally or accidentally – is a real possibility… We now face a true emergency – an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error. We ask world leaders to join us in 2020 as we work to pull humanity back from the brink without any further delay. The Doomsday Clock now stands at 100 seconds to midnight, in what is arguably the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced. Now is the time to come together – to unite and to act.”

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui