Oppenheimer, The Bomb, And Freedom

How far would you go to protect your country? Is there such a thing as going too far? Our collective history changed irreversibly when, on July 16, 1945, the first nuclear bomb was detonated near Alamogordo in New Mexico. At the helm of the most unique grouping of scientists and engineers ever assembled was the enigmatic J. Robert Oppenheimer, a brilliant theoretical physicist more at ease with equations and ideas than with the practicalities of making weapons. And yet, for a few years, he masterminded a huge operation that culminated with the invention of nuclear weapons.

This is how Oppenheimer expressed himself after the blast:

“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 Bhagavad-Gita... "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Later, in 1948, he declared that “Physicists have known sin.” No other scientist in history best personifies the complicated relationship between science and ethics.

Before the war, Oppenheimer was one of the pioneers of black hole physics and had obtained several seminal results in quantum mechanics. He trained with the best in Europe and came back to be a leader of the still nascent theoretical physics effort in the US. As a professor at UC Berkeley and Caltech, he tutored the first generation of American theoretical physicists. He had the respect of the best in the world, including Einstein and Bohr. From the government’s standpoint, his only “stain” was a possible involvement with the communist party. Later on, this would greatly complicate Oppenheimer’s life, as it was used by his enemies to destroy him. In the 1950s, during McCarthyism, this connection was distorted to remove his clearance and to demote him from the directorship of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Behind the scenes was another physicist, Edward Teller, who vehemently opposed Oppenheimer’s anti-proliferation policy. There is no doubt that the scientists who worked at the Manhattan Project did so as a response to the widespread fears that Hitler was after an atomic bomb. The possibility that the Nazis could have a bomb was terrifying. We see echoes of our own fears today of having bombs in the hands of highly unstable totalitarian regimes. However, with the German defeat, and after the tragic use of the bombs against a civilian population in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most physicists working at Los Alamos changed their views. To Oppenheimer, the development of hydrogen fusion bombs, hundreds of times more powerful than the fission bombs then available, was immoral and utterly unnecessary.

Not so for Teller, a Hungarian with strong anti-Soviet views. To him, it was a matter of time before the Soviets had their fusion bomb. And the thought of Stalin with thermonuclear weapons was also terrifying. To Teller, only a country with a huge stockpile of weapons would be safe. An all-out nuclear conflagration was a war without winners and hence unthinkable.

In 1952, the US started the development of the H-bomb. Oppenheimer, mysteriously, joined in, perhaps to control (deter?) its development. Soon he started to oppose the project. Teller wouldn’t allow it. In 1953, a report to the Congress stated that “quite possibly Oppenheimer was a Soviet agent.” Although there wasn’t any incriminating evidence, an investigation followed, where many scientists made their voices heard. The Nobel Prize winner I. I. Rabi, an Oppenheimer supporter, declared: “You already have many types of bombs. What else do you want? You are writing a man’s life.”

The pledges didn’t work. A hero of the Second World War, considered by many as the man who finished the war and gave America its dominant role in world affairs during the decades that followed it, was disgraced in 1954, when he lost his clearance. As is usually the case with those that feed from people’s fears and insecurities, Teller had the last word.

In 1995, Hans Bethe, another integrant of the Manhattan Project and one of the leading physicists of the twentieth century pledged with their colleagues: “I ask the scientists of all countries to stop working in the development of nuclear weapons or any weapons of mass destruction.” But as we know well, the research continues and the fears keep running high. This week, Iran just turned on its first nuclear reactor.

It’s true that the détente policy has worked: Nagasaki’s was the last nuclear bombing. However, any policy that depends on the stability of the technology and of those who operate the stockpiles, as Stanley Kubrick reminds us in his brilliant satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), is intrinsically dangerous. There has to be a better way. No country needs thousands of active nuclear bombs to defend itself.

It’s commonplace to talk about the price of freedom when trying to justify the use of force. However, one ought to question the good of an ideology founded precisely on what it opposes.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.