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21 July 2023

Oppenheimer, from the Atomic Bomb to Pacifism

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“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” In 1965, in the middle of the Cold War and with nuclear tests at their peak, NBC television broadcast the documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb. The film went back two decades to dissect the historical moment in which the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Famous color photograph of the “Trinity” shot, the first nuclear test explosion. Credit: Federal government of the United States

One of the fathers of this invention, the physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904 – February 18, 1967), appeared before the camera—aged, already retired and affected by throat cancer, which would cause his death just two years later. Emotional, Oppenheimer remembered July 16, 1945, the day of the Trinity test, the first-ever nuclear explosion, which he had contributed to creating. That phrase that came to mind then, taken from the sacred Hindu book Bhagavad Gita, has survived until today as his most celebrated quotation.

Oppenheimer’s words are often remembered as an illustrative synthesis of the vital process of a scientist who devoted his talent to developing the deadliest weapon ever invented by humans, and then embarked on a pacifist crusade that would last until the end of his days. A superficial interpretation would speak of remorse and the search for redemption. But the truth is that in more than two decades working for nuclear peace, the physicist never once said that he regretted building the bomb or recommending its use against Japan. How is Oppenheimer’s metamorphosis to be understood? Was there really one?

Accused of communist

Oppenheimer was the first and brilliant offspring of a wealthy Jewish family in New York, not religious but firmly rooted in the principles of ethical culture. A graduate of Harvard, his passing through Europe, Caltech and the University of California at Berkeley left a trail of valuable work in a broad spectrum of fields of theoretical physics; but there was also a flirtation with leftist organizations that put him in the spotlight. When in 1942 he was recruited for the Manhattan Project to make the atomic bomb as the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, the FBI had already been investigating his political activities for a year.

The father of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer in 1946. Credit: Ed Westcott

Witnesses to the first result of that work, the Trinity test, reported that Oppenheimer’s reaction during the test was simply that of relief and satisfaction, and that he exclaimed: “It worked!” But only 11 days after the bombing of Hiroshima, on August 17, 1945, he expressed in writing to the US government his desire for nuclear weapons to be banned. Two months later he would tell President Harry S. Truman that blood was on his hands.

Thus began for Oppenheimer a new career, that of apostle for nuclear disarmament, which sprang from his new post as president of the General Advisory Committee of the US Atomic Energy Commission. This commitment, coupled with his political convictions, led him to testify in 1954 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, during the so-called witch-hunt promoted by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Oppenheimer recognized no affiliation with any communist organizations, but there was some sympathy on his part. As a result, his security privileges were revoked and he was condemned to political ostracism.

A real pacifist

For all this, it is curious that in his final years Oppenheimer affirmed that, had he been able to go back, he would have done everything exactly the same, and that he did not regret having contributed to the success of the bomb. But the key to this apparent contradiction may lie in those words that have passed into history, and in how the Hindu philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita was a powerful influence on the thinking of the physicist from a young age.

Oppenheimer, on the left, receives Enrico Fermi award. Credit: Energy Government US

In the full quotation, Oppenheimer uttered that phrase by explaining its context: “Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ ” In 2000, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth history professor James A. Hijiya wrote a lucid essay trying to explain how Oppenheimer interpreted that passage: Vishnu wants to convince Prince Arjuna that he must go to war, something that he refuses because it would involve killing his own relatives and friends. But Vishnu convinces him that he cannot shun that duty greater than he—it is his obligation, and it is not in his hand to choose. In the end, Arjuna goes to war.

Oppenheimer, Hijiya concluded, did not see himself as Vishnu. He did not arrogate the role of a god. He was Arjuna, the prince destined to fulfill that unavoidable duty, a terrible test for a pacifist who had always been one, both before and after the bomb.

Javier Yanes 

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