Oppenheimer, War Criminal

Oppenheimer and Groves at Ground Zero of the Trinity Site, September, 1945. Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives.

“I don’t think that your father ever met Oppenheimer,” my mother told me the other day. I can’t ask my father, since he died last year, at 90 years of age. My father was a subatomic particle physicist. He devoted most of his career to Fermilab, where he helped design the magnets that accelerated protons in one direction and antiprotons in the other direction around a 6.28 km ring called the Tevatron.

In its heyday, Fermilab hosted physicists from around the world. During the 1970s, even physicists from the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China worked there. Apparently, there are no military applications (yet) for this sort of high-energy particle physics.

My father had been thirteen years old when the U.S. dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. His immediate family, who lived by the train station, happened to be scattered far enough from Ground Zero that they survived. Of course, branches of his extended family (and my mother’s extended family) were pruned that day.

As a young physicist coming of age in the 1950s and 60s, he had met many of the scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project. My father greatly admired his boss, Robert Rathbun Wilson, the first director of the National Accelerator Laboratory (later renamed Fermilab), who had led the Cyclotron Program at Los Alamos. Wilson was a Quaker and had opposed the use of the atom bomb on civilians in Japan.

For much of my life, I wondered why my father had chosen a career in physics, when the field seemed tainted by so many of its leading lights having devoted their energies to creating the world’s first weapon of mass destruction. When I finally asked him about it, he replied rather succinctly, “I like gadgets.” (What he actually told me was that he liked kikai, machines or gadgets in Japanese.)

I was reminded that when I was a child, my father would buy me plastic model sets of WWII Japanese warships or warplanes. He would extol the utility of the air-cooled engines of the Japanese Zero fighter plane. I suppose that, in the end, he was not terribly bothered by the depredations of early 20th century Imperial Japan. Perhaps for him, the atom bomb was largely a matter of superior U.S. science and technology.

My father wanted me to become a physicist, too, and I gave it the old college try. I found it too difficult, however, especially the math. However, I also had a nagging feeling that from the time of the Manhattan Project onward, that advances in the field were being put to nefarious uses.

Perhaps I am being overly harsh about 20th century nuclear physics in particular. We could also point to how the harnessing of fossil fuel since the industrial age has led to the present climate catastrophe. We could point to the dangers of gain-of-function synthetic biology research or artificial intelligence.

Perhaps the problem is, as pointed out by Jacques Ellul, the role of technique in the atrocities of our age. He defines technique as “the totality of methods, rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity”1 (Ellul 1964, p. xxv, italics in original).

Neither “science” nor technique are moral actors. Individuals are. At this juncture, our eyes are upon one particular historical figure. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer hews closely to the biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin and paints a sympathetic portrait. One might even say that it is a heroic portrait, for was Prometheus not a god?

Nolan’s assertion that Oppenheimer “was the most important person who ever lived” challenges us to think through whether we agree with him or not. Certainly, he was a polymath. Nolan depicts him delivering a lecture in Dutch and reading the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit. While he was born into wealth, he sympathized with causes such as desegregation and that of the anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Because it was the Communist Party of the U.S.A. that championed such causes in Berkeley in the 1930s, Oppenheimer became entwined with party members during that period.

However, once he was chosen to head the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was intent on embodying loyalty to the U.S. government, at one point donning a U.S. Army uniform. Focused on the success of the project, he squelched opposition on the part of some of the scientists to the use of the atom bomb on civilian targets.

He was a member of the Scientific Panel that advised the Interim Committee, the committee of government, academic, and capitalist officials that, in turn, advised Truman about the use of the atom bombs. The Scientific Panel consisted of Enrico Fermi, Arthur H. Compton, Ernest O. Lawrence, and Oppenheimer. Their final recommendations read as follows:

Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons
(by the Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee, June 16, 1945)

You have asked us to comment on the initial use of the new weapon. This use, in our opinion, should be such as to promote a satisfactory adjustment of our international relations. At the same time, we recognize our obligation to our nation to use the weapons to help save American lives in the Japanese war.

(1) To accomplish these ends we recommend that before the weapons are used not only Britain, but also Russia, France, and China be advised that we have made considerable progress in our work on atomic weapons, and that we would welcome suggestions as to how we can cooperate in making this development contribute to improved international relations.

(2) The opinions of our scientific colleagues on the initial use of these weapons are not unanimous: they range from the proposal of a purely technical demonstration to that of the military application best designed to induce surrender. Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects, in that they are more concerned with the prevention of war than with the elimination of this specific weapon. We find ourselves closer to these latter views; we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.

(3) With regard to these general aspects of the use of atomic energy, it is clear that we, as scientific men, have no proprietary rights. It is true that we are among the few citizens have had occasion to give thoughtful consideration to these problems during the past few years. We have, however, no claim to special competence in solving the political, social, and military problems which are presented by the advent of atomic power. 2

The reference to “those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons” is presumably to the scientists who signed Hungarian physicist  Leó Szilárd’s petition, which argued “that such attacks on Japan could not be justified, at least not until the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender.” 3 Szilárd circulated the petition during the summer of 1945 mostly among scientists at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago. He asked Edwin Teller to circulate it in Los Alamos, but Teller turned it over to Oppenheimer, who in turn turned it over to Leslie Groves. Groves stamped it “classified” and put it in a safe. It therefore never reached Truman.

Thus, four eminent physicists (Fermi, Compton, Lawrence, and Oppenheimer), all except Oppenheimer Nobel Prize laureates, told the U.S. government that they saw “no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

On August 6, 1945 Truman announced, “Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base,” but this was a lie. All the planners knew that Hiroshima was occupied mostly by civilians.

Throughout the course of history, there was a gradual development of the idea that the killing of non-combatants was immoral. Starting in the late 19th century, such ideals were codified in international treaties. Thus, the Hague Convention of 1899, twenty-six nations (including Germany, Japan, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.) signed the Convention with respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Article 25 of which states

The attack or bombardment of towns, villages, habitations or buildings which are not defended, is prohibited.4

Of course, by 1945, most of the warring states involved in WWII had violated this convention. Japan began bombing Chongqing in 1938. Air assault was a facet of Nazi Germany’s blitzkrieg. The British and the U.S. bombed German cities. The U.S. Army Air Forces had reduced most Japanese cities to rubble by August 1945.

In the aftermath of WWI, particularly odious weapons of war had been outlawed by the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare (the Geneva Protocol).

Violations of the laws of war are considered to be war crimes. In the aftermath of WWII, Nazi government officials were tried for war crimes at the Nuremberg trials. Officials of the Imperial Japanese government were tried at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. War crimes committed by the victorious states were, of course, never considered to be war crimes at all. As Walter Benjamin noted,

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.5

Was Oppenheimer a war criminal? In a moment of contrition, Oppenheimer bemoaned the blood on his hands to Truman. For his part, Truman later noted, he hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have. Of course, Truman was the true war criminal. Were the members of the Scientific Panel mere yes-men? The “just following orders” defense did not work so well for the Nuremburg defendants. While Oppenheimer, as “the father of the atom bomb,” might have provided the U.S. military with the means of mass destruction – consider how Wernher von Braun, the physicist who led Nazi Germany’s rocketry program was treated after Germany’s defeat. Von Braun was whisked out of Europe and would eventually lead the U.S. Army rocketry program. Eventually, nuclear bombs were placed on rockets, becoming intercontinental ballistic missiles. The point is that von Braun was not treated as a war criminal. If Nazi scientists had been successful in constructing an atom bomb, they probably would not have been treated as war criminals either.

As the promoter of the new physics of the quantum on the Berkely campus, as the Bohemian who treated his guests to strong martinis and nasi goreng, as an opponent of segregation and fascism in Spain – Oppenheimer cut something of a countercultural figure. He funded the extrication of Jewish people from Nazi-occupied Europe. His commitment to the socialist cause turned out to be superficial, however.

From 2020 to 2022 the BBC aired a podcast about early atomic history. Season 1 focused on Leó Szilárd, the Hungarian Jew émigré physicist who opposed the dropping of the bomb on civilians. Season 2 focused on Klaus Fuchs, the committed Communist German émigré physicist who passed nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. As a young man, he fought in the streets with Nazis, was thrown into a fjord, and left for dead. We are introduced to the idea that Soviet possession of nuclear weapons prevented the U.S. from continuing to freely utilize its own nuclear weapons in warfare. (Utilizing nuclear weapons on experiments on Marshallese being another story.)  In another BBC In Our Time podcast on the Manhattan Project that aired in 2021, British physicist Frank Close suggests specifically that the Soviet possession of the bomb might have specifically prevented U.S. hawks from deploying nuclear weapons in the Korean War. No, proliferation is not good, but the U.S. being in sole possession of the bomb didn’t work out so well for the people of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Perhaps in the U.S. we are excessively wont to only look for our heroes among U.S. Americans.


1. Ellul, Jacques (1964) The Technological Society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

2Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee. Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons. June 16, 1945. http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/pre-cold-war/interim-committee/interim-committee-recommendations_1945-06-16.htm

3Szilárd, Leó. A Petition to the President of the United States. July 17, 1945. https://ahf.nuclearmuseum.org/ahf/key-documents/szilard-petition/

4Laws of War : Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague II); July 29, 1899. https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/hague02.asp

5Benjamin, Walter. On the Concept of History. https://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html

Seiji Yamada, a native of Hiroshima, is a family physician practicing and teaching in Hawaii.