Splitting the Atom, Threatening the World: The American Tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer

A person in a suit and tie Description automatically generated

Robert Oppenheimer, 1944. Unknown photographer. Public Domain.

Prologue

The movie Oppenheimer (Universal 2023) startled and pleased me immensely. It was a great cinematic achievement. The blinding white light and almighty rumbling thunder in the music and in the mind of Oppenheimer frightened me. The atom in Greek means that which cannot be cut. But splitting it was potentially splitting the world, destroying the Cosmos. That’s what frightened me. Splitting the atom was an extremely dangerous revolution on how humans treat the Earth, their sole home in the Cosmos. After all, the atom makes up the world and the Cosmos. I could see the edifice of civilization and the planet in flames, smoke, and ruins.

The other interesting and positive quality of the movie was its close reliance on history. Oppenheimer was real. The dirty politics of the secret development of this awful atomic weapon took place at the heat of World War II.

American tragedy

The climax of the attraction of the movie was its tragedy. A vast American tragedy of weaponizing science and scientists for a wholly violent and barbarian project of creating a mega weapon that, in theory and understanding in the early 1940s, could trigger the end of the world and its civilization. Oppenheimer was well aware of that terrible prospect. He was the most prominent “hero” of a vast national struggle to defeat menacing Germany and Japan, with any and all means, even risking the Earth.

And since Oppenheimer was a physicist, he, and his physicist colleagues at the military laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, translated theoretical physics into the first atomic bomb the world had ever seen. This happened in 1945, a year after the defeat of Germany, which should have made any more bomb-developing work obsolete. But Japan was in the room. It was still fighting in 1945, fiercely. So, the Japanese factor added “legitimacy” to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945 with Oppenheimer’s atomic bombs. That became the cosmic tragedy engulfing Oppenheimer and some of his fellow theoretical bombers. In their minds, World War II, and Japan in particular, were matters of life and death. They justified the holocaust weapon with the naïve notion it would prevent future wars and “redeem mankind.”[1]

History – and communism

So, the movie was steeped in what actually happened during World War II America. Its government was cooperating with the Communist Soviet Union in the war against Germany. At the same time, however, America’s rulers were infected by an intense hatred of the Soviet Union because of its communist ideology. The fear was that the Soviet Union might have become a model for Americans fighting in the wat who were facing discrimination at home, some of them because of being black and others because they were exploited workers who did not like the rich. There was also the unspoken fear that their physicist hero Oppenheimer might have been a communist. This fear was so intense that the movie to some degree became obsessed with presenting Oppenheimer and the bomb making through the mirror of the ideological inquisition of a secret kangaroo court trying to “prove” that Oppenheimer was a communist, which was not true.

Studying atomic physics in Europe

Young Oppenheimer studied atomic physics in England and Germany. He earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1927 at the University of Gottingen in Germany. This was the time, especially in the 1930s, of abstractions in science, the use of mathematics for adding substance to those abstractions. Physicists struggled to understand quantum mechanics, the atom, its nucleus and its invisible electrons and dozens of other particles. They speculated that splitting the atom could unleash great amounts of energy from matter, particularly vast energy from the splitting of the atomic nucleus. But they never considered the philosophical, ethical and scientific implications of such a violent act. They probably expected that splitting the nucleus would be the model for building a mighty nuclear bomb. Oppenheimer refused to go that far, a decision that fueled the war of the inquisitors against him even more than their accusations of communism.

From Demokritos to Oppenheimer

This was more than Demokritos, the Greek inventor of the Atomic Theory had foreseen for the atom in the fifth century BCE. Twenty-five centuries later, in the early twentieth century, theoretical physicists were probing the atoms of highly explosive and radiologic materials like uranium. They found ways to purify dispersed uranium in the ground and to even form a highly explosive new element from uranium named plutonium, the explosive core stuff of nuclear bombs.

The movie Oppenheimer has the opportunity to teach Americans timely history. Oppenheimer was a man of his time. He wanted to develop the atomic bomb and he led the effort that did. He also approved its use against Japan and wished it had been used against Germany as well. But catharsis came late with the truth. The truth of what that weapon did: seeing in his mind and eyes the holocaust hiding in the atomic weapon, and most certainly, he was disturbed by the potential planetary effects of the mighty nuclear bomb, which he refused to endorse or support. He backed down. He said to President Truman, “Mr. President, I have blood on my hands.” Truman made fun of him. He found another physicist, the Hungarian Edward Teller, to materialize the thermonuclear super monster now threatening the planet and humans with annihilation.

Era of nuclear disorder

In June 2022, the New York Times reporters David Sanger and William Broad found the nuclear order after Russia invaded Ukraine troubling. “The old nuclear order,” they said, “rooted in the Cold War’s unthinkable outcomes was fraying before Russia invaded Ukraine. Now, it is giving way to a looming era of disorder unlike any since the beginning of the atomic age.”[2] A few months later, on August 1, 2022, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, addressed in New York the conference on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. He warned the world of the gathering clouds of nuclear danger: “Almost 13,000 nuclear weapons are now being held in arsenals around the world… The clouds that parted following the end of the Cold War are gathering once more… Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”[3]

A year later, on August 1, 2023, an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association issued a similar warning, saying:

“Any use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic for humanity. Even a ‘limited’ nuclear war involving only 250 of the 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world could kill 120 million people outright and cause global climate disruption leading to a nuclear famine, putting 2 billion people at risk. A large-scale nuclear war between the US and Russia could kill 200 million people or more in the near term, and potentially cause a global ‘nuclear winter’ that could kill 5 to 6 billion people, threatening the survival of humanity. Once a nuclear weapon is detonated, escalation to all-out nuclear war could occur rapidly. The prevention of any use of nuclear weapons is therefore an urgent public health priority and fundamental steps must also be taken to address the root cause of the problem—by abolishing nuclear weapons.”[4]

Abolish nuclear weapons

The war in the Ukraine, the unnamed World War III, between America, its NATO allies, and nuclear weapons armed to the teeth, Russia, bodes ill for humanity. The Biden administration has been deceiving the American people on the war it is fighting in Ukraine against nuclear-armed superpower Russia.[5] Now, in August 2023, we have two monsters of nuclear bombs, America, and Russia, facing each other through Ukraine. Perhaps the rambling lightning and almighty thunder of the “Trinity” explosion of Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb will also bring to their senses all who watch this dramatic telling of his life, the splitting of the atom, and the coming into being of this holocaust weapon. We need to end the Ukraine war immediately and abolish all nuclear bombes before they abolish us. We should never think again of splitting the atom.

NOTES

1. Robert Jay Lifton, “Oppenheimer’s tragedy – and ours,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 17, 2023.

2. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “Putin’s Threats Highlight the Dangers of a New, Riskier Nuclear Era,” New York Times, June 1, 2022.

3. UN, Office of the Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, “Secretary-General’s remarks to the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” August 1, 2022.

4. Kamran Abbasi et al., “Reducing the Risks of Nuclear War,” JAMA, August 1, 2023.

5. Jeffrey D. Sachs, “The Real History of the War in Ukraine: A Chronology of Events and Case for Diplomacy,” The Kennedy Beacon, July 17, 2023.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.