The Elephant in the Boom: A Review of Oppenheimer 

Photograph Source: Marek Mróz – CC BY-SA 4.0

I begin this essay 7AM, the quiet Sunday morning of August 6, 2023. Despite the throes of the second world war, August 6, 1945, was likely similar in a lot of ways; especially at the early hour of 7AM. But on that particular Monday, just an hour and fifteen minutes later, Harry S. Truman would disturb that quiet and alter man’s moral compass forever, by executing the most inhumane atrocity in the history of this planet.

Last weekend I went to a quaint theater in Park slope Brooklyn and saw Chris Nolan’s OPPENHEIMER– a film that begins with a gush of images and episodes that crescendos with the Trinity Test (the July 16, 1945 detonation of the atomic bomb) – then simmers into the infamous 1954 Oppenheimer Hearings that stripped Julius Robert Oppenheimer of his security clearance. A privilege that gave him access to top secret data, national security information, and universal prestige.

Nolan, one of the most reliable voices in Hollywood, delivers an intriguing account that candidly navigates the facts, while subtextually conveying a lot of the nuance surrounding the men and women who built the bomb and the rationale that compelled them – vague attributes, that I confess, have always sent me on long ruminating stretches.

On the surface, the Manhattan Project, or the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, was the frantic US response to Germany’s 1938 discovery of nuclear fission. Hitler’s demented assault on Europe (and its Jewish communities) made the endeavor somewhat perspicuous, but from the humanitarian perspective; Germany surrendering to Allied Powers on May 7th 1945 (three months before America’s nauseating assault on Hiroshima) could have nullified any nuclear apprehension moving forward.

It would be unfair as a generation X’er to say for certain, but anyone attentive to American history could argue that the diplomatic, urbane, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with regard to demonstrating unprecedented nuclear strength, may have made a more pragmatic decision. Juxtaposed with a politician like Truman, who, from what I’ve read, was interested in becoming president but reluctant to follow FDR’s illustrious 12-year reign, which more than likely left him feeling like he had a lot to prove and huge, formidable shoes to fill. Inhibitions that could’ve provoked his savage display of aggression.

Moreover, Vice President Truman wasn’t even aware of the Manhattan Project until FDR passed away and he took the presidential reins, which speaks volumes to how Roosevelt felt about Truman, and his foreign policy acumen and counsel.

Oppenheimer went from prideful exuberance, after his successful test detonation in New Mexico, to unmitigated remorse, after Truman doubled down his brutality in Nagasaki Japan – conflicting emotions that Nolan candidly addresses in the film. But there’s another aspect of the story that, in my opinion, discreetly contextualizes the speed in which the atomic bomb was developed and its role in the World War Two narrative.

Without seeing the film, anyone with an internet connection can quickly discover that most of the top scientist involved in the Manhattan Project were Jewish: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, Jon von Neumann, James Franck, Rudolf Peierls and Enrico Fermi, who was an Italian physicist, married to the Jewish writer and author of the acclaimed biography MUSSOLINI, Laura Fermi. Not to mentioned, Dr. Albert Einstein, who, due to the security risk his celebrity posed, was not invited to New Mexico, but is rumored to have surreptitiously contributed when called upon – and many, many others.

All these upstanding men and women would have undoubtedly been willing to thwart Germany’s pathological quest for world domination no matter what ethnos they represented, but it would be naive to believe that The Shoah, and its abominable actuality, did not galvanize them as well.

It’s hard to even imagine someone like Dr. Martin Luther King, (who, outside of perhaps Michael Jackson, was the most peaceful, temperate man of the 20th century) not wanting to deliver some form of retaliation, if his children, family, and friends were subjected to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Love is not a song you create for a mono audio system. Love is a two-prong reality, which is to say, it can make you want to purchase a big, beautiful nosegay, or prompt you to violently come to someone’s rescue. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were constructed with a dire love that was intent on being expressed in integral German cities like Kassel and Hanover – and it is not difficult for many to say, that the Nazis, with all the diabolical murder and destruction they wrought, had it coming.

Conversely, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the loss of 2,403 lives (especially the 68 civilians) was terrible, but it did not merit the kind of nuclear fury that was unleashed on Hiroshima (70,000 lives) and Nagasaki (40,000 lives). Jewish physicist Joseph Rotblat seems to be the only one at Los Alamos New Mexico that immediately came to the aforementioned conclusion.

In an American Heritage Foundation interview, Rotblat said that British physicist, James Chadwick told him, in an October 1944 conversation “that there was now intelligence information that the Germans are not working on the bomb (and) after this discussion, then I decided that I am going to leave.

Rotblat was the only Manhattan Project scientist to leave New Mexico on grounds of conscience – an interesting fact, and man, that Nolan did not explore in Oppenheimer.

Director James Cameron chimed in on this discussion years ago, with a statement that he put into the mouth of his Terminator 2 deuteragonist, Sarah Connor.

The head scientist in the film, giving a slippery pretext for creating the Judgement Day computer, poses the question:

How were we supposed to know…?”

Sarah argues:

Yeah. Right. How are you supposed to know? F***ing men like you built the hydrogen bomb. Men like you thought it up. You think you’re so creative. You don’t know what it’s like to really create something; to create a life; to feel it growing inside you. All you know how to create is death and destruction…!

Cameron was of course referring to Oppenheimer and crew, but it would be interesting to know if he wrote the statement after researching the Oppenheimer biography, American Prometheus – or just relied on his perception of man’s egotistical pride. Nevertheless, the pompous self-congratulatory party scene in Oppenheimer, after the successful test detonation, makes Cameron’s chiding assertion somewhat apropos.

I say somewhat because, underneath their imperious quest for excellence, and their commendable sense of duty, the Manhattan Project scientists had an innate desire to protect and save their loved ones, innocent souls that were being persecuted by the Germans for inscrutable reasons – however, as intelligible as this unavowed desire was, that kind of response can blur lines and breach universal laws.

What I mean by that is, there’s a thin line between rescuing loved ones and revenge, and the latter can add a pandora’s box-like quality to a situation, which is a simple way of trying to explain that metaphysical phenomenon called, karma. It was the legendary philosopher Confucius that first said: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Team Oppenheimer dug an enormous grave, one they thought was going to be hollowed out in Germany but was unjustifiably executed in Japan. The crucial lingering question since August 6, 1945 has, and will always be: Will the second Confucius grave be an inescapable 700-mile crater condignly fit for humanity?  Unfortunately, it seems like, only time and the megalomaniacs of this world will tell.