October 2023

Oppenheimer and a Necessary Truth

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them."
—J. Robert Oppenheimer

And what's this? "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." It is an ancient Hindu text quoted by an American.
An American?
He invented the atomic bomb and he was later accused of being a Communist.
—dialogue between Soviet Political Officer Putin and Captain Marko Ramius, The Hunt for Red October

How can I save my little boy
From Oppenheimer's deadly toy?
—Sting, "Russians"


The other night I watched Oppenheimer on the big screen, reclining in the air-conditioned dark of a New Jersey movie theater just a few miles up the road from Princeton, that ivied hive of physicists and mathematicians where much of the film takes place.

Like its protagonist and the developments he oversaw as director of The Manhattan Project's Los Alamos Laboratory, the film Oppenheimer achieves its colossal ambition. Christopher Nolan, who directed the picture, wrote the screenplay by adapting the 2005 biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a book which took its authors, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman, 25 years to complete. The movie clocks in at exactly three hours.

I've yet to read American Prometheus but back in 2009 I read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, a riveting 788-page tome published in 1986 still considered the subject's definitive account: so much of that book came back to me as I watched Oppenheimer.

From its fidelity to the facts to its curious and surprising narratorial framework, from its inspired casting to the superb performances those players give, Oppenheimer excels in every way. And Cillian Murphy's portrayal in the title role tops the film's achievements. Murphy began studying law in his hometown at University College Cork in Ireland but had the wisdom to fail his first-year exams and take up acting. We can all be thankful: like Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin, Oppenheimer was a destiny role for Murphy. It's a lovely coincidence that Downey figures prominently in the picture.

It's a great film. And as such, it continues to make me think long after the credits rolled. I've been thinking about Oppenheimer, this immensely complex mind and also just an ordinary man with wants and needs. I've been re-appreciating the awe-inspiring, altogether Herculean task of building an atomic bomb so rapidly. And I've been thinking about the fallout, the nuclear legacy, the proliferation of world-ending weapons and whether it was all worth it.

In a recent interview, Christopher Nolan declared that J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person in human history. To riff on quantum mechanics, he's probably not wrong.

From time to time, someone comes along who influences a continent or two with an idea, an invention, or a lie. Whoever fashioned the first plough ushered in civilization as we know it. A handful of neurotics wandering the deserts of the Near East managed to spread variations of the same misery to most of the globe. Edison's bulb has brought light to the world. But Oppenheimer, so-called "Father of the Atomic Bomb," supervised the creation of a technology which can extinguish civilization—every light and life, neurotic or otherwise, on the planet—with the push of an index finger.

Referencing the title of the book on which it's based, Oppenheimer begins with two captions in sequence:

    Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man.
    For this, he was chained to a rock and tortured for eternity.

Very poetic, fairly apt, but I don't think you can hang "the blame"—if that's what it is—solely on Oppenheimer. Just as an enriched uranium pile reaches critical mass, physicists and their insights into nuclear theory reached a kind of critical mass in the early 20th century. Global war provided a catalyst to hasten the process, but the atom was getting split, one way or the other.

Oppenheimer's uncanny mental powers enabled him to transmute abstractions of theory—chalk scribbles on blackboards and rarefied conjectures—into the unleashing of fundamental forces. Still, for all his genius, he needed practical help. The point is made several times in the movie that Oppy wasn't too swift around beakers and Bunsen burners.

Enter General Leslie Groves, played with aplomb and accurate brusqueness by Matt Damon. As historian David M. Kennedy suavely states in The American People in World War II:

    It is easy to see Professor Oppenheimer and General Groves as foils for one another—the gaunt, soul-tortured scientist, melancholic child of the Jewish diaspora, sensitive reader of Sanskrit epics and T. S. Eliot's poetry, the brooding genius who orchestrated all the savants gathered at Los Alamos, playing the tragic hero opposite Groves' corpulent Rotarian Babbitt, West Point engineer, career soldier, gruff maker of buildings and bombs and a man without scruple, delicacy, or conscience. But if Oppenheimer and his scientists at Los Alamos constituted a crucial American asset in the race to build the bomb, Groves also embodies a kind of genius—the peculiarly American genius for organization and management and for thinking in terms of stunningly vast enterprises.

Indeed, before Groves was given the task of arranging logistics for The Manhattan Project, he built the Pentagon.

Even a 3-hour epic film can't do justice to the story of the making of the atom bomb; it is the story of World War II itself, packed with all the conflict's major themes: the clash of rival ideologies; national economies pitted against each other; and, relatedly, the development and impact of technological innovations, such as RADAR, cryptography, and the A-bomb itself.

Once again, here's David M. Kennedy's succinct take:

    The bombs were the singular achievement of the age. It was no accident that they were made in America, and only in America. Indeed, the tale of the bombs' making braids together into one plot so many strands of the era's history that it might be taken as the greatest war story of them all, the single most instructive account of how and perhaps even why the conflict was fought and the way the Americans won it.

In 1939, the great Danish Nobel laureate in physics Niels Bohr correctly surmised: "It would take the entire efforts of a country to make a bomb.
[I]t can never be done unless you turn the United States into one huge factory."

That's practically what happened under General Groves' leadership. America bankrolled The Manhattan Project with more than $2 billion (those are 1942-45 dollars) and employed 150,000 people. The Oak Ridge gaseous-diffusion plant in Tennessee covered 59,000 acres; the building housing the diffusion tanks took up 42 acres alone! As Kennedy writes, the Hanford plant on the banks of Washington's Columbia River used electricity from the New Deal's Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams to power four cavernous uranium separation plants—"workers tortuously squeezed out plutonium from grudging nature, a dime-size pellet from every two tons of uranium."

Kennedy offers another astonishing perspective: "In the space of three years, Groves had erected out of nothing a vast industrial complex, as large in scale as the entire prewar automobile industry." On touring these mini -cities in 1944, Niels Bohr declared in the matter-of-fact way only a lofty physicist could: "You see, I told you it couldn't be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that."

One phrase you hear over and over is "the race to build the bomb." It makes for drama. Certainly the scientists at Los Alamos feared that their German rivals might get there first. As it turns out, there was no race at all. Albert Speer, Germany's armaments minister, wrote after the war that by the autumn of 1942 they had "scuttled the project to develop an atom bomb" based on overwhelming logistical demands. He also added that "our failure to pursue the possibilities of atomic warfare can be partly traced to ideological reasons. . . . To his table companions Hitler occasionally referred to nuclear physics as 'Jewish physics.'"

There's a scene in the movie where Groves worries that the Germans have a head-start. They do, Oppenheimer tells him, but the Allies have an advantage: antisemitism. Aside from impossibly large financial and logistical requirements, Hitler's policies methodically purged Germany of the minds with which to design and build an atomic bomb, indirectly sending many of them to England and America. An astonishing number of Los Alamos scientists, engineers, and technicians (many of them recent refugees) claimed Jewish ancestry, including Hans Bethe, Felix Bloch, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, Otto Frisch, Hans Halban, Rudolf Peierls, Joseph Rotblatt, Franz Eugen Simon, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Stanislav Ulam, John von Neuman, Eugene Wigner, and, of course, Oppenheimer. (While Italian himself, Enrico Fermi fled Fascist Italy because they had passed the anti-Semitic Racial Laws which threatened his wife Laura, who was Jewish.)

As with this viewer, what audiences will likely think about most after seeing Oppenheimer is the actual use of two atomic bombs. Far more disturbing but less visceral than mushroom clouds is the subsequent proliferation of atomic weapons among a handful of nations (innocuously called The Nuclear Club, those countries now comprise France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.)

Ostensibly, what motivates people to question the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is concern for human life, an admirable consideration. As with any matter of consequence, one strives to make an informed decision. To do that, you need the facts. But there's something else which informs one's judgment: experience. I went back and re-read Paul Fussell's essay, Thank God for the Atom Bomb, originally published in August 1981. Yes, it's a provocative title but not his coinage (Fussell drew the phrase from a passage in William Manchester's memoir of fighting in the Pacific, Goodbye Darkness.) I urge you to read this classic essay by one of America's most eloquent and deeply humane writers.

And don't let the title mislead you: Fussell was no war-monger. He was, however, that voice so rare nowadays, an accomplished literary scholar, critic, and writer (his The Great War and Modern Memory won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award) who saw combat. As he explains in his essay, when the atom bombs ended the war, he was a 21 year-old second lieutenant, a rifle platoon leader in the 45th Infantry Division in Europe. He'd seen fierce combat; while deemed fit for more of it, he'd already been wounded in the back and leg. Despite a lifetime's worth of war against the Germans, Lt. Fussell was getting ready to ship out to the Pacific. He and his unit would be rushing up the beaches, Normandy-like, on Honshu near Tokyo as part of Operation Olympic, the invasion of Japan's home islands. (As he points out, an earlier landing on Kyushu would be carried out by the 700,000 American infantrymen already in the Pacific.)

One might be led to believe that we've gained perspective with the passage of time, but, apropos the wise points Fussell makes in his essay, I'd argue we've lost perspective. But first the facts with their cruel but overwhelmingly convincing calculus of why using the atom bomb was the right call:

The battle for Okinawa, the smallest, least populated of Japan's five main islands, raged from April 1-June 22, 1945. The losses beggar belief: 50,000 Allied casualties of whom about 12,500 were killed; 110,000 Japanese killed (fewer than 8,000 surrendered); according to local authorities, at least 149,425 Okinawans were killed, died by coerced suicide, or went missing. Now understand: the Japanese had two divisions on Okinawa—they had 20 on Kyushu and Honshu. Based on those numbers, Colonel Andrew Goodpaster of the War Department estimated American casualties for Operation Olympic might reach half a million.

The British intended to invade Malaya on September 9 with six divisions (roughly 200,000 men or the same size force that landed at Normandy) with the intent of liberating Singapore. They expected fighting to last through March 1946—seven months of more savagery.

In the summer of 1945, Japanese Marshal Terauchi issued an order that upon Allied invasion of the home islands, all prisoners of war were to be executed by their camp commanders.

Documents obtained after the war give no indication that Japan had any intention of suing for peace before the dropping of the atomic bombs. While Emperor Hirohito exercised taciturn caution, the cabal of generals led by the hyper-fanatical War Minister Korechika Anami actually looked forward to an Allied invasion and an "honor-satisfying bloodbath," a mania summed up by a Japanese Army spokesman in early 1945: "Since the retreat from Guadalcanal, the Army has had little opportunity to engage the enemy in land battles. But when we meet in Japan proper, our Army will demonstrate its invincible superiority." Madness! Anami urged an all -out, national kamikaze attack on the Allies even after A-bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ultimately, he obeyed his emperor, refusing to participate in an attempted military coup the night before Hirohito was to broadcast a recording of Japan's acceptance of surrender. On the morning of August 15, 1945, before that famous broadcast aired, Anami committed ritual suicide.

In "Counting the Dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki" in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Alex Wellerstein provides a fine, well-researched analysis of why there are considerable disparities in casualty estimates and no way to know for sure. He suggests a thoughtful bracketing of both numbers and agendas: the American military estimated around 70,000 people died at Hiroshima, while later independent estimates place that number at closer to 140,000; in both estimates, the majority of deaths happened on the day of the bombing with nearly all deaths taking place by the end of 1945.

On the night of March 9-10, 1945, the US Air Force firebombed Tokyo, dropping incendiary bombs filled with napalm knowing that most of the city's structures were made of wood and bamboo. The ensuing firestorm drew cool air from the suburbs inward, turning the city into a furnace: ambient temperatures reached 1,800℉; clothing ignited spontaneously; asphyxiation killed thousands as fire gobbled up oxygen; thousands drowned or were boiled alive when they tried to shelter in the city's canals, pools, or rivers. The smell of burning flesh reached B-29 crews as they circled Tokyo at 5,000-7,000 feet to drop their bombs. Estimates vary, but it's safe to say that the raid killed over 100,000 Japanese, mainly civilians; one million were left homeless. Operation Meetinghouse, as the raid was called, lasted 2 hours 40 minutes and was the single deadliest, most destructive air attack in history.

I submit to you that it's no more humane to incinerate civilians with napalm than with a nuclear blast.

Operation Olympic and the planned British invasion of Malaya would have made Iwo Jima and Okinawa look like schoolyard tussles. The bloodbath would have been appalling, even to an Allied public callused by years of casualty reports and those dreaded telegrams from the War Department. The atom bomb saved millions of Japanese lives—lest one think it's somehow biased to reckon the merits of using the bomb only in terms of American lives saved. And it is completely fair, by the way: those million -plus American and Commonwealth soldiers preparing for the invasion had as much a right to return to their families and live out their lives as any Japanese civilian or combatant.

Paul Fussell argues in his essay: "The degree to which Americans register shock and extraordinary shame about the Hiroshima bomb correlates closely with lack of information about the Pacific war." It also correlates to lack of experience. A finite number of men fought against the Japanese in World War II. They're almost all gone now. But we can gain their experience secondhand. Another way to understand the bitter necessity of using the atom bomb would be to read E. B. Sledge's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, a book Fussell cites in his essay and considered the finest combat memoir of the war.

Sledge and his buddies intentionally flunked out of college to enlist in the Marine Corps so they wouldn't miss out on the fighting. They got got more than they bargained for. With the Old Breed is a book you will never forget, one written by a deeply good man who struggled for years with the war's horrors. Part of his problem was his inability to develop the mental callus with which to insulate himself from the daily brutality. His other problem was to find himself knee-deep in what many historians regard as the most savage human combat ever waged. His book is a touchstone text in the 2007 Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary The War, as well as one of the two memoirs on which the 2010 HBO mini-series The Pacific was based.

I think With the Old Breed should be required reading for every American kid at some point in their high school or college curriculum. If you want to understand why a soldier would say "thank God for the atom bomb"—and why he'd be right, read Sledge's book. Or as another eminent American historian, Stephen Ambrose, titled his succinct Op-Ed in The New York Times in August 1995—The Bomb: It Was Death or More Death.

Which returns us to Oppenheimer. As he watched the culmination of his handiwork unfold in Trinity, the test detonation of the first atomic weapon on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer thought of the line from the 700 year-old Sanskrit epic, the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." A haunted man, Oppenheimer soon became a hunted one, a national hero belittled, attacked, and interrogated by a bunch of grocery clerks. A savior to hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, but none of them were in a position to save him.

It's difficult to imagine the complex emotions Oppenheimer experienced: what if you were the one who uncorked the nuclear genie from the bottle? Perhaps he wanted to be a martyr. He was many things but for all his brooding he didn't "become Death," that's a pair of shoes nobody's feet are big enough to fill. The atom bomb would be made, with or without Oppenheimer, because it could be made; in that endeavor he was merely an instrument of a necessary truth.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland's University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2023 Patrick Walsh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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