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Oppenheimer’s Tragedy―and Ours


BIRTH OF THE BOMB - The July 21, 2023 theatrical release of the film Oppenheimer, focused on the life of a prominent American nuclear physicist, should help to remind us of how badly the development of modern weapons has played out for individuals and for all of humanity.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus, written by Kai Bird and the late Martin Sherwin, the film tells the story of the rise and fall of young J. Robert Oppenheimer, recruited by the U.S. government during World War II to direct the construction and testing of the world’s first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. His success in these ventures was followed shortly thereafter by President Truman’s ordering the use of nuclear weapons to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

During the immediate postwar years, Oppenheimer, widely lauded as “the father of the atomic bomb,” attained extraordinary power for a scientist within U.S. government ranks, including as chair of the General Advisory Committee of the new Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

But his influence ebbed as his ambivalence about nuclear weapons grew. In the fall of 1945, during a meeting at the White House with Truman, Oppenheimer said: “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” Incensed, Truman later told Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson that Oppenheimer had become “a crybaby” and that he didn’t want “to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again.”

Oppenheimer was also disturbed by the emerging nuclear arms race and, like many atomic scientists, championed the international control of atomic energy. Indeed, in late 1949, the entire General Advisory Committee of the AEC came out in opposition to the U.S. development of the H-bomb―although the president, ignoring this recommendation, approved developing the new weapon and adding it to the rapidly growing U.S. nuclear arsenal.

In these circumstances, figures with considerably less ambivalence about nuclear weapons took action to purge Oppenheimer from power. In December 1953, shortly after becoming chair of the AEC, Lewis Strauss, a fervent champion of a U.S. nuclear buildup, ordered Oppenheimer’s security clearance suspended. Anxious to counter implications of disloyalty, Oppenheimer appealed the decision and, in subsequent hearings before the AEC’s Personnel Security Board, faced grueling questioning not only about his criticism of nuclear weapons, but about his relationships decades before with individuals who had been Communist Party members.

Ultimately, the AEC ruled that Oppenheimer was a security risk, an official determination that added to his public humiliation, completed his removal from government service, and delivered a shattering blow to his meteoric career.

Of course, the development of nuclear weapons had far broader consequences than the downfall of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In addition to killing more than 200,000 people and injuring many more in Japan, the advent of nuclear weaponry led nations around the world to enter a fierce nuclear arms race. By the 1980s, spurred on by conflicts among the major powers, 70,000 nuclear weapons had come into existence, with the potential to destroy virtually all life on earth.

Fortunately, a massive grassroots citizens campaign emerged to counter this drive toward a nuclear apocalypse. And it succeeded in pressuring reluctant governments into an array of nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties, as well as unilateral actions, to reduce nuclear dangers. As a result, by 2023 the number of nuclear weapons had declined to roughly 12,500.

Nevertheless, in recent years, thanks to a sharp decrease in citizen activism and increase in international conflict, the potential for nuclear war has dramatically revived. All nine nuclear powers (Russia, the United States, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea) are currently engaged in upgrading their nuclear arsenals with new production facilities and new, improved nuclear weapons. During 2022, these governments poured nearly $83 billion into this nuclear buildup. Public threats to initiate nuclear war, including those by Donald TrumpKim Jong Un, and Vladimir Putin, have become more common. The hands of the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, established in 1946, now stand at 100 seconds to midnight―the most dangerous setting in its history.

Not surprisingly, the nuclear powers display little interest in further action for nuclear arms control and disarmament. The two nations possessing some 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons―Russia (with the most) and the United States (not far behind)―have pulled out of nearly all such agreements with one another.

Although the U.S. government has proposed extending the New Start Treaty (which limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons) with Russia, Putin reportedly responded this June that Russia would not engage in any nuclear disarmament talks with the West, commenting: “We possess more weaponry of such sort than the NATO countries. They know that and are always trying to persuade us to start negotiations on reduction. Nuts to them . . . as our people say.”

The Chinese government―whose nuclear arsenal, while growing substantially, still ranks a distant third in numbers―has stated that it sees no reason for China to engage in any nuclear arms control talks.

To head off a looming nuclear catastrophe, non-nuclear nations have been championing the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Adopted by an overwhelming vote of nations at a UN conference in July 2017, the TPNW bans developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, and threatening to use nuclear weapons.

The treaty went into force in January 2021 and―though opposed by all the nuclear powers―it has thus far been signed by 92 nations and ratified by 68 of themBrazil and Indonesia are likely to ratify it in the near future. Polls have found that the TPNW has substantial support in numerous countries, including the United States and other NATO nations.

There does remain some hope, then, that the nuclear tragedy that engulfed Robert Oppenheimer and has long threatened the survival of world civilization can still be averted.

(Dr. Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press.) This article was first featured in Counter Punch.)


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