Oppenheimer, Hauptmann Schlaf, Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Oppenheimer: Exploring the enigma of the man behind the bomb

By Ali Madadi

Two days before the Trinity Test, which would become the first detonation of a nuclear weapon in human history in July 1945, a test of the implosion explosives without the plutonium core failed, making members of the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Laboratory and its director, J. Robert “Oppie” Oppenheimer, nervous.

Whilst sitting in a Hilton Hotel in Albuquerque, George Kistiakowsky of Harvard University, who was Los Alamos’ explosion consultant, bet a month of his salary against ten dollars that the implosion device would work on the day of the test. These events, beautifully and comprehensively detailed by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin in their Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, are recreated for the big screen, just as beautifully, by Christopher Nolan in his latest film, Oppenheimer.

The name for the test, Trinity, recalled by Oppenheimer later, appears to have come from a John Donne sonnet. However, Hinduism may have also served as a source of inspiration. After all, Oppenheimer loved and often quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita. He was knowledgeable in Sanskrit, and his copy of Arthur W. Ryder’s translation of the book is kept at Los Alamos’ Bradbury Science Museum. In fact, on the eve of the test, he translated and recited a stanza from the Bhagavad-Gita to relieve the tension in the room while awaiting the success or failure of an expensive and secret program that would forever change the world.

Oppenheimer lost the bet. That night, some twenty miles away from the explosion site, members of the project watched the night sky turn bright through protective glasses. Princeton University’s Richard Feynman, one of the twenty Nobel Prize winners associated with the project, chose to watch the explosion from a truck’s windshield instead of glasses. 

Turning American Prometheus into a movie is a mammoth task, which Nolan has executed masterfully. The Movie shows Feynman for seconds, commenting how the truck’s windshield would protect his eyes. It depicts, brilliantly, a phone call in which Oppenheimer asks his secretary to relay to his wife that “she can change the sheets”, the code for the test being a success. 

After the test in Los Alamos, a town exclusively constructed to house the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer’s wallet was so empty that he presented Kistiakowsky with his ten dollar bet bill with his signature on. Feynman sat on the hood of a jeep and beat on his bongo drums. But not everyone involved in the project was elated. Robert R. Wilson, who headed the project’s Research Division, according to the book, commented that “it’s a terrible thing that we made.” 

The movie omits certain details, such as Oppenheimer remarking, days after the test, ‘those poor little people,’ in reference to the Japanese who would soon experience the power of his creation. Instead, Nolan chooses to visually depict such sentiments in striking ways, maintaining Oppenheimer’s perspective throughout the film. For instance, after the first bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, the scientists at Los Alamos, unlike the military enlisted men, are not elated by the news. Robert Wilson, among them, had doubted the bomb would ever be used. The movie beautifully recalls Oppenheimer giving a speech in an auditorium, capturing the sound of foot-stamping from the young physicist’s memory. These artistic decisions are made with incredible precision and taste, conveying the emotional impact effectively.

The movie’s attention to detail is remarkable, defying the common notion of artistic liberties taken in adaptations. It remains honest and faithful to the text, showcasing Oppenheimer leaving a party and witnessing a physicist’s distress at celebrating the use of a weapon of mass destruction. This feeling transcends to the audience, even to non-scientists. Following Nagasaki, there is no celebration in Los Alamos, portraying the somber mood accurately.

Some of the public discussions about the movie have become quasi-moral on whether it celebrates, or makes a hero of, the man who led the team that made the first world-destroying weapon. The answer is that it does not. Neither the book, nor the film, portrays Oppenheimer as a saint or a villain. The film is a perfect example of what Aaron Sorkin said: villains should be written “like they’re making their case to God why they should be allowed into heaven.” It is left to the reader or the audience to judge the man.

There is also a misunderstanding about Oppenheimer’s sense of guilt, and that he did not regret building the bomb. The film shows it through Lewis Strauss’s anxious rant. Asked if he thought the use of the nuclear bomb was justified, Oppenheimer told CBS News in 1965 that “The ending of the war by this means, certainly cruel, was not undertaken lightly. But I am not, as of today, confident that a better course was then open.” Reminding that continuing the war would have been nothing short of a slaughter for both Americans and the Japanese. 

The book tells how, after the Nagasaki bombing, Oppenheimer spent the weekend writing a grim and pessimistic final report on behalf of the Scientific Panel to the then U.S. Secretary of War, BG Henry Lewis Stimson. In the report, he wrote, “It is our firm opinion that no military countermeasures will be found which will be adequately effective in preventing the delivery of atomic weapons… We believe that the safety of this nation—as opposed to its ability to inflict damage on an enemy power— cannot lie wholly or even primarily in its scientific or technical prowess. It can be based only on making future wars impossible.” Only three weeks before, he had met with senior officers supervising the bombing, and he gave clear instructions on how the bomb should be dropped, emphasizing that it must not be used in rain, fog, or through clouds, and that it should not be detonated too high to maximize its destructive potential.

The perceived contradictions can be resolved by understanding some lines from Bhagavad-Gita, which Oppenheimer translated as “I am becoming death, the destroyer of worlds” and is repeated twice in the movie. It is the 32nd stanza in chapter 11, and the Winthrop Sargeant translation is as follows:

“I am Time, the mighty cause of world destruction,

Who has come forth to Annihilate the worlds.

Even without any action of yours, all these warriors

Who are arrayed in the opposing ranks, shall cease to exist.”

The word “time” is what Oppenheimer and many translators of the book have translated as death. But the next lines are worthy of note and give credence to the interpretation that he saw himself not as the deity Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, but as Arjuna, the prince. 

In those lines, Krishna says to Arjuna that even without him, the enemy army is condemned to death. It is Krishna who possesses the power to destroy the world, and Arjuna merely fulfills his duty in the war. Oppenheimer, in this sense, is doing what must be done; he creates the weapon that others are also attempting to develop. It is his duty to make it, while it falls upon statesmen to determine when and how it should be used. Oppenheimer fulfills his duty to speak up and advise, which he does. The guilt he feels is a part of being human. Even in the most justified of wars, soldiers will experience guilt for the destruction of human life caused by their actions. Therefore, the usage of “Prometheus” in the title of Oppenheimer’s biography seems particularly apt. Prometheus was a Titan who stole fire from Zeus and bestowed it upon humans, granting them the means of survival and the ability to build civilization. As punishment, as poet Hesiod narrates, Zeus condemned Prometheus to be bound to a mountain in the Caucasus, where each day, an eagle would devour his liver, which would regrow during the night, ready to be consumed again the next day.

Like the book and the movie—both long, beautiful, and very much worth your time—I do not want to make a moral judgment. For both left me thinking about the virtue of doubt. What has kept great powers from engaging in direct military confrontations for decades is the doubt that is caused by the massive destructive powers in their arsenals. 

The future world, one Charlie Chaplin feared as dominated by “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts” in the form of AI powered automatons making life and death decisions, is already here. The language of AI is binary and that of mathematics absolute, leaving no place for doubt or humanity. The destructiveness of human wars will be surpassed by the machines. Without an easy answer, there is much to be happy about living in a world where there cannot be one. As there isn’t for Oppenheimer.

This article reflects the views of the author, not of KabulNow.

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