In the late 19th century, the legendary chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel discovered the destructive potential of nitroglycerin and invented dynamite, an explosive that, along with its other subsidiaries, not only changed the course of human civilization but also made global warfare even more destructive. For his invention, Alfred Nobel was called an ‘Emissary of Death’, a title he regretted so much that he wished to leave a legacy that could absolve him of the sin of creating a means of mass destruction. To do that, he left the majority of his fortune to create the prestigious Nobel Prize, which has since awarded excellence in various streams of science, but most importantly in peace.
Almost half a century later, another brilliant mind who was fascinated with the intricacies of molecules, J. Robert Oppenheimer, tried to harness the energies of stars and create a nuclear fission reactor in weaponized form, which not only directly contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands but also changed the course of human history forever. What could have absolved a sin of such magnitude, and whether it was even a possibility, is the point of discussion in the book “American Prometheus,” a biographical book centered on the life of the eponymous physicist, regarded as “The Father of the Atomic Bomb.” This text inspired one of the finest auteurs of our generation, Christopher Nolan, to take a closer look at the complex life of the troubled scientist and create the biographical movie Oppenheimer. The movie, packed with a star-studded cast portraying historical figures, tries to capture the afflicted soul of the scientist in question through an emotionally stirring narrative and has created an epic that will be remembered through the ages.
An Introduction to Oppenheimer: What Were The Physicist’s Early Days Like?
As the movie begins, three narrative streams through different courses of time play out in a parallel progression. In the first sequence, we have AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) chief Admiral Lewis Strauss attending a US Cabinet Selection Committee hearing; the second one consists of famed physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer attending a closed-door indictment hearing in front of the National Security Board; and the final sequence is the prime narrative, which showcases Oppenheimer’s past. As both Strauss and Oppenheimer recall the events revolving around their respective experiences, viewers get a glimpse into the scientist’s life story.
Born into a Jewish family, J. Robert Oppenheimer turned out to be a polymath and science prodigy at a young age and was so absorbed into the particularities of atomic structure and quantum physics that he was plagued by visions of the molecular universe. As he attended Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, his clumsiness in the laboratory work caught the ire of Professor Patrick Blackett. On one occasion, he tried to poison the professor by injecting cyanide into an apple, which was almost going to be eaten by the visiting physicist, the renowned Niels Bohr, until Robert stopped him. However, Robert’s tenacity impresses Bohr, who advises him to seek higher studies in theoretical physics in Germany, and Robert does so by completing his Ph.D. at Göttingen University. At the esteemed university, he meets future legends like Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi, and Edward Teller. After gaining much acclaim in the field of quantum mechanics, Oppenheimer returned to the United States and started teaching it at Berkeley. Initially, he started with a single student, Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz, and as the years passed, more students started showing interest in his field and joined.
How were Oppenheimer’s Political views integral to his future?
At Berkeley, Robert, whose worldview was much more liberal than most of his peers, unionized faculty members, much to the disdain of senior colleagues like Ernest Lawrence. Robert was sympathetic to communist ideology, actively donated to the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War and sent money to the aid of scientists who fled Nazi Germany. Although Robert never formally joined the Communist party, his left-leaning ideology brought him to the attention of the FBI, something that will be dug up during a much later phase of his life.
However, during a meet-up with his communist compatriots, Robert met Jean Tatlock, a member of the CPUSA (Communist Party of the USA), and the duo instantly fell for each other. It is shown that while making love to Jean for the first time, Robert recited the famous lines from the Hindu scripture “Bhagavad Gita,” a book that had shaped much of the philosophy of his life: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.” Robert and Jean will be tied in a complicated on-off relationship until Robert eventually decides to get into a relationship with former communist party member Katherine ‘Kitty’ Puening, who, during the period, was the wife of Professor Richard Harrison. Aside from the people he loved, his brother Frank, his wife Jackie, and a close friend, Professor Haakon Chevalier, were known communists during that period.
How Did Oppenheimer Conduct The Manhattan Project?
By now, the Second World War has reached the gates of nations across the globe, and Hitler has made the first move by invading Poland. Concerned about the condition of Jews and the rest of the oppressed populace, Robert seeks to aid the country in the war effort in any way possible, but due to his left leanings and despite his brilliance, government officials are unwilling to bring him on to any classified projects. Finally, Colonel Leslie Groves, assisted by his subordinate, Lt. Col. Kenneth Nichols, decides to approach Robert regarding the Manhattan Project. Weaponizing nuclear fission has already been theorized by physicists across the globe, and Groves wants Oppenheimer to oversee America’s efforts to do so.
Robert recruits some of the topmost scientific minds of the nation, Leo Szilard, Hans Bethe, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, Isidor Rabi, Vennevar Bush, into the project, and despite the majority of them having reservations about using scientific advancements for mass genocide, they unanimously agree on the fact that trusting the States over the Nazis with nuclear weapons will be a better option any given day. Robert wanted to bring his two subjects of interest, New Mexico and Physics, together; hence, as the director of the project, he commanded the project to be built in Los Alamos, where an entire township was created overnight to initiate Project Manhattan. Experimental, theoretical, metallurgical, and ordnance divisions were created, and measures were taken to ensure the utmost secrecy of the project.
Despite their differences of opinion, Groves admired Robert’s brilliance and allowed him to operate as freely as possible, barring a few incidents when he had to confront him for not adhering to the rule of compartmentalization. However, a few major occurrences happened during the course of the research. One was a legitimate concern about the nuclear fission reaction setting off an unstoppable chain reaction that could set the entire planet on fire. Robert met the legendary scientist Albert Einstein, whose initiative and theories made the sustained nuclear fission reaction possible and shared his concerns. In reply, Einstein made a request of Robert, that if their calculation regarding atmospheric ignition indeed confirmed it to be a possibility, then he was to share his findings with the Nazis so that the possibility of a global catastrophe could be averted; however, Robert never did that.
Secondly, while discussing the practicality of a nuclear bomb triggered by a fission reaction, Edward Teller comes up with the proposition of a bomb that can be created by a fusion reaction, which would be a hundred times more devastating than the one that Project Manhattan is slated to create. During an interrogation with Colonel Pash, Robert unwittingly named the former communist chemist George Eltenton as a Soviet informant after learning about it from Haakon Chevalier. However, Klaus Fuchs turns out to be a Soviet spy who leaked Project Manhattan’s secretive intel to Russia. Lastly, Robert met Jean while staying under observation and evading authority for the last time, while she was in a depressive condition. Soon, in his absence, Jean breathed her last as she committed suicide, an incident that mentally devastated Robert, and despite knowing about her husband’s illicit affairs, Kitty supported him with her unwavering mental support.
Bombing And The Aftermath: What Changed Robert’s Stance About Nuclear Weapons?
However, thousands of people toiled for three years, and after investing two billion dollars on every sort of necessary expenditure, gradually, the day approached when Project Manhattan had to present the ultimate deterrent of global warfare—a weapon that could put an end to all wars. By now, Germany has surrendered, with the only resistance carried on by Japan, which makes the scientific community question the necessity of using such a weapon. However, the political scenario changed as Truman succeeded Roosevelt in the White House, and he was adamant about flexing the United States’ muscles to the warring nations by showcasing the destructive potential of such weapons. A test of the weapon was ordered to be conducted, and despite the minuscule possibilities of an unstoppable chain reaction burning up the atmosphere, the team decided to go with it. In memory of his beloved Jean, who introduced him to John Donne’s work, Robert named the test bomb ‘Trinity,’ a name he took from one of Donne’s devotional poems. As Trinity unraveled, as Robert said later, a terrible revelation of divine power, he once again uttered the infamous lines from the Gita: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of the Worlds.” However, soon Robert will realize mere mortals cannot shoulder the monumental burden of death that Vishnu, the god the quote is attributed to, could.
The Trinity test became successful, the government had what it needed, and for them, the necessity of the opinion of the scientific community expired. Truman and his war secretary were adamant about using nuclear weapons, and while scientists like Leo Szilard and David Hill started petitions against the bombing, neither Truman nor Robert could even comprehend the ‘absurdity’ of such a proposition. The horrifying apathy is perceivable in the way the war secretary remarks about not wanting to bomb Kyoto, as it was the place where he had spent his honeymoon. However, on August 6 and 9, two Japanese towns, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were bombed; the impact was vicious, to say the least, and thus began the steady degradation of the spirit of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He sees familiar faces around him and imagines what the sun must have felt like from up close. He attends a celebratory speech, where he has to fuel the patriotic fervor of a remorseless crowd by spouting jingoist nonsense, but at the same time, all he sees are flayed bodies, he steps on burnt corpses and hears thunderous applause, which deafens him worse than an atomic blast could. The incomprehensible horrors crush Robert’s soul, and as he meets President Truman, he states the guilt that has plagued him ever since the bombing and only gets belittled and chastised in return.
What Realization Did J. Robert Oppenheimer Share With Albert Einstein?
Now hailed as a war hero, Oppenheimer used his fame and political position to try and stop militaristic, aggressive expansion regarding nuclear armament. Edward Teller, the physicist who conceptualized the Hydrogen fusion bomb, sought Robert’s help to create this weapon, the ‘Super’, only to meet with rejection. His changed stance draws the attention of Lewis Strauss, the chief of AEC, who was embarrassed by the scientist on multiple occasions—once during Robert’s meeting with Einstein, as he felt that Einstein along with the scientific community, was poisoned by Robert’s words against him, and later on at a very public press conference where Robert mocked him.
Emboldened by Truman’s confidence in him from the shadows of bureaucracy, Strauss used Lt. Col. Kenneth Nichols (already dissatisfied with his own ineffectuality in front of Robert and Leslie Groves) to get his hands on Robert’s security file, which was passed on to William L. Borden, a lawyer with an already conspiratorial mindset, to incriminate the scientist as a Soviet spy. The nefarious scheme gets strengthened by the McCarthy-era red scare and a general Soviet phobia among the public. A sham closed-door commission is constituted, Oppenheimer’s past gets dug up, his relation with communists gets dug up, and his past action of hiding the identity of his friend Chevalier gets brought up, among many other details to assassinate his character. Despite the fact that most of his friends and colleagues, except the ambitious Edward Teller, who was still jilted at Robert for his refusal of his H-bomb proposition, testified in his favor, the outcome of the hearing was predetermined. Robert’s security clearance is revoked, his position of influence is curbed, he is ousted from the AEC, and he basically gets exiled. Kitty asks her husband repeatedly why he didn’t fight back, to no avail.
Coming to the second narrative, Lewis Strauss gets a taste of his own medicine when David Hill, whose anti-bombing petition Oppenheimer brushed off, testifies against Strauss in the Cabinet hearing, stating the entirety of the Oppenheimer hearing to be a result of Strauss’s vindictive nature. Due to this, Strauss’ political ambition plummets as he is denied a seat in the Cabinet. However, Strauss’ lawyer suggests to him that perhaps the conversation between Robert and Einstein didn’t include him at all, unlike what he had assumed previously.
A time jump shows an aged Robert receiving the Fermi award for his achievement; however, he has turned into a husk of the man he once was. Einstein’s remarks about the weight of their respective geniuses alienating them from others, making them feel useless, and the government casting them out like lepers after their necessity runs its course start hovering in Robert’s mind. On the lawn of their country house, Kitty states to Robert that the humiliation and libeling he chose to endure will not absolve him. Viewers are taken to the sequence that reveals the conversation that took place between Oppenheimer and Einstein all those years ago, which left Einstein despondent in such a way that an oncoming Strauss wrongly believed that Robert had instigated Einstein against him.
Robert remarks to Einstein that the chain reaction possibility that he mentioned could happen after nuclear detonation, which could have burned up the world, in his eyes has already been initiated. There is more than one way to burn up the world, which is shown the way the movie ends with Robert’s soulless gaze into the camera as his vision forebodes the world ending in nuclear catastrophe, and he closes his eyes in horror. Despite the fact that Einstein was not a member of the Manhattan Project himself, it was his warning to then-President Roosevelt about Nazi plans to create an atomic bomb that led to the inception of the project. Understandably, the statement by Oppenheimer must have rattled the veteran scientist enough, with the realization dawning upon him that human beings could not have been trusted with a power of such magnitude, a realization that stays true to this day.