Oppenheimer: The Man, the Book, the Movie

Cliff Conner

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Universal Pictures, 2023.

American Prometheus:
The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin,
Vintage Books, 2006.

OPPENHEIMER IS A biopic that spans the cultural spectrum from the sacred to the inane, from Armageddon to Barbenheimer. It is a Picassoesque time warp of dazzling images and sonic booms that some will find brilliant and others disorienting and confusing.

The cast of famous actors playing famous physicists is worth the price of admission, but blink and you will have missed Heisenberg or conflated Bohr, Born, and Bohm. You can’t tell the players even with a program; they don’t have numbers on their backs. But the transcendent value of the film is as a multilayered morality tale for a politically-polarized world.

The film’s director, Christopher Nolan, had an admirable purpose: to confront the most important of all contemporary moral and social issues — the mind-numbing possibility that nuclear weapons could totally annihilate all human life. The public discourse has complacently downplayed this calamitous danger—whistling past the graveyard, so to speak — for the past seventy years or so.

That was facilitated, but not entirely explained, by the all-pervasive governmental secrecy designed to keep the public from interfering with U.S. military plans of global domination.(1)

The Little Story within a Much Bigger Story

The film’s core narrative is the life story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” as told in an excellent biography, American Prometheus.(2) As individual human lives go, Oppenheimer’s was certainly an important and interesting one, and therefore fully worthy of biographical treatment.

His role in the creation of nuclear weapons was essentially an administrative one, but no one was more instrumental in their successful development. Furthermore, as a pioneer of quantum physics in the United States, he must also be recognized as among the foremost American physicists of the 20th century.

But Oppenheimer’s significance as a historical actor is miniscule in comparison with the context in which it unfolded. The creation, development, and deployment of the nuclear weapons themselves is the far more consequential story. To fully come to grips with the danger confronting humanity, more attention must be paid to the background of this film than to the foreground.

But First: The Smaller Story

Oppenheimer’s personal story fuels the prototypical arguments over the degree of responsibility scientists bear for the consequences of the knowledge they create. To put it bluntly, how much blame does Oppenheimer deserve for unleashing the horrors of the nuclear age? How much personal responsibility does he bear for the massive death and destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

In a meeting with President Truman two months after the Hiroshima bombing, Oppenheimer meekly confessed to the president that he, Oppenheimer, felt he had “blood on his hands.” Truman was angered by the implication that killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians was to be regretted, and afterwards was heard to grumble, “Blood on his hands, dammit, he hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have.”(3)

Although Truman believed he deserved praise for ordering the destruction of Hiroshima, he was admitting to one of history’s most heinous war crimes. In my opinion, he accurately placed the moral onus where it belonged — on himself and his policymakers rather than on the scientists.

I would, however, also argue that right­wing Manhattan Project physicists like Edward Teller and Ernest O. Lawrence were indeed willingly complicit in the crimes against humanity.

Palpable Fear of a Nazi Nuke

Although Oppenheimer obviously felt remorse in the months and years following the bombing, his complicity in the matter was also far from innocent.

To understand that requires knowing why he and so many other leading scientists agreed to work on the U.S. atomic bomb project in the first place: They were legitimately terrified by the thought that Nazi Germany’s scientists might create such a weapon and use it to win the war and conquer the world. Many also estimated that Hitler’s physicists were two years ahead of them in a race to create the bomb.

In fact, there was no race, because the German military command had concluded that neither they nor their enemies could possibly create a nuclear weapon in time to affect the outcome of the war.

Nonetheless, it was the palpable fear of a Nazi nuke that motivated the great majority of the Manhattan Project scientists. But when Germany surrendered in May 1945, many concluded that their efforts were no longer necessary. Japan had not yet surrendered, but the atomic bomb had not been created to use against Japan (which was known not to be working on an atomic weapon of their own).

Most important was the widespread recognition that Japan was at that point already militarily defeated despite not having formally surrendered. When General Dwight D. Eisenhower first learned (at the Potsdam Conference in late July) of the plan to drop atomic bombs on Japan, he told Secretary of War Henry Stimson that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”(4)

Truman and his Air Force generals, however, were determined to go full speed ahead, and Oppenheimer, despite later misgivings, was fully and enthusiastically at the helm. The first atomic bomb was successfully detonated on July 16 in the Trinity test in New Mexico and the second at Hiroshima on August 6.

After the Trinity test, 250 of the Manhattan Project scientists signed a petition urging Truman not to drop the bomb on Japan without warning, and without first giving them an opportunity to formally surrender.

Oppenheimer refused to sign the petition, and Truman and his military policymakers ignored it. With Oppenheimer’s endorsement, it would have been significantly more difficult for them to ignore.
Although at that time Oppenheimer refused to heed the “defeated Japan” argument, in a speech three months after the bombing, he himself declared that the Hiroshima bomb was used “against an essentially defeated enemy,” and added, “it is a weapon for aggressors.”(5)

Most damning of all with regard to Oppenheimer’s culpability, in my opinion, was his close collaboration with the military on targeting the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Two weeks before that fateful occasion, Oppenheimer sat down with General Thomas Farrell and Lieutenant Colonel John Moynahan, who were charged with supervising the bombing run over Hiroshima. He coached them on exactly where and how to drop the bomb for maximum destructive effect.

“Don’t let them detonate it too high,” Colonel Moynahan quoted Oppenheimer as telling them. “Don’t let it go up [higher] or the target won’t get as much damage.”(6)

Oppenheimer’s Flaws?

During and immediately following the war and his tenure as head of the Manhattan Project research efforts at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oppenheimer projected a public persona of heroic stature. Meanwhile, he was making important enemies among warhawk policymakers who tried to undercut his authority by discrediting his character.

The primary wrecking tool they used against him was redbaiting, which was a potent weapon during the mass paranoia of the Cold War era. Secondarily, they circulated salacious information about his private sex life gleaned from FBI wiretaps.

Although Senator Joseph McCarthy was the most prominent demagogue among the redbaiters, and “McCarthyism” provided the context of Oppenheimer’s troubles, McCarthy himself did not play as direct a role in Oppenheimer’s downfall as might be expected. Oppenheimer’s primary enemies — above all Lewis Strauss, head of the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) — considered McCarthy a “clown” whom Oppenheimer could outsmart, so Strauss and his allies kept McCarthy at arm’s length in their campaign against Oppenheimer.(7)

Oppenheimer, almost everyone including his sympathetic biographers agree, was a flawed individual. Despite his brilliance as a scientist and an administrator, he exhibited a certain mix of arrogance and naïveté that caused him problems.

He underestimated his enemies and tended to flap his mouth too much in the mistaken belief that he could cleverly talk his way out of any compromising situation. Among other things, his glib tongue and misguided attempts to charm his enemies led him willy-nilly into “naming names” to the anticommunist inquisitors, a serious moral lapse that he came to bitterly regret.

Oppenheimer’s Communism

Was Oppenheimer a “card-carrying Communist”? That was the issue that dominated the public discourse on the case. Despite their obsessive efforts, J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI could never definitively prove that Oppenheimer had ever formally joined the Communist Party.

No one, least of all Oppenheimer himself, denied that as a young man he had been a “fellow traveler,” a close sympathizer of the CPUSA. The professional redbaiters sought to equate Communist sympathies with espionage and treason. One declared, “more probably than not J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.”(8)

But Oppenheimer’s attraction to the CPUSA was of an altogether different character. As his biographers adequately demonstrate, he was essentially “a New Deal liberal in the 1930s committed to supporting and working for racial equality, consumer protection, labor union rights and free speech.”9 He was also drawn to the CPUSA’s support of antifascist forces fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

Nonetheless, in the 1950s, redbaiting was a vile but potent political force in the United States that few were able to successfully rebuff, and Oppenheimer was especially vulnerable because he seemed reluctant to put up a fight against his accusers. Some commentators have attributed this to a martyr complex, but the complexities of Oppenheimer’s character render attempts to discern his motivations futile.

The broad outline and the outcome of the campaign against him, however, are clear enough. Although a 1954 AEC hearing declared Oppenheimer to be a loyal citizen, it also deemed him a “security risk,” and therefore the top-secret security clearance allowing him to serve in government agencies and laboratories was rescinded (or, technically, not renewed).

This has long fed the narrative of Oppenheimer as a latter-day Galileo, a hero of science whose persecution by forces of ignorance and unreason ended in his tragic martyrdom. That portrayal requires some qualification.

In the polarized American public discourse, Oppenheimer was permanently disgraced and discredited in the eyes of those who were under the influence of the redbaiters, but mainstream liberal and intellectual opinion quickly restored him to a pedestal of honor, as the film depicts in scenes where Oppenheimer is being fêted at a ceremony in December 1963 when President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the prestigious Enrico Fermi Prize for public service.

Meanwhile, in 1959 Oppenheimer’s long-time tormentor Lewis Strauss had himself suffered a bitter political disgrace by being denied Senate confirmation as Eisenhower’s secretary of commerce. The vote against Strauss was directly influenced by his contemptible behavior in the smear campaign against Oppenheimer.

And finally, although Oppenheimer lost his government positions when his security clearance was withheld, it was not as if, like many victims of McCarthyism, he’d been deprived of the ability to make a living. He remained a wealthy man and retained his highly prestigious position as head of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.

He had lost, it is true, the ability to directly participate in making governmental nuclear policy, which he strongly coveted, but as a consolation prize of sorts, he remained among the foremost public intellectuals in the United States.

The Far More Consequential Story: Three Historic Turning Points

But if Oppenheimer’s personal fate was not really all that tragic, the rest of us have not been as fortunate. His legacy to us, thanks primarily to elected and unelected nuclear policymakers of the United States, is a world plagued by never-ending “proxy wars” and continuously teetering on the brink of self-annihilation.

The first of three major historical turning points was the original sin of embarking on the all-out effort to create an ultimate weapon of mass destruction. The immorality that entailed was qualified by the legitimate fear that not doing so would mean that the Nazis would do it.

The second was far less morally ambiguous: the decision to actually use that weapon on Japan. The warhawks’ claim that A-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary to end the war without sacrificing more American GI lives has been thoroughly refuted by unbiased historians.(10) Unfortunately, the American public’s awareness of that reality continues to lag far behind the historians’ revelations.

Throughout the war, American policymakers had urged the Soviet Union to invade Japan, but the USSR had been unable to do so as long as the Nazi armies required their full attention. That changed in May 1945 with the German surrender. At the Potsdam Conference in July, less than a month before the A-bombing of Hiroshima, Truman “extracted a promise from Stalin that the Soviet Union would declare war on Japan by August 15.”(11)

By the beginning of August, however, Truman and his advisors had become fully confident that their new ultrapowerful weapon was ready to deploy. Their strategy suddenly underwent a 180-degree reversal. The atomic bomb, they calculated, would be able to force a Japanese surrender without Soviet help, which meant that the United States would not have to share the spoils of victory in the Pacific with the USSR in the postwar period.

The timing of the bomb drops was thus dictated by the need to beat Stalin’s August 15th deadline. That was the misanthropic motive for the single greatest crime against humanity in world history: incinerating and irradiating hundreds of thousands of Japanese men, women, and children on August 6th and 9th, 1945.

The cynicism of the nuclear policymakers was embedded in their strategies all along. The military commander of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves, is portrayed as a good guy in the film and in the biography because for the most part he defended and protected Oppenheimer against his redbaiting enemies.

But if Groves was a hero of the small story, his role in the really important story was far from benign. His view of the mission to invent nuclear weapons was typical of the military mindset. In 1944, as he was heading the Manhattan Project, he made clear that its intended target was neither Germany nor Japan: “You realize of course that the main purpose of this project is to subdue the Russians.”(12)

Ten years later in testimony to the AEC, he confirmed that outlook: “There was never from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this project any illusion on my part but that Russia is our enemy and that the project was conducted on that basis.”(13)

The third, and most consequential of the Cold War turning points, was the decision by American policymakers to pursue the invention and production of a “Super Bomb.”

In Oppenheimer’s meeting with Truman shortly after the Japanese surrender, Truman asked Oppenheimer to guess how long he thought it would take the Soviet Union to create an atomic bomb. Oppenheimer said he didn’t know, to which Truman triumphantly replied: “Never!”(14)

None of the nuclear physicists had any such illusions; they knew the Soviet science community was fully capable of producing an atomic bomb. The accurate answer was four years. In August 1949, the end of the U.S. nuclear monopoly prompted the policymakers to consider upping the ante by creating a thousand-times-more-powerful weapon envisioned by theoretical physicists: the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb.

To his great credit, Oppenheimer was fervently on the morally right side of that policy debate. His rightwing colleagues Edward Teller and Ernest O. Lawrence were on the wrong side, which turned out to be the winning side — but their advocacy was most likely not the key factor in the tragic decision.

Oppenheimer had argued that such a weapon would have absolutely no legitimate military use — it could only serve as an instrument of genocide. Furthermore, it would mark the point of no return in a nuclear arms race that could only prove disastrous.

To the argument that the Soviet Union could not be trusted to uphold its end of an agreement to ban thermonuclear weapons, the physicists declared that trust was unnecessary. Inventing a hydrogen bomb, they explained, absolutely required testing, and secret thermonuclear explosions were impossible. Therefore, banning thermonuclear testing would be tantamount to a weapons ban, and no nation could violate the ban without the rest of the world knowing.

Oppenheimer chaired a committee composed mainly of nuclear physicists charged with advising the Atomic Energy Commission. Eight of its nine members met in October 1949 to discuss their position on the hydrogen bomb issue; they arrived at a consensus to “oppose a crash program to develop the Super on scientific, technical, and moral grounds.”(15)

Truman gave lip-service to considering the humanistic arguments of the physicists, but his decision was dictated by the bloodthirsty Air Force generals and politicians who were clamoring for a first strike against the Soviet Union.

Senator Brien McMahon, chairman of the Joint Atomic Energy Committee, believed war with the Soviet Union was “inevitable” and declared that the United States should “blow them off the face of the earth, quick, before they do the same to us.”(16)

So it was no surprise when, on January 31, 1950, Truman publicly declared his support to the development of the hydrogen bomb. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. And here we are today, defenselessly surrounded by 10,000 thermonuclear warheads on hair triggers — the means of our own collective extinction as a species.

But What About Stalin…?

The primary public justification for creating thermonuclear weapons has always been, “If we don’t do it, Stalin (or the Russians/Soviets/Communists) will.” This, like the arguments for nuking Japan, was cynical and based on false premises. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Soviet archives were opened to historians, and they provided ample evidence that Stalin’s main postwar concern was to avoid military conflict with the United States.

“At the end of World War II, Stalin reduced his army from 11,356,000 in May 1945 to 2,874,000 in June 1947 — suggesting that even under Stalin, the Soviet Union had neither the capability nor the intention to launch a war of aggression.”(17)

By stoking anticommunist hysteria to scare the bejesus out of the American public, the U.S. architects of the Cold War bore far more responsibility than Stalin for the suicidal postwar nuclear arms race. The crucial arms control proposals advocated by Oppenheimer and his allies were never allowed an honest hearing.

I will give the final word to Isidor I. Rabi, who was Oppenheimer’s peer as a theoretical physicist but far superior in moral wisdom. Despite their friendship and Rabi’s admiration for Oppenheimer as a scientist, he resisted Oppenheimer’s best efforts to entice him to join the laboratory at Los Alamos. Rabi told Oppenheimer that he didn’t want “the culmination of three centuries of physics” to be a weapon of mass destruction.(18)


  1. See: Alex Wellerstein, Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States, 2021.
    back to text
  2. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus.
    back to text
  3. Op cit., 332.
    back to text
  4. Op cit., 301.
    back to text
  5. Op cit., 324.
    back to text
  6. Op cit., 314.
    back to text
  7. Op cit., 471-472.
    back to text
  8. Op cit., 478.
    back to text
  9. Op cit., 500.
    back to text
  10. See: Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam: The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with the Soviet Union (1965).
    back to text
  11. American Prometheus, 301.
    back to text
  12. Op cit., 284.
    back to text
  13. Op cit., 275.
    back to text
  14. Op cit., 331.
    back to text
  15. Op cit., 421.
    back to text
  16. Op cit., 424.
    back to text
  17. Op cit., 452.
    back to text
  18. Op cit., 211-12.
    back to text

September-October 2023, ATC 226

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *