After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Oppenheimer saw immediately that any nation with adequate resources would be eventually able to build a weapon, and that something as gargantuan as an H-bomb had no possible military function. It could only be a mechanism for genocide.
As he tried to use his immense stature to positively influence nuclear policy, he was quickly steamrolled by McCarthyism and national overconfidence. The Christopher Nolan film dramatizes Truman’s smug certainty that the U.S. had a monopoly on the bomb, including the soon to be built H-bomb. Almost immediately spies spirited the technical knowledge for both fission and thermonuclear weapons to the Soviets. The U.S. monopoly dissolved, and the arms race Oppenheimer feared had begun.
In 1959 my Princeton roommate and I were pressed into service in an odd effort to provide sufficient bodies for a birthday party for one of the Oppenheimer children.
Becoming aware of our interest in art, Oppenheimer invited us into a small windowless room to show off a radiant Van Gogh, one of the late paintings of the fields outside the asylum of St. Remy.
Was it possible that this soft-spoken reed of a man with melancholy eyes was the legendary force that had corralled a vast and fractious team of scientific egos into building (in one of the all-time great euphemisms) a world-ending “gadget”?
The birthday ended sadly. Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, alcoholically blurry and drink in hand, descended from upstairs into the entryway as we were departing. “What the hell are you staring at?” she said to me, only she didn’t say “hell.” Hell was what the Washington establishment had visited upon her husband by removing his security clearance as the price for his misgivings about what he had wrought, including his refusal to fully assent to the H-bomb project. Kitty had been ravaged alongside him.
The biography on which the film is based quotes a section of an essay Oppenheimer published in the New York Times on June 9, 1946 laying out his ideas for the control of nuclear weapons:
“[Our plan] proposes that in the field of atomic energy there be set up a world government. That in this field there be a renunciation of sovereignty. That in this field there be no legal veto power. That in this field there be international law.”
Idealistic? Perhaps. But if anyone then could have peered down the time stream, they might have given it a shot, to avoid what Oppenheimer knew loomed ahead. What do we see ahead of us? An accelerating drift toward a twin nuclear/ecological waterfall, the avoidance of which requires a spirit of cooperation equaling that of Oppenheimer’s team at Los Alamos.
Were he alive today, he would be appalled by just how many nuclear weapons had been built by the early 1980s. But he would be happy that arms control treaties had reduced their numbers. He would be relieved that so far they have not been used on people again. He would rejoice in the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. And surely he would be over the moon about the success of the Webb telescope, a multinational scientific feat as positive as the bomb was negative.
Insufficiently acknowledged by sovereign powers, both authoritarian and democratic, nuclear and non-nuclear, is the fact that sovereignty has already eroded far more than it ever would have been through any international agreement to renounce nuclear weapons. Sovereignty is an administrative necessity that protects national identity, sometimes existentially (e.g., Ukraine does not belong to Putin), but is now increasingly transcended by the reality that we live on one small planet facing challenges that can only be solved transnationally.
Specific to weapons and war, sovereignty is growing more and more shaky in the context of inadvertent computer and human error. Our security depends upon the professionalism of the Russian military, and vice versa. So too with all the nuclear powers, even as they spend vast sums to renew their nuclear weapons. No expert or general, however tactically brilliant, would be in full control of a slide into the kind of catastrophe that nearly occurred during the Cuban crisis of 1962, and could happen again in a conflict with China over Taiwan or Putin v NATO on Ukraine.
Even on the level of conventional war, Mr. Putin is discovering he will have to destroy Ukraine in order to “save” it. Let’s pray that he understands that escalating to nukes won’t help him.
Our distracted political culture in the U.S. does not encourage dialogue around such difficult issues. The popularity of Nolan’s film is an opportunity for citizens to ask probing questions of the presidential candidates that spur fresh thinking on nuclear policy. For example, would Former Secretary of Defense William Perry’s idea of standing down our entire aging fleet of land-based ICBMs be destabilizing “appeasement” of Russia and China, or a unilateral initiative that could elicit further positive responses?
The anguish of Robert Oppenheimer, who unleashed destruction beyond measure and then tried his best to stop its further spread, reminds us that America bears special responsibility for creating the kind of world he hoped for, where the nuclear curse is finally lifted.