Oppenheimer and the Politics of Nuclear Proliferation

Oppenheimer, a blockbuster biographical film directed by Christopher Nolan, is showing on the big screen in many countries. Julius Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist born in 1904 and credited as ‘The father of Atom bomb’. The film draws directly from American Prometheus, a 2005 biography of Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, which offers a thorough portrait.

In 1943 Oppenheimer was recruited to spearhead ‘The Manhattan Project’, which was a research project created by the United States with other allies during World War II, that produced the first nuclear weapons. A whopping $2 billion was spent on this project, some 78 years back! “Like it or not, J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived,” Nolan said at CinemaCon 2023.

The physicists had discovered nuclear fission, just as the shadow of world war II descended over Europe in 1939. After the discovery of nuclear fission, it was quickly understood that nuclear fission in a large amount of uranium could produce a cascading chain reaction that would release an incredible amount of energy. The military applications of this discovery were too obvious.

The film is about the race to harness the power of the atomic bomb and its moral quandaries. Oppenheimer felt that the creation of the atomic bomb was inevitable, and he helped create it presumably for fear that the German Nazi regime would use its power first. The Germans officially launched their nuclear project shortly after the invasion of Poland. Werner Heisenberg, awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics, was chosen to lead the German nuclear project. In 1941, Roosevelt launched The Manhattan Project due to fear that the Germans might be able to create a bomb first. Thus began the race to create the atomic bomb.

The moral paradox evident to a discerning eye is that Oppenheimer was aware that the German physicists were not actively working towards bomb technology, due to lack of adequate resources. Heisenberg even met with Niels Bohr who was working with the Allies to discuss mutually agreeing to not build a bomb. During the course of The Manhattan Project, Hitler was already dead. “Trinity Test” was conducted in July 1945, whereas Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945. Meanwhile Harry S. Truman became the 33rd president of the United States in 1945. He served as the Vice President under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

At 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945, Los Alamos scientists detonated a plutonium bomb at a test site located on the U.S. Air Force base at Alamogordo, New Mexico, some 120 miles south of Albuquerque. Oppenheimer chose the name “Trinity” for the test site, inspired by the poetry of John Donne.

After the end of Nazi regime, the raison d’etre for the production and use of nuclear bombs had changed. According to Truman and others in his administration, the use of the atomic bomb was intended to cut the war in the Pacific short, avoiding a U.S. invasion of Japan and saving hundreds of thousands of American lives.

Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, had a yield of 15 kilotons. Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, had a yield of 20 kilotons. These weapons had a massive impact. Initial estimates place the death toll from Hiroshima at 70,000 and the death toll from Nagasaki at 40,000 people. A later estimate puts the deaths at 140,000 for Hiroshima and 70,000 for Nagasaki. Tens of thousands were injured or fell sick by the bomb’s effects, but not killed outright. On August 15, 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender.

The popular post-war US narrative holds President Harry Truman as making the right decision to drop the bomb rather than launch a massive invasion of Japan with US forces. But every August there are services of mourning in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, filled with accusations that the United States is guilty of a war crime for the bombings. As per some surveys, 40% of Japanese opine that US had no other option except to use the bomb. Probably, Japan could have been appeased with less lethal means. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not only halted the World War II, but had also catapulted US as a military superpower.

Oppenheimer’s moral dilemma is as significant as the atom bomb. As Oppenheimer witnessed that first mushroom cloud from Trinity Test, the following lines from the Gita burst forth from his mouth — “Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds”. What Oppenheimer and other scientists have in common is that “they all suffered from this terrible moral dilemma of how do you end a war, because you have to kill people to save people,” former TIME editor Evan Thomas says. “And in this case, not just kill a few people, but kill 200,000 people to save more people. Nobody wants to be in that position.”

Oppenheimer’s attempts after World War II to constrain the new military technology and to stop an arms race made him a persona non grata for the American establishment of the J Edgar Hoover-Joseph McCarthy. In power politics, only the deeds of a successful scientist matter, and not his words or moral dilemmas.

During the last eight decades, there has a stupendous proliferation of nuclear weapons, either through open or clandestine weapons production by various countries. At the beginning of 2021, it is assessed that US Defense Department maintained an estimated stockpile of approximately 3,800 nuclear warheads. As of early 2022, experts estimate that Russia has a stockpile of approximately 4,477 nuclear warheads. China, India, UK, France, North Korea, Pakistan and several other countries possess nuclear weapons. An all-out nuclear war has a 440-Mt explosive yield, equivalent to about 150 times all the bombs detonated in World War II. This kind of a full-scale nuclear war is estimated to cause 770 million direct deaths, apart from many other deaths due to a subsequent nuclear winter.

These weapons of mass destruction are supposed to act as a deterrent to safeguard a nation’s sovereignty, but in some cases, they have turned into weapons of blackmail to safeguard the power of dictators and nationalist leaders.

At the 49th G7 summit held from 19 to 21 May 2023 in Hiroshima city, the G7’s commitment to a “world without nuclear weapons” was reaffirmed. Considering the scale of nuclear stockpile, a “world without nuclear weapons” seems like a pipe dream. Nuclear-powered politics is the reality.

[Photo by National Nuclear Security Administration, via Wikimedia Commons]

The view and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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