Reflections on “Oppenheimer” and Greatness
[Image from Wikimedia Commons]
The most chilling scene in the Oppenheimer film was not the detonation of the atomic bomb, but the hysterical elation on the part of its creators as J. Robert Oppenheimer, aka the father of the atomic bomb, congratulates the crowd of scientists and technicians on the results of their hard work. The scene starts as one would expect, with Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project, addressing the team of people whose diligence and devotion to secrecy over a period of three years led to the successful testing of the nuclear weapon the Americans feared their Nazi enemies would develop first.
But there is something off about the scene. It goes on too long. Oppenheimer’s delivery of congratulations is wooden and robotic. He is obviously unable to share the elation of those he is addressing. Increasingly the camera focuses on their cheering, screaming faces, and the colors on the screen become more saturated. Uglier. The faces begin to melt and bubble, lose all color, morph into something else in a foreshadowing of what will happen to those on whom the bomb will be dropped, and we realize just what it is these people are cheering for: nuclear destruction.
This is not, by Oppenheimer’s account, what actually happened. According to Oppenheimer, who described the scene in a 1965 documentary, “A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.” But the scene works in the film to dramatically portray the implications of the success of those who worked on the project.
Part of the premise of Oppenheimer is that once this horrible weapon was let out of its box, despite the fine intentions of many of those who created it with the goal of defeating fascism, there was no controlling its power. In that moment, America became the most powerful nation on Earth.
A little more than four years would pass before the Soviet Union developed a nuclear weapon. And for those four years, America was “great,” if one wants to define great as all powerful. So powerful it could foment an anti-communist hysteria that destroyed the civil liberties of many Americans. So potent it could wrench control of the deadliest weapon the world had ever seen out of the hands of the man who created it and bully scientists who defended him into helpless silence. This greatness came at a cost: since 1945 the United is estimated to have spent a minimum of $5.5 trillion dollars to manufacture 70,000 nuclear bombs and warheads.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set the hands on its Doomsday Clock, which tracks the threat of nuclear war, at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been, largely due to Russian aggression in Ukraine. In this month in which people around the world commemorate the use of the atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we do well to recall Oppenheimer’s most famous quotation: Now I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds. But according to scholars of Sanskrit, this quotation has a different meaning as used in Hindu scriptures than it has in the context of the Oppenheimer film. In the Bhagavad Gita, these words are spoken by the Hindu deity Vishnu to describe one phase in the endless cycle of destruction and creation. As portrayed in the film, the atomic bomb developed at Los Alamos leads only to destruction, but we have an opportunity to create something as well: a world in which no nation can ever be so powerful so as to hold the rest of the world hostage to its unbridled pursuit of dominance.
How will we do that? I have no idea. But as the Oppenheimer film shows us, the United States spent $2 billion, the equivalent of about $30 billion today, to bring together some of the most brilliant scientists and technicians in the world to Los Alamos to develop a bomb to prevent a Nazi victory. Surely we could spend at least that much today bring together a cohort of brilliant people, perhaps in conjunction with other nations, to figure out a way to get rid of the nuclear threat engendered by the work done on top of that New Mexico mountain and maybe, just maybe, end the scourge of war.