Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster film “Oppenheimer,” now in theaters, explores the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer—the so-called “father” of the atomic bomb and one of history’s most famous and controversial Jews.
One of the authors of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning book upon which the film is based, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, spoke at a July 16 event at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan.
Kai Bird, who penned the volume with Martin J. Sherwin, told those assembled that he hopes the film’s prominence will lead to a national discussion about the need to prevent future nuclear attacks.
“We’ve been living with these weapons now for over 70 years, and we’ve become a little complacent,” he said. “The story is not over.”
Nuclear bombs have not been used in combat since the U.S. attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. “But the story could still end badly, and we have a war now in Europe and the Ukraine where Mr. Putin is threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons,” Bird said of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. “If he did so, they are not military weapons. He would use them simply as a weapon of terror to terrorize the Ukrainians into ending the war.”
A bomb to end all wars
Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves chose Oppenheimer to head the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb in Los Alamos, N.M. Bird told the audience at the museum that Oppenheimer was motivated to build a bomb before Adolf Hitler was able to do so. But after Germany’s defeat in 1945, some wondered why there was still a need for a bomb.
Oppenheimer’s rationalization was that the bomb dropped on Japan could end all future wars, according to Bird.
The author rejected the view that dropping the bomb was necessary to convince Japan to surrender and that a second bomb was necessary after Japan didn’t stand down in the aftermath of the first one.
Due to Russia’s involvement, Japan was near surrendering before the first bomb was even dropped; according to Bird, it first wanted assurances that its emperor would not be hanged.
Three months after the bombing, Oppenheimer told a Philadelphia crowd that although it might think the bombs’ $2 billion price tag was hefty, “it is actually cheap, and any nation anywhere in the world, however poor, that decides to get this weapon will be able to do so,” said Bird.
“So he’s predicting North Korea and Pakistan and India and Israel and soon, Iran, and he knows there are no secrets—that the cat is out of the bag so to speak,” he added. (Washington, Jerusalem and others have said that Iran will not be allowed to become a nuclear power.)
Playing the fool
Bird also spoke of an exchange between Albert Einstein and Oppenheimer, whose security clearance was revoked in a “kangaroo court” in 1954. The father of relativity told Oppenheimer that fighting the government was a fool’s errand, but the latter told Einstein that he had to use his celebrity to convince the United States not to keep building increasingly dangerous weapons in an arms race with Russia.
“Einstein looks at him and says, ‘Robert, why are you doing this? You know, you’re Mr. Atomic,’” Bird told the audience. “‘If they don’t want you, you should walk away. You don’t need to subject yourself to any kind of witch hunt.’”
When Oppenheimer left, Einstein turned to his secretary and said in Yiddish, “There goes a nahr, a fool,” said Bird.
The Jewish businessman Lewis Strauss—a future U.S. commerce secretary and then chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission—drove the revocation of Oppenheimer’s clearance, which the U.S. government stated was flawed and which it overturned last December.
Strauss advocated for the hydrogen bomb, while Oppenheimer did not, and Strauss, who attended a Conservative synagogue, didn’t like that Oppenheimer was so casual about his Jewish ancestry, according to Bird.
But more than anything, it was personal.
“Lewis Strauss was someone who came to despise Oppenheimer,” Bird said. “As he got to know Oppenheimer, he began to loathe him. He couldn’t understand his rudeness. These two men were like oil and water—really bad chemistry.”
An intellectual, Oppenheimer was also a student of Hindu scripture. When the first test of the bomb succeeded, Oppenheimer told his brother simply, “It worked.” But to a New York Times reporter, he quoted from the “Bhagavad Gita”: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The Nobel Prize-winning physicist and friend of Oppenheimer’s, Isidor Rabi, born into an Orthodox Jewish family, purportedly said something that Bird takes to be at least partly in jest: “Well, Robert might have been a better physicist if he had studied the Talmud more and less the Gita.”
Oppenheimer did not go to synagogue and rarely spoke about Judaism, but he was aware of antisemitism at Harvard University, as well as when he visited Germany and England, according to Bird. He added that Oppenheimer donated to refugee organizations that may have helped some of his distant relatives escape Germany.