The Question of J. Robert Oppenheimer in the 21st Century

Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin won the Pulitzer Prize in biography in 2006 for American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The authors offer a public lecture on Tuesday, March 15 at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, SD. In this exclusive essay on the Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Kent Meyers examines the political and scientific environment surrounding Oppenheimer and the moral dilemma that followed, as presented in Bird and Sherwin's book. 

By Kent Meyers

In their biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin trace the evolution of three intersecting strands of thought that have shaped the modern world: the evolution of communism from its 1930’s, quasi-liberal form into a rigid, authoritarian ideology; the evolution of quantum mechanics; and the evolution of our country’s thinking about the strategic uses of atomic weaponry. In the course of Oppenheimer’s life, communism evolved from a political idea not so far-removed from labor unions and Roosevelt’s New Deal into its Stalinist manifestation, while quantum mechanics evolved from basic insights concerning sub-atomic particles into a comprehensive theory with power to affect nearly every aspect of our lives, including how we think of and conduct warfare.

Kai Bird  - BHSU.jpgMartin Sherwin - BHSU.jpegAmerican Prometheus book cover 2.jpg

Oppenheimer, of course, was the primary driving force behind this third evolution. When U.S. leaders asked him to spearhead the development of an atomic bomb, the need to do so was unambiguous — the threat that Germany might develop it first. Even today the thought of Hitler having sole use of the atomic bomb is chilling. By the time Oppenheimer’s team achieved the Trinity test, however, Germany had surrendered, leaving the United States in possession of a weapon that represented immense investments of capital and creativity but that suddenly had no clear purpose. Though Bird and Sherwin do not argue for or against the bomb’s use, they present evidence that it was used not to win the war against Japan but for the more ambivalent reason of forcing Japan to unconditional surrender and keeping the Soviet Union from sharing the victory. Pervading the book’s discussion of this evolution in thinking about the bomb — from necessary weapon to political device — is a sense that all that commitment and effort produced an intellectual momentum — and inertia — that made the non-use of the bomb beyond actual consideration, as if it could be talked about but never truly imagined.

GrovesOppenheimerLarge.jpgOppenheimer (pictured with General Leslie R. Groves from the Manhattan Project) agreed to the decision to bomb Hiroshima, but once the war was over he joined other scientists in opposing the further development of atomic weaponry. With his close ties to the nation’s leaders, he led the scientific community in a two-pronged approach to the threat of nuclear proliferation: first, since scientific ideas cannot be contained, open the science to the Soviet Union and, second, on the basis of that openness, negotiate non-proliferation treaties. He was opposed by scientists like Edward Teller who wanted to develop the hydrogen, or thermonuclear bomb, and by politicians, Harry Truman foremost among them, who feared and mistrusted the Soviet Union and believed that the United States could keep nuclear technology from Russian scientists and, by so doing, keep Russia from ever catching up in an arms race.

Oppenheimer lost the argument. Attempted secrecy became the order of the day, and within a few years Russian scientists had worked out atomic-bomb technology, and within a few more years both nations had thermonuclear weapons, and within a few more years both nations had multiplied those weapons, like breeding rabbits, into stockpiles, and the Cold War had begun, the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction had settled like blackmail over the world, and both nations were throwing trillions of virgin dollars and rubles into the rumbling volcano they had created. For fifty years they would continue to throw this wealth to maintain the MAD illusion of a threat that could never be acted on.

Bird and Sherwin are writing a biography and do not comment on the rightness of our political leaders’ belief in secrecy, mistrust, and power—or, conversely, their non-belief in openness and diplomacy. For my part, I do not know whether the Soviet Union was, in fact, a mortal threat to our existence or whether we imagined them into one and then by our policies created the enemy we imagined — though this latter possibility seems a strong and likely one. In any case, as the story of Oppenheimer’s life traces the evolution of these three strands of complex ideas — one ideological, one scientific/technological, one strategic and political — into their modern form and twists them together, a vision of a different future that might have been opens like a door in history pushed wide for a moment before being slammed shut.

Oppenheimer feared nuclear proliferation and believed the only way to prevent it was to agree upon the terrible power of the weapons and the logical conclusion that results from that agreement — their non-production. He believed that openness, for all the uncertainty it exposed us to, was less dangerous than futile attempts at secrecy — scientific principles, after all, being hidden by nothing but the world itself and not by the coded texts of government. Since secrecy was impossible, logic lay in sharing the knowledge and by so doing building trust and diplomacy. Unfortunately, we live in a world where Oppenheimer’s fears of secrecy have been realized beyond his expectations, and the logic that structured international politics for 50 years was, weirdly, codified in the acronym MAD.

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Mutual Assured Destruction was modeled in game theory, the disincentive to act supposedly more powerful than the incentive to — specifically, a first strike not merely countered but overwhelmed by the capacity of the other player’s second strike. What we have in the world now, however, is proliferation not only of the weaponry but of the players — and with additional players, disincentives become less clear, chance and randomness enter, and religion, paranoia, pride. Not merely the United States and the Soviet Union, not merely France and England and China, but North Korea now and maybe, or almost, Iran, nations our nation has identified as terrorist-supporting states. Just beyond we can see proliferation that breaks the boundaries of the nation-state itself, where enough fissionable uranium to make a bomb gets into the hands of someone who is willing to put it in a pickup with a gun-type trigger and just for the literal hell of it blow himself up in the middle of Paris or London or Washington D.C.

So you have to wonder: What if Oppenheimer and other scientists had been listened to? Our government’s worst fears could hardly have been realized more fantastically than they have been by the policies of intimidation and secrecy we instituted. If the Soviet Union, in spite of our attempts to contain nuclear knowledge, caught up to us in an arms race, then surely, had treaties failed, we could have caught up to them. If disincentives to use the bombs could extort homage and money from the entire world for 50 years, then surely other disincentives might have been at least tried in order to prevent their being built in the first place. I don’t think I’m being terribly naïve to think that the very worst thing that could have happened had we taken Oppenheimer’s advice is the world we have right now. Who needs a fantasy novel to arrive at our current dystopia? Would any of us actually choose it? American Prometheus shows us that the opportunity to avoid it existed.

The two major dystopian elements of our current world — terrorism and climate change — can be traced back to opportunities lost in those three woven-together strands of thought that Oppenheimer’s life and work exemplify. It may be useless to ask what might have happened had Stalin not molded Communism into its repressive and authoritarian form, but it is not so useless to ask what might have happened had our own nation responded with a less vigorous sense of threat. Stalin died, and Kruschev pounded the podium to convince the Politburo he was tough, a drama he needed to enact precisely because he was attempting to loosen Communism’s stranglehold on his country. Had we not been engaged in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union by then, is it completely foolish to think he might have had more political room to accomplish that loosening? And had we chosen not to bomb Hiroshima — and then double-down on Nagasaki — our own promises not to use nuclear weapons on a first-strike basis would have been far more believable, our own stance less threatening. And had both the United States and the Soviet Union, freed from the need to sustain the arms race and funnel trillions of dollars into nuclear weaponry instead felt free to turn that money toward peaceful nuclear uses, we might have developed far safer nuclear reactors than we did, and felt less need to keep the ones we had online past their safe working lives. With those trillions of dollars running through a peaceful —instead of a Cold War — economy, we might have felt free to shutter Three Mile Island before its meltdown or the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl. We might be running second- and third-generation breeder-reactor power plants now instead of the massive coal-fired ones we depend on. And might not those reactors be safer than anything our imaginations, formed by the disasters of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, will allow?

Storms_grandchildren.jpgCertainly in the long run, they would be safer than fossil fuels. No less an atmospheric scientist than the sober and reserved James Hansen, whose measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide first led to our understanding of human-caused climate change, believes that, for all their uncertainties, nuclear generators are necessary if we are to prevent both atmospheric and economic disaster (Storms of My Grandchildren). And if this is true for the future, what would it have meant if, for the past 50 years, instead of investing in fear and dread and threat, we had invested in diplomacy and in peacetime uses of nuclear energy, refining as we did its safety and reliability?

It is possible to see in that glimpse of the future a shining world of safe nuclear energy being produced under a stable atmosphere, with happy polar bears and New York City as far from the Atlantic Ocean as it ever was, and a Middle East not so warped into intransigence by our economic addiction to its oil and the policies that dependence fostered. It’s also possible to see a landscape devastated by uranium mining, and nuclear waste piling up, and in spite of all our best efforts, accidents that punch holes in the earth and sky and irradiate the air, while our automobiles, if not our power plants, continue to run on fossil fuels..

So I won’t get all utopian here, but American Prometheus convinces me that something at least less dystopian than our current world was potential in those months when J. Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr and other scientists tried to tell our government that science cannot be kept under wraps, that secrecy is impossible, and that openness, for all its difficulties, is not merely what a free government does because that’s what it is, but because anything else doesn’t work.

The standard interpretation of the cry-wolf story is that if you want people to listen to you, raise the alarm only when the wolf has arrived. That interpretation puts the entire burden on the boy who’s been given a lonely, boring job. The necessary, corollary lesson is for the villagers, who lose their sheep and livelihood and the dreamy boy they loved in spite of all his trickery: If you’re going to hire a watcher, listen when the cry rings out, and if you discover you can’t trust the watcher, send a watcher you can trust, and if that watcher turns out to be so sensitive to wolf scent and wolf scat, cloud of wolf breath just over the hill and wolf howl in the distance and wolf pant behind rock and wolf footpad soft in the fog, that she calls wolf when the wolf is only nearing and not yet attacking and so disappears when you come huffing and clomping, belly swaying and hips swinging, from your kitchen and forge with pitchfork and club and knife — so what? When you hear the cry, rouse yourself. Rouse your neighbors too. Your fears were real enough when you sent out the watcher. Why would they diminish just because she does her job too well or the wolf has gotten braver?

American Prometheus brings us the call, echoing in our history, of that first, so-sensitive watcher who, for all his faults and weaknesses, knew the wolf because he helped create it, and who went on seeing the wolf even though so many of the rest of us thought he was imagining things. Bird and Sherwin quote Oppenheimer, speaking of Niels Bohr: “I think that if we had acted, wisely and clearly and discretely in accordance with his views, we might have been freed of our rather sleazy sense of omnipotence, and our delusions about the effectiveness of secrecy, and turned our society toward a healthier vision of a future worth living for.”

Meyers, Kent.jpgAbout the Author

Kent Meyers is the author of a memoir, a book of short fiction and three novels, most recently Twisted Tree, which won a Society of Midland Authors award and a High Plains Book Award. He has written for numerous literary journals and magazines, including a recent essay in Harper’s Magazine on the search for dark matter in the Sanford Underground Research Facility. Meyers teaches at Black Hills State University and in Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop. He is also a regular presenter at the annual South Dakota Festival of Books. 

This essay is an abbreviated version on the subject of American Prometheus. The full version is available by request from the author. Contact the South Dakota Humanities Council at (605) 688-6113 or for more details.