Oppenheimer’s Moral Ironies

A Study in Unintended Consequences

Oppenheimer, right, with Gen. Leslie Groves, military head of the Manhattan Project, 1942 (Source)

With the recent release of the film Oppenheimer (which I found regrettably problematic and skewed) we all might take a moment to reflect on the moral context that informed the development of the atomic bomb, whose fateful role in history was not inevitable and, given the aggressive pace of Allied military progress against the Nazi and Japanese forces, may not even have been necessary. This is one irony among others that enveloped the working life and professional fate of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who, during WWII, was singularly responsible for leading the creation of the atomic bomb.

One of the incongruous paradoxes of modern history is how Leslie Groves, a distinguished Army general known for success in realizing massive projects (his credits include the design of the Pentagon), managed to recruit Oppenheimer to lead the development of the most destructive bomb in human history. This seems mysterious because Oppenheimer had always been a committed pacifist and naively believed that the ideal of universal freedom and equality could be implemented in his own lifetime. This was a view that he shared with many Americans who, in the decades leading up to WWII, sympathized with the goals of the American Communist Party. As we will see below, it was this alliance that, years after the atomic bomb was developed, led directly to Oppenheimer’s professional destruction.

In what I believe is true for many scientists and other thinkers who have worked to government specifications they did not fully understand, Oppenheimer’s life traces several contradictions between personal belief and government service. These contradictions may yet apply to future scientists who, like Oppenheimer, believe that they are really serving some Greater Good, only to later learn that they were in fact pawns of political machination.

Three such ironies marked Oppenheimer’s work and fate, and can be quickly summarized.

  1. Recognized Pioneer but Disinherited Father. One of the darkest turns in Oppenheimer’s professional trajectory emerged after he, a theoretical physicist who had devoted his life to pure science, became known as the “father” of the atomic bomb, which was the antonym of pure science. Called upon to lead the bomb design effort out of fear that Hitler’s own efforts on a similar bomb could kill many more Jews and other innocent people, Oppenheimer (who was Jewish and outraged by Nazi anti-semitism) went headlong into a commitment that involved not only creating a bomb, but an entire city for research, Los Alamos, New Mexico, where scientists could work in secrecy. After the success of the bomb, Oppenheimer became especially ambivalent about what it could do, and was suspicious that it could be misused for political purposes (this proves that what conditions might even constitute “proper use” of such a bomb were never thought out, either by Oppenheimer or anyone else). After witnessing the first successful test explosion at the Trinity site in New Mexico, Oppenheimer famously quoted a line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” What the quote misses is that Krishna, the God who uttered these words, had done so only after changing into the appearance of death, without imposing any harm on himself or others. Rather, Krishna spoke these words to Arjuna, the soldier prince who summoned Krishna in a moment of ambivalence while his massive army was poised to battle an equally colossal enemy clan. Prior to signaling the start of the attack, Arjuna had second thoughts: is this battle, which will cause so much death, noble and worthwhile? Arjuna’s inner questioning was all the more poignant given that the opposing clan comprised members of his own extended family. Summoning Krishna, Arjuna repentantly wishes to avoid battle, and asks Krishna to clarify the need for such carnage. Krishna’s words, of which Oppenheimer’s quote is a part, eventually catapulted Arjuna to use his own will to vanquish his enemies in battle, which he did. Since Krishna does not actually go into battle, and leaves the decision to fight up to Arjuna, there is no justifiable comparison between the case of the atomic bomb to Krishna’s visual appearance. Rather, if we might, Oppenheimer was playing the part of Arjuna, the protagonist under whose hand the monumental battle took place — but it was always his choice as to whether to make the bomb, he was not forced into this decision. The Krishna of the atomic bomb story, therefore, was General Leslie Groves, who recruited Oppenheimer and persuaded him to develop the bomb before the Nazis completed their own bomb using similar technology. Of course, Oppenheimer was perhaps not referring to himself as Krishna, but to the bomb.
  1. Clearance Given, Clearance Forfeited. After the war, Oppenheimer became an advocate for the peaceful control of nuclear energy and voiced concerns about a nuclear arms race, which he had almost clairvoyantly predicted during the development of the bomb. This, combined with past associations with left-wing movements (which were prevalent in intellectual circles during the 1930s), made him a target during the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the 1950s. In a second twist, mentioned earlier, Oppenheimer, instrumental in developing the atomic bomb for the United States, was stripped of his own security clearance in 1954, after a controversial hearing that questioned his loyalty to the nation. This event effectively ended his direct influence on US nuclear policy. Professionally, he was finished. And emotionally, he never recovered, either from the devastation that the bomb had caused or from his subsequent banishment from further nuclear developments. After recruiting hundreds of America’s top scientists to leave their university and research positions in order to live at an unmarked location in New Mexico and follow his lead on the development of something he could not even divulge at the time, this later outcome must have indeed been one of excruciating disillusionment.
  1. Bestowed the Greatest of Recognitions, yet Denied the Noblest of Prizes. Counting his significant contributions to theoretical physics alone, Oppenheimer was already one of the most brilliant intellectual minds of his generation. Nevertheless, he never received the Nobel Prize in Physics, despite his vast contributions to the field, and it is especially ironic that many of his contemporaries, and even some of his students, such as Richard Feynman, did receive the honor. Why Oppenheimer never won the prize may depend as much on the political controversies that followed him after the war as on his own misgivings about his work.

In fact, doubts have been unusually common among scientists whose work was of momentous consequence, usually after some kind of mission-centric government involvement or recruitment. Around the same time period as Oppenheimer’s work on the atomic bomb and subsequent remorse about it, for example, other scientists experienced a similar change of heart. Edward Teller, a colleague of Oppenheimer who was often referred to as the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” was more hawkish than many of his contemporaries and advocated for the development of the H-bomb, but later expressed regret that his inventions contributed to the arms race. Similarly, Leo Szilard, a physicist who played a key role in the early stages of the Manhattan Project, was the one who drafted the now-famous Einstein–Szilard letter that warned President Roosevelt about the potential of atomic weapons and urged the U.S. to accelerate its own research.

The Einstein–Szilard letter was a letter written by Leo Szilard and signed by Albert Einstein on August 2, 1939, that was sent to President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Einstein–Szilard letter was a letter written by Leo Szilard and signed by Albert Einstein on August 2, 1939, that was sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.


However, once it became evident that Nazi Germany would not be able to build a bomb, Szilard advocated against the use of the atomic bomb on Japan and was one of the signatories of the Franck Report, which recommended a demonstration of the bomb’s power before using it on a populated area.

The first page of the Report of the Committee on Political and Social Problems (Franck Report)


Even Albert Einstein underwent a change of heart. Although he did not directly work on the atomic bomb, Einstein’s encouraging letter to President Roosevelt, co-signed with Szilard, played a pivotal role in initiating the U.S. efforts to build the bomb. However, Einstein later expressed regret about the letter, stating, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing.”


Moral Lessons

There are at least two moral lessons to be drawn from Oppenheimer’s life, particularly with the fateful chapter around the development of the atom bomb. Firstly, and bluntly put, “Don’t give yourself to a cause without understanding the agendas behind the narrative.” The U.S. government certainly thought that it needed the bomb, but soon after Oppenheimer’s teams at Los Alamos began developing prototype designs, they learned that the Nazi research had moved toward an erroneous direction that would never lead to the detonation of fissionable material. Moreover, by 1945 the Nazis, while fighting, were clearly in retreat everywhere, and by all accounts, for, by April 15 of that year, the Soviet army had begun its major operation against Germany, capturing Vienna and circling Berlin almost immediately, as there was no viable German resistance at that point. And so, two weeks later, the first Soviet units met American troops in central Germany, cutting the country in half.

The Manhattan Project continued its work, however, and by July, three months later (when victory was even more imminent) it had developed “Little Boy,” a 9,700 lb bomb whose explosive power derived from the nuclear fission of Uranium-235.

Little Boy atomic bomb just before being loaded into a B-29 plane and dropped in Hiroshima, Japan, 1945. (Source)


A later version, “Fat Man,” an implosion-type plutonium atomic bomb that weighed over 10,200 lbs. Its design and operation were different from the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which was a gun-type uranium bomb. Regardless, Germany had already surrendered in May of that year, a fact whose timing undermines the rationale for an atomic bomb altogether.

Fat Man on its transport carriage prior to painting, August 1945 (Source)

A fact not covered by the film Oppenheimer was that, just before Germany accepted defeat in Europe, it had attempted to deliver over 1,000 lbs of uranium oxide and German advanced weapons technology to Japan via the German submarine U-234 (a name ironically close to the U-238 uranium that was used in the first atomic bomb). After its surrender to the Allies, the German high command immediately directed all U-boats to surrender. The U-234 surrendered in May off the coast of Canada, whereupon the American Navy took delivery of its uranium oxide load and sent it to Oak Ridge National Laboratories for continued bomb enrichment. Less well known is that onboard the U-234 were two naval officers from the Imperial Navy of Japan, and when the German commanding officer announced the order to begin broadcasting the submarine’s position in order to surrender the ship to the Allies, the Japanese naval officers asked for privacy in their cabin, and committed suicide.

The surrender of German submarine U-234, loaded with uranium oxide (the American sailors in this photograph were not yet aware of the cargo onboard the sub).

In any case, the development of the atomic bomb, as speedy as it appears to have been, did not culminate until August of 1945, the end of the Second World War, by which time the Allied forces were all but victorious in every theater of engagement. Additionally, the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS), a comprehensive study commissioned by the U.S. government, found that the firebombings of major Japanese cities and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a profound effect on Japan’s ability to continue the war. However, the exact influence of the atomic bombs in Japan’s surrender, when evaluated alongside other factors like the Soviet Union’s entry into the war against Japan, remained a subject of debate. In fact, the extreme urgency with which General Groves pushed Oppenheimer proved less critical at the end of the war than had first seemed, and there was thus time to abandon the project, a position that Oppenheimer could have taken, but chose not to – nor is it clear whether his withdrawal would have had much effect on ongoing work toward the bomb, except perhaps that key scientists recruited for the project might likely have resigned in solidarity.

A second moral lesson from Oppenheimer’s tragic journey could be stated thus: “Don’t do anything, trivial or consequential, with whose end goal you don’t entirely agree.” Oppenheimer made enormous sacrifices – and led others to do the same – in pursuit of a goal toward which he felt unrelenting ambivalence, and the world has paid a high price for that trepidation.

Events that move the human spirit are sometimes so powerful that they become transformed into signposts along the journey of cultural becoming, whether they want to or not. In an incongruous summary of his own life, Abraham Lincoln once stated that “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” In modern history, few examples evoke this inconsistency as poignantly as the work of Oppenheimer. It is a profound irony that the weapon that accelerated the conclusion of the war in 1945 and made America victorious on one hand also had the opposite effect on the other, given that once the Soviets learned how to make nuclear bombs, America became permanently vulnerable to instantaneous and mutual destruction. What Oppenheimer’s work may have accomplished in one fleeting historical moment was permanently undone in the next.

There is also pause to think about the lingering effects of one’s actions. Oppenheimer is said to have lived with the indelible and haunting image of an aerial photograph taken over Hiroshima before and after the atomic bomb was dropped over that city. Perhaps he cannot be blamed for his remorse, but he was directly responsible for this, and who among any one of us could find distance from this affliction?

Effects of the Fat Man’s detonation on Nagasaki (Source)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *