Holding Unpopular Opinions Ended the Public Career of Atomic Bomb's Inventor

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After the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States government did not pursue the development of the hydrogen bomb in the years after World War II. But after the Soviets successfully detonated an atomic bomb in 1949, President Harry S. Truman ordered the creation of a hydrogen bomb project.

In November, 1952, sixty years ago, the United States detonated the world's first thermonuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb in the Pacific. The test gave the United States an advantage in the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. The new weapon was approximately 1,000 times more powerful than conventional nuclear devices.

Opponents of development of the hydrogen bomb included J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. He argued that little would be accomplished except the speeding up of the arms race. This turned out to be true. The Soviet Union exploded a thermonuclear device the following year and by the late 1970s, seven nations had constructed hydrogen bombs. The nuclear arms race had been launched.

The origins of the hydrogen bomb date to the early 1940s, when the Italian-born physicist Enrico Fermi suggested to the Hungarian-born Edward Teller of the U.S. Manhattan Project that a weapon based on nuclear fission was possible. Dr. Teller was assigned to build the atomic bomb

Oppenheimer (left) and Groves (right) at the remains of the Trinity test in September 1945. Oppenheimer (left) and Groves (right) at the remains of the Trinity test in September 1945. The white canvas overshoes prevent fallout from sticking to the soles of their shoes.

The first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945, in the Trinity test in New Mexico; Oppenheimer (1904-67) was shaken and  remarked  that it brought to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

After the war he became a chief adviser to the newly created United States Atomic Energy Commission and used that position to lobby for international control of nuclear power to avert nuclear proliferation and an arms race with the Soviet Union. After provoking the ire of many politicians with his outspoken opinions, he had his security clearance revoked in a much-publicized hearing in 1954, and was effectively stripped of his direct political influence.

Oppenheimer said the bomb, had "dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatements can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose."

He also said, "I carry no weight on my conscience" regarding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Scientists are not delinquents. Our work has changed the conditions in which men live, but the use made of these changes is the problem of governments, not of scientists."

Oppenheimer’s later problems started in the late 1930s when he became involved in leftist groups. He supported  Communist, trade union and liberal causes.

Oppenheimer in 1946He explained his interests this way. "I had had a continuing smoldering fury about the treatment of Jews in Germany. I had relatives there, and was later to help in extricating them and bringing them to this country. I saw what the Depression was doing to my students. Often they could get no jobs, or jobs which were wholly inadequate. And through them, I began to understand how deeply political and economic events could affect men's lives. I began to feel the need to participate more fully in the life of the community."

Oppenheimer's denied that he was ever a member of the Communist party.

In 1953, the Atomic Energy Commission suspended his security clearance. Despite testimonials from scores of witnesses during the hearings, his clearance was not reinstated. Oppenheimer returned to academic life, but as one colleague would say, the public ordeal had broken his spirit,”according to The New York Times.”

He continued to lecture, write and work in physics. President John F. Kennedy awarded (and Lyndon B. Johnson presented) him with the Enrico Fermi Award as a gesture of political rehabilitation.

The New York Times wrote, “The action against Dr. Oppenheimer dismayed the scientific community and many other Americans. He was widely pictured as a victim of McCarthyism who was being penalized for holding honest, if unpopular, opinions. The A.E.C., Mr. Strauss and the Eisenhower Administration were accused of carrying out a witch hunt in an attempt to account for Soviet atomic successes and to feed a public hysteria about Communists.”

 

Visit your local library for these resources:

The Bomb: A History of Hell on Earth
Gerard J De Groot, 2005.

J. Robert Oppenheimer : A Life
Abraham Pais; Robert P Crease, (2006).

American Prometheus : The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
Kai Bird; Martin J Sherwin, (2005).

Dark sun: The making of the hydrogen bomb
Richard Rhodes (1995). 

In the Shadow of the Bomb: Bethe, Oppenheimer, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist
S.S. Schweber, (2000).

 

Science and the Common Understanding
J. Robert Oppenheimer,  (1954).

The Open Mind
J. Robert Oppenheimer,  (1955).

The Flying Trapeze: Three Crises for Physicists
J. Robert Oppenheimer, (1964).

Oppenheimer
J. Robert Oppenheimer, Rabi, I.I (1969).

Robert Oppenheimer, Letters and Recollections
J. Robert Oppenheimer; Alice Kimball Smith; Charles Weiner

Uncommon Sense
J. Robert Oppenheimer, N. Metropolis, Gian-Carlo Rota, D.H. Sharp,  (1984).

Atom and Void: Essays on Science and Community
 J. Robert Oppenheimer, (1989).

 


Images:

Nuclear weapon test Romeo (yield 11 Mt) on Bikini Atoll. The test was part of the Operation Castle. Romeo was the first nuclear test conducted on a barge. The barge was located in the Bravo crater.

Oppenheimer at the Guest Lodge, Oak Ridge. c. 1946"
February 1946 by Ed Westcott (U.S. Government photographer)

In September 1945, many participants returned to the Trinity Test site for news crews. Here Oppenheimer and Groves examine the remains of one the bases of the steel test tower. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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