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“i Am Become Death…”
The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
But first he wanted the bombs used, to force the changes Bohr anticipated. The record leaves no doubt that he acquiesced to the bombing of Japanese cities. He attended the meetings where the recommendation to use the bombs against Japanese civilians was formulated; he was the most qualified technical adviser there; and in that vital capacity he argued against a bloodless demonstration on the specious technical grounds that the bomb used in such a demonstration might be a dud, though he knew to virtual certainty that it would not. He would soon send the uranium bomb, Little Boy, ahead untested to Tinian for the Hiroshima drop, and he tested Fat Man at Trinity and knew its lethal twin would work. He was forthright enough after the war. “I am very glad that the bomb was not kept secret,” he said in one of his lectures. The understatement is typical, is even mocking: Oppenheimer meant he was glad the bomb was used, its destructive force horribly and indelibly demonstrated. “I am glad,” he went on, “that all of us knew, as a few of us already did, what was up and what readjustments in human life and in political institutions would be called for.”
And so, in that first man-made dawn, when the nest of the Chinese boxes that was not Thor or Jesu or The Liberator but Fat Man, the plutonium bomb—spheres within spheres contained within a black duralumin shell studded with detonators—collapsed upon itself like a dying sun and blew Oppenheimer’s serenely elegant physics out to plague the world, he understood through the visionary extremity of his exhaustion that Krishna had once again made his point. He thought, he said later, of a stanza and a line from the Gita that described the twin and complementary qualities of the godhead that was the bomb, of the bomb that was less than, but part of, the godhead:
And as the thunder rolled east and west across the Jornada del Muerto , echoing from the fastness of mountains:
Krishna; the fiery universe of stars and neutron stars and black holes and cosmic rays; the particles that were also waves and the waves that were also particles, but never, to the possibility of human measurement, both at once; the mc 2 that is also E : these were death, and worlds were shattered; these were splendor, and worlds radiated light; and these were men and women contending below; these were the truth that must inevitably be found because it was possible to find it; and these were as well the hope of no more wars. Between death and splendor, one suspects, he thought the contest no better than an even match.
He did his best, in the years after the war, to transmute the threat of shattering nuclear annihilation into a radiant cause for peace. It was, paradoxically, that effort—there are reversals in Robert Oppenheimer’s life as drastic as any in Oedipus —that led to his public humiliation, that led President Eisenhower to throw up a “blank wall” between him and the official secrets that he carried in his head, that led the Eisenhower government, pushed by men like Joseph McCarthy and the imperious Lewis Strauss, men like Richard Nixon (he was there too, giving “assurances” to the McCarthy crowd that “the Oppenheimer case” “would be gone into in detail”), to convene a prosecutorial hearing and deprive him of his security clearance on the grounds, in his case the absurd grounds, that his character was dangerously marred by “fundamental defects.” That story is legend too, but documents declassified within the past year have chiseled some of its ambiguities away.
With Niels Bohr’s proposals much in mind, Oppenheimer worked with a government committee that included David Lilienthal and Dean Acheson to formulate the Baruch Plan of 1946 that proposed to internationalize atomic energy. Whether or not it was offered in good faith—Oppenheimer and others vehemently insisted it was—the Soviet Union rejected it, refusing to give up secrecy for mutual protection from nuclear war, and Oppenheimer consigned the Soviet Union to the same midden he reserved in his mind for the Third Reich. But in 1949 he and the other members of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee—tough men like Enrico Fermi, I.I. Rabi, James B. Conant—saw another opportunity, one they rated at no better than even odds: that if the United States held off building fusion weapons, thermonuclear weapons, hydrogen bombs, then so might the Soviets.