Today, August 6, marks the 78th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima by an atomic bomb dropped on the city by the United States during the Second World War.
Oppenheimer is a well-made movie. It portrays Oppenheimer’s personal struggles, and draws attention to the dangers of a nuclear arms race. However, the movie fails to emphasise that during the Second World War, Oppenheimer did not restrict himself to the problem of building a nuclear bomb. He advocated for its use in Japan, over other possible options, and played a role in planning its delivery so that it would take as many lives as possible.
In May 1945, just days after Germany’s surrender, a committee comprising a number of scientists and some military officials convened to discuss possible targets for the bomb. The movie alludes to Oppenheimer’s involvement with this process but, contrary to what is suggested there, Oppenheimer was not a marginal participant; the committee met in his office and he was the one who set out the agenda. The meeting’s summary reveals how the committee calmly considered the most effective possible destruction of various cities.
Kyoto was placed on top of the list and ranked as an “AA target”. The committee noted that it had “a population of 1,000,000 … and many people and industries are now being moved there as other areas are being destroyed”. It emphasised that “Kyoto has the advantage of the people being more highly intelligent and hence better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon.” Even by Orientalist standards, this argument was extraordinary: did the committee seriously believe that those in other parts of Japan were too dull to feel the terror of a nuclear bomb?
As the movie notes, Kyoto was spared because of the intervention of the US secretary of war, Henry Stimson. Next on the target committee’s list was Hiroshima, which was also rated as an “AA target”. The committee observed that “it is such a size that a large part of the city could be extensively damaged. There are adjacent hills, which are likely to produce a focusing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage.”
A month later, a group of scientists led by James Franck, and including the physicist Leo Szilard, compiled a prescient report that analysed the dangers of an arms race, and the possibility of an international agreement to control nuclear weapons. It advised the US government not to “be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind”. Instead it recommended that “nuclear bombs…[be]…first revealed to the world by a demonstration in an appropriately selected uninhabited area”.
In a few days, the scientific advisory panel to the “interim committee” — the apex wartime body on nuclear issues — dismissed the Franck report stating that “we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use”. Oppenheimer signed the memo, titled “recommendations on the immediate use of nuclear weapons”, on behalf of the four-member scientific panel.
Szilard then drafted a petition to the US president. The petition urged the president “to rule that the United States shall not resort to the use of atomic bombs in this war unless the terms which will be imposed upon Japan have been made public in detail” and consider “all the other moral responsibilities which are involved”. This was so reasonable that even the hawkish physicist Edward Teller agreed with it. Oppenheimer not only refused to sign the petition — as a scene in the movie shows — he prevailed on others at Los Alamos, including Teller, to withhold their signature.
Soon after the war, in 1949, Oppenheimer testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. This was separate from his later hearings before the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) that provide the setting for the movie. In 1949, the committee was deferential to Oppenheimer and he, in turn, freely denounced a number of his associates, including his former student Bernard Peters. Peters was eventually forced from the United States, and spent several years in Mumbai at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research before moving to Denmark.
Oppenheimer did argue for a more rational nuclear policy after the war. His perspective was not rooted in a principled opposition to US hegemony or in a desire for a more equitable world order. His argument was simpler: “looking ten years ahead, it is likely to be small comfort that the Soviet Union is four years behind us” in developing an atomic arsenal. “Our twenty-thousandth bomb…will not in any deep strategic sense offset their two-thousandth”. Even this was unacceptable to sections of the US establishment and eventually led to his political downfall.
The AEC’s decision to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954 meant that he ceased to be a formal government advisor. But Oppenheimer remained the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and a privileged member of US society.
Although this author is not an expert on Oppenheimer’s life, it is clear that he possessed a complex personality. Perhaps Oppenheimer’s actions should be viewed within the framework of the “banality of evil”. As an ambitious individual seeking advancement within the US system, he made repeated compromises and lost sight of the true nature of the US military establishment.
For this reason, the movie’s most problematic aspect is not that it is overly sympathetic to Oppenheimer. Rather, by glorifying the Manhattan project and the US victory in the technical race to build the bomb, it obscures the enormity of the crime committed by the Truman administration when it bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
The bombs killed hundreds of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom were innocent civilians. A grim indicator of how many children lost their lives is that when scientists sought to estimate the toll of the bombings, they relied on school records to calculate a statistical mortality rate in the general population.
US apologists have consistently sought to justify these acts by arguing that a land invasion of Japan might have been even more brutal. Some historians have questioned the veracity of such claims. But this is a false dichotomy since these were not the only two options before the US government. And accepting these terms of discourse leads to a blind alley where one is forced to a debate a counterfactual scenario and rely on internal US military sources that are not neutral.
A simpler question can be used to form an ethical judgment: “Did the Truman administration do everything possible to save lives and seek less violent alternatives to the atomic bomb?” Even the limited discussion presented above, which forms a small part of the voluminous historical record, shows that the answer is negative.
A different perspective is provided by Szilard’s recollection of his meeting with James Byrnes, who was Truman’s secretary of state at the time of the bombings. When Szilard tried to caution Byrnes against using the bomb, Byrnes explained that “Russia might be more manageable if impressed by American military might, and that a demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia”. This implies that the bomb was used by the United States, not out of necessity, but to establish its geopolitical dominance.
An examination of postwar US policy bolsters this view, since it shows how readily the US government is prepared to use violence and terror in pursuit of its strategic objectives. When the United States attacked Southeast Asia, it dropped millions of tons of bombs and this intervention led to the loss of millions of lives. The invasion of Iraq began with a “shock-and-awe” campaign that explicitly sought to achieve the “non-nuclear equivalent of the impact that the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on the Japanese”. This invasion led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq.
Hollywood is well known for glorifying US wars. Oppenheimer is directed more skilfully than most movies, and its message is more subtle. But, ultimately, its effect is to place a glossy veneer on the ugly reality of the US imperial project and the complicity of those who contribute to it.
Suvrat Raju is a theoretical physicist with the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (Bengaluru). The views expressed are personal and do not reflect those of his institution.
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