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James T. KeaneJuly 25, 2023
Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. (Wikimedia Commons)

Pink has replaced black as the color de jour around town these days, apparently in response to Christopher Nolan’s new biographical thriller “Oppenheimer,” which audiences love and many culture-war pundits and politicians hate. (I have the correct movie here, right?) Based on the 2005 book American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (which was reviewed in America by noted poet Kelly Cherry), “Oppenheimer” tells a somewhat sensationalized version of the life of the “father of the atomic bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Ryan Di Corpo, a former O’Hare Fellow at America and the current managing editor of Outreach, reviewed the movie for America recently, calling it a “heady, visually arresting and ultimately terrifying tour de force.” The film, he wrote, “is both a startling re-examination of American history through the piercing eyes of a man who shaped it and a bleak warning about the nuclear age.”

“Oppenheimer felt that the super-bomb was not a military weapon so much as a weapon directed toward the annihilation of people.”

Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist and directed the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico during the Second World War, overseeing the research and design of the U.S. atomic bomb project from 1942 on. Di Corpo quotes Oppenheimer’s character in the movie on the need for such a bomb: “I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon, but I know the Nazis can’t. We have no choice.”

When he and his committee detonated the first atomic weapon on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer famously quoted Lord Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Within less than a month, the United States had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, which surrendered soon after. After the war’s end, Oppenheimer had doubts about what he had helped develop, especially as it became clear that U.S. military leaders were willing to use nuclear weapons, including the immensely powerful hydrogen bomb, in any future conflict with the Soviet Union or China.

“Oppenheimer felt that the super-bomb—as it was frequently called at the time—was not a military weapon so much as a weapon directed toward the annihilation of people,” James B. Kelley wrote in a 1970 review for America of The Great Weapons Heresy, by Thomas W. Wilson Jr. “Today’s megaton bombs are directed against entire nations, if not continents. What Oppenheimer feared has indeed come to pass.”

Oppenheimer’s fear has been shared by every pope since the dawn of the nuclear age, including Pope Francis, who declared in 2019 ahead of a visit to Japan that using nuclear weapons was immoral, telling the Japanese people that “I pray that the destructive power of nuclear weapons will never again be unleashed in human history.”

Pope Francis in 2019: “I pray that the destructive power of nuclear weapons will never again be unleashed in human history.”

In the early 1950s, Oppenheimer came under suspicion of having communist sympathies and associations—and was also resented for his resistance to American nuclear policies. In late 1951, he was notified that his clearance for government nuclear secrets was suspended pending a review of “questions as to your veracity, conduct and even your loyalty.” As America’s editors noted in 1954, he was also resented because his “horror of a military strategy based on the use of atomic and H-bomb retaliation has made him enemies in the Air Force.” In the spring of 1954, the Atomic Energy Commission held hearings on Oppenheimer’s past and present political opinions and affiliations, and recommended his security clearance not be restored. America’s editors opined at the time that it “is not yet clear who or what is more on trial: an individual or a nation.”

The public spectacle was part of an all-American ritual that hit its high point in the 1950s: the communist witch-hunt—and indeed, an early antagonist of Oppenheimer was Senator Joe McCarthy. “It was indeed a witch-hunt,” Kelly Cherry wrote in her review of American Prometheus. “Bird and Sherwin give us the hearing in all its invidious but mesmerizing detail. Leaked documents, documents withheld from the defense, illegal wiretaps, bribes, treachery and chicanery, his private life, including his love life, made public in newspapers—it was a staggering spectacle of sheer meanness.” (In 2017, Cherry released Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer, a book-length biographical poem about him.)

Oppenheimer was supported by large numbers of his fellow scientists, but in the aftermath chose to stay largely out of the limelight. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson gave him the prestigious Enrico Fermi Prize; Oppenheimer commented at the time that “I think it is just possible, Mr. President, that it has taken some charity and some courage for you to make this award today.” Oppenheimer died three years later of throat cancer at the age of 62.

In 1970, Robert Elliot Forbes reviewed The Swift Years: The Robert Oppenheimer Story, by Peter Michelmore Dodd, for America. He quoted Oppenheimer’s words to a group of publishers near the end of his life:

By taking thought of our often grim responsibility, by knowing something of our profound and omnipresent imperfection, we may help our children’s children to a world less cruel, perhaps less unjust, less likely to end in catastrophe beyond words. We may even find our way to put an end to the orgy, the killing, the brutality that is war.

A trip through America’s archives all the way back to 1946 offers further evidence that Oppenheimer’s misgivings about nuclear weapons began almost immediately. That year, 77 years ago, America reviewed a slim volume by Oppenheimer and 14 other scholars, One World or None, in which the famous scientist and his peers warned that there was a “choice before Americans. This choice is control of the atom by some system of world unification, or the physical end of Western civilization by the destruction of its material basis and the death of so many of its inhabitants.”

The book closed with a grim reminder: “Time is short. And survival is at stake.” Reviewer A. E. Brettauer had this to say about the conclusion:

If it were possible to drive these two sentences into the consciousness of every citizen, the people might force the government to go far beyond its present feeble efforts to harness the atom to peace. It will depend on our attitude whether One World or None will become an historical document which correctly outlines a period of hitherto undreamed-of atom-created prosperity, or whether in the not-too-distant future, a copy of the book may be found among the ruins of our cities as a reminder of a futile warning. Whatever this book’s fate, it is tied up with the fate of its readers as is no other book in history.

“Today’s megaton bombs are directed against entire nations, if not continents. What Oppenheimer feared has indeed come to pass.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Sappho,” by Beth Hinchliffe. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, this summer the Catholic Book Club will be reading and discussing Mary Doria Russell’s novel, The Sparrow. Click here for more information or to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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