Oppenheimer’s Moral Confusion
After the atomic bomb’s creation , the world was never the same again
“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”: Bhagavad Gita. This ambiguous quotation became enshrined as Oppenheimer’s signature line. Even though it speaks of awful ruin, godly power and endless glory in the same breath, it also suggests Oppenheimer’s own moral confusion.
He quoted it when he started to tremble at the dark power he had helped to create, insisting that his main purpose was to confront and master the “serious business of life, which is growing wise”.
Before watching the film, I had no idea who Oppenheimer was. But as a human being I had always wondered about the morality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, its consequences and whether the brains behind the bomb had any qualms about how it was used.
Did his scientific bent of mind ever try to understand the workings of nature, or was he not at all affected with a sounder grasp of humanity? Did he ever agonise about the devastation his brilliance had helped to unleash?
Did he ever feel he was complicit in profound evil? I got my answers in the scene when after the bombing, the Scientist meets with the President of the US and announces in pure Shakespearean style: “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”
President Truman, who probably despised such theatrics and felt that nuclear wars should be conducted without tears, takes out his handkerchief and presents it to the blood-soaked ‘cry baby’ scientist, saying, “Well, here, would you like to wipe your hands?”
This exchange of words, of a heartbreakingly sincere confession and a caustic reply, between a remorseful scientist and a hard headed statesman portrayed a beautiful marriage of politics and humanity. To see the light of truth as an agent of some dark majesty, is not a grace but an ordeal.
As a student of art, I always thought scientists were not only guided by their intellect but also worked with an ethical culture. For me they were the white knights consecrated to the cosmopolitan ideals of perpetual peace, rapturously discovering things for the greater use of mankind.
They were endowed with an acute sensibility and technical expertise. And they did all this for the sheer pleasure of knowledge and satisfaction. Not for the glint of envy in other men’s eyes.
Unfortunately, Oppenheimer was not graced with this pure-mindedness. The multiple forces driving him were tangled and complicated.
Oppenheimer lacked the professional single-mindedness essential to a scientific career because he had too many talents, none of which he concentrated on sufficiently. He would break in snidely on seminar presentations to explain matters more lucidly than the distinguished guests.
His champagne mind sparkled, fizzed, and sprayed in all directions and his quest for wisdom led him far beyond the confines of science. Apart from being a superb theoretician, teacher and administrator, he also learned Sanskrit, a notoriously difficult language.
Perhaps this breadth of intellectual passion of dabbling in mysticism was a diversion from serious work. Or perhaps he was in search of knowledge that physics alone couldn’t provide him.
What I found puzzling was that even with all his whirlwind energy, he himself was a thoroughly confused soul. When the disenchanted physicists had initial misgivings about the morality of Project Atom Bomb in Los Alamos, Oppenheimer did his best to curb their doubts.
With gentle eloquence he proclaimed that if the creation of atomic bombs would make fear a permanent feature of ordinary life, it would also mean an end to war.
But the actual sight of the Trinity test explosion, prompted the beginnings of a change of heart when he lamented his decision in an address to the American Philosophical Society. “We have made a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world”, he said, adding, “An evil thing by all the standards of the world and by so doing so, we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man”.
In this public admission his personal despair at the moral collapse was nakedly visible. He later went on to oppose the development of the Hydrogen Bomb, a weapon thousand times more powerful, and an act that brought about his political disgrace and downfall.
Modern science (like Artificial Intelligence), has perhaps permanently altered the nature of moral and political life.
After watching ‘Oppenheimer’, it has become clear that this distressing human fondness for the occasional blood-feast may accelerate in future impeding man’s progress. History has taught us this bitter truth time and again.
When Alfred Nobel had hoped that his invention of dynamite would put people off war forever, it didn’t happen. Albert Einstein, equally peaceable but more discerning, believed that entrusting humans with guns, artillery and modern technology was like putting a meat axe in the hands of a psychopath.
He is also believed to have said that “Man invented the Atom Bomb. But no mouse would ever construct a mousetrap’. Oppenheimer and Einstein were not great friends. And yet they did meet. In the movie, when Einstein asks him, “What of it?”, Oppenheimer's answer is the final line of the film, “I believe we did,” he says. And then we are shown a sequence depicting the world being destroyed by modern nuclear weapons.
The Manhattan Project bomb makers are often despised by many as the evil geniuses who made life more perilous than it ever was before. With the creation of the atomic bomb, the world will never again be what it once was.
The general sentiment is that they shouldn’t have done it. They were scientists, after all, and they should have known better than to lend their intelligence to such a terrible undertaking.
But then like my husband says, if Oppenheimer wouldn’t have created the Atom Bomb, probably someone else would have. And then probably I wouldn’t have been sitting here typing this out. And you wouldn’t be sitting there reading it.