Robert Oppenheimer’s Denunciation of America’s Bomb Culture and the Ongoing Suppression of Dissident Scientists

The text below is the transcript of an interview that was broadcast on RT America just a few days before the special military operation in Ukraine, after which the Russian media company was forced to shut down and leave the United States. It is ironic that the subject of the interview was the cold war American witch hunts of the 1950s that, among other atrocious acts, persecuted the country’s most celebrated scientist, Robert Oppenheimer, when he tried to warn the president of the catastrophic consequences of building a massive nuclear arsenal for the purpose of military supremacy. Here we are almost eighty years later in a new age of censorship and repression and world leaders failing to heed the warning of dissidents who call for peaceful settlement of disputes between the so-called “great power rivals.”

I had a lot I wanted to write about the interview, but readers have to finish the transcript first, or listen to the interview online. This is why my discussion follows the transcript in the endnotes. Please read those instead of skipping over them as if they were just a list of references.

Chris Hedges, “Oppenheimer & the Bomb Culture,” On Contact, February 20, 2022. Interview with Kai Bird, co-author with Martin J. Sherwin, of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2006)

Chris Hedges (CH): Welcome to On Contact. Today we discuss J. Robert Oppenheimer and the making of the bomb with author Kai Bird. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” was, by the end of World War II, one of the most celebrated men in America. He was instrumental as one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists in the massive government effort to build the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but in the post-war anti-communist hysteria, he was declared a security risk because of his warnings about the use of atomic weapons and his opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb, as well as the Air Force’s plans for massive strategic bombing with nuclear weapons—plans he condemned as genocidal. He was hauled before red-baiting congressional investigative committees. The FBI tapped his home and office phones and put him under surveillance. Scurrilous stories about his political past were planted in the press, and he was finally put on trial, becoming America’s most prominent victim of the post-war anti-communist witch hunts. Oppenheimer was a central figure in the greatest struggles and triumphs faced by the United States in war, science, social justice and ultimately the cold war itself. He oversaw the development of the most devastating weapon in human history, and then spent the rest of his life warning that this weapon of indiscriminate terror did not make us safer but more vulnerable. The only effective defense against the nuclear nightmare, he said, was the elimination of nuclear weapons. For this warning he was ruthlessly silenced.

We have had the bomb on our minds since 1945, and E.L. Doctorow observed it was “first our weaponry and then our diplomacy, and now it’s our economy. How can we suppose that something so monstrously powerful would not, after 40 years, compose our identity? The great golem we have made against our enemies is our culture, our bomb culture—its logic, its faith, its vision.”[1] Joining me to discuss Oppenheimer, who tried to save us from the bomb culture by containing its destructive fury, a fury he helped set forth, is Kai Bird, who, along with Martin Sherwin, wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.[2] Let’s begin with this, which I really did not understand until I read your book: the size of this effort to build the bomb. It was massive, thousands of people. I think that that puts in context what Oppenheimer oversaw. Then we’ll go back to a little bit about him.

Kai Bird (KB): Yes, the Manhattan Project was just an enormous venture. It spent about two billion dollars, in World War II dollars, but that was a fortune. Oppenheimer was thirty-four years old when he was hired to oversee it, to be the scientific director at Los Alamos. He thought initially that maybe several hundred scientists and engineers could build this gadget. It quickly became clear that they needed thousands, and Los Alamos became a secret city of 6,000 people—engineers, chemists, physicists, most of them young men in their 20s and 30s. They achieved the impossible. In two and a half years they built this weapon of mass destruction, and Oppenheimer’s motivation of course is important to understand because he had studied quantum physics in Germany. He understood before the war even began that this was a possible theoretical thing to do—building an atomic bomb—and he feared that when the war started and America became involved in it, that the Germans were going to win the race. He knew those German physicists. He feared that they would deliver the bomb to Hitler and Nazism, and he was a man of the left and dedicated to trying to win the war and to help America defeat fascism. That’s why he built the bomb, and then, ironically, after the war, he realized that it was used on an essentially already defeated enemy, Japan, not Germany, and that it was a terrible weapon, that it was a weapon for aggressors. It was a weapon that could not be used defensively. It could only be used on cities. It needed big targets. So he became an opponent of nuclear weaponry, an opponent specifically of the project to build an H-bomb after the war that his colleague Edward Teller proposed. Because he opposed the H-bomb, he became targeted by the FBI and political opponents, and eventually, as you mentioned, he was actually put on trial in a secret kangaroo court proceeding and stripped of his security clearance and declared a security risk. He became a pariah. Universities in America disinvited him after that 1954 hearing, so it’s an extraordinary Shakespearean story where he, as a young man, achieved this incredible triumph of science and engineering and helped America “end the war” as such, and his visage had been put on the cover of Time and Life in 1945, and he had become the most famous American scientist except for perhaps Albert Einstein. Then nine years later he became a victim, the chief celebrity victim of the whole McCarthy witch hunt. It’s an extraordinary story.

CH: Let’s talk about Einstein because you use him to make a juxtaposition between Einstein’s relationships, about power. When Oppenheimer lost his security clearance, they were both at The Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, and Einstein called him a fool. He used the Yiddish term for fool. I forget what it is. Talk about that. That’s fascinating that Einstein understood how power worked. We should be clear that even when he was overseeing this project, he was not trusted by the military hierarchy. His bodyguard and driver were tasked to spy on him. His mail was opened. His brother, who had become a pariah because of associations with the Communist Party, had been blackballed. He wasn’t even allowed to communicate. So even during the project there was tremendous control. And I just want to throw this in because it’s in your book. You make it clear that when they dropped the bomb, it wasn’t because they needed to break the will of the Japanese. It was to send a message to the Soviet Union.

KB: We argued that by the summer of 1945, it was clear that the bomb was not necessary to win a surrender of the Japanese war machine, but there were people in the Truman administration, specifically Jimmy Burns, the Secretary of State, who was very close to Harry Truman at that point. Burns argued that this was a weapon that should be demonstrated and used to give a warning to the Soviet Union. It was used as a message to send to the Soviets rather than the Japanese, but that’s an extremely controversial position. Most Americans, and particularly most American veterans who fought in World War II, saw one thing happen. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and a few days later the Japanese surrendered, so they believe—and this is the common wisdom—that the bomb won the war or ended the war early. But that’s a very simplistic narrative, I think, and it became much more complicated. Oppenheimer himself recognized this, and within three months he was giving speeches in Philadelphia talking about how this was a weapon that had been used on an essentially already defeated enemy.

CH: I want to talk a little bit about the motivation behind the bomb because those working to build the bomb believed that it was an instrument to defeat fascism. Maybe you can just mention that mysterious conversation between Heisenberg and Bohr. Ultimately, they realized that it was not going to be used against fascism at all. And I also want you to talk a little bit about this understanding. What makes the biography so fascinating is that Oppenheimer was so self-reflective. He grew up in a very ethical environment and yet he realized that what he had dedicated himself to was potentially destroying human life as it exists, but also physically destroying the places he loved like Los Alamos, which he laments.

KB: Yes, he had many regrets at the end of his life, and he was extremely self-aware. He was a very intelligent, self-aware young man who, as you mentioned grew up with the Ethical Culture Society, with a Jewish background. His religious training as such was with the Ethical Culture Society, and he was constantly worrying about the ethics of what he was doing. I tell one story in the book about Niels Bohr, the great Danish quantum physicist, who escaped from Denmark in the middle of the war and arrived in Los Alamos on the last day of 1943. He saw the secret city when he landed, and the first question he asked Oppenheimer when he saw him was, “Oppi, is it big enough?” This meant, “Is the bomb big enough to end all war?” Is it going to make it clear that we can no longer have total warfare as they were experiencing in World War II? There was this notion that often Oppenheimer himself bought into—this argument was a rationale really that said, “If we demonstrate the power of this weapon, it will make it impossible for societies in the future to conduct industrial warfare because it would be suicide.” And, of course, this was the argument in the spring of 1945 when his own physicists realized, as you were mentioning, that the bomb was not going to be built in time to be used on Germany and German fascism, and that if Japan was the target, the Japanese certainly didn’t have the capability of building this bomb. They knew they were way behind. What is the ethics then of trying to use this bomb on Japanese cities? And Oppenheimer made Neil Bohr’s argument that we need to demonstrate this to show the world what is possible. Otherwise, the next war will be fought with two sides armed with nuclear weapons because there was no secret here about how to build a bomb. Any physicist anywhere in the world who understood quantum physics would be able to figure it out, particularly after it was tested in 1945. Oppenheimer was very aware of the ethical and moral quandaries around the building of the bomb and its use.

[Speaking] about this fantasy that this bomb would be so destructive that it would end all wars, both Bohr and Oppenheimer argued that in order to achieve this, it had to be shared with the Soviet Union. I think it was Bohr who arrived at Los Alamos and asked, “Where are the Russians?” who were our allies, of course, in World War II. There were British scientists, and Fuchs was German, but he had gained British citizenship. He was spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, as was Ted Hall. (Do we have the name right?) Hall was never actually found out, but there was an attempt to hide this project from our Soviet allies, and that was something that Oppenheimer was deeply concerned about because he believed in transparency. Perhaps you can explain that.

KB: He was a scientist who understood that there were really no secrets, and he was sympathetic to… He feared greatly that the German fascists might win the war and win it with this weapon. On the other hand, his critics after the war… One of the reasons he was put on trial was the suspicion, never proven, that he might have been a spy for the Russians. We very clearly demonstrate that this was not true. He never did any spying. He never passed any information. He worked very hard to build this weapon and to give it to the American military, and then he came to have regrets about how it was used, and how America came to rely on this weapon. That relates to your quote, your wonderful quote from E.L. Doctorow, which I think sheds an enormous light on the bomb culture that America embraced after World War II. Yes, the way it was used in the end was sending a message to the Soviets. We have a big hammer in our back pocket, and we can use it, and we want to use it as a weapon of diplomacy. Oppenheimer understood that there were no secrets, no scientific secrets, and that if he could figure out how to build this weapon, so could Russian physicists, and indeed they were hard at work on building an atomic bomb. They were going to do it with or without spies. The spies may have helped to accelerate the timetable a little bit by a few months. I relate in the book that in October of 1945, after the war was over, he went in to have a meeting with President Harry Truman in the oval office, and he was trying to argue with Truman, to make him understand that this was not a weapon that he should rely on. He shouldn’t invest in it. He shouldn’t build a big arsenal of nuclear weapons. It was a weapon that ultimately was going to threaten America more than it could possibly empower American foreign policy. Truman interrupted him and said, “Well, let me ask you a question. When do you think the Russians are going to get the bomb?” Oppenheimer was startled and said, “Well, I’m not quite sure,” and Truman interrupted, and he said, “Never. They’ll never get it.” Oppenheimer understood in that moment that Harry Truman simply did not understand the science, and he lost it, and he said, “Mr. President, you don’t understand. We have blood on our hands. We used this weapon on a civilian city, Hiroshima,” and this, of course, was exactly the wrong thing to tell Harry Truman who exploded and threw Oppenheimer out of the Oval Office and told his aides that he never wanted to see that crybaby scientist in his office ever again. But Oppenheimer understood that the Russians were going to get the bomb, and if we attempted to maintain a monopoly over atomic weapons, we were only going to accelerate a nuclear arms race, and that would be a very dangerous thing for the world. He was proven to be correct.[3]

CH: I want to talk about Groves. Oppenheimer worked for General Groves, this 250-pound West Point graduate who oversaw the project. There was always a distrust of the scientists, then and after the war. There’s a line in the book that said that the production of nuclear weapons no longer related to targets. It related to production capacity. It didn’t even make military sense anymore, and, in the end to a certain extent, this military-industrial establishment, who never trusted these figures like Oppenheimer, used them for their scientific expertise and then took that knowledge to perpetuate this proliferation of nuclear weapons.

KB: Yeah, it’s in a matter of insanity. We bought into this notion that nuclear weapons can defend us, and it’s actually just the opposite. And the story is not over. Only two weapons of mass destruction have been used on cities, both in 1945 on Japan, but there are thousands of these weapons out there, and at the height of the cold war they were targeting hundreds to land on one city in Russia. It was crazy, and they’re very dangerous. Environmentally, they’re dangerous, and there is the danger of nuclear accidents.[4] My late colleague, Marty Sherwin, who died just last October at the age of 84—his last book came out a year ago and it was about the Cuban Missile Crisis. He documented how close we came to a nuclear war in Cuba in 1962, and we avoided it only accidentally. It’s just a very sobering problem, and we’re not done with it. We haven’t escaped this crisis yet, and more countries are acquiring these weapons. It’s a terrible legacy and one that Oppenheimer himself, who died in 1967 at the rather young age of sixty-four, was extremely aware of and worried about.

CH: I want to talk about his own remorse after the war. He used a quote from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”[5] After they exploded the test bomb, he shook hands with Ken Bainbridge who looked him in the eye and said, “Now we’re all sons of bitches.” How much of the rest of his life was atonement?

KB: He never publicly apologized. He actually went to Japan. He didn’t visit Hiroshima, but he went to attend a conference in Tokyo, and he was greeted by a bunch of Japanese reporters who asked him whether he had any regrets. Dr. Oppenheimer gave one of his typical elliptical answers, saying, “Well, I didn’t sleep any worse or better last night than the night before.” But it was clear that he had regrets. We know from letters that his wife, Kitty Oppenheimer, wrote just in the week after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Oppenheimer plunged into a deep depression. She wasn’t sure that was going to come out of it. And we know that he privately told friends and colleagues that he would never work on nuclear weapons again, and he went public with his criticisms of the H-bomb. He paid an enormous political price for this when he was put on trial in 1954, and this is the legacy that we are still living with today. We’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic where it has been prolonged clearly because people distrust the value of expertise, and scientists in particular, and this partly has its roots in the Oppenheimer trial which specifically took America’s most celebrated scientist and dragged him through the political mud and discredited him. This sent a warning to scientists not to get off their territory, not to become a public intellectual. You cannot talk about politics. Keep to your scientific expertise and don’t attempt to weigh in on public debates.[6] We’re paying a heavy price for this today, and it all goes back to the Oppenheimer trial in 1954.

CH: Well, he was used as an example, and it sent a chill, as you write, throughout the scientific community that they were not allowed to express any opinions about the nuclear weapons program or anything else, or they would end up like Oppenheimer. We have to stop there. That was Kai Bird who, along with Martin Sherwin, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Notes and Discussion

[1] E.L. Doctorow, “The State of Mind of the Union,” The Nation, March 22, 1986,” in E.L. Doctorow and Richard Lingeman (editor), Citizen Doctorow: Notes on Art & Politics: The Nation Essays 1978-2015 (The Nation Co., 2015).

[2] Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Vintage Books, 2006).

[3] The Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb in 1949. The US detonated its first “deliverable” hydrogen bomb in the Marshall Islands in 1954. The Soviets detonated their first hydrogen bomb in 1955. Oppenheimer was right. Harry Truman had no idea of how impossible it would be for the US to maintain a nuclear monopoly.

[4] See Robert A. Jacobs, Nuclear Bodies: The Global Hibakusha (Yale University Press, 2022). Robert Jacobs’ book covers in great detail what Kai Bird mentioned only in passing here about the environmental damage caused by nuclear weapons. Although nuclear bombs have never been used in war the way they were used in Japan in 1945, they have been used continuously since then in what could be considered a slow-motion global war. It is a war in which nations have degraded their own health and security as they prepare for war rather than peaceful co-existence with adversaries. Millions of victims living in proximity to numerous testing sites throughout the world have been damaged by radioactive fallout. Furthermore, the fallout circled the globe and is certain to have had harmful effects on all life, on every person alive since 1945, though the damage is impossible to measure because this cause is hidden by all the other causes of disease—chemical pollution, pesticides, the side-effects of pharmaceutical products, processed food, and the stress of living in an industrial civilization—including the addictions that arise from that stress. Before any atom bomb is detonated, in a test or a conflict, damage has been done to people and the environment by the mining of uranium ore, the processing of the ore into fissionable material, the splitting of uranium to boil water and produce plutonium, and the transport and storage of nuclear waste. The production of nuclear materials has also enabled the production of depleted uranium weapons which actually have been used in an unacknowledged type of radiological war in Serbia (1999) and Iraq (1991, 2003). Nuclear war is usually discussed as a hypothetical apocalyptic scenario, and this emphasis tends to suppress the fact that we are already living the dream in the form of a long, low-intensity nuclear war.   

[5] See Alex Wellerstein, “Oppenheimer and the Gita,”, May 23, 2014. Alex Wellerstein explains in this article that Oppenheimer quoting from the Bhagavad-Gita did not mean that he was claiming divine powers. The story from Hindu scripture tells that a prince, Arjuna, did not want to serve in the war. The god Vishnu demanded he fight and proved his divine power by taking multi-armed form. He convinced the prince that he must submit to the fate that was demanded of him, and in any case, Vishnu would carry on with his war with or without the prince’s participation. So nuclear destruction was ordained to happen—someone more destructive might have made the bomb first, or conventional bombing would have ruined Hiroshima and Nagasaki anyway. The nuclear destruction didn’t alter the total death toll of WWII. Vishnu was saying essentially, “If you can’t rock me, somebody will.” Wellerstein says, “It wasn’t a case of the ‘father’ of the bomb declaring himself ‘death, the destroyer of worlds’ in a fit of grandiosity or hubris.” Oppenheimer was not so much tormented over his participation in the Manhattan Project, something for which he never expressed regret. Rather, he disagreed with decisions about how to use the bomb, and after 1945 he was far more concerned with the dangers of the nuclear arms race and recklessness of building thermonuclear weapons.

[6] Kai Bird says that Oppenheimer’s persecution is an example of the suppression of scientific expertise that has relevance for the present time because we are in the midst of a pandemic yet “people distrust the value of expertise.” Unfortunately, he does not clarify who these people are. In Oppenheimer’s case, the “people” were the government agencies that suppressed scientific experts and condemned the world to the nuclear arms nightmare. Following this logic, Kai Bird’s implication is that the government is now suppressing scientists who disagree with Anthony Fauci, elected officials, and the pharmaceutical industrial complex—scientists like Pierre Kory, Peter McCollough, Didier Raoult, Martin Kulldorff, Sunetra Gupta, Jay Bhattacharya and hundreds of others who have condemned the official response to the pandemic. However, Kai Bird’s choice of the word “people” makes me wonder if he has lost the thread of his own argument and gone along with the idea that it is the people—the unwashed horde, the deplorable ones—who “distrust the value of expertise”—that is, the guidance of officials such as Anthony Fauci. If he is suggesting that Anthony Fauci is comparable to Oppenheimer, he has made a glaring false analogy. Anthony Fauci has never challenged any president or government bureaucracy he served under, nor has he been a dissident cast out of the scientific priesthood, in his case the pharmaceutical-industrial complex.