Tom Morton-Smith’s new play Oppenheimer, which opened at the RSC’s Swan Theatre on 15th January, looks at the man behind the Manhattan Project. Here, Tom gives an insight into one of the most controversial figures of the 20th Century, and how the work Oppenheimer did has affected our collective history.
Even knowing very little it is hard not to have an opinion about J Robert Oppenheimer. Few of the 20th century’s great public figures were as complex and contradictory as the Father of the Atomic Bomb. For a period of time he was a hero, personifying America’s triumph of intellect, industry and will – a symptom, if not a cause, of the United States’ emergence as a superpower. During the 1950s Oppenheimer found himself at the centre of the Red Scare. He was a Communist sympathising socialist with a radical past and at the heart of government, a godless scientist with access to the highest levels of security – everything McCarthyism saw as dangerous. To those who opposed nuclear weapons he had opened Pandora’s Box – releasing a great evil into the world. He was pilloried by all sides as a war criminal or as a traitor. If people today know anything about Oppenheimer it is for the horrifying, arrogant, self-aggrandising quote: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer would argue that his actions safeguarded the world from a third world war. He believed, as many of the scientists who worked with him did, that the creation of a weapon as destructive as the a-bomb would make the concept of war so unpalatable that soldiers across the world would lay down their arms. This echoes the beliefs of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who said: “The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.”
There are no right answers when it comes to J Robert Oppenheimer. He cannot be neatly labelled as either hero or villain. It is a remarkable coincidence that the processes of atomic fission were discovered as the first fully industrialised war broke out in Europe – had fission come ten years later the resource and the will for such a bomb may have never developed. But Oppenheimer saw that it was possible – and at a time when the Germans were the world leaders in particle physics – he knew that the atomic bomb was inevitable. The Battle of the Laboratories (as President Truman called it) was very real for the scientists of the time – and if it was a choice for the Nazis to have the bomb or the Americans – then for Oppenheimer the decision was straightforward.
With hindsight it is clear that nuclear weapons serve only to deter nuclear war. In his short story collection, Einstein’s Monsters, Martin Amis writes: “How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening the use of nuclear weapons. And we can’t get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons.” Oppenheimer is very much part of the world that we have. We can fantasise a world without the atomic bomb – we can imagine alternate histories without the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – we can comfort ourselves with the thought that perhaps Oppenheimer was crushed by guilt for the rest of his life – but the bombs are here and the history is how it is. The scientists of the Manhattan Project believed that their work would end a war and save lives – and it did. Whether it was the ‘right’ thing to do is one of those horribly nebulous philosophical questions that will never have a satisfactory answer.
So why ask the question? Why dramatise this story? Why rake over these old coals of Communism, acts of war and particle physics? Because there will always be a new advancement in weapons technology. There will always be new science. There will always be a new war. There will always be a new ideological threat. And revisiting how we answered those unanswerable questions yesterday, will help us as we wrestle with what is unanswerable today.