Oppenheimer: Story of a troubled conscience and mishandled power

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By Shriraksha Mohan

As I sat down in a movie theater to watch Christopher Nolan’s movie, Oppenheimer, I had expected to be entertained by Nolan’s cinematic brilliance, as usual. Little did I expect I would leave the theater pondering over humanity’s history of repeatedly giving too much decision-making power to a few individuals, who may or may not have the wisdom to consider all the consequences of their actions.

The movie is a biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist and director of the Manhattan Project during World War 2. He was tasked to build the world’s first nuclear weapon, the atom bomb. In the course of this project, the movie shows Oppenheimer developing moral conundrums about the power he is about unleash on a world that doesn’t yet know the power of nuclear energy.

At the time of the Manhattan Project, there was a scientific community that expressed moral and ethical concerns about use of nuclear energy, and a US government which wrested the atom bomb technology away from their hands to build up its military arsenal. While Oppenheimer believed an atomic bomb was necessary to defeat the Nazis, he and many of his colleagues stood firmly against the creation of a hydrogen bomb, which could have been far more lethal. Eventually, USA dropped the atomic bomb Oppenheimer helped create on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese people died, mostly civilians who were not fighting in the war.

In the movie, after having realized that creation of a nuclear weapon will change our world, geopolitics and international relationships forever, Oppenheimer is shown to rally the cause of international cooperation in the area of nuclear energy development. The movie even touches upon discussions on formation of a World Government. This may seems like a far-fetched idea, but in today’s world facing an increasing threat of global catastrophes in the form of climate change and nuclear warfare, a World Government may be the only way to guarantee stable international cooperation.

This left me with many questions. Who gets to decide how we use the power of nuclear energy? Is it the government? If it is the government, are we sure those in power will not use nuclear weapons for their political vendetta? What role should scientists play in a society? Should scientists have a say in determining the use of any technology, let alone nuclear energy? Is the scientific community responsible enough to consider the long-term consequences of its research outcomes and do what’s right for humanity?

As P R Sarkar says, “Human strength is much more powerful than the strength of atom bombs. Therefore, to think that atom bombs will annihilate the human race is nothing but to defame human intellect and psychic power because atom bombs are the creation of human beings.”

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Thanks, Shriraksa, for this thoughtful reflection on the Oppenheimer film. I’ve been asking myself similar questions. I’m now reading the book that this film is based on, American Prometheus, and learning a lot! Especially about the circumstances around the decision to target Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many US generals, including Dwight Eisenhower, said that there was no need, and that the war was already almost won. It seems that a major motive for pushing it through was to end the war with Japan before the Russians had a chance to get involved and lay claim to territory or influence. The Japanese were already prepared to surrender, so long as they could retain their emperor and some degree of self governance. The claim that a land invasion was the only other option seems quite false. 

Thanks for the comment Dada Nabhaniilananda. Nothing, in my opinion, justifies using a group of defenseless citizens as guinea pigs to experiment with atomic bombs. This is what USA did when it dropped the bomb, and has never been held accountable for this.

J. Robert Oppenheimer’s article in The Atlantic, advocating for open-minded cooperation in matter related to Atomic Energy.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1949/02/the-open-mind/305431/

I am really learning a lot from this discussion . . . thanks so much Shriraksha and Dada Nabhaniiliananda. My perspective is that we had de-humanized the Japanese and highly exaggerated their blind obedience to the Emporer, so it was easier to annihilate them. The bombing of Tokyo had worse impacts than the Atomic bombs. After the war, the US forced the Japanese to accept a westernization of their constitution, imposed US education, laws and cultural imperialism that never would have happened in post-war Germany. They are still suffering greatly from this form of imperialism.

Mayadhiish

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