Oppenheimer's Dilemma

Tim Anderson
April 19, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in April 1904 to an upper-class family in New York city. A consistent theme throughout his life was not only his intelligence, but the broad range of subjects over which he excelled and was interested. This characteristic was apparent early-on: as a child, he studied science extensively, but also was interested in poetry and literature. He was also an avid rock collector; indeed, keeping with his precocious nature, he became such an adept amateur geologist that he was even admitted to the Mineralogical Club in New York at the age of 11. [1] Oppenheimer went on to earn a bachelors degree at Harvard in 1925 and a doctorate at Göttingen in 1927 under Max Born, all in physics. He took on a joint position between Caltech and Berkeley in 1930. The bulk of Oppenheimer's work during this focused on the blossoming field of quantum mechanics, and specifically experimental nuclear physics. [1]

The Bomb

The fall of France in 1940 horrified Oppenheimer, and after the U.S. entry into the war, he felt a deep obligation to join the American war effort. For Oppenheimer, joining the war effort was not merely a matter of patriotism; he believed that stopping fascism was a matter of saving Western civilization itself. [2] Soon after the American entry into the war, he was appointed leader of the Manhattan Project in early 1942, and began searching for the brightest nuclear physicists, chemists, and engineers in the United States. As a technological achievement, the bomb is perhaps only rivaled by the computer in human history: because the scientists lacked anything beyond rudimentary computational power, and experiments with nuclear material was far too expensive and dangerous, the scientists and engineers designed the bomb using purely theoretical principles. After several years, their efforts proved fruitful: on July 16, 1945, the first-ever atomic bomb was detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico, and in August 1945 two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ultimately pushed the Japanese to surrender. Oppenheimer was largely credited with the success of the Manhattan Project. [1] Because of his successful leadership, he eventually arose to national - even international - fame as a scientist surpassed only by Albert Einstein.

Oppenheimer's Regret

"I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'" [3]

It was in an interview about his reaction to the Trinity test that Oppenheimer delivered one of the most memorable quotations about the war - perhaps the most famous quotation by any scientist of the 20th century. Oppenheimer immediately understood the true power of the bomb. Never before had mankind possessed destructive power that truly posed a threat to civilization. After the war, Oppenheimer was deeply concerned with the successful control of nuclear energy. Although he initially pushed for military control of nuclear technology, he eventually came to believe that a separate government entity - what eventually became the Atomic Energy Commission - was needed to control this newfound power.

Immediately after the war's end, Oppenheimer resigned from his post as leader of Los Alamos, and eventually became leader of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. The atomic energy program had shifted focus to research on thermonuclear weapons, and Oppenheimer vehemently opposed the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb) and similar weapons on the grounds that thermonuclear weapons were more destructive than mankind could responsibly control. He predicted the concept of mutually assured destruction long before the largest H-bombs were constructed. Oppenheimer's sharp opposition to the H-bomb brought him into direct conflict with his Manhattan project colleague Edward Teller, who was the H-bomb's most vocal proponent. [1] Oppenheimer's opposition to the H-bomb, more general criticism of the atomic energy program, and his ties to the American Communist Party combined to make him a victim of the Red Scare. His security clearance was revoked in 1954, and he declined offers for a retrial during the Kennedy Administration.

Oppenheimer believed that he had blood on his hands for his role in the development of the atomic bomb. [4] In a talk given in 1946, Oppenheimer told a university audience that when the Manhattan Project team spoke of what they had done, "we thought of the legend of Prometheus, of that deep sense of guilt in man's new powers that reflects his recognition of evil, and his long knowledge of it." [5] Oppenheimer's guilt was not over the use of the bomb during World War II; to that end, he felt the bomb had been morally justified. Instead, Oppenheimer felt he held responsibility for the ensuing arms race and threat to civilization brought about by the bomb. He hoped that nuclear technology could find peaceful civilian applications, specifically in nuclear power, though he remained doubtful that nuclear technology could ever be successfully commercialized due to the high costs and risks involved. [1] In 1947, he stated that scientists were still many years from developing civilian nuclear power plants, and any research on nuclear energy equated to explosives research. Oppenheimer's predictive power once again proved correct: it was not until 1957 that the first nuclear power plant was operational, whereas the first thermonuclear bomb was detonated in 1952.

While he objected to the H-bomb and regretted his role as "father of the atomic bomb", Oppenheimer's personal moral code was very complex and not dictated by a single religion or culture. Oppenheimer was Jewish by heritage but raised in a secular household. Much of his childhood was shaped by the Ethical Culture Society, a secular group that drew much of its teachings from Reform Judaism (Nuechterlein). Beyond his Jewish heritage, Oppenheimer was a bohemian in matters of religion and culture. He was a voracious consumer of classical music, read voraciously in multiple languages, and towards his twilight years took a keen interest in non-Western religion and philosophy. Though he himself was not traditionally religious, he held a strong interest in Hinduism and especially enjoyed Hindu texts, even going so far as to learn Sanskrit to read them in their original form. In short, religion for Oppenheimer was an effort to seek absolution for his past guilt and to give meaning to the revolution in physics he had lived through. Whether it was the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, or any number of other religious texts he studied, Oppenheimer sought redemption and meaning for his work. Oppenheimer's inner moral conflict shows that even in death, he never resolved his own moral dilemma. He chased after absolution and resolution until the bitter end, proud of having served his country but regretting the destruction his work may bring someday. His legacy, though, can be summarized as a simple question: will the bomb be the bringer of life through nuclear power and sustainable energy, or will Oppenheimer in death ultimately become the destroyer of our world?

© Timothy Anderson. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] H. A. Bethe, "J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1904-1967," Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 14, 390 (1968).

[2] J. A. Hijiya, "The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer," P. Am. Philos. Soc. 144, 123 (2000).

[3] L. Giovannitti, The Decision to Drop the Bomb (Coward-McCann, 1965).

[4] C. W. Hart, "J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Faith Development Portrait," J. Relig. Health 47, 118 (2008).

[5] C. Thorpe, Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (University of Chicago Press, 2006).