Oppenheimer: Six Explosive Questions

Why did the father of the A-bomb lie about being a member of the Communist Party?

Universal Pictures via AP
Cillian Murphy as physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from the film 'Oppenheimer.' Universal Pictures via AP

Director Christopher Nolan’s likely blockbuster film, “Oppenheimer,” is scheduled to open this week. Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was born in 1904 and died in 1967, was the so-called “father of the atomic bomb.” 

He headed the Los Alamos lab that produced the nuclear weapons we dropped in August 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To his dismay, he was accused in 1953 of being disloyal and even a spy. The next year, he permanently lost his security clearance

Oppenheimer was neither disloyal nor a spy. In 1954, though, he had failed to testify truthfully when he falsely denied — to the Atomic Energy Commission — that he’d ever been a member of the Communist Party. 

He had in fact been a secret party member between about 1939 and 1941. Multiple sources — including a memoir, the reports by two former Oppenheimer friends, and a handful of Soviet documents — overwhelmingly establish this. 

Oppenheimer is a tantalizingly enigmatic figure, whose complexities will surely be probed in Nolan’s film. How will that film address, among others, the following six sets of concerns:

  1. What does it suggest about Oppenheimer’s values that, in 1943, he set as a standard for pursuing the possibility of a secret weapons program  — radiological warfare using fission products — that the weapon be able to kill a half million of the enemy? Did such a standard suggest a lack of concern about slaying enemy noncombatants and thus a marked departure from ethical principles?
  1. What does it mean that, in 1945, Oppenheimer endorsed conducting an experiment on a human patient by injecting highly toxic plutonium into that individual? Was Oppenheimer concerned that such a patient could be a human guinea pig?
  1. Before the Hiroshima bombing, why did Oppenheimer, unlike some associates, fail to express any concern to officials that America’s A-bombs would be targeted,  without warning, on Japanese cities, and thereby kill and injure many noncombatants in those cities? Involved on key advisory committees, Oppenheimer, had he chosen, could have expressed concerns. Significantly, Oppenheimer, unlike the Army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, did not.
  1. Why after the atomic bombing of Japan, did Oppenheimer in 1945 greatly downplay A-bomb radiation problems in Japan and thus mislead the public and the press about such hazards? 
  1. How does one explain Oppenheimer’s oscillating positions on an American  quest to develop an H-bomb, a weapon that would be hundreds and ultimately thousands of times more powerful than our early A-bombs? In World War II, he briefly endorsed such an H-bomb quest. In 1945 and 1946, he opposed such a quest. In the period between 1947 and late 1949, he reversed himself again, endorsing such a quest. Yet after the Soviet Union’s breakthrough in August 1949 of developing an A-bomb, when some U.S. officials, alarmed by the Soviet A-bomb, pushed for an American H-bomb as a necessary response, Oppenheimer reversed himself again, strongly opposing any American quest for the H-bomb.
  1. How, most importantly, does Mr. Nolan’s film deal with the overwhelming evidence that Oppenheimer, between about 1939 and 1941, had been a secret Communist Party member and thus that he had repeatedly later lied to U.S. officials on this matter? 

In the 1954 AEC hearing, by denying such earlier party membership, Oppenheimer had in effect committed perjury. What does that lying, and thus his perjury, mean for understanding Oppenheimer, the AEC’s conclusion that he was a “security risk,” and Mr. Nolan’s movie? Not to treat that subject appropriately could undermine much of the film, and mislead the public.

Other questions and concerns could be added, but these six, and especially the one about Oppenheimer’s repeated lying — and thus perjury — seem adequate to help focus an informed, and needed, dialogue about the complicated J. Robert Oppenheimer as Mr. Nolan’s widely touted movie comes to the big screen.

The New York Sun

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