Oppenheimer: The psychological impact on the man who ‘became death’
The American scientist oversaw the creation of the deadliest weapon to be made by man at the time- and it took its toll
The dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the deadliest conflict in human history to a dark and twisted conclusion. A total of over 200,000 people were killed or injured by the bombs, which were dropped following Imperial Japan’s refusal to surrender.
The ethical dilemma of dropping the bombs has been hotly discussed over the nearly 80 years since the attacks. The alternative plan from the Allies was a full scale invasion of mainland Japan, which estimates predicted would have killed hundreds and thousands of Japanese and Allied lives.
On the other hand, many have said that Japan was close to surrender anyway. It had been fighting the war on its own for months following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945. A surrender may have come, but through Allied eyes each day Japan didn’t surrender, more of their troops were killed.
It is this concept, a need to beat Nazi Germany to the bomb and an overwhelming urge to end the war which thrust research and creation of an atomic bomb into overdrive. Led by Oppenheimer, the team of scientists got to work under the title of the Manhattan Project.
The human cost of the bomb wasn’t put into perspective during the creation, and when they were dropped on their two Japanese targets the realisation of what they had done started to sink in. Oppenheimer hadn’t flown the Enola Gay B29 bomber which dropped the bombs, nor had he ordered the attack on Japan. However, he had led the team which brought the bomb into existence.
The Christopher Nolan film about the scientist captures the scene of him addressing the rest of the Los Alamos research unit shortly after news of the bombing is received. It contrasts his positive, seemingly patriotic outer monologue with a guilt-ridden and disturbed internal monologue in which the thought of sentencing tens and thousands of innocent people to their deaths.
After watching the destructive power of the A Bomb test, Oppenheimer said: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” which is a dark reflection into what was going through his mind at this point and after the bombs were dropped.
He was pleased with the initial success of the bomb, but less than two weeks after the bombing he was actively calling on the USA to ban the use of nuclear weapons. Just two months after Hiroshima, he told President Truman that he had blood on his hands as a result of becoming ‘father of the Atom Bomb’. Yet despite this, Oppenheimer never once said he regretted leading the creation of the bomb, and his work into nuclear weapons continued after the war.
Of course, no matter how riddled with guilt Oppenheimer supposedly was or wasn’t, his suffering paled in comparison to that of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What must be remembered also is that the Atomic bombing of the cities happened within the lifetime of lots of people still alive today, with some of these people being directly or indirectly affected by the bomb and its deadly consequences even all these years later.
The film adaptation of Oppenheimer has been widely criticised in Japan, with one former journalist who covered the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki saying that the film doesn’t truly show “what happened under the mushroom cloud.”
This viewpoint is accurate, and over the years history has made up its mind on Oppenheimer as a man and a scientist. Yes, there’s no doubt Oppenheimer felt guilty for his creation, but there is also no doubt over the fact he could have been more active in his efforts against use of the bomb.
Oppenheimer’s work was revolutionary, and at another point in history his work may have been put towards a peaceful, better use for mankind. Yet his work was a product of the time, and in a world that wanted an end to war- the Allies deemed the most clinical way to achieve this by unleashing hell on innocent populations.