SWINDLE COLUMN: The Man Who Changed War Forever

Published 10:00 am Thursday, June 13, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

“Now I am become death; the destroyer of worlds.”  J. Robert Oppenheimer after the successful test of the uranium enriched atomic bomb in New Mexico.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born on April 22, 1904 in New York City to a wealthy Jewish family. He was a brilliant child, but lacked social skills.  As he grew older, his singular focus was on theoretical physics.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry from Harvard University in 1925 and a doctorate in physics from the University of Göttingen in Germany in 1927.

After research at other institutions, he joined the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley, where he became a full professor in 1936. He made significant contributions to theoretical physics, including achievements in nuclear physics.

In 1942, Oppenheimer was becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of European Jews; particularly in the Reich.  Being that he was the best physicist in the world, the United States War Department recruited him to work on the Manhattan Project, which sole function was to develop a weapon that would end World War II.  In 1943, he was appointed director of the project’s Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, tasked with developing the first nuclear weapons.

His leadership and scientific expertise were instrumental in the project’s success. On July 16, 1945, he was present at the first test of the atomic bomb, Trinity.

In August 1945, these weapons were used against Japan in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the only use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict.

In 1947, Oppenheimer became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and chaired the influential General Advisory Committee of the newly created U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Unfortunately, perhaps because of his guilt over creating such a weapon, he lobbied for international control of nuclear power to avert nuclear proliferation and a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. He visited President Harry Truman in the White House to discuss these ideas.  Truman was very much opposed to these ideas and quickly dismissed Oppenheimer from the Oval Office.

Oppenheimer also opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, which combines nuclear fission and fusion and is astronomically more powerful. During a 1949–1950 governmental debate on the question he took positions on defense-related issues that were hostile to other U.S. government and military factions.

During what some call the “second Red Scare”, Oppenheimer’s stances, together with his past associations with the Communist Party USA, led to the revocation of his security clearance, following a 1954 security hearing.  This effectively ended his access to the government’s atomic secrets and his career as a nuclear physicist. Although stripped of his direct political influence, Oppenheimer nevertheless continued to lecture, write, and work in physics.

In 1963, as a gesture of political rehabilitation, he was given the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award. He died four years later, of throat cancer.

While it did Oppenheimer no good because he had passed away, in 2022, the federal government vacated the 1954 revocation of his security clearance.

What Oppenheimer did not seem to accept is that President Truman made the decision to use this weapon.  Truman was clueless about the Manhattan Project when he was sworn in as president.  Military advisors told him about this weapon just about the time that he has to decide whether to use it against the Empire of Japan.

He made the right decision.  By dropping these two bombs on the people of our enemy, we saved the lives of countless Marines and Japanese who were poised to attack the Japanese homeland to the death.  Although many Japanese civilians were killed, a mainland invasion would have been much worse.

Later, Dr. Oppenheimer would retire a special cottage in the Caribbean. On February 18, 1967, he passed away from cancer.

Oppenheimer’s legacy is controversial.  But, his Manhattan Project and its display into enemy territory showed the world that a weapon exists that flattens an enemy’s homeland.

While some would consider this counterintuitive, the invention of the atomic bond probably saved millions of lives.  Why?

Today, one Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) can be launched at the push a button.  That missile would flatten Atlanta, Moscow, and any other city in the world.

Since the major military powers, and France, have nuclear arsenals with weapons aimed at key locations, there has not yet been a World War III.  If one country launched and ICBM, it would destroy the world because of the retaliation of the other powers.

Yes, warfare has changed. But, Dr. Oppenheimer changed it for the better.  Instead of America and the Soviet Union squaring off against each other, both countries know that we have what it takes to destroy each other completely.

I am certain that Oppenheimer did a great service to our country and the world.  War is part of life.  He certainly saved more lives and partly saved the United States.  But, he would never acknowledge that.  Unfortunately, his memories were not left in Washington.  They followed him to the Caribbean.  I wish that he could look down from above and see that these weapons have not been used since the attack on Japan.  They are a deterrent to large scale war.