The arrogant genius Oppenheimer. A demon of destruction or the Prometheus of 20th century??

Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist responsible for the research, design, and development of the atomic bomb, has become a tragic symbol of the scientist's dilemma. He was alternately the admired and the hated leader of the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So first he set the fire, and when he tried to warn of the dangers involved, he enraged the powerful like the mythical Prometheus of the Olympian gods.

"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." - These were Robert Oppenheimer's words, his first reaction when he saw the dropping of uranium and plutonium bombs on Japan. He gathered around him an elite group of scientists who worked for more than two years on a secret research project in the United States, creating a powerful weapon to end the war, capable of destroying half a city in a few moments.

The above quote is from the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the most important and well-known religious texts of Hinduism and one of the scientist's favorite readings. Oppenheimer was a man of varied interests. A descendant of wealthy Jewish immigrants from Germany, a graduate of Harvard in Boston and Cambridge in England, he surpassed his peers in erudition and brashness while still a student. "Ask me a question in Latin and I'll answer in Greek". - he used to boast even as a teenager. In addition to the classical languages, he was proficient in several others, including Sanskrit. One of his closest friends, Isidor Isaac Rabi - an American physicist who came from an Orthodox family in the Carpathians and later won the 1944 Nobel Prize for his resonance method for observing the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei - characterized him thus: "Oppenheimer? A rich, spoiled Jewish brat from New York."

Extravagant theorist and great organizer

This gifted and educated "brat" never won a Nobel Prize himself, but he surrounded himself with the most outstanding physicists of his time, on both sides of the ocean. Although he was less likely to be honored by the Nobel Committee, it was not because he was not a genius, but because he lacked the quality the Germans call "Sitzfleisch": persistently working on a research problem until it is solved. He was an outstanding theoretical physicist who was also interested in chemistry and nuclear physics, a connoisseur of literature, a skilled sailor who was engaged in black hole research on the side. He had incredible scientific intuition and at the same time was able to perform mathematical calculations in a light-hearted manner.

In addition, he was an extravagant and inspiring lecturer to his students, but above all, he was a phenomenal organizer, who created a huge undertaking in the history of science. 80 years ago, he fast-tracked the practical foundations of nuclear physics as well as a remarkable project that brought together the greatest scientists of his time with the U.S. military, all with the goal of bringing the Third Reich and Japan to their knees.
Los Alamos area with building names, circa 1945. Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Wikimedia Commons
In 1943 scientists, engineers, and collaborators were brought together at Los Alamos under the direction of Oppenheimer to form the secret nuclear Manhattan Project. At first there were a few dozen, then a thousand, and later as many as eight thousand outstanding minds housed in an isolated town in the middle of a New Mexico plateau. In a very short time, a plutonium purification plant, a foundry, a library, an auditorium, and dozens of laboratories, warehouses, and offices were built, hidden from the world. In this way, the top-secret plans of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's government were realized. The U.S. president was inspired in 1939 by a letter from physicists Leó Szilárd and Eugene Wigner (who were concerned about the possibility of the Third Reich developing an atomic bomb), signed by Albert Einstein himself. They kindly reported that the U.S. could develop a weapon of a new type with unimagined potential, and Roosevelt enthusiastically embraced the idea. Before the end of the war, the Americans had a bomb that could also be dropped on Berlin, but it was ultimately used to break the fighting spirit of the Japanese and minimize the losses of their own army.

It may be worth considering why it was the Americans and not the Germans who were able to make such a great leap in the development of weapons of mass destruction. Apart from the obvious reason that the Nazis were involved on many war fronts and were working on a somewhat different technology, the explanation can be found in the ideology of the Nazi party itself. Even before the outbreak of war, the anti-Semitism of the Third Reich led to the emigration of outstanding minds - not only from Germany and Austria, but also from other European countries. The examples are numerous. Otto Frisch, who advanced the first theoretical explanation of nuclear fission and was the first to prove that it could be used for military purposes, left Hamburg in 1933 - even before the Nuremberg Laws. His mentor, Otto Stern, who later won the Nobel Prize in 1943, did likewise. Because of his wife's parentage, Enrico Fermi - 1938 Nobel laureate in physics, later inventor of the world's first nuclear reactor, and later Oppenheimer's most important teammate - left Italy. The Manhattan Project "team" also included other scientists for whom there was no place in Holocaust-era Europe: the Czech Jew Georg Placzek, and the Polish scientists of that descent Jozef Rotblat and Stanislaw Ulam, and many others. Even Einstein himself (although he was not involved in the Manhattan Project) emigrated permanently from Germany to the USA after Hitler's seizure of power.

The Germans had formed a nuclear research team as early as in 1939, and Werner Heisenberg, a theoretical physicist and 1932 Nobel Prize winner for his fundamental contribution to the creation of quantum mechanics, joined the team. However, the project was disrupted by Allied bombing, the sabotage of heavy water supplies from Norway to Germany, and finally by the Allied arrest of German nuclear physicists. Although the Germans did not develop the bomb, a nuclear reactor was built. Concern about the German program prompted the United States and Great Britain to launch a joint program to build an atomic bomb. They drew on the results of pre-war American work on the use of nuclear energy for ship propulsion, including the method of uranium isotope separation.

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According to calculations by Alex Wellerstein - a historian of science and nuclear weapons and a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology - the Manhattan Project gobbled up about $2 billion in government money in 1945 (about $30 billion in 2012) and employed about 120,000 people in its peak, mostly in construction and operations. Overall, about 500,000 people, or nearly 1% of the total U.S. civilian labor force, were involved in the entire program. In contrast, the budget of the German Uranium Association was just 8 million Reichsmarks, or about $2 million in 1945 dollars - one-thousandth of the U.S. expenditure.

While the Americans were making great efforts to develop nuclear weapons, the Germans were building gas chambers and investing in their Wunderwaffen - propagandistically used "wonder weapons." American analysts calculated after the war that the investment in the German V-2 program (which eventually, after the U.S. took over the Third Reich's scientists, led to the creation of NASA and the Apollo program) cost about as much as the Manhattan Project. So when the Germans launched rockets fueled by potato distillate, each requiring as much manpower as the production of six airplanes, they recorded embarrassing efficiency. In the attacks on London, one V-2 rocket killed an average of two people. Meanwhile, two U.S. bombs in August 1945 showed how dangerous the new atomic technology could be. Their political significance was even greater than their military significance. They intimidated the desperately struggling Japanese while giving them an advantage over the USSR - their later Cold War rivals.

Stalin knew, Truman not necessarily

Since the day the photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki went around the world, there has been constant debate about Oppenheimer's life's work and the legitimacy of the destruction of the two Japanese cities. The creator of the project that led to this will always be a demon of destruction in the eyes of pacifists. A reasonable view of history, however, requires the firm observation that ... the Americans probably could not have acted otherwise at the end of the war.

The estimated 150,000 dead from the nuclear attacks of August 6-9, 1945, are still far fewer than the estimated casualties among Japanese civilians and soldiers on both sides if the war continued. American commanders estimated that the attempted landing and capture of Japan by conventional means could claim the lives of a quarter of a million soldiers. On the other hand, more people died from napalm than from nuclear weapons during the World War II. Americans began using it in incendiary bombs. A single use in the air raids on Tokyo alone claimed more lives than the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it is undeniable that the world was afraid of a radioactive hecatombe for years to come, and fortunately, during the Cold War, no one had decided to push the atomic button, which would set off much more deadly charges.

The work of Oppenheimer's team greatly accelerated progress in nuclear physics. The scientists laid the mathematical and practical foundations of atomic science. The use of nuclear weapons also led to another geopolitical "chain reaction" More and more countries wanted these weapons in their arsenals. Today, an estimated nine armies have a total of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, which together exceed by several million the potential of the now archaic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That is more than enough for a huge mushroom cloud visible from space that could end human history.
In the summer of 1945, it was Harry Truman who, as President of the United States, was responsible for the decision to launch an atomic attack. He had taken the highest office as Vice President on April 12, 1945, automatically replacing the late President Roosevelt. He did not learn of the Manhattan Project work until after he was sworn in. This proves how secretive the operation was, as it was hidden even from the second person in the state. However, this was no obstacle for the Soviet agents, who systematically transmitted documents about the work on the project to USSR.

Joseph Stalin was well aware of what the Americans had at their disposal. The work of Soviet physicists gained extraordinary momentum and led to the detonation in 1949 of a nuclear bomb, the so-called “First Lightning”, jokingly called Joe-1 by the Americans (after Stalin's nickname in the U.S.), which caused alarm in Washington. Of course, it was predicted that the USSR would sooner or later develop its own nuclear weapons, but no one suspected it would happen so soon. It was also an embarrassment for the newly formed intelligence agency - CIA.

A panic-stricken investigation revealed that German Klaus Fuchs and uranium enrichment technician David Greenglass were the GRU's plug for the Manhattan Project. Only years later did it come to light that they were assisted by the youngest of Oppenheimer's team, teenage physics genius Theodore Alvin Hall. As it turned out, all of the aforementioned scientists showed communist sympathies, which formed the main basis for the subsequent, years-long persecution of spies for the USSR in the U.S. government and in institutions of public life, as well as for the fight against "communist infiltration" in society. The latter often took the form of a hunt-surveillance of opinion leaders, ruthless investigations, and spectacular trials; although most of the accusations had no credible basis, the archives opened today show extensive infiltration of U.S. government institutions).

By this time, Oppenheimer, who had become the world's most famous scientist, was mentally overwhelmed by the magnitude of the tragedy that had occurred in Japan. He no longer wanted to be involved in any way in the making of more bombs and thus in the Manhattan Project. He resigned from his post as scientific director and joined Albert Einstein at Princeton. Soon after, he was elected chairman of the advisory committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. br>
The man who created the atomic bomb recognized more than anyone the threat that the arms race that had begun could pose to the world. When he began to openly express his beliefs and speak out against the construction of a thermonuclear bomb that was many times more powerful, both his environment and his youthful political views came under closer scrutiny. This made Oppenheimer a victim of the "red panic" of the postwar period

Public enemy

Although he denied ever being a member of the Communist Party, he was said to have left-wing sympathies since his days at Berkeley University. He was also associated with payments to Republican troops during the Spanish War. There were also more serious accusations, as there were many communists in his circle. In the family, but also among friends, there were not a few who not only held leftist views, but were also party members. This can, of course, be explained by the particular intellectual climate after the Great Depression. In the 1930s, his brother, the scientist's future wife, Katherine Puening (the widow of an American communist activist who died in Spain), and Oppenheimer's mistress, Jean Tatlock, all belonged to the Communist Party of America.

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It is interesting to note that the U.S. Army knew about all this before the scientist was offered the leadership of the Manhattan Project. When General Leslie Groves, who was overseeing the project from the Army side, learned about it, he issued a letter on July 20, 1943, stating that Oppenheimer was the only man for the job, regardless of any previous history.

Just a few years after the war, however, the case returned. Oppenheimer became the target of Senator Joseph McCarthy's communist investigators. Surveillance of the scientist, hundreds of tapes of intimate conversations and confessions led to Oppenhaimer being made a suspect, almost a traitor, in the 1950s. After a series of public hearings, the Atomic Energy Commission revoked his so-called security clearance. America's hero was sidelined. As late as the 1990s, retired NKVD general Pavel Sudoplatov is said to have confessed that the most important data that made possible the construction of the Soviet atomic bomb came from, of all people, the head of the project himself, as well as Fermi and Leó Szilárd. He claimed that Oppenheimer was one of the most important but hidden dignitaries of the American Communist Party, a kind of "cardinal in cuore" These revelations, however, were not corroborated by documents known as the "Venon files," Soviet espionage reports from the late 1940s and early 1950s that were intercepted by American counterintelligence.

It was not until the 1960s that Oppenheimer began to be rehabilitated in the United States. The Atomic Energy Commission awarded him its highest honour, the Enrico Fermi Prize,which was presented to him by President Lyndon Johnson. Soon after, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, a consequence of 40 years in which he had not given up smoking. He died in 1967.

Oppenheimer's life resembles the story of a mythical figure - Prometheus, as recognized by the authors of his most comprehensive biography, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, who entitled it "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer." He has become a symbol of the tragic dilemmas of genius. First he started a fire, and when he tried to warn of the dangers involved, he enraged the powerful like Prometheus enraged the gods of Olympus.

Today, in the age of terrorism, wars, and Putinism, the threats associated with Oppenheimer's accomplishments return with increased force. In 1946, when he was to be asked in a closed session of the Senate whether America was vulnerable to a nuclear attack, such as bombs hidden in travelers' luggage, he immediately answered in the affirmative -much to the committee's obvious horror. Asked how to protect against this, he joked brilliantly in his typical manner, "A screwdriver (to open each and every suitcase)." For Oppenheimer - the man who created nuclear weapons - the only defense against nuclear terrorism was the elimination of nuclear weapons themselves. Only it's probably too late for that...

– Cezary Korycki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

On July 21, 2023, the biographical film "Oppenheimer," a British-American production directed by Christopher Nolan, will be released in Polish theaters. The screenplay is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.
Main photo: Graphic showing a 1944 portrait of Robert Oppenheimer, from his time at Los Alamos (after Los Alamos National Laboratory - Charles Thorpe and Steven Shapin, "Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer? Charisma and Complex Organization"; Social Studies of Science - Wikimedia Commons).Work: Cezary Korycki
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