BECAME A CHAMPION FOR PEACE
AS children, Charles and Charlotte Oppenheimer were taught not to shout about their family name.
Because their grandfather was J Robert Oppenheimer – the man who helped create the bomb that killed 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, ending the Second World War.
But Charles prefers to concentrate on the legacy of what came afterwards. And the gripping story is told in devastating detail in Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster Oppenheimer, which hits cinemas on Friday – going head-to-head with Barbie.
But while both have a history dating back to the middle of the
20th century – the atomic bomb emerged just 14 years before the
US fashion doll – it is Oppenheimer that is most likely to thrill audiences.
Peaky Blinders star Cillian
Murphy is already being tipped for an Oscar in his role as the brilliant physicist and “father of the atom bomb” whose story it tells.
With Nolan directing and
Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, alongside Matt
Damon, Robert Downey Jr and
Florence Pugh, it has an impressive cast.
Nolan has said some leave the cinema “devastated”. He added: “They can’t speak. I mean there’s an element of fear that’s there in the history. But the love of the characters, the love of the relationships, is as strong as I’ve ever done.”
The film is based on the Pulitzer Prizewinning book American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin.
For his grandchildren, despite never having met him – he died 56 years ago – his legacy is ever-present. Charles says: “I was taught not to go around saying I’m an Oppenheimer.”
Sister Dorothy, whose surname changed to Vanderford when she married, recalls a fellow pupil discovering her grandfather’s part in the atomic bomb and telling her: “So it’s your fault.” Speaking alongside Charles to biographer Kai Bird, she said: “I just remember having this feeling of protest and shame.”
Oppenheimer’s story remains one of massive contradictions. He was just 38 when, in 1942, he was appointed scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the top-secret US programme to develop the atomic bomb – before Germany could do the same.
The best scientific minds from America and Europe were squirrelled away in purposebuilt labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico. JRO, as he was known, watched anxiously from a bunker as the Trinity test – the world’s first nuclear explosion – was carried out at Alamagordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.
Just three weeks later the bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer said later of the Trinity test: “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
The bombings were a turning point for Oppenheimer. US historian, journalist and author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes, now 86, spoke to a number of his friends and colleagues. He says: “There was a period right after the war where Oppenheimer did express to friends a feeling that he had participated in a real tragedy.
“They caused far more death and destruction than they intended to. When Oppenheimer went to see President Truman in early 1946, he walked in and said, ‘Mr President, I had blood on my hands’. Truman kicked him out of his office, and said, ‘He didn’t decide to drop those damn bombs, I did’. Truman was offended by this display of melodramatic posturing.”
Oppenheimer’s pleas for atomic physics to be a force for good, not a weapon of war, saw him stripped of his security clearance, amid fears he had communist leanings.
So, as the global arms race took off, the father of the atomic bomb became the father of the disarmament movement.
Prof Andrew Futter, an expert in nuclear weapons, says: “I think a lot of people would say it was a revolution not just in the way that we think about war, but about the way we live our lives.
“Oppenheimer’s is a very mixed legacy. It is one of scientific achievement, human suffering and then the birth of the disarmament movement. Which is maybe why he is such an interesting, if controversial, character.”
Oppenheimer went on to chair the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, where he focused on atomic energy, and fought against the next phase of weapons development.
Prof Futter, of the University of Leicester, explains: “What really worried him was when the US began to push for the hydrogen bomb.
“The atomic bomb was the straightforward idea of splitting atoms, but they’re limited in the size of bomb you can deliver to a target. The hydrogen bomb fuses atoms together and is effectively limitless, hundreds of times more powerful than Hiroshima.”
In the end, the physicist’s anti-establishment views, combined with his marriage to radical Berkeley student and former Communist Party member Katherine “Kitty” Puening, created a perfect storm. In 1953 he was suspended from secret nuclear research and stripped of his security clearance by the AEC.
Yet even those who gave evidence against him admitted both his scientific brilliance and his dedication to the Manhattan Project.
Author Richard Rhodes says of Oppenheimer contemporary Hans Bethe, a German Jewish physicist and Nobel Laureate: “Bethe told me Oppenheimer was ‘Waspish before the war, waspish after the war’ – but not while he was at Los Alamos, during the war.”
He adds: “Oppenheimer’s worst enemy was the Hungarian physicist Edward Teller and when I interviewed Teller, I asked him, ‘Was Robert Oppenheimer a good lab director?’
“This man, who hated Oppenheimer and who testified against him at the security hearings, said in his very deep voice and Hungarian accent, ‘Robert Oppenheimer was the best lab director I ever knew’.
“Oppenheimer knew everyone had to work together in some kind of harmony and make the bombs available as quickly as possible.
“These were people with Nobel Prizes, absolutely brilliant. It could have led to constant battles of who was the smartest or quickest and he kept this herd together.
“He really wanted to participate in ending this terrible war as quickly as possible.”
As the 1960s dawned, the world moved into a more peace-loving phase. And in 1963 Oppenheimer was given back his security clearance by President Lyndon B Johnson.
He was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize for Physics but never won. And his campaign for the international control of nuclear weapons and atomic energy went on until his death from throat cancer in 1967.
Despite having to hide his name, grandson Charles has great admiration, telling Kai Bird: “He didn’t apologise for his work during the war, like no soldier apologises for it either. He did what he had to, and he knew what should be done afterwards and he tried hard to get it done.”
But he says his legacy should be a warning to scientists working today to develop artificial intelligence.
Charles set up the Oppenheimer Project to continue JRO’S belief that the world must co-operate to see off future threats.
Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, he urges: “We should form international bodies to deal with AI on a scientific rather than commercial basis.
“Humans could unwind the cataclysmic threats they face, long before some humanitythreatening form of advanced AI is released.”
Arrestingly, his warning is a modern echo of those words with which his grandfather inspired his team of scientists: “The people of this world must unite… or they will perish.”