NEW YORK – As portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, in 1945 after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the development of the nuclear weapons, told President Harry Truman that he had “blood on his hands.”
The scene stood out to Archbishop John Wester. He said the moment, along with others that highlight Oppenheimer’s moral dilemma after the bombings, invites people of today to assess for themselves the “morally untenable reality” of a world with nuclear weapons.
“I think it suggests do we have a choice? And Oppenheimer was kind of clinging to that moral lifeline of saying, ‘Well, I have to do this for the good of the country because if not someone else will do it,” Wester said. “But it does bring to my mind the question, ‘OK fine that was then, well what about now?’”
“What do we do about it now, and how can we live this morally untenable reality of all the nuclear weapons that could destroy civilization?” added Wester, the archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico. “I think the moral dilemma that we’re in, I think the movie speaks to that.”
Wester, a staunch advocate of nuclear disarmament, viewed the film with a group of about 50 people at the Contemporary Arts Center in Santa Fe on July 22, and participated in a panel discussion afterwards.
Speaking with Crux about the film, Wester said it was what he expected in how it was well made and approached the life and story of Oppenheimer, and also what he expected in how it heightened awareness of the nuclear weapons reality that the world’s living under right now.
In the 75-plus years since Oppenheimer directed the Manhattan Project to produce the world’s first nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia have amassed 5,244 and 5,899 nuclear warheads, respectively, according to the latest data from the Federation of American Scientists. There are approximately 12,500 nuclear warheads worldwide, the data shows.
“I think the Oppenheimer movie raises a consciousness of the whole nuclear weapons crisis that we’re in, and that’s a good thing and we need to talk about it,” said Wester, who next week will lead a delegation to Japan to advocate for nuclear disarmament. “We’re kind of hoping a lot of people see [Oppenheimer] because it will give us a segway to talk about this issue.”
A New York native and the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, Oppenheimer earned a B.A. in chemistry from Harvard University in 1922. He then traveled to England to study at Cambridge – where the movie picks up – before leaving a year later to accept a position studying at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Göttingen, Germany, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1927.
Oppenheimer then returned to the United States. In 1929, he accepted a joint professorship at the University and California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology to introduce his work in theoretical physics. In 1941, it was at Berkeley that he began and a colleague began research into the physics of a possible atom bomb. A year later, General Leslie Groves asked Oppenheimer to lead the Manhattan Project team tasked with developing the bomb, which he did.
Groves allowed Oppenheimer to establish a special bomb laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where on July 16, 1945, the bomb they made was tested in what was called the Trinity Test – a success. And eventually used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – killing at least 110,000 people.
The movie also dives into Oppenheimer’s personal life, political associations, and the moral and career challenges he faced in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in part as an advocate for nuclear deterrence, and against the development of the more powerful hydrogen bomb.
From Wester’s perspective, Oppenheimer’s legacy is complex as both a brilliant scientist, and man who set the world on a dangerous path. He noted, however, that he won’t say Oppenheimer shouldn’t have done what he did because someone else would have. Wester won’t condemn him, either, because “Oppenheimer thought he was doing the right thing … and thought he was protecting the country.”
“It’s conflicting, because on the one hand you have to admire his brilliance,” Wester said. “On the other hand, he’s also a tragic figure because what he did led us into the nuclear age, and that’s a tragedy. He ushered something in that could truly destroy everything.”
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