Science cannot save us
Oppenheimer and the false promise of science
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The most haunting scene in Christopher Nolan’s biopic Oppenheimer occurs in a presentation hall just after the atomic bomb named “Little Boy” decimates Hiroshima. The wizard of Los Alamos, J. Robert Oppenheimer, addresses an audience of Los Alamos scientific personnel ecstatic about their victory. Fueled by his own euphoria, Oppenheimer whips up their collective patriotic fervor. Suddenly, the sound cuts out, and he envisions the crowd saturated in a rushing wave of incandescent light. The audience is vaporized. A woman’s face melts away. Looking down, Oppenheimer perceives the floor littered with charred and broken corpses. When the sound suddenly returns, the ecstatic cheers have turned to screams accompanied by a dull and reverberating roar.
The scene’s structure invokes both the film’s earlier depiction of Trinity—the test detonation of the atomic bomb—and Oppenheimer’s vision of the ghastly human consequences of the bomb’s actual use. This signals Oppenheimer’s deep ambivalence regarding his achievement. On the one hand, he insisted the United States needed to build the bomb before Germany did and, equally aware that using the weapon against Japan could save untold numbers of innocent lives, he continued supporting the atomic program even after Germany surrendered.
On the other hand, having heard rumors after the war that Japan knew they had been defeated before the atomic attacks and had been on the brink of surrender, Oppenheimer questioned whether the bomb was ever truly necessary. Oppenheimer found this uncertainty morally traumatic. However, he needn’t have worried. The historical record makes clear that ideas about an early Japanese surrender are a myth.
Early in the war, US cryptologists cracked Japanese diplomatic and military coded communications. These intercepts prove that by late 1944, the Japanese knew they had lost the war and that some Japanese leaders were probing Soviet willingness to support Japanese ambitions for a negotiated surrender. Japanese terms, however, included not simply retention of the emperor but also demands that they keep certain conquered territories, that there be no military occupation of Japan, no war crimes tribunals, and no forced demobilization. The intercepts also show that the Japanese plan to extract these concessions was to so bloody the Allies in a final fight that we would rather negotiate than push for the decisive victory. Japanese knowledge of their defeat never translated into any serious willingness to surrender prior to the atomic bombings.
Indeed, even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan’s war council remained gridlocked on surrender. Made up of the six top civilian and military leaders, decisions among the “Big Six” had to be unanimous. Three of the military leaders insisted on carrying on the fight, refusing to relent until Emperor Hirohito was asked to break the impasse. Hirohito reluctantly agreed that they accept Allied demands. Even then, junior officers stormed the Imperial Palace in an attempt to prevent the emperor from capitulating.
Arguments regarding the morality of the atomic attacks are not within the scope of Nolan’s interests. In fact, the film suggests that Oppenheimer’s mixed feelings about the bombings were not his primary moral torment. This can be seen by re-reading the presentation hall scene described above. While Oppenheimer’s hallucinatory vision was certainly an empathetic identification of Japanese suffering, it also matters that his vision specifically involved the annihilation of his fellow Americans. Oppenheimer’s greatest anguish was his fear that his terrible new weapons put everyone at risk. He foresaw a terrible arms race, a chain reaction of unrestrained proliferation that could destroy the entire world. His great achievement could prove a great curse.
Oppenheimer takes as its source material the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus. Both works utilize the Greek myth to offer a sustained meditation on the triumph and tragedy of an extraordinary act. Prometheus, you’ll recall, was a rebellious Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. It was a tremendous gift, giving mankind protection from marauding animals, the ability to cook more nourishing food, warmth from the elements, and the ability to craft tools. It brought light to dark places. To many, including beleaguered peoples suffering under Japanese occupation throughout the Asia-Pacific region—and to American boys waiting to storm the Japanese homeland—the atomic bomb surely felt like a similar gift from heaven.
But Prometheus’ gift had a second edge. While fire made it possible for civilization to flourish, it also allowed mankind to forge weapons and wage more devastating wars in satisfaction of their lust to dominate others. Prometheus, for his part, is condemned. His liver—in Greek reckoning, the seat of the emotions—would be consumed by an eagle for all eternity. Ostensibly, this torment was punishment for his theft. Allegorically, it was the emotional price he paid for his two-edged gift.
Oppenheimer believed that science could save humanity. Oppenheimer reminds us he was wrong. Science cannot save us.
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