US physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer headed the
American laboratory that built the atomic bomb. In this extract from a speech given four months after Hiroshima, Oppenheimer explored why American scientists created the bomb and considered the future cooperation between nations that would now be necessary.
As early as 1939, Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, had outlined the dangers if Nazi laboratories were the first to develop an atomic bomb. Once America had entered the war, President Roosevelt set up a research centre and in 1942, Oppenheimer was asked to lead British and American physicists in finding a way to harness nuclear energy for military purposes.
The first atomic bomb was exploded at Alamogordo in New Mexico on 16 July 1945. Some years later, Oppenheimer described his reaction: ‘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”.’ President Truman gave orders for a bomb to be dropped on Japan as soon as possible to bring a swift end to the war. The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and a second on Nagasaki three days later. The devastation was far more horrifying than had been anticipated. Japan surrendered on 14 August 1945.
Robert Oppenheimer was born in 1904. He studied physics at Harvard and quantum mechanics and relativity theory at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. From 1929 he held posts at the University of California in Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, where he established large schools of theoretical physics. A whole generation of US physicists owed much to his intelligent and inspiring leadership.
In 1942, as part of the Manhattan Project’s research and development work, Oppenheimer was asked to coordinate work on the atomic bomb. He was widely acknowledged as a brilliant director. In October 1945, he resigned and returned to California, although he continued to advise the government on the use and control of nuclear weapons.
Between 1947 and 1952, Oppenheimer was chairman of the board of scientific advisors of the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1949, the board refused to pass a proposal to start the manufacture of hydrogen bombs. This, together with his sharp tongue and views on arms control, made Oppenheimer military and political enemies. His opposition to the hydrogen bomb and alleged contacts with Communists led to his being denied security clearance in 1954. However, ten years later, the AEC awarded him the prestigious Fermi Award, recognising his scientific leadership and groundwork on many peaceful uses of atomic energy. Oppenheimer spent his last years exploring the relationship between science and society. He died of throat cancer in 1967.
I should like to talk tonight … as a fellow scientist, and at least as a fellow worrier about the fix we are in.
… In considering what the situation of science is, it may be helpful to think a little of what people said and felt of their motives in coming into this job … There was in the first place the great concern that our enemy might develop these weapons before we did, and the feeling – at least, in the early days, the very strong feeling – that without atomic weapons, it might be very difficult, it might be an impossible, it might be an incredibly long thing to win the war. These things wore off a little as it became clear that the war would be won in any case. Some people, I think, were motivated by curiosity, and rightly so; and some by a sense of adventure, and rightly so. Others had more political arguments and said, ‘Well, we know that atomic weapons are in principle possible, and it is not right that the threat of their unrealised possibility should hang over the world. It is right that the world should know what can be done in their field and deal with it.’ … And there was finally, and I think rightly, the feeling that there was probably no place in the world where the development of atomic weapons would have a better chance of leading to a reasonable solution, and a smaller chance of leading to disaster, than within the United States. I believe all these things that people said are true, and I think I said them all myself at one time or another.
But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity … If you are a scientist, you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.
… It is not possible to be a scientist unless you believe that it is good to learn. It is not good to be a scientist, and it is not possible, unless you think that it is of the highest value to share your knowledge, to share it with anyone who is interested. It is not possible to be a scientist unless you believe that the knowledge of the world, and the power which this gives, is a thing which is of intrinsic value to humanity, and that you are using it to help in the spread of knowledge, and are willing to take the consequences.
‘It is not possible to be a scientist unless you believe that it is good to learn.’
… I think it is true to say that atomic weapons are a peril which affect everyone in the world, and in that sense a completely common problem, as common a problem as it was for the Allies to defeat the Nazis. I think that in order to handle this common problem there must be a complete sense of community responsibility. I do not think that one may expect that people will contribute to the solution of the problem until they are aware of their ability to take part in the solution. I think that it is a field in which the implementation of such a common responsibility has certain decisive advantages. It is a new field, in which just the novelty and the special characteristics of the technical operations should enable one to establish a community of interest which might almost be regarded as a pilot plant for a new type of international collaboration. I speak of it as a pilot plant because it is quite clear that the control of atomic weapons cannot be in itself the unique end of such operation.
The only unique end can be a world that is united, and a world in which war will not occur … Now, this is not an easy thing, and the point I want to make, the one point I want to hammer home, is what an enormous change in spirit is involved. There are things which we hold very dear, and I think rightly hold very dear; I would say that the word democracy perhaps stood for some of them as well as any other word. There are many parts of the world in which there is no democracy. There are other things which we hold dear, and which we rightly should. And when I speak of a new spirit in international affairs I mean that even to these deepest of things which we cherish, and for which Americans have been willing to die – and certainly most of us would be willing to die – even in these deepest things, we realise that there is something more profound than that; namely, the common bond with other men everywhere.
… We are not only scientists; we are men, too. We cannot forget our dependence on our fellow men … These are the strongest bonds in the world, stronger than those even that bind us to one another, these are the deepest bonds – that bind us to our fellow men.
US physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer headed the