Hollywood Rewrites History Again: What the Oppenheimer Deification Movie Didn’t Tell You
Mr. Christopher Nolan’s movie on J. Robert Oppenheimer is a mixed bag. It is certainly entertaining and well-directed. Its depiction of Dr. Oppenheimer’s role as the head of the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory is fairly accurate, although it was hardly a one-man show. From the start of movie, it was obvious that the evidence of his Communist Party affiliation was much understated. Dr. Oppenheimer’s defense of his loyalty was generally presented as fact, while the case against him was largely ignored. Yet, Dr. Oppenheimer had every reason to minimize his Communist Party involvement and certainly did so. Even disregarding the ridiculous sex scene that Mr. Nolan depicts at the Oppenheimer security clearance hearing (which should alone discredit the movie), his treatment of the case against Dr. Oppenheimer was minimal and sanitized. In my view, no reasonable person can read the transcript of the Oppenheimer security hearing (In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer) without concluding that Oppenheimer was a Communist despite his denials.
The movie ignores the scope of Dr. Oppenheimer’s involvement with numerous Communist front groups. Dr. Robert Conquest, the distinguished British-American historian who first exposed the scope of Stalin’s mass murder in the 1930s, wrote that, “As with Oppenheimer, it is impossible to understand how anyone who read the original American investigation which led to his losing his security clearance can doubt that he maintained very close and inappropriate connections with those whose allegiance was to the USSR. And he let unauthorized people see secret material.”
In general, the movie either ignored or cleaned up the skeletons in Dr. Oppenheimer’s closet, including the episode involving his attempted murder of his mentor, which reportedly was “…prevented by his parent[s]’ decision to step in and not by Oppie’s own guilt.”
In his review of Mr. Nolan’s Oppenheimer movie (which he characterized as a “A dishonest masterpiece”), Dr. Bruce Bawer, a respected author and critic, noted “…Soviet spy chief, General Pavel Sudoplatov, who in his 1994 memoirs stated that Oppenheimer, while at Los Alamos, had passed nuclear secrets to the Soviets without which they’d never have been able to build their own A-Bomb so quickly. Also ignored…was a 1944 letter from a Soviet security official, Boris Merkulov, to Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s notorious chief of secret police, in which he stated that Oppenheimer had reported to the Soviets on his work at Los Alamos via CPUSA [Communis Party of the United States of America] president Earl Browder….Whatever the case, none of the evidence of his perfidy finds its way into American Prometheus, or into Oppenheimer or into any of the numerous legacy-media reviews of the movie.”
Notwithstanding its Pulitzer Prize, American Prometheus (by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin), the book on which the movie is mainly based, has a strong liberal bias. The authors endorse two of the most extreme interpretations relating to Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan: 1) that the use of the atomic bomb was unnecessary to end the war promptly; and 2) that Dr. Gar Alperovitz’s “atomic diplomacy” theory was correct. (According to the authors, “…Alperovitz argued that atomic diplomacy against the Soviet Union was a factor in President Truman’s decision to use the bomb against a Japanese enemy that appeared defeated militarily…”). Bird and Sherwin write Alperovitz’s interpretation is based on, “…such newly open archival sources as former secretary of War Henry L. Stimson diaries and State Department materials related to former secretary of state James F. Byrnes…” There is little or no evidence of “atomic diplomacy” in these sources and the theory is inconsistent with the post-war policy of the Truman Administration which involved: 1) very rapid military demobilization; 2) the inadequate funding of national defense; 3) an effort to ban nuclear weapons; 4) minimal progress in the development and production of U.S. nuclear weapons until the Korean War; and 5) the continued presence of Dr. Oppenheimer in an influential position over atomic weapons policy. Indeed, through 1947, all the United States had was “stockpile of weapons parts…” In April 1947, President Truman was shocked when he was told how few U.S. nuclear weapons existed and that none of them were assembled. The number was only 13 in 1947.
A chapter of my Ph. D. dissertation was devoted to “atomic diplomacy.” I read through these sources and checked every footnote relating to it in Dr. Gar Alperovitz’s book. I found that the core of “Atomic Diplomacy” was quoting out of context the three paragraphs in Truman’s memoirs on the decision to use the atomic bomb (one sentence was quoted in a number of variations over ten times). The approach was to use innuendo to give Truman’s words a meaning that Truman clearly did not intend. While there were a few people in the Truman Administration who saw nuclear weapons as giving the United States an advantage, they were not at the top or determined policy. The opening of Soviet archives has demonstrated that there were large numbers of Stalin supporters and agents of influence in the Roosevelt Administration that President Truman inherited.
Concerns about Dr. Oppenheimer’s involvement with Communism developed during World War II. Lieutenant Colonel Boris H. Pash, a counterintelligence officer, was convinced that Dr. Oppenheimer was a secret Communist Party member and possibly a spy. (He is attacked in the movie for doing his job with determination.) In 1994, Lieutenant General Pavel Sudoplatov of the Soviet NKVD (People Commissariate for Internal Security later called the Committee on State Security or KGB) who managed the Soviet Atomic Espionage effort in the United States, in a memoir that was a best seller around the world except in the United States, stated, “I set up a network of illegals who convinced Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Bruno Pontecorvo, Alan Nunn May, Klaus Fuchs, and other scientists in America and Great Britain to share atomic secrets with us.” He characterized the information provided by Dr. Oppenheimer, Dr. Fermi and Dr. Szilard as, “The most vital information for developing the first Soviet atomic bomb…” The book which has an entire chapter on Soviet atomic espionage, details how Dr. Oppenheimer was recruited, what information he provided, and his role in retarding the development of the United States nuclear deterrent after World War II.
Lieutenant General Sudoplatov’s claim to have recruited Oppenheimer as a source was not a recent revelation when his book was published in 1994. In 1982, he stated that he had obtained nuclear weapons information “…from such sources as the famous nuclear physicists R. Oppenheimer, E. Fermi, K. Fuchs and others.” The fact that this assertion was made in an appeal of his conviction (Sudoplatov had been jailed by Khruschev) to General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and former head of the KGB Yuri Andropov gives it particularly credibility since there would be no value in his lying about this matter which could easily be verified by Andropov.
Journalist Jerrold L. Schecter and writer Leona P. Schecter later provided evidence supporting General Sudoplatov’s claim. They obtained an October 1944 originally Top Secret message from NKVD officer Boris Merkulov to the infamous head of the NKVD Lavretenty Beria, that stated, “In 1942 one of the leaders of scientific work on [uranium] in the USA, Professor Oppenheimer while being an unlisted (nglastny) member of the apparat of Comrade Browder] [handwritten] informed us about the beginning of work [on atomic weapons].” At a Wilson Center Round Table, the Schecters stated, “Former intelligence officers we interviewed in Moscow stressed that Oppenheimer’s assistance was of great importance during the 1942-1944 period.” The Schecters characterized Oppenheimer’s role as that of a “facilitator” of Soviet espionage rather than a traditional spy and said that the question of whether he was a Soviet agent was a matter of definition. General Sudoplatov also recorded that Dr. Oppenheimer, Dr. Fermi and Dr. Szilard were not recruited or handled in the traditional manner; rather, they were appealed to on the basis of defeating Hitler, emphasizing that the Soviet Union was an ally.
I find less then convincing the counter argument by historian Dr. Gregg Herken that “…it is difficult to know whether this cable is evidence of Oppenheimer’s complicity or reflects the (understandable) desire of Kheifetz and other NKVD operatives to curry favor with their boss.” Yet, the promised information from Dr. Oppenheimer was either going to appear or not appear. Hence, any deception of Beria would have been short-lived. The penalty for lying to someone like Beria might very well have been a bullet in the head. Moreover, I can see no reason to lie about Dr. Oppenheimer’s Communist party affiliation.
Mr. Nolan’s non-treatment of this important issue is consistent with the American left’s denial of the fact of, and the importance of, Soviet nuclear espionage, which goes back to the U.S. atomic spy trials. Today, even Russian state media admit that Soviet espionage “…helped Soviet scientists to reduce the time it took to develop their own nuclear weapons by several years.” The liberal/left’s response to Sudoplatov’s revelations was a savage effort to discredit him based on minor errors mainly (unrelated to his espionage charges) that are inevitable in a book written by a man in his middle eighties writing from memory about events four decades in the past. Mr. Conquest observed that that the dismissal of the new evidence on the basis of the belief that “…good scientists cannot behave as Sudoplatov claims is absurd…. Thus everyone concerned acted in what they believed to be the best interests of humanity. Their fault was not moral but intellectual. They were wrong and their governments were right.”
Conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro points out that Dr. Oppenheimer’s pro-communist views were common among contemporary nuclear physicists. This is very important because being a Communist in the 1930s meant swearing allegiance to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Today, it is possible to debate whether Stalin, Hitler or Mao was the most murderous dictator in human history but in the 1930s Hitler and Mao were still in the bush leagues. Even after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which started the deadliest war in world history and resulted in the prompt Soviet invasions of five countries (Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland) grand illusions about the Soviet Union and the nature of Communism persisted. President Franklin Roosevelt’s characterization of Stalin as “Uncle Joe” was indeed foolish. Shockingly, Ambassador William Burns, who represented the United States in Moscow in the late 1930s, actually stated that the Soviet Union “…in self defense, has every moral right to seek atomic bomb secrets through military espionage if excluded from such information by our former fighting allies.”
When I was researching my Ph. D. dissertation about 50 years ago, I went through the Oppenheimer papers at the Library of Congress. I had already read Dr. Oppenheimer’s national security articles. What struck me was that Dr. Oppenheimer appeared to be making arguments of convenience. His support of tactical nuclear weapons, something the left would savage today, displayed no understanding that fusion weapons made the best types of tactical nuclear weapons because they can be made clean (i.e., do not produce fallout). Dr. Oppenheimer’s vaunted morality did not extend to his advocacy of clean nuclear weapons. Pure fission bombs cannot be made clean. Instead, Dr. Oppenheimer supported fission bombs that were much lower in yield than the weapons of the Strategic Air Command. However, some of these tactical nuclear weapons had yields comparable to the Hiroshima bomb. You won’t find this in the Nolan movie.
Similarly, Dr. Oppenheimer’s support of strategic defenses against the Soviet Union would also be attacked by his present day supporters. His support of a half megaton fission bomb as an alternative to thermonuclear weapons was foolish particularly for someone who was supposed to be a genius. This will be discussed below.
Despite the fact that it was discussed in the Oppenheimer security clearance hearing and a major part of the defense of Dr. Oppenheimer and even announced by President Eisenhauer, the Nolan movie does not even mention the half megaton “Super Oralloy [enriched uranium] Bomb,” the highest yield all fission bomb the U.S. ever built. At the time of this decision, Dr. Oppenheimer was Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee (AEC GAC) and was extremely influential on weapons development decisions. Treating this episode would have tarnished the deification agenda of the movie. Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s book also fails to mention the half megaton “Super Oralloy Bomb” in their discussion of the AEC GAC report recommendations. Nor do they discuss the implications of the AEC GAC recommendations if they had been adopted.
In the AEC GAC’s thermonuclear weapons report, we have group of distinguished scientists (two of them on Lieutenant General Sudoplatov’s list of Soviet spies) making recommendations not to accelerate work on thermonuclear weapons not mainly based upon science (even their inaccurate technical assessments) but rather politics, ideology, preferred military strategy and personal morality. In these areas, they had no special expertise. Their perception of what thermonuclear weapons would be like turned out to be largely inaccurate. The report stated:
It is clear that the use of this weapon would bring about the destruction of innumerable human lives; it is not a weapon which can be used exclusively for the destruction of material installations of military or semi-military purposes. Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations. It is of course true that super bombs which are not as big as those here contemplated could be made, provided the initiating mechanism works. In this case, however, there appears to be no chance of their being an economical alternative to the fission weapons themselves. It is clearly impossible with the vagueness of design and the uncertainty as to performance as we have them at present to give anything like a cost estimate of the super [hydrogen bomb]. If one uses the strict criteria of damage area per dollar and if one accepts the limitations on air carrier capacity likely to obtain in the years immediately ahead, it appears uncertain to us whether the super will be cheaper or more expensive that the fission bomb.
This assessment turned out to be almost entirely wrong. As physicist and father of the neutron bomb Sam Cohen pointed out, “Somewhat less than two years after the zenith of doubting [over the hydrogen bombs feasibility] the doubters were silenced by the ‘thermonuclear breakthrough’ at Los Alamos.” The AEC GAC report said that there was a better than even chance that a hydrogen bomb could be developed within five years but recommended “strongly against such action.” In effect, what they were recommending was a national security policy in which there was a better than even chance that the Soviet Union would get the hydrogen bomb first and have a monopoly on it for some period of time. This is why the GAC lost in the Washington policy battle.
A viewer of the Oppenheimer movie will not find any such assessment; nor does one find it in the book upon which it is based. The viewer is shown Dr. Oppenheimer understating the scope of his opposition to thermonuclear weapons. Sam Cohen, while favorably disposed to Dr. Oppenheimer and critical of Dr. Edward Teller, physicist and father of the hydrogen bomb, stated, “…Oppenheimer also was devoting as much time as he could spare to fight this development” and his opposition was “mainly for ideological reasons….” He also said, “Oppenheimer and his colleagues, most of whom were distinguished scientists who didn’t know from beans about the military business….Oppenheimer’s [study] was almost childlike in its simplicity and military naiveté.” You won’t find this in the Nolan movie either.
As it was, the Soviets were the first to actually test a deliverable thermonuclear bomb. Reportedly, the bomb was about the size of the World War II Fat Man bomb and yielded 400-kt. It reportedly was a different design concept, a “single-stage bomb,” in which “compression was achieved by using high explosives.” A model of the bomb is on display at the Sarov nuclear weapons museum, and it appears consistent with this description. This design concept was also invented by Dr. Teller but not pursued in the U.S. because it was less capable than Teller’s other concept. The Soviets reportedly tested Teller’s other concept (“a two-stage radiation implosion [aka Sakharov’s ‘Third Idea’, and Teller-Ulam) design]” with a yield of 1.6 megatons in 1955.
The Oppenheimer movie’s treatment of the issue of thermonuclear weapons development is based upon the myth very prevalent in the AEC GAC report (and still very common today) that all hydrogen bombs were multimegaton weapons. (The minority annex by Dr. E. Fermi and Dr. I. I. Rabi, which was even more strongly opposed than the GAC majority report, established the record for technical inaccuracy.) It is noteworthy that the yields commonly reported for current U.S. thermonuclear ballistic missiles are all under the reported 500-kiloton yield of the “Super Oralloy Bomb.” The downward trend in strategic nuclear warhead yield has been going on for about six decades. Small numbers of B53 multimegaton bombs were retained until the 1990s for special missions. Thermonuclear weapons with reported maximum yields of just over one megaton were reportedly available by the late 1950s. Reported minimum yields for current U.S. thermonuclear weapons are as low as 300 tons. In 1967, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stated that, “Our alert forces alone carry more than 2200 weapons, averaging more than one megaton each.” The MIRVing of our strategic ballistic missiles reportedly further reduced the yield of our thermonuclear weapons to a small fraction of a megaton. The U.S.’ Poseidon missile nuclear warhead (W68) reportedly had a yield of only 40-50 kilotons. This same trend occurred in the Soviet Union but at a much slower pace. The Soviet Union reportedly deployed high yield weapons much longer than the United States did and in greater numbers. This points out a reality that Dr. Oppenheimer never recognized – restraining the United States did not restrain the Soviet Union. As the late Dr. Harold Brown, then-Defense Secretary during the Jimmy Carter Administration, stated, “Soviet spending has shown no response to U.S. restraint — when we build, they build; when we cut, they build.”
In 2003, Dr. Viktor Mikhaylov, former Russian Atomic Energy Minister and then-Director of the Sarov nuclear weapons laboratory, stated regarding thermonuclear weapons that, “There are weapons in the megaton class, and weapons yielding hundreds of tons.” The identification of thermonuclear weapons with high multimegaton yield simply reflects the fact that in the early 1950s the size and weight of the fission triggers (or primaries) of thermonuclear weapons were so great that they were just about the only types of bombs that could be built with Dr. Teller’s design concept. This was in part a result of the impact of Dr. Oppenheimer’s “blood on our hands” speech. (Another version of this concept was Dr. Oppenheimer’s 1948 assertion that, “Physicists have known sin.”) on the U.S. post-World War II fission weapons program. In the 1950s, particularly after the removal of Dr. Oppenheimer from a position of influence, this rapidly changed. The American left does not like the result and often attempts to keep the myth alive. In this regard, the Oppenheimer movie will unfortunately likely be of great assistance.
The Oppenheimer “Super” fission bomb, (not to be confused with the thermonuclear bomb which in 1949 was called the “Super”) the Mark 18, reportedly weighed 8,600 pounds and had a yield of 500-kilotons. Only 90 were produced and it had one of the shortest service lives of any U.S. nuclear bomb. From a moral standpoint there is little difference between a half megaton fission bomb and even a dirty (high fission content) one megaton thermonuclear bomb. From a safety and delivery vehicle cost standpoint the difference is monumental. The older lower-yield U.S. fission bombs served much longer. There is no indication in the available literature that they had the same safety problem as the Oppenheimer driven Mark 18, at least when they were delivered by bombers.
Inherently safe nuclear weapons are referred to in the U.S. nuclear weapons community as “one point safe.” According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “A nuclear explosive that, in the event a detonation is initiated at any one point in the high explosive system, presents no greater probability than one in a million of producing a nuclear explosive yield of greater than 4 pounds of TNT equivalent.” Reportedly, the Mark 18 nuclear bomb, “With a natural uranium tamper layer, the bomb had over four critical masses of fissile material in the core, and was unsafe: the accidental detonation of even one of the detonator triggers, would likely cause a significant (many kilotons of energy yield) explosion.” During the Cold War, nuclear-armed U.S. B-52 bombers were placed on airborne nuclear alert (Chrome Dome) and several of them crashed. In one of the crashes, a Mark 28 (not to be confused with the Mark 18) thermonuclear bomb exploded without creating any nuclear yield. It does not take a genius to figure out what likely would have happened if Dr. Oppenheimer had won the fight over the development of thermonuclear weapons and the Mark 18 had become a standard U.S. nuclear weapon carried by these bombers.
In the course of my doctoral dissertation research, I interviewed Mr. Cohen who had worked in Los Alamos during the Manhattan project. I had previously met him through my mentor Dr. William Van Cleave. He was very candid with me. His description of Dr. Edward Teller was very close to what was portrayed in the Nolan movie. His description of Dr. Oppenheimer’s victory speech after the bombing of Hiroshima was close to that depicted in the movie. (Sam Cohen later wrote about something that does not appear in the movie, that Dr. Oppenheimer said that “… he did have one deep regret, that we hadn’t completed the Bomb in time to use against the Germans. That really brought down the house.”)
In his farewell address at Los Alamos, I believe Dr. Oppenheimer shrewdly played on the views of his audience about secrecy to achieve his objectives. His speech was a sophisticated attack on the U.S. nuclear weapons program. The focus was an assault on nuclear weapons secrecy which the scientists didn’t like: “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.”
Dr. Oppenheimer spoke about the unique power of atomic weapons and the fact that they would get more powerful. The speech emphasized the danger of nuclear weapons, argued it was easy and cheap for other states to build nuclear weapons, yet proposed to make it easier and cheaper by releasing nuclear weapons information. Was it really a good idea to give every tin pot dictator on the planet detailed information concerning how to build nuclear weapons? How about nuclear terrorists? And Chairman Mao?
Dr. Oppenheimer’s assertions about the ease and inexpensiveness of other nations developing nuclear weapons was a considerable exaggeration in 1945. Even today, while it is much easier and cheaper to obtain nuclear weapons, at least in small numbers, it is not easy and cheap to do so. Nuclear proliferation was certainly a substantial long term threat, but Communist totalitarianism in the Soviet Union and then in China dwarfed it. Much later, nuclear proliferation was actually aided and abetted by left wing scientists who leaked vast amounts of nuclear weapons design information starting in the 1970s and a Department of Energy which took few steps to contain this.
Dr. Oppenheimer continued, “The only unique end can be a world that is united, and a world in which war will not occur.” This would be a world where there would be “common bond with other men everywhere.” Such illusions were prevalent in this time period. According to Dr. Oppenheimer, our salvation was supposed to be in the global fraternity of high-minded peace- loving scientists. While Dr. Oppenheimer gave lip service to the need to defend democracy, his speech displayed no understanding that the Soviet Union was not run by high-minded scientists, that it was the worst surviving totalitarian dictatorship in the world, that it was in the process of imposing its form of Communist totalitarianism on Eastern Europe and that it was an immediate threat to the very survival of democracy in Europe, and indeed, in the world. His basic recommendation reflected little more than a fantasy about the nature of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Nolan’s movie virtually ignores most of the content of Oppenheimer’s farewell speech, cleaning it up in a manner that concealed its extremely naive content (naive may be a considerable understatement.) An accurate portrayal would have hurt the movie’s deification agenda.
Mr. Nolan’s movie completely ignored Oppenheimer “blood on our hands” speech. This is strange because Dr. Oppenheimer’s feeling that “…I have blood on my hands” had a dramatic impact on the U.S.’ nuclear weapons policy. Moreover, “blood on my hands” is major theme in the book upon which the movie is based. When I interviewed Sam Cohen, he described it as among one of the greatest speeches in history (he compared it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) and said it nearly ended weapons work at Los Alamos because of the outflow of people which it caused, including Cohen himself. Cohen later wrote, “After he [Oppenheimer] left Los Alamos I remember him returning to Los Alamos and again addressing the staff…This time he beseeched those who still remained at the lab to work with him toward disarmament and remove the moral stain of the Japanese bombings. Although I wouldn’t question his sincerity at the time, or any time afterward, I didn’t believe a word he said. I’m sure he did, every last word of it, delivered not with the stridence of military conquest but with the somberness of someone who, to cite him ‘had known sin’.”
I believe this was Cohen’s honest assessment of the impact of the speech particularly when the audience and the intended purpose of the speech are taken into account. Sam Cohen had no animus toward Dr. Oppenheimer. Indeed, much later, he wrote that he “worshipped Oppenheimer, for very good reasons,” although he could be intolerant and downright sadistic…” (This comment concerned his treatment of a brilliant young scientist with a speech defect.) He was very critical of the revocation of Dr. Oppenheimer’s security clearance.
I believe the fact that Dr. Oppenheimer returned to Los Alamos to make this speech is a clear indication of his political agenda. He did not have to deliver this speech. I believe it reflected his political agenda of attempting to minimize U.S. nuclear capabilities. It had a great impact. The official history of the Atomic Energy Commission records that the scientists left Los Alamos without leaving “…production lines or printed operating manuals, but only a few assistants, some experienced technicians, some laboratory equipment and a fragmented technology recorded in thousands of detailed reports.” This does not prove that Dr. Oppenheimer was a Soviet agent of influence, but is clearly what the Soviet Union wanted to happen.
Was Dr. Oppenheimer’s really as obsessed about “blood on my hands” as depicted in the Nolan movie? Dorothy Oppenheimer Vanderford, Dr. Oppenheimer’s granddaughter, says he not psychologically tortured by his development of the atomic bomb but rather was proud of his achievement. There is no apparent reason to doubt her observation. He actually had every reason to be proud of his accomplishment although it was not the accomplishment of a sole individual as the movie suggests.
As early as February 1946, Stalin, in a major speech, made it clear to “…the entire world that there could be no peaceful coexistence of the economic systems of communism and capitalism.” In Special Tasks, Lieutenant General Sudoplatov observed that “…for us, confrontation with the Western allies begun when the Red Army liberated Eastern Europe.” After the war, the Soviets retained a much larger military than the United States and Britain, creating a very serious threat to Western Europe throughout the Cold War. Nuclear deterrence was critical to the survival of freedom in Europe. Soviet “peaceful coexistence,” which was never that peaceful, was a direct result of the development of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
In his epic history of World War II, historian Dr. Victor David Hansen noted that, “The postwar world seemed to have forgotten that Stalin killed almost as many of his own Russians as did Hitler.” (Soviet loses were estimated at about 27 million including civilian deaths.) It its obituary of Dr. Conquest, the New York Times noted that, “The scope of Stalin’s purges was laid out: seven million people arrested in the peak years, 1937 and 1938; one million executed; two million dead in the concentration camps. Mr. Conquest estimated the death toll for the Stalin era at no less than 20 million.” Late in the Soviet era even a major Soviet publication documented 20 million dead. Dr. Oppenheimer’s ideological blinders prevented him from recognizing Stalin’s malevolence and his mass murder or advocating national security policies that took these factors into account. By contrast, Dr. Edward Teller did.
In 1947, Dr. Teller wrote, “The men in the Kremlin showed by their actions that in the world to come military power will be of greatest importance.” This was because what the Soviet Union was “…practicing is imperialism, pure and simple.” He supported the Truman administration’s effort to put atomic weapons under international control. However, Dr. Teller cautioned that “…we must not propose less than the Baruch plan [placing nuclear weapons under international control]. We should propose more. We must work for world law and world government.” This was not based on Dr. Oppenheimer’s illusion that friendly Soviet scientists would protect us from Soviet imperialism and the nuclear threat. Dr. Teller recognized that for a world government to be effective it would have to have the military power to keep the peace. In reality, of course, world government was impossible as we have learned from the history of the United Nations.
While Dr. Oppenheimer’s world view was reminiscent of President Woodrow Wilson’s idealism, President Wilson never suggested that something with the military significance of atomic weapons should be disseminated without restriction or that the United States would be protected by the globalist coalition of high-minded peace-loving scientists. Dr. Oppenheimer’s real message to the assembled scientists and engineers was not to work on U.S. nuclear weapons.
Dr. Oppenheimer’s “blood on my hands” pitch did not go over well with President Harry Truman, although Mr. Nolan’s portrayal in the movie of Truman making the “crybaby” remark within Oppenheimer’s hearing never happened. (President Truman reportedly responded, “Well, here, would you like to wipe your hands?”) The “crybaby” remark was made a year after the Truman-Oppenheimer meeting in a letter to Dean Acheson, Truman’s foreign policy advisor. However, President Truman still appointed Dr. Oppenheimer to be Chairman of the AEC GAC. “Blood on our hands” continued to have a significant impact on U.S. nuclear weapons development until Dr. Oppenheimer was removed from a position of power.
Why is there such interest in Dr. Oppenheimer today? Most of the admiring audiences in our air conditioned theaters have never been shot at and probably have little or no understanding of what was happening on the Pacific “Island Infernos” just before President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb. Truman was very much aware of this. In the first three months of the Truman Administration, the United States had suffered almost as many casualties in the Pacific War as it had suffered in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to the death of President Rosevelt. This is virtually ignored in the Nolan movie. Most U.S. soldiers fighting in the Pacific did not believe they would survive an invasion of Japan.
The Japanese resistance at Okinawa was fanatical. The Japanese military tried out the tactics it planned to use against the invasion of Japan and they worked. Japan launched over 1,000 suicidal Kamikaze attacks. The Japanese military fought nearly to the last soldier, which was common, but also forced the civilians to do the same, which was not common. In some instances, they forced civilians to commit suicide rather than surrender. The cost to the United States was about 50,000 casualties and Japan lost an estimated 110,000 soldiers and up to 150,000 Okinawan civilians. This is more than the death toll from both atomic bombs.
Okinawa foreshadowed an incredible bloodbath if the home Islands were invaded. Adam Lowther, Stephen Cimbala, and Curtis McGiffin have recently pointed out that the Navy estimated that losses to the United States in an invasion would have been 1.7-4 million casualties and 400,000-800,000 deaths. The wartime estimate of Japanese casualties from an invasion were conservatively estimated at as high as 10 million. There were other estimates and no one can know for sure, but the Okinawa experience (the most costly operation in the Pacific War) does suggest that even the high estimates of casualties in an invasion of the home Islands may be been much too low. The civilian casualties on Okinawa were not the result of collateral damage but rather resulted from their fighting the Americans, their refusal to surrender and forced suicides by the Japanese military. There is no question that before the use of the atomic bombs, Japan was not ready to surrender, and that even after atomic weapons use Japanese surrender was a close run thing. Even after the Emperor ordered the surrender, some Japanese forces refused to obey the order and there was an attempted military coup to prevent surrender.
Even without an invasion of Japan (which would have happened) famine and conventional bombing would have killed many more Japanese as did the atomic bombs. Dr. Hansen has pointed out that if U.S. and British bomber forces had been transferred to the Pacific, conventional bombing would have inflicted the damage of ten World War II atomic bombs every month in 1946. General Curtis LeMay was planning to destroy all major Japanese cities by January 1946.
Dr. Tom Lewis, an Australian military historian and retired Naval officer, in a very interesting book entitled Atomic Salvation, estimated far higher levels of casualties from an invasion of Japan if the atomic bombs had not been used. He estimated that more than 4.5 million allied casualties and 22 million Japanese would have died in the course of a 14 month conventional invasion. In addition, there would have been millions of Chinese deaths and presumably Russian deaths. This may seem high, but the Okinawa experience suggests that it would have been necessary to virtually exterminate Japan to end the war without nuclear weapons use. Nuclear weapons created the face saving way for Japan to surrender.
If the United States had not developed thermonuclear weapons, the survivable U.S. nuclear deterrent composed of Minuteman ICBMs and Polaris missile submarines may never have been developed, at least in the critical time frame that they were. Neither of these missiles could possibly have carried a Mark 18 bomb or any high yield pure fission bomb. While improved versions of the smaller 1950s fission bombs might have been carried, these weapons potentially could have had similar safety problems if they been adopted for use on strategic ballistic missiles. In this case, it would not be possible to separate the fissile material from the high explosives. Unlike the bombers, ballistic missile nuclear warheads could not be assembled in flight. The poor accuracy of the late 1950s and early 1960s strategic ballistic missiles might have deterred their very development in the United States if only fission weapons were available. It was precisely the smaller and lighter yet powerful thermonuclear weapons that made these systems both feasible and affordable.
The reported accuracy of the Polaris A-1 was 900 meters. The Minuteman I ICBM reportedly had an accuracy of 1,100 to 1,500 meters. With such accuracy, relatively small yield fission bombs would frequently be unable to destroy the precise targets they were aimed at. To deliver the Oppenheimer “super” fission bomb, a missile similar to the very expensive Russian SS-9 heavy ICBM would have had to be developed. While an improved version might have been carried by a Titan II ICBM, the cost would have been very high to build a force comparable to the 1,000 strong Minuteman force. (The American left cares little about cost since they use it as an excuse to cut the U.S. nuclear deterrent.) There is no way to build a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) large enough to deliver the “Super Oralloy Bomb.” It was apparently a dead end approach to nuclear weapons development as well as being dangerous. Putting a very large amount of high explosives around a great deal of fissile material is a really bad idea.
Dr. Oppenheimer opposed the development of atomic power and the nuclear submarine, which Dr. Harold Agnew, a Director of Los Alamos, found inexplicable. While defending Oppenheimer’s loyalty to the U.S., Dr. Edward Teller also found his policy recommendations “in a great number of cases” were “exceedingly hard to understand.” Even with all his warts, Teller is a better candidate for a deification movie than Dr. Oppenheimer. Dr. Teller probably saved Western civilization which Dr. Oppenheimer may have put at risk.
Sam Cohen reported that Colonel (later General) Bernard Schriever, the father of the U.S. ICBM force, wanted a thermonuclear warhead with “…a yield of a megaton in a 1500 pound warhead” weight. Because of the attitude Los Alamos held toward the Air Force, which had been made all the worse because of the Oppenheimer case, “Bradbury [the laboratory director] wasn’t about to give any assurances his lab could accomplish this in any reasonable period of time.”
According to Thomas C. Reid, former Secretary of the Air Force and Danny B. Stillman, former Director of Intelligence at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Dr. John Foster (later Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) believed that nuclear weapons safety “should be built in” to our nuclear weapons; he succeeded in inventing “one-point safety” in the early 1960s despite the reliability problems involved. According to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Dr. Foster at age 31 “and his Hectoton Group produced two designs for much smaller, more compact devices than the larger weapons that Los Alamos had become expert at designing.” He developed a warhead concept for the Polaris missile that “…was such a leap forward that it became the basis of most of the nuclear devices that followed in the stockpile.” Dr. Harold Agnew also played a major role in enhancing nuclear weapons safety.
Even a genius like Dr. Foster could not have produced a one-point safe version of the “super” fission bomb because physics would not allow it. These gentlemen deserve a deification movie a lot more than Dr. Oppenheimer does.
Lieutenant General Sudoplatov had some very interesting observations concerning Soviet perception of U.S. nuclear weakness and the impact it had on the early Cold War crisis situations. He wrote that through espionage the Soviet Union discovered in the 1940s and 1950s that the United States “…was not prepared for a nuclear war with us…” Lieutenant General Sudoplatov stated that Stalin’s “tough policy of confrontation” was based upon this assessment. Only in 1955 did the Soviet Union assess that the U.S. and British nuclear inventory “was sufficient to destroy the Soviet Union.” U.S. nuclear weakness helped assure the Communist victory in China in 1947-1948. Lieutenant General Sudoplatov said that Stalin initiated the 1948 Berlin blockade crisis to divert attention from Mao’s conquest of China because of the Soviets assessment of an inadequate U.S. nuclear capability. The Soviets believed that the United States would use nuclear weapons to prevent Soviet conquest of Berlin but initiated the Berlin blockade crisis anyway because the “…Americans did not have enough nuclear weapons to deal with both Berlin and China.” Much of this was Dr. Oppenheimer’s legacy.
The Soviet assessment was correct. The declassified numbers for the U.S. nuclear weapons from 1945 to 1955 are consistent with the Soviet assessment. Even as late as 1952, General of the Army Omar Bradley, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believed the U.S. nuclear arsenal was not large enough to defeat a Russian invasion of Western Europe. This assessment is very interesting in light of the fact that by 1952 there had been a significant increase in the number of U.S. nuclear weapons compared to 1950 when Communist forces supported by Russia and China invaded South Korea initiating the Korean War. The U.S. nuclear weapons inventory in 1952 was 841 compared to 299 in 1950 when the Korean War began and 170 in 1949 the year that Russia tested its first atomic bomb. U.S. nuclear-capable delivery vehicles were small in number and in 1950 included no operational jet bombers. In part thanks to Dr. Oppenheimer’s “blood on our hands,” by 1950, there had been little U.S. progress in the improvement of its nuclear weapons. The late Dr. Ralph Lapp, a nuclear physicist very much in the Oppenheimer camp, recorded that “…in these first few relatively quiet years after the war there was no dramatic advances in bomb design or yield.” This allowed the Soviets to almost catch up in technology if not in numbers. In 1950, the U.S. nuclear stockpile included only the World War II designs and the Mark 4 which was only a modest improvement. It reportedly was slightly heavier than the World War II Fat Man (although easier to build) and its maximum yield reportedly increased only to 31 kilotons.
The following chart depicting U.S. nuclear weapons numbers was released by the State Department in 2021. The very slow buildup in U.S. nuclear weapons at the start of the Cold War is very much a part of Dr. Oppenheimer’s legacy.
Dr. Oppenheimer’s “blood on our hands” may have impacted the Korean War and the Chinese Communist intervention. Across border conventional invasions by Communist forces during the Cold War were infrequent. The psychological boost from the successful Soviet nuclear test in 1949 may have contributed to the Soviet and Chinese Communist support of the North Korea invasion. In October – November 1950, the Chinese Communists adopted as an official position that the atomic bomb was of limited effectiveness, comparable to 2,000-3,000 tons of TNT, too powerful to use on the battlefield and it became less effective the larger a nation was. In particular, Mao’s attitude toward the atomic bomb was fanatical. He believed China could fight and survive a nuclear war because, “All it is a big pile of people dying.” Mao once even told Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that, “If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist; in a number of years there would be 2,700 million people again and definitely more.” (Emphasis in the original). At least 45 million Chinese died in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.” China’s peace-loving high-minded scientists didn’t prevent this. This points out the need to have a deterrent strong enough to deal with vicious real world dictators not Western armchair intellectuals.
While alternative history is speculation, it is fair to ask what would have happened in the severe crisis situations that lead up to the very dangerous Cuban missile crisis if the Soviet Union had a monopoly on thermonuclear weapons? This would have been the effect of Dr. Oppenheimer’s AEC GAC report if he had prevailed and the decision was not promptly reversed. Indeed, in 1953, Dr. Oppenheimer, in an unusual article, stated he believed that “…the USSR is about four years behind us” in nuclear weapons development. This was just a month before the Soviet Union would detonate its first thermonuclear bomb. The situation would have been much worse if Dr. Oppenheimer had not lost his campaign against the hydrogen bomb.
Conspicuously absent from Dr. Oppenheimer’s thinking on nuclear weapons was the very concept of nuclear deterrence and a recognition of its vital importance. What was presented in the movie concerning the conflict between Dr. Oppenheimer and Rear Admiral (ret.) Lewis Strauss and Strauss’s supposed personal vendetta against Oppenheimer was substantially overstated. While the fact that Dr. Oppenheimer “publicly ridiculed Strauss’s lack of scientific expertise,” which presumably did not exactly endear him to Admiral Strauss, the main issue between them was centered on nuclear deterrence. Strauss’s biographer Richard Pfau writes:
Oppenheimer subsequently was a leading opponent of moving ahead with the hydrogen bomb and proposed a national security strategy based on atomic weapons and continental defence; Strauss wanted the development of thermonuclear weapons and a doctrine of deterrence…Oppenheimer supported a policy of openness regarding the numbers and capabilities of the atomic weapons in America’s arsenal; Strauss believed that such unilateral frankness would benefit no one but Soviet military planners.
While Dr. Oppenheimer often spoke about the horrible effects of the use of nuclear weapons in future warfare, he largely ignored their ability to deter war. For example, in October 1945, he declared, “If atomic bombs are to be added to the arsenals of a waring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.” Dr. Oppenheimer’s famous comparison of the United States and the Soviet Union to “two scorpions in a bottle” displayed little understanding concerning what the Cold War was about and, indeed, on the nature of fighting and the existence of conflict in the world.
In July 1953, in an interesting article in which he characterized the Soviets as the “enemy,” Dr. Oppenheimer denounced the existing air defense strategy as “folly” because it “…was our policy to attempt to protect our striking force but it was not really our policy to attempt to protect this country.” The reason for this was resource limitations and the potential vulnerability of our strategic bomber force on which our deterrent almost completely rested in 1953. Today, of course, the Oppenheimer worshipers of the left would savage the very idea of defending against Russia or China or deploying tactical nuclear weapons either to deter a Russian invasion of NATO Europe or to deter Russian or Chinese nuclear escalation. Sam Cohen said that Dr. Oppenheimer’s support of tactical nuclear weapons was based on moral grounds. He quotes Dr. Oppenheimer as saying, “Only when the atomic bomb is recognized as useful insofar as it is an integral part of military operations, will it really be of much help in the fighting of a war, rather than in warning all mankind to avert it.” Once again he was downplaying the importance of deterrence. You won’t find this in the Nolan movie.
Dr. Oppenheimer also ignored the role of the hydrogen bomb in assuring our allies who were very concerned about a Soviet invasion. Walton S. Moody, in his history of the early years of the Strategic Air Command, wrote:
The case for the hydrogen bomb as a deterrent to Soviet aggression acquired special significance in the eyes of many Europeans, who were convinced that a Soviet attack spelled inevitable disaster. For them, the question was not whether to defend themselves or be overrun. A war would entail a “liberation” even more devastating than the one in 1944. In that view only deterrence made sense.
Sir Winston Churchill feared thermonuclear weapons, possibly as much as Dr. Oppenheimer did. According to Graham Farmelo, a historian of the British nuclear weapons program, “The H-bomb was, Churchill believed, the greatest threat to civilization since the Mongols began their conquests three quarters of a millennium before.” Yet he saw that his main task “…was to argue that the UK must acquire the weapons he feared so much, as a deterrent to the Soviet Union.” Dr. Oppenheimer was not wise enough to do the same.
Why is there a such push to deify Dr. Oppenheimer? Perhaps it is that much of the current radical left wing irresponsibility concerning the U.S. nuclear deterrent is directly traceable to Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer. So is the left wing attitude toward nuclear power. The impact of the left on the U.S. nuclear deterrent has been growing for decades. While Putin’s vicious war against Ukraine and his constant nuclear war threats have at least temporarily increased support for nuclear deterrence, the radical left has not given up and they will be aided by Nolan’s Oppenheimer.
We owe a great debt to Dr. Oppenheimer for his role in the development of the atomic bomb and preventing more millions of deaths before the final defeat of Japan. However, he was clearly a Communist and the revocation of his security clearance in the context of the most dangerous decade of the Cold War was quite justified. Irrespective of whether or not he was actually a Soviet spy or an agent of influence, his postwar impact on U.S. security was largely negative. In particular, he made the decade of the 1950s more dangerous than it would otherwise have been. We survived that decade and the early 1960 Cuban missile crisis because of nuclear deterrence, not because of Dr. Oppenheimer’s fantasy about ending nuclear weapons secrecy and depending upon the global brotherhood of high-minded peace-loving scientists.
Late in his life his views may have changed. In 1965, the year before his death, Dr. Oppenheimer said in an interview, “The existence of the bomb has reduced the chances of World War III and has given us valid hope.” You won’t find this in the Mr. Nolan’s movie.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served as Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.
 In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, (Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press, April 1971).
 Pavel Sudoplatov and Anatoli Suoplatov with Jerrold L Schecter and Leona P. Schecter, Special Tasks, The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness – A Soviet Spymaster, (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1994), p. XV.
 Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, (New York, Vintage Books, 2006), p. 588.
 Jeffrey T. Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007), p. 52.
 Sudoplatov et. al., Special Tasks, op., cit., p. 3.
 Ibid., pp. 173, 175, 183, 207-209.
 Roger Donald, “Dissenting Thoughts on `A KGB Memoir’: [FINAL Edition],” The Washington Post, May 19. 1994, p. A-20, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/docview/307765660/fulltext/189086398 A468DAB770/6?accountid=155509&accountid=155509&t:ac=189086398A468DAB770/1&t:cp=maintain /resultcitation blocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_952c1cbd7db7f7.
 Sudoplatov et. al., Special Tasks, op. cit., pp. 75-176.
 Ibid., p. XVI.
 Quoted in James D, Hornfisher, Who Can Hold The Sea, (New York: Bantam Books, 2022), p. 33.
 In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, op. cit., pp. 400, 432.
 Chuck Hansen, U.S. Nuclear Weapons The Secret History, (Arlington Tx: Aerofax, 1988), p. 34.
 Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, op. cit., pp. 418-423.
 S. T. Cohen, The Peaceful Neutron Bomb: A New Twist on Controlled Nuclear Fusion, (Santa Monica Ca.: The Rand Corporation, P-5510, June 1967), p. 2.
 Dr. Mark B. Schneider, “SALT and the Strategic Balance: 1974,” Strategic Review, Fall 1974, p. 42.
 Charles Tyroler, II, ed., Alerting American The Papers of the Committee on The Present Danger, (Washington D.C.: The Pergamon Brasey’s, 1984), p. 46.
 Chuck Hansen, U.S. Nuclear Weapons The Secret History, (Arlington Tx: Aerofax, 1988), p. 34.
 Hornfisher, Who Can Hold The Sea, op cit., p. 32.
 Sudoplatov et. al., Special Tasks, op. cit., pp. 221.
 Viktor Davis Hanson, The Second World Wars, (New York: Basic Books, 2017), p. 523.
 Ibid., p. 516.
 Edward Teller, “The Two Responsibilities of Scientists,” in Morton Grodzins and Eurgene Rabinowitch, The Atomic Age, Scientists in National and World Affairs, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), p. 122.
 Ibid., p. 123.
 Major General Charles W. Swenty, Wars End: an Eyewitness Account of America’s Last Atomic Mission, (New York: Avon Books, 1997), p. 235.
 William L. Lawrence, “The Scientists: Their views 20 years later, The New York Times, Hiroshima Plus 20, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1965), p. 123.
 Hanson, The Second World Wars, op. cit., p. 117.
 Tom Lewis, Atomic Salvation, (Havertown PA.: Casemate Publishers, 2020), pp. 229, 239.
 Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, op. cit., p. 534.
 Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman, The Nuclear Express, (Minneapolis Mn.: Zenith Press), pp. 134, 140.
 Sudoplatov et. al., Special Tasks, op. cit., p. 210.
 Hornfisher, Who Can Hold The Sea, op. cit., p. 312.
 Ralph Lapp, Kill and Overkill The Strategy of Annihilation, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1962), p. 27.
 Alice Langley Hsien, Communist China’s Strategic In The Nuclear Era, (Santa Monica CA.: The Rand Corporation, 1962), p. 2.
 Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, MAO The Unknown Story, (New York: Anchor Books, 2006), p. 406.
 J. Robert Oppenheimer, “Atomic Weapons and American Policy,” in in Morton Grodzins and Eurgene Rabinowitch, The Atomic Age, op. cit., p. 289.
 Graham Farmelo, Churchill’s Bomb, (New York, Basic Books, 2013), p. 3.
 Oppenheimer, “Atomic Weapons and American Policy,” op. cit., p. 193.
 Farmelo, Churchill’s Bomb, op. cit., p. 3.
 Lawrence, “The Scientists: Their views 20 years later,” op, cit., p. 116.
This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.