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Oppenheimer film scene with smoky background

Reason, Faith, and Oppenheimer (Part I)

July 27, 2023


The new film Oppenheimer is the buzz of Hollywood and a clear frontrunner for Best Picture. Closely hewing to the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography American Prometheus (to which this essay is indebted and quotes from to fill in gaps), the film tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s leadership of the team that created the first atomic bomb and the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) hearings in which he was accused of being a Communist sympathizer and stripped of his security clearance. The chief antagonist of the film is Lewis Strauss. Played by Robert Downey Jr. in a turn that deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod, Strauss is a politico who scurrilously plots and successfully portrays Oppenheimer’s past sympathies toward Communism as a contemporary security risk, thereby creating skeletons in his own closet.

The film raises more moral and political questions than can be addressed here. Can “great” men be “good”? Why do great men so often fail as husbands and fathers? (Unfortunately—and uncharacteristically for a Christopher Nolan film—Oppenheimer’s extramarital affairs are portrayed with gratuitous sexuality.) How much is a man defined by past indiscretions? Was the impulse to smoke out Communist subversives from the American security apparatus fundamentally sound but misapplied in cases like Oppenheimer’s? Indeed, several Communist spies were discovered and convicted for nuclear espionage, including agents who had infiltrated the Manhattan Project and passed on secrets to the Soviets. Or was the impulse fundamentally flawed because it was incompatible with free speech and inevitably oriented toward illegal weaponization of law enforcement against political enemies, partisan witch hunts, and a culture of hysteria? Indeed, Oppenheimer’s kangaroo-court spectacle embodied the worst excesses of McCarthyism.

And, of course, the film explores the most pressing question at the center of Oppenheimer’s legacy, which has been debated for seventy-eight years: Should America have dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? In this two-part essay, I argue that Oppenheimer’s story, like the story of the bomb, is a case study in the perils of science and reason when they are decoupled from and untutored by faith and true religion.

. . . Bohr was God, and Oppenheimer was his prophet.

Oppenheimer, played in an Oscar-worthy performance by Cillian Murphy, was a larger than life figure whose success story was characteristically American. Born in New York City in 1904 to a first-generation Jewish immigrant father and self-made businessman and a Jewish artist mother, he was educated in the Ethical Culture Society, a secular Jewish community dedicated to progressive values and social justice. His precocity was evident from a young age, and he acquired a liberal education, mastering ancient and modern languages and was broadly read in European literature and poetry. But his true gift was in theoretical physics. By twenty-five, he had graduated from Harvard, acquired a Ph.D. at Gottingen, distinguished himself in the field, and was on his way to creating one of the finest academic programs in physics in the world at UC-Berkeley. 

Oppenheimer does a good job of portraying the high drama of theoretical physics in the 1920s and 30s. It was a heady time for the field, which had undergone a scientific revolution in recent years. Physicists like Niels Bohr had shown that classical mechanics did not explain phenomena observed at the quantum level. But the film only hints at Oppenheimer’s religious-like faith in the new science.

When a friend pressed a young Oppenheimer about his own religious beliefs, specifically, about whether he believed in God, he replied: “I believe in the second law of thermodynamics, in Hamilton’s Principle, in Bertrand Russell . . . ” And later Oppenheimer was known to say that Bohr was “his God.” At Berkeley, it was believed by his students that Bohr’s Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature was the Bible, Bohr was God, and Oppenheimer was his prophet.

After German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman published their experiments on atomic fission in 1938, Oppenheimer immediately realized an atomic bomb could be created. He was eventually recruited by the gruff and severe General Leslie Groves (played excellently by Matt Damon) to lead the top-secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico—part town, part military base in the middle of the desert constructed in 1942 to house hundreds of scientists and their families to work full time on creating an atomic bomb. Throughout these years, Oppenheimer and his team’s motivation had the moral clarity of survival: the very existence of the West was at stake if the Nazis acquired a bomb before they did.

But when the Nazis surrendered in May 1945, the bomb was still months away from being ready for testing. This threw Oppenheimer and many of his fellow politically liberal scientists into moral perplexity. Was the bomb really necessary to defeat Japan? After all, no one believed they had a secret bomb program. If not, then perhaps bombing Japan could serve as a form of nuclear diplomacy toward the Russians (i.e., to keep the Soviets out of Japan and deter them from aggression in Europe)? 

The latter argument apparently did not carry much moral weight with Oppenheimer. For, while Oppenheimer was slowly awakening to the true nature of Stalin’s Russia, like many American New Deal liberals, he had been sympathetic to Soviet Russia’s experiment in combining socialism with power. Moreover, the Soviets were still ostensibly our allies in the summer of 1945. Indeed, Oppenheimer favored the idea of sharing information about the atomic bomb with Russia and brokering a Soviet-American agreement on international control of nuclear power. 

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Oppenheimer had limited information about Japan, and we cannot know how he would have reasoned had he been apprised of the possibility or probability that Japan’s surrender could have been negotiated without an invasion. Meanwhile, he was aware of and moved by Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s argument that, assuming an invasion would otherwise be necessary to subdue Japan, the bomb would save the lives of hundreds of thousands of American troops. (In retrospect, Stimson’s argument that the bomb was effectively the “lesser evil” could be enhanced by updating the calculus to include all the Japanese lives potentially saved not only from a continued land war, but also those who were saved from being captured by the Russian Army, enslaved, and sent to Soviet labor camps.)

What we do know is that the calculus of lives to be saved, while important, was not in and of itself sufficient for Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. He settled on a new rationale, which he convinced his fellow liberal-minded scientists to adopt: Their scientific achievement needed to be revealed to the world, and such a revelation of this new destructive force would trigger and coincide with a revolution in political sovereignty, in which nation-states would cede sovereignty to the United Nations, which would in turn control nuclear weapons and therefore the capacity to punish nuclear transgressors and even prevent war. In short, Oppenheimer believed that dropping the bomb would lead to the end of war itself.

Is it possible that Oppenheimer’s argument was calculated cajolery to flatter the sensibilities of his liberal listeners and goad them to finish the job? One of his colleagues points out in the film that Oppenheimer could persuade anyone of anything—even himself. At any rate, he seems to have convinced himself of this moral justification at the time.

The flaws in his reasoning are apparent. First, it seems entirely possible that that goal could be pursued by a non-lethal demonstration of the bomb, a course of action that a group of scientists working on the Manhattan Project recommended in the Franck Report and which was favored by the Leo Szilard faction. The idea that the deaths of innocent Japanese civilians by atomic fire can rightly be willed as a means to the end of world government is, simply put, morally reprehensible.

Second, Oppenheimer’s prognostication was politically naïve in the extreme. He was correct that the atomic revolution had forever changed man’s relationship to nature. His mistake was to believe that the atomic revolution would fundamentally change human nature. Human plasticity and perfectibility are hypotheses of modern philosophical anthropology that can be traced from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the Progressive movement in America (of which the Ethical Culture Society was a vanguard and seedbed). They certainly are not theorems that can be soundly derived from theoretical physics. Moreover, radical human plasticity and perfectibility are false. Love of one’s own and the willingness to fight (justly or otherwise) to protect one’s own is an unalterable feature of human nature that grounds particularity, patriotism and the desire for power. The potential for war, corruption, and tyranny thus cannot be eradicated on this side of heaven from the heart of man, including the hearts of nuclear-armed world government bureaucrats.

To suggest otherwise amounts to a wild-eyed utopianism and is a telltale symptom of rejection of a central tenet of Christian faith, that human nature can only be perfected by God’s grace. As it was, so ever shall it be.

You can read the conclusion of Kody W. Cooper’s two-part essay here on Evangelization & Culture Online.