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World War II hero, Cold War casualty

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Beyond the Myth - Richard D. Polenberg

Short (120 page) play based (with heavy documentary support) on the Atomic Energy Commission Personnel Security Board hearings of 1954, which ultimately decided to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearances -effectively ending his career.


Oppenheimer was the administrative and scientific head of the wartime "Manhattan Project" which conceptualized, designed, produced, and tested the atomic bombs which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1945, he was as lauded for his role in victory over Japan as General MacArthur or Admiral Nimitz.  Less than a decade later, he faced charges of treason.   


The atomic bombs used in Japan had been fission bombs... releasing energy by causing uranium atoms to split apart.  During the war, and right after, Oppenheimer and his team opined that a fusion bomb could also be possible, and if possible- much more powerful. Fusion bombs are based on the principle that energy is released when hydrogen atoms are compacted together to form the nuclei of heavier atoms. This occurs naturally in the nuclear furnace of a star.


The crux of accusations against Oppenheimer is that he intentionally slowed development of the hydrogen bomb, giving Soviet scientists a chance to catch up. As it happens, the U.S. tested its first hydrogen bomb in November 1951, and the Soviets followed less than a year behind with their own in August 1952. Angry Defense officials maintain that if Oppenheimer hadn't slowed development, America could have had a nuclear monopoly from as early as 1947... enough time to threaten Soviet forces into withdrawing from their captured satellite states won from the Third Reich, or to even start a preemptive war to rid the globe of the Red Menace once and for all.


The testimony is ambiguous. Edward Teller ("Father of the Hydrogen Bomb" and bitter professional rival) agrees that Oppenheimer slowed the project. Men with lesser titles and prestige say otherwise.. that the H-bomb was cutting-edge technology, and unforeseen technical difficulties slowed the project. Not being an expert, it's hard to say who's right. Oppenheimer doesn't do himself any favors, in that he maintains he didn't consciously slow the project, but concedes he may have subconsciously slowed the project, because he doesn't think it is right for one nation to have a monopoly on nuclear weapons.  Erm...


The most moving portion of the work is testimony of fellow physicist Hans Bethe, who speaks on behalf of a lot of the former Manhattan Project. They embraced the atomic bomb program with professional delight, at the ability to test their theories in such a practical (and very well-funded) manner; and they were utterly convinced at the upright moral correctness of fighting the Nazis -who were believed at the time to have a robust nuclear weapons research program of their own (Bethe was not aware that the Nazi program was abandoned before the war's end)-  and Imperial Japanese.  Later, after the bombs were dropped, and news and images came back to these scientists, showing them the enormity of civilian suffering resulting from the bombs, it was like a punch in the stomach to many of them. They knew it would be powerful, but they just had no inkling that it would be on the scale that it was. Many of them had also been led to believe that the bombs would be detonated somewhere rural, as a demonstration of their power, and that on this basis alone, the Japanese would certainly surrender, without it ever being necessary to deploy a bomb onto an actual urban area.  Bethe comes across as a bit naïve, but entirely sincere, and very sympathetic. Even Teller, the most enthusiastic supporter of the H-bomb was unable to start work on it, without an extensive personal and public (with his staff, in a large conference) soul-searching about whether to proceed. In the end, he pushed forward, believing that the H-bomb was an inevitability, and that it would be worse to abstain developing it, and leave the Soviets with a world monopoly of the weapon.


Remarkably even-handed, for the era it was written in.