Oppenheimer and the False Promise of Science

Marc LiVecche on August 3, 2023

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, U.S. 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.

Continue reading at World Magazine here.

  1. Comment by David on August 3, 2023 at 2:45 pm

    What a bunch of evangelical anti-intellectualism nonsense! Science has doubled the human lifespan in the 20th century. What has religion accomplished in that period? I was not aware that Science makes promises, it is merely a method of study of the natural world.

    In one sense, the atomic bombings were days of justice for Japan. That country caused far more deaths in China, with poison gas at times, Korea, and Southeast Asia than what they suffered at home. More died in the bombings of Tokyo by conventional weapons than in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Be aware that additional names of “victims” are added to the roll at the memorial ceremony in Hiroshima annually. Some of these are well over age 100. This is the cult of victimhood taken to the extreme. I like things Japanese and watch NHK, the Japanese “BBC,” in English regularly. The impression one gets from this official network is that WWII consisted of the atomic bomb and the US internment of Japanese-Americans. This is to the annoyance of their Asian neighbors.

    The Japanese were also working on the atomic bomb and captured papers from this project have been discovered. There is some speculation that a small atomic device was set off on a Korean island in the last days of the war. This was the subject of a PBS Nova program some years ago.

    Science has not prevented war, but neither has religion. Indeed, religion was a major cause of conflict in world and continues to be so.

  2. Comment by Bob on August 4, 2023 at 3:38 pm

    When people say the Japanese were “about “ to surrender they completely ignore the facts about their captives. Ever since the Japanese started brutalizing their enemies and starting wars in Asia and the pacific they had murdered and raped civilians and murdered and starved pow’s. As the war went worse for them and defeat was certain their imperial government issued orders to murder every allied prisoner. They were faithfully obeying this order when we ended their murder campaign. The bombs saved the lives of untold numbers of victims of Japanese evil as well as Japanese themselves. If they had been able to use it or the nazis does anyone imagine what the world would be like? Does anyone know a man who served in the war? Everyone in uniform was aware they were going to be part of a Japanese invasion. They weren’t. Lots of people reading this never would have been born if they had.

  3. Comment by George on August 10, 2023 at 6:11 pm

    There is nothing about war that I find funny. But when talking heads start mixing war and morality together, I can’t help but chuckle at their ignorance of either. Is being consumed by a raging fire above being vaporized by an atomic weapon on the “morality scale “? The worst wars are those with no end in sight. Those two bombs ended a horrific war. Now must we be forced to listen to generations, seventy eight years removed, argue the morality of using those weapons? There is enough carnage going on today from the war in Ukraine to our own abortion clinics to keep the morality police busy. So go see Oppenheimer or Barbie. They sell popcorn at both.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.