Who Was The Real Oppenheimer?


by Geoff Williams at huffpost.com

The “Oppenheimer” movie is upon us. Here’s what history tells us about the man and the Manhattan Project.

Who was Oppenheimer? It’s a question that a lot of people are asking these days, with TV commercials, print ads and billboards constantly promoting the upcoming “Oppenheimer” movie. If you’ve never heard of Oppenheimer, you may well be thinking: “Is this another little-known superhero that Marvel is creating a movie around?” Or you might be thinking: “Who cares who Oppenheimer was? I’m seeing ‘Barbie.’

But for those who are curious about the man, and wondering what all the fuss is about, here are the answers to all your Oppenheimer questions.

Because he was a very real person who is now getting the Hollywood treatment, courtesy of Christopher Nolan, who wrote the screenplay to “Oppenheimer” and directed the movie.

Nolan’s film debuts July 21, along with — yes, maybe you’ve heard — Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.” Both movies are expected to be blockbusters.

Julius Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist who changed the course of humankind. He’s known as the “father of the atomic bomb.”

He didn’t single-handedly create the bomb, of course. But during World War II, he did manage the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, which developed and tested the first atomic bomb. If one person were going to get credit for building the A-bomb, it would be J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Still, as Oppenheimer told the International News Service in August 1945, “No one person should get credit for the achievement — it was a cooperative effort of scientists filled with courage and devotion to their work and to the Allied cause.”

It’s ultimately fair to say that because of Oppenheimer, we have nuclear bombs. It’s really kind of amazing that Oppenheimer hasn’t gotten more attention from Hollywood already, though Dwight Schultz played him in the well-regarded 1989 film “Fat Man and Little Boy.”

From 1942 to 1945, the Manhattan Project was the U.S. government’s top-secret mission to make the atomic bomb. It got its name because in the early days of the project, everybody was working in New York City. Later, the project spread out to facilities in places like Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico.

That’s putting it mildly. He studied at Harvard and graduated summa cum laude after three years, in 1925. He went on to do some research at Cambridge, and in 1927, he got his Ph.D. at the University of Göttingen in Germany, where he studied quantum physics. He knew eight languages and enjoyed French literature, art and music.

In 1929, he was offered jobs teaching at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California. He took both positions, going back and forth between Pasadena and Berkeley. After his work on the Manhattan Project, he directed the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton while lobbying for global arms control as an adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission.

There’s not an easy answer for this. Oppenheimer helped make the atomic bomb, but he also helped end World War II.

By many accounts, Oppenheimer was a well-intentioned, complicated and conflicted man, as Nolan’s movie will likely show. He may have not defined himself as a good person. In August 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and, three days later, on Nagasaki ― ultimately killing as many as 226,000 people, many of them civilians, and prompting Japan to surrender, ending the war. Even then, Oppenheimer was already second-guessing his role in the making of the bomb.

After the first bomb went off in Japan, U.S. Army Gen. Leslie Groves (played by Matt Damon in Nolan’s film) called Oppenheimer and congratulated him. According to a transcript of the recorded call, Groves said, “I think one of the wisest things I ever did was when I selected [you] the director of Los Alamos.” “Well, I have my doubts, General Groves,” Oppenheimer replied.

In a 1965 NBC documentary called “The Decision to Drop the Bomb,” Oppenheimer famously described the moment in July 1945 when members of the Manhattan Project watched a test explosion that was the first-ever detonation of a nuclear bomb.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” he said. “A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

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