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The Oppenheimer Imperative: Normalising Atomic Terror

The atomic bomb created the conditions of contingent catastrophe, forever placing the world on the precipice of existential doom. But in doing so, it created a philosophy of acceptable cruelty, worthy extinction, legitimate extermination. The scenarios for such programs of existential realisation proved endless. Entire departments, schools of thought, and think tanks were dedicated to the absurdly criminal notion that atomic warfare could be tenable for the mere reason that someone (or some people) might survive. Despite the relentless march of civil society against nuclear weapons, such insidious thinking persists with a certain obstinate lunacy.

It only takes a brief sojourn into the previous literature of the nuke nutters to realise how appealing such thinking has proven to be. But it had its challenges. John Hersey proved threatening with his 1946 New Yorker spectacular “Hiroshima”, vivifying the horrors arising from the atomic bombing of the Japanese city through the eyes of a number of survivors. In February 1947, former Secretary of War Henry Stimson shot a countering proposition in Harper’s, thereby attempting to normalise a spectacularly vicious weapon in terms of necessity and function; the use of the bombs against Japan saved lives, as any invasion would have cost “over a million casualties, to American forces alone.” The Allies, he surmised, “would be faced with the enormous task of destroying an armed force of five million men and five thousand suicide aircraft, belonging to a race which had already amply demonstrated its ability to fight literally to the death.”

Inadvertent as it was, the Stimson rationale for justifying theatrical never-to-be-repeated mass murder to prevent mass murder fell into the bloodstream of popular strategic thinking. Albert Wohlstetter’s The Delicate Balance of Terror chews over the grim details of acceptable extermination, wondering about the meaning of extinction and whether the word means what it’s meant to, notably in the context of nuclear war. “Would not a general thermonuclear war mean ‘extinction; for the aggressor as well as the defender? ‘Extinction’ is a state that badly needs analysis.” Wohlstetter goes on to make a false comparison, citing 20 million Soviet deaths in non-atomic conflict during the Second World War as an example of astonishing resilience: the country, in short, recovered “extremely well from the catastrophe.”

Resilience becomes part of the semantics of contemplated, and acceptable mass homicide. Emphasis is placed on the bounce-back factor, the ability to recover, even in the face of such weapons. These were themes that continued to feature. The 1958 report of the National Security Council’s Net Evaluation Subcommittee pondered what might arise from a Soviet attack in 1961 involving 553 nuclear weapons with a total yield exceeding 2,000 megatons. The conclusion: 50 million Americans would perish in the conflagration, with nine million left sick or injured. The Sino-Soviet bloc would duly receive retaliatory attacks that would kill 71 million people. A month later, a further 196 million would die. In such macabre calculations, the authors of the report could still breezily conclude that “[t]he balance of strength would be on the side of the United States.”

Modern nuclear strategy, in terms of such normalised, clinical lunacy, continues to find form in the tolerance of tactical weapons and modernised arsenals. To be tactical is to be somehow bijou, cute, and contained, accepting mass murder under the guise of moderation and variation. One can be bad, but bad within limits. Such lethal wonders are described, according to a number of views assembled in The New York Times, as “much less destructive” in nature, with “variable explosive yields that could be dialed up or down depending on the military situation.”

The journal Nature prefers a grimmer assessment, suggesting the ultimate calamity of firestorms, excessive soot in the atmosphere, disruption of food production systems, the contamination of soil and water supplies, nuclear winter, and broader climatic catastrophe.

Some of these views are teasingly touched on in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a three-hour cross narrative jumble boisterously expansive and noisy (the music refuses to leave you alone, bruising the senses). While the idea of harnessing an exceptional, exterminating power haunts the scientific community, the Manhattan Project is ultimately functional: developing the atom for military purposes before Hitler does. Once developed, the German side of the equation becomes irrelevant. The urgent quest for creating the atomic weapon becomes the basis for using it. Once left to politics and military strategy, such weapons are normalised, even relativised as simply other instruments in inflicting destruction. Oppenheimer leaves much room to that lunatic creed, though somehow grants the chief scientist moral absolution.

This is a tough proposition, given Oppenheimer’s membership of the Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee that would, eventually, convince President Harry Truman to use the bombs. In their June 16, 1945 recommendations, Oppenheimer, along with Enrico Fermi, Arthur H. Compton and Ernest O. Lawrence, acknowledged dissenting scientific opinions preferring “a purely technical demonstration to that of a purely military application best designed to induce surrender.” The scientific panel proved unequivocal: it could “propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

In the film, those showing preference for a purely technical demonstration are given the briefest of airings. Leo Szilard’s petition arguing against a military use “at least not until the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender” makes a short and sharp appearance, only to vanish. As Seiji Yamada writes, that petition led a short, charmed life, first circulated in the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, only to make its way to Edward Teller at Los Alamos, who then turned it over to Oppenheimer. The petition was, in turn, surrendered to the Manhattan Project’s chief overseer, General Leslie Groves, who “stamped it ‘classified’ and put it in a safe. It therefore never reached Truman.”

Nolan depicts the relativisation argument in some detail – one that justifies mass death in the name of technical prowess – during an interrogation by US circuit judge Roger Robb, appointed as special counsel during the 1954 security hearing against Oppenheimer. In the relevant scene, Robb wishes to trap the hapless scientist for his opposition to creating a weapon of even greater murderous power than the fission devices used against Japan. Why oppose the thermonuclear option, prods the special counsel, given your support for the atomic one? And why did he not oppose the remorseless firebombing raids of Tokyo, conducted by conventional weapons?

Nolan also has the vengeful Lewis Strauss, the two-term chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, moan that Oppenheimer is the less than saintly figure who managed to get away, ethically, with his atomic exploits while moralising about the relentless march about ever more destructive creations. In that sentiment, the Machiavellian ambition monger has a point: the genie, once out, was never going to be put back in.


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  1. B Sullivan

    Two points. First, in the face of an imminent Soviet invasion, Japan was attempting to surrender to the US before the bombs were dropped, but only on the condition that they could keep their emperor. The US insisted on unconditional surrender, but conceded after the second bomb (all they had left) was dropped and allowed the emperor to remain. This of course was kept secret to conceal the shame of such callous indifference to life. The same official excuse automatically repeated and accepted for decades after the war was that the bombs were dropped to save American lives. As if other lives simply don’t matter.

    Secondly, the ‘resilience’ factor is again being heavily promoted as an excuse for inaction on global warming and climate change. People are being kidded that if they are resourceful they can adapt to the problem, and thus survive. Unfortunately, no matter how capable human beings are at adapting to crises, most of all the other forms of life on this planet are not. For instance, the coral reefs will die simply because the water temperature reaches a level that they cannot tolerate, but which to us would not even rate as tepid. When the corals die, the ecological shock to other species throughout the oceans that depend on the survival of coral reefs will be catastrophic. Ultimately humans will discover that they too depend upon the ecological web of life and that human adaptation in isolation is not an option.

    Ironically, mitigation of climate change may come about by a nuclear war between nations competing for the earth’s dwindling resources, that creates a nuclear winter from the smoke and ash produced by cataclysmic city burnings, as we were warned about by scientists led by Carl Sagan in the 1980s. It still leaves the problem of expecting the rest of the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom to be resilient in the face of such a massive and rapid change, Adaptation of species requires long, gradual change in order to have any chance of success, and even so only those individuals capable of adaptation survive while the rest of their species die out and genetic diversity is massively reduced.

  2. Fred

    Dr Kampmark: Interesting conversation starter, however “tactical nuclear” weapons range from 1 to 50 kilotons and don’t need to be declared under international treaties. We really don’t know how many Russia has. When compared to the Hiroshima bomb (approx. 15 kilotons) and Nagasaki’s (approx. 25 kilotons), they represent significant “bangs” at the top end. The destruction and misery caused by the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombs make the internationally banned cluster munitions look like Christmas crackers. Similarly, “dirty nukes” represent a real threat. Use of depleted Uranium in shells should also be banned.

    Any leader/country using nuclear weapons, of any sort, in first strike should be guilty of a war crime. There is no acceptable reason to use nukes.

  3. Andrew Smith

    B Sullivan: IMO ‘resilience’ comes from the risible Rockefeller (now past owners Standard/Oil Exxon) Foundation, like ‘sustainability’ which one guesses they used via their influence on the UN Population Division (Rockefeller’s gifted the Manhattan land of the UN Headquarters) to adopt for PR and greenwashing.

    Both are used to deflect from fossil fuels i.e. toughen up, and also blame immigrants and population growth a la SPA (ZPG) and in midst of trying to implement carbon pricing, a Labor Minister of Sustainable Population; astroturfing for the right or simply naive, too easy?

    They have reappeared now, in Central Europe, not just anti-EU etc., but as apologists or ‘realists’ for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (desire for Ukraine to yield, for ‘business as usual’?) via ‘tankie’ Jeffrey Sachs attending events in Budapest, along with Charles Koch Foundation’s John Mearsheimer; same ecosystem as some LNP grifters, Koch’s Network presence and both have kissed the ring of PM ‘mini Putin’ Orban, wheels within wheels?

  4. Noel Wauchope

    Excellent critique of the film.
    I hope that these ethical and “sanity” issues will be explored further,

    Outside the scope of this film, is the story of Joseph Roblat, a physicist on the Manhattan Project, who very definitely had second thoughts on the morality of the enterprise. In 1943, Roblat left the project – had great difficulty in getting out, but he made it to the UK. Roblat’s shocking contention was that scientists should not be “neutral” but should be responsible for the ways in which their creations are used.

  5. leefe

    ” … a philosophy of acceptable cruelty, worthy extinction, legitimate extermination.”

    With all due respect, those things already existed. They may well be inherent to humanity and even life. The Holocaust; slavery; genocide of indigenous populations in Australia, the Americas, Africa; religious texts including those of all the so-called religions of peace.
    Nuclear weapons changed the scale and ease of it, no more.

  6. GL

    Now I have this urge to go and watch Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

  7. Phil Pryor

    Frances, you are quite wrong to judge something large by a particle. What if Frances were to be judged by a last fart or fib? Read Einsteins “Ideas and opinions”, for a full survey.

  8. Clakka

    The primordial imperative of feeding and defending the mob and its patch of dirt may have at one time entertained diversity, and demonstrably when it didn’t the results were disastrous. Nevertheless, it gave rise to clubs, waddies, axes, slingshots, spears, knives, swords, pikes and shields and armour, and contests and incursions and wars, and flags and banners, then explosions, ballistics, mechanisms and ever onward to nukes.

    It may have started as food hunting and defence, and may have remained that way for many isolated indigenous groups living within the constraints of nature, but for populations having depleted their patch, those on the move, it became a wielding of implements of conquest, of acquisition, of power and glory and sexualisation. Forsaking humility and reason, a recipe was set; impotence and depletion could be overcome by theft and murder. And that recipe, for its ennoblement, gave rise to the covering dogma of association with gods, religious glorification, separatism and the alleged treachery of undeserving others.

    It’s the ultimate corruption that has underpinned much motivation in technology, education, organisation, formation of empires and states, and the battleground of philosophy for all but the humble and reasonable and the isolated indigenous groups living within the constraints of nature. It is a ruse to say it is the nature of man. It is utterly undemocratic. There’s not even a lesson heeded from Parsifal or Aphrodite.

    It is no small irony that the corrupted notion of imperative and the underlying impotence of those driving it has led to the decimation of ecology, the murder of 100s of millions of people, and of late the reduction in sperm – in 50 years concentrations dropped by 51.6% and total count by 62.3%. And its not getting better, the trend 1973 onwards <1.16%> per year, 2000 onwards <2.64%> per year, and with erectile dysfunction skyrocketing, particularly in the young. Talk about self-defeating.

    Yet despite the revelations and pleas, the corruption and madness persists in a deadly loop of unremitting inculcated chauvinism and stupidity by the chest-beating politics of manufactured difference.

    So much for the evolution of mind – I guess there’s always hope.

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  10. Canguro

    At the end of the 2008 documentary The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the following text scrolls:

    “In 1954, the year of Oppenheimer’s trial, the U.S. had around 300 nuclear weapons. By the end of the 20th century, that number had grown to more than 70,000.”

    No doubt, a figure matched if not exceeded by the former Soviet Union and now Russia.

    Humanity is indeed imperilled by these numbers. The willingness of nations to manufacture and stockpile these weapons of genocidal potential demonstrates a certain kind of blind unconsciousness along with a conscience-less willingness to flirt with forces that have the potential to annihilate mankind along with all other forms of sentient existence. God have mercy upon us, for we know not what we do.

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  12. Steve Davis

    Canguro, well said.

  13. Douglas Pritchard

    Isnt it a comfort to know that our elected government is co-operating with our “special friend” so that some of those nukes will now be based in Australia?
    Thats democracy for you.

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