This post includes several points of view. I’d encourage you to at least take the time to scroll through, including the links.
This week, somebody cleaned the for-the-public blackboard at Caribou in Woodbury, my coffee place, and wrote a question: “What are you watching first?” In one column, “Barbie“, in the other “Oppenheimer“.
Thus far (Friday p.m.) it’s 22-21. My hash mark is for Oppenheimer, which I’ve seen once, and plan to see again. Yes, Oppenheimer is just a film – a longggg film (3 hours) – but full of content for reflection about then, and now. I highly recommend viewing it.
My view on the general matter nuclear and the bomb? See postnote. Succinctly, I’ve not changed my views on why The Bomb came to be; nor about it’s utter uselessness as a tool to resolve problems. It is useful only as a threat, actually used in war on only two occasions in 78 years, and those two by the United States: Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 6 and 9, 1945. Of course, the threat has now been rolled out again: Putin threatening Ukraine.
The film speaks for itself, as does the history and the conflict over interpretation of what happened at the inauguration of the nuclear age in the time of Einstein and Oppenheimer.
I’d prefer to present some perspective, in the present tense, at minimum to hopefully add to the conversation.
A few months ago, my brother, John, visited the actual Trinity site in New Mexico. With his permission, here is what he had to say, including a link to. the photos he took at the site at the time.
John Bernard July 26: Here’s the link to my Flickr album that contains a mix the photos I took at the Trinity site: Trinity. The time, there wasn’t really a whole lot of laughter or joviality among any of the visitors at the site. It was pretty much a somber tour and a walk around the site.
I went to see [the film July 25] , with my biking buddy Jim – who happens to be a retired professor at UC Davis, and who actually took a course from Edward Teller in [his] undergraduate days at Berkeley. Both of us liked the films approach as a good mix between the mechanics and science of building the bomb and the moral conflict a lot of the people were having about actually building it.
Regarding Trinity site – stone cairn theoretically is Ground Zero – I didn’t bother to take a picture of the plaque . Inside the simple, rebar steel cage at the side of the monument is what is claimed to be the remnants of one of the footings of the steel tower that the device was on. Due to the fact that it’s in the middle of the White Sands missile test range, which is still an active military installation, it’s only open to the public two days a year – in April and October.
A Voice from the Past: Coincidently, less than three weeks ago I delivered a few letters to the family archive at the Historical Society of North Dakota in Bismarck. Among them were two long letters from my Aunt Jean to her husband, my Uncle George. They had been married about a year, and he was in his third year as an officer on the destroyer USS Woodworth in the Pacific.
Jean’s letters were dated August 15 and 19, 1945. News from home.
The letters are among several hundred of George and Jean’s 1942-45 letters preserved at the historical society for posterity in archive 11082.
Jean’s letters to her husband were, of course, personal, and I include here only a tiny portion of one of them, “6:30 Wed Aug 15, 1945” : “I’m so happy! It’s half an hour since the announcement of Japan’s surrender. Oh Darling, I can hardly believe it – Mrs. Coan called me saying “come over for a drink”. I did – guess we mixed it with tears while the Star Spangled Banner was played – we are all so happy, that’s all….”
I forwarded the letters to John, who additionally commented: Cool! So glad she saved them – an interesting slice of life (pun intended, because apparently she [had] gotten a job at a potato chip plant on the Night Shift) from a war bride in 1945. I did indeed scan [the letter], and noted in one portion that [Jean] indicated it was a year, almost exactly to the day, since she last saw him.
(They had married in North Dakota in May, 1944, and apparently he was stateside for a couple of months. He finally returned home in October, 1945. The last port of call, beginning Sep. 11, 1945, was Tokyo.)
SPEAKING PERSONALLY, TODAY:
- Unfortunately, we cannot un-invent atomic energy, or anything created by research. Makes no difference whether it will kill us or not. We owe our basic quality of life (as we see it) to research and invention over human history. How/Where/Whether to draw the line is probably impossible.
- Oppenheimers job, it seems, was specifically to beat the Germans to the goal of a nuclear weapon. The Germans surrendered before the American bomb was tested; but the Japanese did not officially surrender until September, 1945.
- Every generation has its crises. At the end of WWII people everywhere generally were sick and tired of war. In my own families case, my uncle had gone down with the Arizona Dec. 7, 1941. The man who would later become his brother-in-law, Mom’s brother, spent three years as an officer on a Destroyer, and the list goes on and on. Everyone focused on their own loved one, “over there”. The Japanese, in this case, were the amorphous “other”. To the Japanese, we were the evil other. That is how war is.
- Hateful and deadly as it is, it is unlikely that we will ever succeed in ridding the world of nuclear weaponry, nor of the evil ones who will view it as an asset. We certainly should continue to call attention to the insanity of nuclear weaponry. There are many sources of information, including this link: ICAN.
- There are present day analogies, I feel, to the nuclear crisis that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Pandemic is a recent example, where more than a million Americans were killed by a disease, emptying American movie theaters, etc., for well over a year. A “bomb” to rid us of that plague would have been welcome. Or Climate Change which is an ongoing threat. And Political Polarization which will assure that we not have the collective will to confront common problems. And on and on and on.
- I was struck, in the film, by the blackboard, chalk and eraser, just like the chalkboard in my coffee place. Oppenheimers days were the days before much of the technology we take for granted. For that matter, Barbie, “born” in 1959, came during the blackboard, chalk and eraser time.
- I personally think that we ourselves are our greatest enemy going forward. The Bomb is easier to threaten than to use. We’re stuck by a societal pandemic of dishonesty (lies), ginned up fear and loathing of different others, and now AI (artificial intelligence), etc.,enter the conversation, to disrupt and confuse and deceive. I think we can solve this, but I’m not so sure we will….
Amy submitted this opinion to her Church Newsletter on July 26, 2023: Amy re Oppenheimer and Nuclear0001
Columnist John Rash wrote this review of the film for the Minneapolis Star Tribune July 22, 2023: Oppenheimer Rash July 22 2023
POSTNOTE: I’ve long been on record on the issue of The Bomb, and Nuclear generally. A couple of examples: in 1982 – Nuclear War; later, in 1995 – Atomic Bomb 1945001. Referenced in the 1995 column is a news article about the first detonation of The Bomb shortly before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1945: Atomic Bomb 1945 news20200809.
There is more. What I say above basically lays out where I am, and where I’ve been. It’s not an easy issue.
August 5, 6 and 8 in Minneapolis and St. Paul is the annual commemoration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Detail here click on first tab under news and events. I highly recommend this.
POSTNOTE 2: Saturday afternoon, I attended Oppenheimer for the second time this week. I rarely see movies in the first place, and it is rare for me to watch one twice.
I was glad I attended, this time thinking more about our common future as a planet; than simply an historical anecdote about the now distant past.
Back home the TV news was about places like Niger in Africa.
Overnight came a commentary on a speech made yesterday by President Biden to a small group in the state of Maine. The speech was very important, and the commentary about the speech is here.
We – all of us – are the solution.
COMMENTS (more at end of post):
from Brian: Thanks for sharing! Even as a pre-teen growing up in San Antonio, Texas, I remember asking my mother why did President Truman have to use the atomic bomb on two cities with civilians? It wasn’t necessary.
from Joyce: Eric and I saw Oppenheimer on Thursday; we both consider the film a masterpiece. As we left the theater on that exceedingly hot afternoon, I remarked to Eric that the scientists were right to fear we would set fire to the atmosphere, they were just wrong about how we would do it, gradually through industrial processes, not suddenly through a nuclear chain reaction.
from SAK: Many thanks Mr Bernard,
I agree that ethical values seem to be having an ever diminishing hold on humanity. Some will say I exaggerate so let us say a diminishing hold on a significant portion of a growing humanity.
Couple this with the argument I constantly hear in favour of Truman’s decision which is basically: it was us or them – the allies had to beat the Nazis to the bomb – and you get a doomsday scenario. Soon scientists will be developing AI tools, genetic interventions, all sorts of weapons on one side of a divide. This will “force” the other to compete. Forget any talk of a moral high ground. It will boil down to who has the more funds or the stronger military.
It could be that just as with a plant, an animal or a human being whole civilisations and even species grow, prosper, then wither & die. You also list the various threats facing humanity along with possibly unknown unknowns!? Given all this realistic pessimism the question posed since Greek philosophers walked the streets of Athens remains: what does a good life consist of? Well to me it belongs to those who are fighting for peace, against the development & use of such weapons, as well as against global warming etc and not to those who are profiteering from any possible threat or crisis!
A member of his war contracts investigating committee objected to his strenuous pace to which Harry S. Truman famously replied: “If you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen”. Soon there will be precious few cooler places to go to. Yet elections seem to be oblivious. Spain has never seen such a heat wave in its history yet that issue didn’t feature in elections this month: it was overwhelmed by questions like Catalan language in schools, LGBT etc.
I much prefer Eisenhower’s warning regarding the military-industrial complex – sadly it was during his farewell speech. Perhaps some sitting president will have the guts to speak and act against big lobbies & bigger money while still in power! It’s a major flaw with democracy.
But to end on a happy note, I keep in mind Mother Julian of Norwich’s words: “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
from Harry: Thanks for sharing this with me, Dick.
from Molly: I appreciated the observations. Fyi, although I’ve not seen the film, I have been following the series of columns by Greg Mitchell, who has written a separate blog string of them on Oppenheimer (ie, separate from his usual blog–of which I am an erratic follower.). He also has written some books on him, and the bomb.
Here’s a list of them, scroll down to July 13 for the start of the string.
I’ve found the series excellent, (though I admit to being a few behind right now…)