Why there are new assessments of Oppenheimer’s role in history

Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer led the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons during World War II and is perhaps best known as the "Father of the Atomic Bomb.” But he was a complicated man. As William Brangham explains, there are new assessments of his role in history.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer led what was called the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons during World War II. He is perhaps best known as the father of the atomic bomb.

    As time has passed, more details have emerged about his life, and, as William Brangham explains, there are some new assessments of his role in history.

  • Cillian Murphy, Actor:

    We imagine a future, and our imaginings horrify us.

  • William Brangham:

    Christopher Nolan's upcoming film "Oppenheimer" tells the story of the brilliant physicist and his intense work to develop the weapons that would help America win the Second World War.

    Two of the bombs he and his colleagues helped create were dropped on Japan, killing several hundred thousand people, mostly civilians, but helping bring the war to a quicker end. Afterwards, Oppenheimer expressed regret about these weapons and worked to stop their proliferation.

    In 1954, at the height of anti-Soviet fervor, his security clearance was revoked over allegations that he had ties to communism. But almost 70 years later, long after his death, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm reversed that decision, saying: "As time has passed, more evidence has come to light of the bias and unfairness of the process that Dr. Oppenheimer was subjected to, while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed."

    For more on this complicated man and his role in history, I'm joined now by Alex Wellerstein. He's a historian of nuclear weapons, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, and author of "Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States."

    Professor Wellerstein, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    For those of us who are not familiar with Oppenheimer's work on the Manhattan Project, can you just remind us a bit of what role he played and how central he was to that?

    Alex Wellerstein, Author, "Restricted Data": Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project and the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory.

    And so, in this position, he was in charge of all of the scientific decision-making, all of the advising on the production of the bombs, crucial to the planning for the actual use of the bombs, and was credited as sort of the glue that held together this massive, sprawling new industry that had been built in unprecedented time in total secrecy during World War II.

  • William Brangham:

    And we certainly know what those nuclear weapons did during World War II, and we are still living decades later with the specter of them, even in the war in Ukraine and Russia's saber-rattling now.

    As you and others have written, Oppenheimer was a complicated and conflicted man. He built the ultimate weapons of mass destruction, but then also work to limit their use. Is it fair to say that he grappled with the morality of what he had done?

  • Alex Wellerstein:

    Oppenheimer, he's tricky, because, on the one hand, he always defended making and using the bombs during World War II.

    On the other hand, he thought that the appropriate response to having made and used those bombs in World War II was to make sure that they could never be used again, and that you might not want to make even larger bombs, like the hydrogen bomb, which was 1,000 times more powerful than the weapons in World War II.

    And so, on the one hand, he's — does seem like he grapples with the ethics and the responsibility. On the other hand, he doesn't slot into easy categories of pro-nuclear, anti-nuclear or anything like that. He's a tricky figure. He took really seriously all the dimensions of the entire problem, and didn't see it as a simple one to be solved.

  • William Brangham:

    He famously quoted this line from Hindu scripture, where he said: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

    I mean, that utterance has been endlessly interpreted. What is your sense of what he was saying there?

  • Alex Wellerstein:

    Oppenheimer's relationship to the Bhagavad Gita is pretty interesting.

    I mean, that's his own sort of idiosyncratic translation from a man who study Sanskrit principally to read the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita is a story about responsibility. It's a story about your duty to causes bigger than you and to the idea that a soldier is not necessarily the ultimate cause of the destruction that is caused by war.

    And so "I am become death, destroyer of worlds," it's less probably Oppenheimer saying, "I am death." It's more Oppenheimer taking the role of the prince in the story who has just been shown this display by this god, who the god is saying, I'm ultimately why people die. You're just the instrument.

    And so that's a very different sort of read on what Oppenheimer is going for there. It's less he is the God. It's more he is now being compelled by this new force, atomic energy, to be this instrument of destruction, whether he would like to or not.

  • William Brangham:

    So interesting.

    So, fast-forward to the 50s. The country is racked with this fear that the Soviets are coming And that the communists are infiltrating everywhere, and he's accused of being sympathetic or in cahoots with the communists.

    Is there any evidence that that was the case?

  • Alex Wellerstein:

    The main charges against Oppenheimer were about his character and his associations.

    And associations is, do you have friends or family who are communists? And the answer for Oppenheimer was, yes. All of his friends and family and students were either communists or close to communists or adjacent. He himself was pretty close to communism in the '30s.

    You have to put this in the context of the Great Depression, of what it meant to be, say, pro-civil rights in the 1930s. The communists were the ones who were often leading those charges. So, a lot of what they were advocating for is not necessarily violent revolution, or Stalinism, or anything like that, but a lot of things that we would associate with progressive causes.

    But, by the 1950s, the political winds had really shifted. And it was a pretty damning association to have your brother be a member of the Communist Party or your wife being a former member of the Communist Party and things like that.

    The accusations of his character were that, basically, during World War II, he did things that were, in retrospect, pretty irresponsible, including lying to security agents, probably to protect his brother, things that don't look good in retrospect, but are understandable, and don't necessarily mean that he was a spy or disloyal or anything like that.

    And so I think it's important to sort of separate the question of, was Oppenheimer loyal, was he trustworthy, from the question of, did Oppenheimer always have the right resume for somebody in the 1950s, based on the fears that they had at that time?

  • William Brangham:

    So, the Department of Energy makes this sort of posthumous reinstatement of his security clearance.

    Did that surprise you when it came out?

  • Alex Wellerstein:

    Oh, it completely surprised me.

    I knew that they had had this requested. I knew that various administrations had thought about this. But it was surprising, because the easiest thing for a bureaucrat to do is not do anything, right? There was no great public outcry or demand for this. There are ways you could imagine this being spun by enemies of the current political administration.

    There's not a lot of obvious need or gain. It's just sort of a righting of historical wrongs, which, unfortunately, is not usually a priority. So, yes, I was surprised. It'd be much easier for them to do nothing on this than to do something. And them having done this is them sticking their neck out a bit.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Alex Wellerstein, historian and Stevens Institute of Technology, so good to have you. Thank you very much.

  • Alex Wellerstein:

    Thank you so much. So good to be here.

Listen to this Segment