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he story of the creation and eventual use of the atomic bomb is the story of eighteen words—eighteen words spoken in a very specific manner with an arrogant tone. It’s a story I only learned as an adult through personal study because teaching about the deaths of millions of people through the use of just two bombs was a complicated subject for kids. However, those eighteen words spoken that day in New Mexico are no less tragic or easy to understand. 

Here is that phrase: “A scientist cannot hold back progress because of fears of what the world will do with his creation.” It was spoken by J. Robert Oppenheimer on July 16, 1945, and let the world know that he did not really care about the moral issues behind the making, testing, and eventual use of such a destructive weapon. He didn’t care whether blood would be shed. This was science and the progression of science meant that sometimes bad things had to happen. It was a sentence of eighteen words that would change the world and was befitting of Oppenheimer at the moment. Interestingly, that sentiment would soon change.

Luxury Makes Arrogance

Born in 1904 in New York City, Oppenheimer was the son of wealthy Jewish merchants. His childhood home had servants and cooks and maids. Paintings by the legendary Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh hung on the walls. As a child, Oppenheimer had very few friends and was mostly sheltered by his life of luxury. He never listened to the radio, and when television finally arrived he wasn’t interested in that either. It was rumored later in life that he did not even own a telephone. Although any newspaper or magazine in the city, and many from around the nation, were available to him and his family, Oppenheimer didn’t read them. He even had to be told by others that America was in a depression because life was still rather easy for him.

To those who knew him well—and it took a special kind of person to really say that—Oppenheimer was rude and slightly intolerable. He hated people that he thought were second rate, which for a man of his intelligence was most people, and openly showed his disdain for them. He was smarter than everyone else and didn’t mind saying so. When an equally intelligent friend in university told him that he was planning on writing a paper about a particular subject, Oppenheimer offered up a remark equivalent to a giant slap in the face: “You don’t understand enough about it to write a paper.”

He graduated from Harvard in three years. He spoke seven languages, one of them the ancient language of Sanskrit, which allowed him to read the Bhagavad-Gita in its original form. He was married several times because he was an Oppenheimer after all, but none of the marriages ever really lasted. Although he was the top man at Los Alamos during the creation of the first atomic bombs, some around him thought he had a strange inability to truly give love and feel it in return. Oppenheimer was, in some way, kind of a walking, talking mystery.

The Emotional Swings Of Discovery

Typically when a scientist makes a discovery of such importance and magnitude as that which Oppenheimer and his team did in New Mexico, it is a celebratory moment. All the hard work has come to fruition before their eyes. But at Los Alamos, that was not the case. The day they tested the bomb was also the day Oppenheimer uttered those eighteen words. And while the journalists were feeling the arrogance of a man who implicitly believed he was better than everyone else, the stunning transformation in Oppenheimer was already beginning. Really, it was beginning in everyone. “In the last milli-second of the earth’s existence,” one scientist wrote, “the last men will see what we saw.” When Oppenheimer returned to the main facility to prepare to state those eighteen words that would in some way change the world, he found a normally cool-headed young man vomiting into a garbage can out of sheer shock.

An overhead shot shows the damage the Trinity test did in New Mexico. The dark spots are the most radiated and damaged areas. Photo from the Associated Press.

Perhaps for a brief period after the test, Oppenheimer could relax knowing that the bomb had not yet been used on any humans. But you don’t build something of such power and take such a long time doing it and then not use it at all. So, on August 6, 1945, the United States Air Force dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan. Three days later, it was Nagasaki’s turn. And just like that, Oppenheimer started to unravel. 

The day after Nagasaki’s bombing, nuclear physicist and teammate Ernest Lawerence found Oppenheimer both exhausted and depressed. Rumors were now starting to circulate that the bombs had basically incinerated people, turning them to ash in a matter of seconds. He complained to President Truman at the White House and sulked to his fellow scientists. On his last day as head of the Manhattan Project, the great, arrogant scientist turned moralist basically vowed to never build another atomic weapon in his life. J. Robert Oppenheimer became the radical moralist that the United States never thought they needed and maybe hoped didn’t exist. 

The Little Boy Atomic Bomb (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A few years after Oppenheimer stepped away, someone asked Albert Einstein what he thought the Third World War would look like. It was Einstein’s theories that had helped pave the way for the atomic bomb in the first place. The great scientist, of course, wasn’t exactly sure what the world would look like at that particular moment in history. But he could assure the person of one thing—the next world war would be fought with sticks and stones. J. Robert Oppenheimer would have been happy to hear him say it, even if he knew it wasn’t true. 

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