Listening to Oppenheimer, seven decades later – UncommonThought – News Block

Hiroshima eye

(Photo: Hiroshima eye by Oscar Lima.)

By Robert C. Koehler
Source: Common Wonders

editor’s note

As the Oppenheimer documentary hits theaters, I have to wonder if people will finally understand the wide-ranging impact of the beginning of true weapons of mass destruction and what still continues to this day. From the devastating and ongoing effects of the radioactive materials released during all the tests, as well as the horrific bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was the beginning of the nuclear age and we are still releasing deadly matter into the Earth and atmosphere with both military and peaceful applications.

Perhaps the even greater impact is due to the lies and cover-ups linked to the development and deployment of the atomic bomb. The shaping of public opinion, propaganda, and the outright destruction of history ripped a gaping hole in American humanitarianism and empathy that has never been healed. The United States emerged from this era believing in its own morality to engage in mass destruction for its own sake.

Henry Giroux wrote a brilliant article (which I hope to publish in full at some point) “Hiroshima and the Responsibility of Intellectuals: Fighting Back Against the Neoliberal Disimagination Machine” in which he does a detailed analysis of the destruction of our sense of history, reality and social cohesion. He affirms:

“The power of scientific imagination and its murderous display simultaneously gave rise to the American disimagination machine with its ability to rewrite history into an irrelevant relic best forgotten.”

He concludes:

I want to conclude by returning to the Arendtian notion of “moments of truth” that serves as the epigraph to this article. Such moments often come in the form of impactful images, narratives and stories. They don’t accommodate reality so much as they invert it, eviscerating the commonsense assumptions a culture has about itself while revealing an intellectual and emotional chasm that cuts across established modes of rationality and understanding. Such flashpoints not only break dominant modes of consciousness, but give rise to heated passions and debates, sometimes leading to mass demonstrations of collective angst and resistance, even revolutions. We have seen such “moments of truth” in Ferguson, Missouri, where images of the shooting and death of Michael Brown helped inspire huge waves of protest across the United States. These images of violence and human suffering inflamed a society to connect heated emotional investments with a politics in which unthinkable acts of violence are confronted as part of a “commitment to political responsibility, community, and the importance of positive affect for both belonging and change.” There may be no greater challenge facing intellectuals in the 21st century.

The atomic bomb was not our first act of mass destruction and mass annihilation of a population, but it did have a technological leap that made such destruction virtually immediate and planetary toxic. That we keep repeating the same tropes to justify this crime against life speaks to the success of what Giroux calls the “disimagination machine.”

Robert C Koehler

Just 55 years after his death, the US government has restored J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance, which the Atomic Energy Commission had removed from him in 1954, declaring him not just a communist but, in all likelihood, a Soviet spy.

Oppenheimer, of course, is the father of the atomic bomb. He led the Manhattan Project during World War II, which gave rise to Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, killing several hundred thousand people and ending the war. However, what happened next was the Cold War, and suddenly the communists, our former allies, became the personification of evil and they were everywhere. The US government, in its infinite wisdom, knew that it had no choice but to continue its nuclear weapons program and, for the sake of peace, bring the world to the brink of Armageddon.

Hello H-bomb!

Warfare, the cornerstone of the world’s governmental entities for countless millennia, had evolved to the brink of human extinction. Official government policy amounted to this: So what?

Oppenheimer defied this official policy and wrecked his career. In fact, he saw immediately, when the newly developed bomb was tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, that Planet Earth was in danger. A team of physicists had just exposed his maximum vulnerability and observed, as he witnessed the mushroom cloud, that the words of the Hindu scriptures of the Bhagavad-Gita entered his mind: “Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

He had not been opposed to dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as some of the Manhattan Project scientists like Leo Szilard did, but when the war ended he became deeply committed to eliminating all possibility of future wars. One of the first actions he took, a week after the attacks, was to write a letter to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, urging him to adopt common sense regarding the development of nuclear weapons.

“We believe,” he wrote, “that the security of this nation, unlike its ability to inflict damage on an enemy power, cannot lie wholly or primarily in its scientific or technical prowess. It can only be based on making future wars impossible. It is our unanimous and urgent recommendation to you that, despite the present incomplete exploitation of the technical possibilities in this field, all measures be taken, all necessary international arrangements be made, for this sole purpose.”

Making future wars impossible! What would happen if the American political forces were sane enough to listen to Oppenheimer? Several months after writing this letter, he visited President Truman, trying to discuss the location of international control over further nuclear development. The president would not accept any of that. He kicked Oppenheimer out of the Oval Office.

Oppenheimer remained committed to the significance of war, working with the Atomic Energy Commission to control the use of nuclear weapons and standing firm in his opposition to the creation of the hydrogen bomb. He continued to oppose him even as bomb development progressed and nuclear tests began to spread radioactive fallout over “expendable” parts of the world. But oh oh The McCarthy era arrived and the Red Scare that accompanied it.

And in 1954, after 19 days of secret hearings, the Atomic Energy Commission revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance. As the New York Times noted, this “brought his career to a humiliating end. Until then, a hero of American science, he lived his life as a broken man.” He died at age 62 in 1967.

“A key element in the case against Oppenheimer,” the Times reported, “stemmed from his resistance to early work on the hydrogen bomb, which could explode with 1,000 times the force of an atomic bomb. Physicist Edward Teller had long advocated an intensive program to design such a weapon, and told the 1954 hearing that he distrusted Oppenheimer’s judgment. ‘I would feel personally safer,’ he testified, ‘if public affairs were in other hands.’

But, of course, the “black mark of shame” that stuck to Oppenheimer for the rest of his life was that he was a communist and perhaps a spy, in other words, totally un-American. This was the basic lie used against those who challenged the principles of the Cold War. The secret hearings of the commission remained classified for sixty years. After they were declassified in 2014, historians expressed astonishment that they contained virtually no damning evidence of any kind against Oppenheimer, and plenty of testimony sympathetic to him. The revelations here appear to primarily expose the government’s interest in covering up its own lies.

It was last December that Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, chair of the department that the Atomic Energy Commission had become, overturned the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, declaring the 1954 hearing a “flawed process.” Getting the government to right his wrong was a long and arduous process, undertaken by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, the authors of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy by J. Robert Oppenheimer. It took them about sixteen years. They finally managed to clear his name.

And while I applaud his enormous effort and his result, I also note that it is not finished yet. This is more than just a personal matter: the correction of a bureaucratic mistake made to one man. The future of humanity is still at stake. The US government has spent trillions of dollars developing nuclear weapons over the years, has conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests, and currently possesses 5,244 nuclear warheads, out of an incredible 12,500 worldwide total. Perhaps it is time to start listening—and listening—to Oppenheimer’s words.

Robert C Koehler
Robert C Koehler

Robert Koehler, accused of PeaceVoiceis an award-winning journalist and editor in Chicago. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is available. Contact him at (email protected) or visit their website at

Tags: atomic bomb, disimagination, Oppenheimer
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