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THE MAN WHO BECAME DEATH: JULIUS ROBERT OPPENHEIMER


August 6, 1945: The U.S. dropped the infamous atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, wiping out 90 percent of the city and killing more than 80,000 people. Three days later, another atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki which resulted in killing of another 40,000 people. Tens of thousands more would go on to suffer and die from radiation exposure. An awed Japan surrendered and the world was spared the devastating human cost of a land invasion of the Japanese home islands.


The Manhattan Project was the US government program during World War II that developed and built these first atomic bombs. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist, headed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Manhattan Project’s principal research and development facility.


As he witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, a piece of Hindu scripture ran through the mind of Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.


As wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the birthplace of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer is rightly seen as the “Father” of the Atomic Bomb.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” he later recalled. “A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.” Oppenheimer, watching the fireball of the Trinity nuclear test exclaimed.


Julius Robert Oppenheimer, the Father of the Atomic Bomb, became one of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century through his work as Director of the Los Alamos team, which produced the first atomic weapons in the summer of 1945. Often portrayed as a charismatic and devilishly persuasive man, he was quick to embrace the role of scientific celebrity that he acquired after the Second World War. Due to his sudden rise to fame after the Japan exploits, Oppenheimer was often misrepresented in both the media and fiction.


Despite decades of scholarly researches, romanticized characterizations of Oppenheimer as a tragic hero and guilt-ridden anti-nuke pacifist still persist to the present date. The lack of personal writings or journals has forced scholars researching Oppenheimer to rely on official documents, correspondence and his colleagues’ personal experiences.


Nonetheless, the efforts put in by the scholars have proved to be more than sufficient in building his image as a convoluted, multifaceted and pre-eminently ambitious figure, with a penchant for surrounding himself in enigma and mystique. Oppenheimer is often remembered as a scientist who devoted his special gift for science in developing the deadliest weapon, a man has ever seen or heard of. A weapon so biocidal and pernicious that it could wipe out the existence of an entire country within a few moments after its deployment.


Few speculations suggest that after his remarkable breakthrough he embarked on a pacifist crusade that would last until the end of his days. A superficial interpretation would speak of remorse and the search for redemption. But the truth is that in more than two decades working for nuclear peace, the physicist never once said that he regretted building the bomb or recommending its use against Japan. In fact, witnesses to the first result of that work i.e. the Trinity test, reported that Oppenheimer’s reaction during the test was simply that of relief and satisfaction and that he exclaimed: “It worked!”


But only 11 days after the bombing of Hiroshima, on August 17, 1945, he expressed in writing to the US government his desire for nuclear weapons to be banned. Two months later he visited the then President Harry S. Truman, who had okayed the use of both bombs, to talk to him about placing international controls on nuclear weapons. When Oppenheimer said he felt compelled to act because he had blood on his hands, Truman angrily told the scientist that “the blood is on my hands, let me worry about that.”


For all this commotion, it is curious to know that in his final years Oppenheimer affirmed that, had he been able to go back, he would have done everything exactly the same, and that he did not regret having contributed to the success of the bomb. But the key to this apparent contradiction may lie in those words that have passed into history, and in how the Hindu philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita was a powerful influence on the thinking of the physicist from a young age.


In the full quotation, Oppenheimer uttered that phrase by explaining its context: “Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says,


‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’


It is, perhaps, the most well-known line from the Bhagavad-Gita, but also the most misunderstood. In 2000, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth history professor James A. Hijiya wrote a lucid essay trying to explain how Oppenheimer interpreted that passage:

Vishnu wants to convince Prince Arjuna that he must go to war, something that he refuses because it would involve killing his own relatives and friends. But Vishnu convinces him that he cannot shun that duty greater than he—it is his obligation, and it is not in his hand to choose. In the end, Arjuna goes to war.


Oppenheimer, Hijiya concluded, did not see himself as Vishnu. He did not arrogate the role of a God. He was Arjuna, the prince destined to fulfill that unavoidable duty, a terrible test for a pacifist who had always been one, both before and after the bomb.

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