The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Father of the Atomic Bomb and Victim of McCarthyism

  At 5:30 in the morning on July 16, 1945, more than 30 kilometers away from the Trinity Experimental Site in New Mexico, USA, physicist Robert Oppenheimer saw a spectacular sight he had never seen in his life: on the horizon , a huge white light flashed, and gradually, the white light turned into a dazzling yellow-orange fireball, mixed with flames and black dust, constantly rolling upward. Later, Oppenheimer recalled that in that scene, what flashed in his mind was a sentence from the Indian classic “Bhagavad Gita”: “Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This is directed by Christopher
  Nolan A scene from the new movie “Oppenheimer”, which records the most important moment in the life of “Father of the American Atomic Bomb” Oppenheimer, that is, the scene when the world’s first atomic bomb was tested. “Oppenheimer” will be released in China on August 30, 2023. Also at the end of August, the Chinese version of “The Biography of Oppenheimer: The Triumph and Tragedy of the American “Father of the Atomic Bomb”” (hereinafter referred to as “The Biography of Oppenheimer”), the inspiration for this film, was also released at the same time. On August 26, American writer Kay Bird, one of the authors of “The Biography of Oppenheimer,” gave an interview to “China News Weekly” and spoke highly of the movie “Oppenheimer.” He said that the film “is a great artistic achievement and accurately carries that period of history.” In Bird’s eyes, Oppenheimer’s entire life is an extremely complicated story.
The ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’ was kicked out by the Atomic Energy Commission

  On December 21, 1953, the 49-year-old Oppenheimer discovered that his life was completely out of control. That night, after drinking several glasses of wine, he suddenly collapsed at his lawyer’s home and fell into a coma. That afternoon, Oppenheimer received a letter of accusation from Lewis Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, stating that he was considered a “dangerous element” that threatened national security. There were also many political accusations. The emergence of this letter means that if he does not resign from his position as chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, he must be investigated by the Atomic Energy Commission. In short, this kind of internal investigation with a predetermined position is a great insult to Oppenheimer, who has always regarded himself as patriotic.
  In Oppenheimer’s life, such drama abounds, far beyond what a movie can contain. Kay Bird, the author of “The Biography of Oppenheimer,” recalled that “The Biography of Oppenheimer” was originally the title of Martin J. Sherwin, a history professor at Tufts University who has won the Pulitzer Prize many times. Around 2000, he was invited to co-write the book with Sherwin. After officially joining, Byrd discovered that Sherwin had worked on Oppenheimer’s biography for 20 years, accumulated 50,000 pages of files, and interviewed about 150 people. Faced with such a wealth of material, he was unable to write, so he Start asking for help from your peers. In the end, Sherwin and Bird worked together to complete this masterpiece in 2005, and shared the Pulitzer Prize the following year. Unfortunately, Sherwin died of cancer in 2021 and was unable to see the film about Oppenheimer released worldwide.
  Bird clearly knew that writing this huge biography had its special significance and value. He still remembers what Sherwin said back then: “If this was just a story about a physicist building a ‘gadget,’ then you and I wouldn’t have spent so many years writing this book. What really makes this story What became interesting and mysterious was Oppenheimer himself and the politics he loved.” The “politics” in Sherwin’s mouth was exactly the field that the scientist Oppenheimer was once interested in and once entered, but ultimately failed. The incident that best reflected his political naivety and failure was the hearing that was later called the “Oppenheimer case.”
  The story begins after World War II. Because he led American scientists to successfully develop the first atomic bomb and promoted the end of the war, Oppenheimer enjoyed unparalleled treatment in the country. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine and began to advise the government on many issues. This kind of fame and treatment made him naively think that he could express independent opinions on behalf of the scientific community.
  After World War II, Oppenheimer began to express his opposition to nuclear proliferation and hydrogen bomb research. However, Oppenheimer, who was only busy expressing his opinions, did not notice that his ideas ran counter to the top leaders of the U.S. government who were engaged in arms competition with the Soviet Union, and his outspokenness and conceitedness also touched the interests of many people, including the first-hand Strauss, who organized the charges against him, and some of his scientific colleagues who advocated the development of a hydrogen bomb.
  The letter at the end of 1953 was the official move by these people to drive Oppenheimer out of the circle. So how do you frame a scientist with public prestige? At the time, the best thing to do was to create signs that he might have ties to the Soviet Union. In that era when “McCarthyism” was prevalent and left-wing intellectuals were persecuted, this was an easy thing to do. Because in the 1930s, the anti-fascist movement was prevalent around the world, and communist ideas became the most popular trend among young people. Oppenheimer grew up in that era, and his circle of friends and relatives included many Communists. Although Oppenheimer did not become a party member like them, he belonged to the group of people who were close to left-wing intellectuals.
  In April 1954, the storm that panicked and frightened Oppenheimer finally came. For four weeks, he endured repeated interrogations and mental torture. Later, after countless relatives, friends, and colleagues testified in court, and reviewed hundreds of surveillance records, the Atomic Energy Commission finally determined that Oppenheimer’s loyalty to the United States was not in question, but that due to so-called “character flaws” and his youth He had close contacts with the Communists, and the security clearance he had received from the Atomic Energy Commission had to be revoked. This meant that Oppenheimer could no longer conduct any confidential research work, which was ironic, meaning that the “father of the atomic bomb” was kicked out by the Atomic Energy Commission.
  After the interrogation, Oppenheimer was physically and mentally exhausted. His court records were also exposed, including extramarital affairs and other moral stains. Only then did he realize that he was trapped in a pre-planned frame-up activity, and the other party was just to pull him down from the altar. Fortunately, due to Oppenheimer’s status in the American intellectual community, he received strong support from scientists all over the world. In their eyes, he has become a martyr of science, a typical scientist persecuted by “McCarthyism” .

  After nine years of depression, Oppenheimer received the US government’s compensatory “Fermi Award”, a lifetime contribution award given to nuclear physicists. Four years later he died of throat cancer. But it was not until more than fifty years later, on December 16, 2022, that the U.S. government announced that it would overturn the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission’s decision to revoke his security clearance and officially vindicate Oppenheimer. At this point, the “Oppenheimer case” has been settled.
Enter the “Manhattan Project”

  In the movie “Oppenheimer”, Oppenheimer and the scientific giant Einstein had many wonderful scenes at different stages of their lives. In reality, they are both Jews and live together in the United States. Although their academic views are different, they can be regarded as close friends. “The Biography of Oppenheimer” mentioned that during the period when Oppenheimer was under scrutiny, Einstein had a long talk with him and persuaded him to leave the United States, but Oppenheimer replied to him: “Damn it, I But I still love this country.”
  What did Oppenheimer believe and what did he believe in? “This is a mystery. In the book, we fully demonstrate all possible evidence.” Kay Bird, author of “The Biography of Oppenheimer,” told China News Weekly that according to the available information, Oppenheimer Just “a free intellectual.” So, if anything changed during the war, this proud intellectual who always puts freedom first, at present, it can only be said to be the simple patriotism in his heart. .
  Leslie Groves, the officer in charge of the U.S. “Manhattan Project” understood this best, because it was he who gave Oppenheimer his “security clearance.” When they first met, Groves was extremely contemptuous of Oppenheimer, a proud “nerd”, and labeled him as unstable, grandiose, conceited and other negative labels. He had strong opinions on Oppenheimer’s political leanings and circle of friends, and felt that it was obviously not safe enough for him to join a major military project. However, after some bickering, Groves found that this man had a creative mind that could help him solve the problem at hand. He knew that Oppenheimer had left-wing tendencies and had long been monitored and suspected by the FBI, but he felt that Oppenheimer’s loyalty to the United States was worthy of trust. Eventually, Groves decided to invite Oppenheimer to join the Manhattan Project.
  As early as the late 1930s, Oppenheimer realized that the shadow of war was already hanging over Europe. At this time, the development of physics also happened to reach a critical period. In early 1939, two German chemists successfully bombarded uranium nuclei with neutrons, achieving a breakthrough in nuclear fission. After Oppenheimer received this news, he quickly judged that this meant that nuclear fission technology was likely to be further developed and used to create unprecedented murderous weapons, and these technologies were probably already mastered by Nazi Germany.
  In this critical situation, scientists from the United Kingdom, the United States and other places must race against time to start a research competition with Germany. As a German Jew born in the United States, Oppenheimer also considered this. He had an innate hatred of Nazism. Therefore, he had long been actively involved in the U.S. atomic bomb program. Even before he was invited to join the “Manhattan Project,” he had already begun to participate in research related to the manufacture of atomic bombs. For this reason, he even began to interact with the past Some of his friends have drawn a line in the sand to reduce the government’s concerns about his so-called “security.” He has made up his mind to use what he has learned to fight Nazi Germany and end the war as soon as possible.
  With a consensus, Oppenheimer and Groves, who had very different personalities, hit it off on the issue of developing an atomic bomb. Oppenheimer suggested that they could plan to build an experimental base to deal with chemistry, metallurgy, engineering, ordnance and other issues in an interdisciplinary way. Oppenheimer, who was well prepared, even suggested that the base should be built in a remote area of ​​the United States, isolated from the world, and connected to raw material bases and other places by trains. This idea just solved Groves’ concerns about the safety of the experimental base. So, they took action. In August 1942, Oppenheimer was appointed chief scientist of the Manhattan Project. In March 1943, the Los Alamos Experimental Base in New Mexico, USA, was officially opened.
  Oppenheimer led a group of scientists and began a more than two-year struggle in the deserted mountains. In order to quickly develop new weapons, Oppenheimer, who was once in his study, began to break through the limits of his personality. He began to transform himself into a scholar with management and organizational abilities who could solve comprehensive problems. His coordination ability makes the town run smoothly. Most scientists are attracted by his personality and are willing to listen to his instructions. He will also give a certain degree of scientific research space and tolerance to those scientists who have different opinions. In addition to his work, he also designed bars, restaurants, libraries and living spaces for this experimental base. He declared in a humane way that scientists participating in the work could bring their families with them, and he also provided positions for some of their female family members. These actions earned him the respect of the scientists at the base.
  Finally, when the mushroom cloud rose over Los Alamos, Oppenheimer, who was racing against time, realized that he had completed a mission that could change the world. Although the guilt of producing murderous weapons vaguely tortured him, his desire to end the war as soon as possible and his optimism for scientism ultimately defeated this guilt. “A scientist cannot refuse to push science forward because he is afraid that humans may use his discoveries to do bad things.” This was a comment he left at the time, which vaguely revealed his ambivalent mentality.
The Bhagavad Gita, romance and depression

  Love has never been the theme of Nolan’s movies, but in “Oppenheimer”, which is full of humanistic care, the love between Oppenheimer and the two heroines is described in a more delicate way. In fact, the strict and reserved British Nolan only captured a small part of Oppenheimer’s romantic character. It is difficult for people to imagine that the “father of the atomic bomb” was actually a scientist with a very poetic temperament. He is well-read and has excellent eloquence. He often quotes novels or poems casually. Although he is shy and introverted, he has a good rapport with women. It can also be seen from the photos left by Oppenheimer that he was wearing a top hat and holding a pipe, full of charm. Just as Oppenheimer’s lover Gene Tatlock described Oppenheimer in the movie: “You always make others think you are complicated.” The
  character of a profound and romantic poet, and rigorous, The characteristics of an intelligent scientist are perfectly integrated into this complex person. Byrd, the author of “The Biography of Oppenheimer”, described the complexity of Oppenheimer’s character: “He is very charming, but also very ambitious. He likes to express himself in front of power. However, psychologically, he has nothing to do with politics. The relationship between the family is very strange. He can be very patient, considerate and gentle to students and strangers he meets on the street. But to those in power who we think are pretentious, arrogant and rude, he can be very rude and disrespectful. Patience. This contradictory personality sometimes brings him trouble.”

  This complexity of character has probably been apparent since childhood. In 1904, Oppenheimer grew up in a German immigrant family that encouraged learning and focused on free thinking. When he was a child, he loved hiking and exploring, being in contact with nature, and accumulated good scientific literacy. He also read various books. In his youth, his interests became clearer and he began to read a large number of books on philosophy, literature, and social sciences. He once read three volumes of “Das Kapital” with curiosity. He also loved Hemingway’s novels and Freud. , Jungian psychology, and his extensive knowledge always amazes those around him.
  In 1922, Oppenheimer entered Harvard University to study chemistry. During this time, he gradually discovered that his interest was actually in the field of physics. After that, he went to the University of Cambridge in England to study for a master’s degree in physics, hoping to become an experimental physicist. However, the reality was that his experimental results were not outstanding and his tutor did not like him. Physicist Wolfgang Pauli, Oppenheimer’s collaborator on the paper, once pointed out that the young Oppenheimer was able to get to the heart of the problem in his papers, but his carelessness in details made people feel that Annoyed. This kind of character that is not good at hands-on but full of inspiration also implies that Oppenheimer’s best field in the future may be more unbridled theoretical research rather than the pursuit of precise and rigorous experimental physics.
  At that time, Oppenheimer did not find his direction. Perhaps due to his academic setbacks and frequent failures in love, Oppenheimer, who was introverted and sensitive, suffered from severe depression for a period of time. During the attack, he began to become hostile to the people around him, and even almost poisoned a troubled person to death. My own mentor. It wasn’t until 1925 that Oppenheimer gave up his laboratory work and transferred to Germany the following year to study with Max Born, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, and published several papers in succession. Only then did he gradually stay away from depression and embark on a career. found a path that suited him.
  After graduating with his doctorate in 1929, Oppenheimer returned to the United States from Europe and worked at the University of California, Berkeley. In the teaching position, he found the stage where he was good at again. His carefulness and high sensitivity allow him to take care of his students in every detail. Students are often struck by his imagination and new ideas in his classes, and some students praise him for putting physics into a human context to understand it. They affectionately called him “Obie” and many began to imitate his behavior.
  Later, Oppenheimer met the love of his life, Gene Tatlock. Tatlock is a female Communist Party member and also has good literary qualities. It was under her influence that Oppenheimer began to care more about the sufferings of ordinary people. Although he did not marry Tatlock in the end, he was still loyal to these friends who had social ideals in their hearts. It can be said that it was in his interactions with these friends that the character of Oppenheimer, an originally introverted scientist, began to become richer.
  So, did Oppenheimer, this naive and complicated scientist who was once close to politics and then abandoned by politics, really have no foreknowledge of his own destiny? it’s not true. As early as the day he chose to become the “Father of the Atomic Bomb,” Oppenheimer heard the rushing footsteps of fate. In the late 1940s, when he was reading the novel “Beasts of the Jungle”, he was deeply shocked by the sentences in it, because these words were a portrayal of his worried mentality: “Sooner or later he is destined to encounter some kind of rare and strange… Something that could be shocking.”

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