Letter To The Editor: Thoughts On The Oppenheimer Movie

Los Alamos

I just saw Oppenheimer with a Los Alamos lab crowd, and I’m immensely glad this film is out and witnessed by so many. It was a part of our national history that I think almost everyone in my generation knew of, but that many young people today don’t know much about… and as citizens we need to know this story. It becomes clear to me when I talk to young scientists how forgotten it is: sometimes in conversation with people with Ivy League educations, PhDs, when they learn I’m from Los Alamos, I in turn discover they have never heard of Los Alamos before, and don’t have a clue what it is/was. The movie is a powerful telling of this crucial part of who we are, who we have become. We need this understanding.

Obama articulated a vision to work towards a world without nuclear weapons, but since Trump it is not even a topic of discussion politically anymore. When the INF treaty ended and we withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal under Trump, there was a spurt of news at the time that ended in barely a political ripple. Nuclear disarmament is not an issue that ever makes it to lists of what voters are concerned about, this as we are continuing to expand and update our arsenal. The New START treaty was continued, but offers the earth, us, too little. We do not seem to have the will to ask for more.

Oppenheimer’s story is filled with pathos, a life burdened by deepest sorrow imaginable tangled with brilliance. The question of how to live a moral life when confronted with options he faced is soul breaking. This is also true for Hans Bethe, who continued in the H bomb projects because he felt it would give him a voice in treaty and arms negotiations. It did. For example I think he helped negotiate the INF, but at what price? And despite his efforts to curb it, the nuclear arms race ran right past him. 

Oppenheimer’s pre-war physics laid the foundation for understanding the death of stars and black holes, as was brought out in the film, but to me Bethe’s work was even more astonishing, foundational work for the realization that _all_ larger atoms, the very stuff of us, was born in the nuclear reactions of stars. “We are star dust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon, and we’ve got to find our way back to the garden…” Bethe got the Nobel for that work. I’ve stumbled through those old papers with awe, understanding what I could manage, for the joy of it.

My dad had met Oppenheimer, they had one conversation and my Dad witnessed his sorrow. I’m not sure of the year but it was after Oppy was blacklisted. But earlier, their paths had crossed in a very different way. After 3 years of fighting in the living hell of the Philippines in the Pacific Theater, on Aug. 6th, 1945, my dad was headed on a ship to take part in the land invasion of Japan. He was sure his death awaited him. Instead, Hiroshima. Then Nagasaki. Then Dad came home.

I had one brief and very sweet encounter with Hans Bethe 30 years ago; we met hiking the Camp May trail, he was very old, on his own, leaning heavily on his walking stick, some miles in. An ancient sage. He was delighted by baby Max, my son, who was riding in my back pack: old-man-and-baby flirtations ensued, Hans with twinkling eyes. The bit of irony there was we were walking with my friend Kazu, a Japanese physicist, who knew him; my friend had gone to school in Hiroshima, and had a deeply personal understanding of the costs. Still, he knew and honored the man Hans Bethe. 

But also, I’ve walked the halls where Bethe and Oppy walked, their paths through the woods. Bethe had led T-division, the division which was my scientific home of 30 years. In 2021 I received the Los Alamos Medal, our highest scientific award at LANL, and to me the medal is charged with the knowledge it was first created to honor Bethe in 2001. For me it is electric with sorrow, but also with a fierce pride in that connection.

I’ve sat with a picture of Hans Bethe in my study for 20 years now, alongside the pictures of my family… It was a beautiful gift from a LANL photographer who had taken the portrait, when I saw it laying on his desk one day long ago he gave it to me. This is because from all I’ve read, I deeply admired him. Hans, like Oppy, lived a life where the question of how to live a good and just life was complicated by choices where treacherous monsters lurked on whatever path they took. Hans was a German Jew who had fled the Nazis; he carried the weight of experience into the Manhattan Project.

Hans wrote this plea in 1995, when he was 88:

“I am one of the few remaining such senior persons alive. Looking back at the half century since that time, I feel the most intense relief that these weapons have not been used since World War II, mixed with the horror that tens of thousands of such weapons have been built since that time one hundred times more than any of us at Los Alamos could ever have imagined. 

“Today we are rightly in an era of disarmament and dismantlement of nuclear weapons. But in some countries nuclear weapons development still continues. Whether and when the various Nations of the world can agree to stop this is uncertain. But individual scientists can still influence this process by withholding their skills. Accordingly, I call on all scientists in all countries to cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving, and manufacturing further nuclear weapons; and, for that matter, other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons.”

Some little things I would have changed in the movie if I could have:

It was my understanding that the scene with the apple is not established fact, I was glad to read just now that Oppenheimer’s grandson objected to its inclusion for that reason.

I wish they had not used Georgia O’Keefe’s Pedernal as a stand-in backdrop for Los Alamos. Apparently, God gave Pedernal to Georgia once she had painted it enough … or so she said. Pedernal also belongs to the memory of the people who lived along the Rio Chama under its shadow for the 10,000 years before Georgia set foot there. Los Alamos is just as beautiful in its own way, and the place itself has a has a part in this story, and the landscape owns a part of this story. The finger mesas reaching out from the Jemez Mountains into the Rio Grande Valley. It was Los Alamos that Oppy loved and chose. 

The movie got us so close to the story of the Downwinders, the people exposed to the radiation from the Trinity test — you could almost hear them stirring beyond the horizon the morning of the test. The movie captures the extreme political pressure to test quickly, and the storm and the winds the day of the test; they had a break in weather, and the denotation went forward. But they didn’t give us even a sentence to remember the downwinders by, or articulate the concerns the movie had begun to reveal.

Oppy’s daughter and brother Frank were also both blacklisted. I don’t think the movie could have easily captured that, but there was such a high cost to his family, it bears reflection. The communist charges against Oppenheimer were used against his daughter 15 years later by the FBI, and she lost her translator’s job at the UN. She ultimately committed suicide.


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