Ahead of the release of Christopher Nolan's long-awaited Oppenheimer (and Lin Manuel-Miranda's even more anticipated Hip Hoppenheimer) this week there has been a renewed interest in its central character, the real-life J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer was the theoretical physicist often referred to as the "father of the atomic bomb" for his work as director of the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. The project was a success, and on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer and others involved in the project watched as the first nuclear explosion took place.
Two atomic bombs were later dropped on Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of citizens and ending World War II. Others on the project justified their part in this way.
“The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II. There can be no doubt of that," Lieutenant General Leslie R Groves, former director of the Manhattan Project set to be portrayed by Matt Damon in the movie, said years later. "While they brought death and destruction on a horrifying scale, they averted even greater losses – American, English, and Japanese.”
Oppenheimer, with more responsibility than most on the project, was aware of the weight of that decision. In a famous interview for a documentary titled "The Decision to Drop the Bomb", he said that as he watched the explosion he was reminded of a passage from the Bhagavadgita.
"We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent," Oppenheimer said. "I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavadgita. 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.' I suppose we all thought that one way or another."
Oppenheimer apparently felt a tremendous amount of guilt about the creation of nuclear weapons following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, telling President Truman "I feel I have blood on my hands".
"If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima," he said in 1945. "The people of this world must unite or they will perish. This war that has ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand."
He went on to oppose the US Government's plan to expand its nuclear arsenal with more powerful hydrogen bombs, just a few years after the war. But it was too late. The genie, as they say, was out of the bottle.