“What is driving the US economic recovery?” a podcast host asked a guest economist recently: “Is it ticket sales for Barbie and Oppenheimer and for Beyoncé and Taylor Swift concerts?” “That’s not the whole story,” said the expert. But it’s part of it.
By now everyone in North America has seen the hype and read enthusiastic reviews of the two films. Recently a drive-in theater nearby – yes, there is still one in operation – announced a “Barbenheimer” five-hour double feature that you can view from the comfort of your car beginning at 9:30pm.
In Oppenheimer’s complex but probing exploration of world-changing events of the last century, its stunning visual presentation, and the depth of the actors’ portrayals of the creators of the atomic bomb, the film is a tour de force. Unpacking a critical episode in modern history, director Christopher Nolan stays close to his source, a highly regarded biography. Some of his trademarks in the sci-fi action films for which he is best known are present here, such as confusing jumps back and forth in time and dialogue nearly obscured by ominous music. But the eminent actors he brought together for the project form an extraordinary ensemble cast.
In his August 8 blog posting, Scott Hoezee invited Reformed Journal readers to ponder the burdens of learning the secrets of the atom. Is our curiosity, he asks, a virtue or a vice? Are there things we should not know, or even want to know? The film invites us to reflect on these perplexing questions.
Here I will focus not on broad questions such as these but on a brief scene in which the characters’ questions and their answers, taken in context, tell us something important about what it means to be moral. It is the scene where Oppenheimer challenges the denial of his security clearance in 1954. It was nine years after the bombs were dropped on Japan, two years after the first successful test of the “Super,” the hydrogen bomb.
What was the nuclear balance of power in 1954? All the A-bombs in the world were held by three nations: 2,000 by the US, 200 by the USSR, and a dozen by the UK. Western governments knew that Russian scientists were working feverishly on nuclear fusion, but no one knew how to make a weapon small enough for delivery to a target. The US achieved this in 1960, followed one year later by the USSR. At the time of Oppenheimer’s appeal hearing, the quest for a deployable H-bomb was a high priority for US presidents and generals.
Oppenheimer clearly and accurately shows the ambivalence of the A-bomb’s creator about his work. Quoting the Bhagavad-Gita, which he had studied in his youth in the original Sanscrit, he warned: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” But he also knew that German scientists were hell-bent on building their own A-bomb. Also evident in the film is the simmering conflict between Oppenheimer and his colleague Edward Teller, an indefatigable advocate of the far more powerful but far more technically challenging H-bomb.
In 1954, having learned that his security clearance was unlikely to be renewed, Oppenheimer asked the Atomic Energy Commission to hear his appeal. What was supposed to be a routine administrative inquiry became a wide-ranging attack on the integrity and credibility of America’s most famous scientist. AEC staff and academics appointed to the committee regarded Oppenheimer as a Communist sympathizer seeking to undermine American military hegemony. In evidence they cited his objections to development of the H-bomb. Nolan was able to consult a verbatim transcript when he recreated the hearing.
Why did Oppenheimer lend unswerving support to the atomic bomb project, the committee asks, but oppose the next stage of weapons development? Where did his “moral qualms” about Teller’s fusion bomb come from? When asked, Oppenheimer replies that he was afraid fission weapons research would be underfunded and neglected in favor of a new sort of weapon the military does not need.
The committee chair presses him further: “Dr. Oppenheimer, when did your moral convictions develop concerning the hydrogen bomb?”
Oppenheimer pauses, then says slowly, “When it became clear to me that we intend to use any weapon we have.”
It’s a quiet turning point in the narrative. Denying Oppenheimer’s appeal, the committee locks him out of military research projects. The committee’s questions are evidently intended to undermine the scientist’s integrity. We hear someone muttering about Oppenheimer playing the martyr again. Still, their questions demand answers.
The film has shown us already the complex stew of competing ideals and goals that shaped the Manhattan Project. Awareness of parallel German efforts motivated scientists and workers, along with fear of the consequences if the Germans won the race to build a bomb. Each time a technical roadblock was removed, the project gathered momentum—and moral scruples about the bomb’s destructive power faded into the background.
The first A-bomb test occurred too late for the European war, two months after the German surrender, yet still in the heat of the Pacific war. The decision to drop two A-bombs over Japan was made in secrecy and in great haste. Here the film oversimplifies the scientists’ and politicians’ reasoning. It may be true that the atomic bombs saved as many American soldiers’ lives when an invasion of the home islands was called off as they killed in the two Japanese cities that were destroyed. This is asserted in the film, reinforcing a belief held by most Americans. It is unquestionably true, however, that this trade-off was an egregious departure from long-standing rules of war that forbade direct attacks on civilians. This rule against indiscriminate attack held little weight, however, when civilian immunity had already been wholly disregarded by German, British, and American bomber fleets.
Few Americans know, and the film does not inform us, that Japan was already proposing terms of surrender before the first bomb—terms the US was not willing to accept—or that Russia’s declaration of war in the few days between the two atomic attacks might well have led to immediate and unconditional surrender even if Nagasaki had been spared. A film cannot convey, even in three hours, all the complexity of such a decision, but it was less straightforward than it appears here.
The US went on to build hundreds, then thousands, of fission warheads and deploy them on bombers, ships, and missiles. Russian and British military labs were several laps behind on the same track. When the innumerable technical challenges of the H-bomb were overcome and a device was successfully tested, the moral stakes were raised higher than ever. A weapon capable of destroying not just a small city but an entire region—a thousand times more powerful than an A-bomb—cannot be a legitimate weapon of war. Its function is psychological, threatening unimaginable destruction to deter aggression.
Would any nation devote enormous sums to building weapons it will not use? Oppenheimer came to the realization that the answer was no. The United States was intent on amassing an arsenal of weapons that it claimed it would never use, yet it was readying them for deployment. The blinders were removed from the eyes of the A-bomb’s principal architect.
The theory that made A-bombs possible was the work of German émigré Albert Einstein, who appears briefly in the film. In 1939 Einstein had urged President Roosevelt to launch a fission weapon research program because German scientists were pursuing the same goal. But in 1945 he opposed the use of the A-bomb in Japan, and he urged that nuclear research and existing weapons be placed under the control of an international body. In 1950, protesting against the H-bomb project, he wrote that “achieving security through national armament is, at the present state of military technique, a disastrous illusion.”  (These statements by Einstein, not directly part of Oppenheimer’s story, are not mentioned in the film.)
Many other scientists besides Oppenheimer and Einstein reached the same conclusion. Whatever the morality of the attacks on Japan, the dawning world of opposing arsenals of multi-megaton H-bombs posed unprecedented challenges. What the AEC committee deplored as wavering and hypocrisy was instead a difficult but essential engagement with issues the world had never imagined it would face.
“When did your moral convictions develop?” It’s a question we need to ask ourselves frequently. Oppenheimer’s interrogators tried to discredit him because he had changed his mind. Morality is morality, they assumed: if we were right to build the first generation of nuclear bombs it’s hypocritical to draw the line at the next.
But thinking and acting morally is not a matter of discerning unchanging principles and applying them in all circumstances. It is an evolving process of testing and reconsidering our principles as we apply them, a recursive deliberation in response to the outcome of our actions and the challenges offered by others who disagree. Fifty years ago most Americans thought racially tinged jokes, sexist remarks in offices, and disparaging comments about mental illness were harmless fun among friends. We have learned better. Twenty years ago we dismissed bullying—on the playground or in the corporate office—as a minor but harmless annoyance. We know better now. During and long after World War II, LGBTQ Americans were ineligible for military service and subject to dishonorable discharge if they slipped into the ranks. In June, 2023, the US Army news service featured the ways in which gay, lesbian and trans soldiers celebrated Pride Month. Not every institution in American life is as open and accepting as the Army, it’s true, but there has been progress.
The mark of an ethical individual is not unswerving application of unchanging principles but readiness to admit blind spots and to sharpen one’s moral vision. That is what Oppenheimer describes, very tersely, in his response to the committee. Earlier he regarded the H-bomb as a necessary support for American interests that would never be used; now he understands that if built they will be used; so he has withdrawn his support. That’s not hypocrisy, it’s moral growth.
We can be thankful that, by God’s grace, the “Super” has never been detonated in war. But as Oppenheimer foresaw it has been used, over and over again, as a means of intimidation. We can sanitize its use with the familiar term deterrence, or we can name it for what it is: bullying, on the most egregious global scale. The United States threatened to deploy nuclear weapons against Russian forward bases in Cuba, and against Chinese overland movements in Vietnam, and in who knows how many other situations still hidden away in classified military and diplomatic files.
Nolan’s film conveys a vivid sense of the moral and technological challenges of the Manhattan Project. We see gifted scientists and loyal citizens struggling to apply the morality of war in circumstances where its demands are uncertain – and when all the combatants in a still-raging war have tossed them aside. If it oversimplifies the issues at times, it is also a compelling reminder of the fateful choices we have made and the future we face if we continue on our present path.
Einstein captured the challenges of the day eloquently in a 1947 essay in The Atlantic, where he wrote:
We have emerged from a war in which we had to accept the degradingly low ethical standards of the enemy. But instead of feeling liberated from his standards, and set free to restore the sanctity of human life and the safety of noncombatants, we are in effect making the low standards of the enemy in the last war our own for the present. Thus we are starting toward another war degraded by our own choice.
There is an echo here of the warning that the prophet Jeremiah sounded against rebellious Israel:
Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’ But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts.’ (Jeremiah 18:11-12, NIV)
Perhaps the words that the prophet attributes to the people of Jerusalem are a more candid rendering of our own nations’ response to the specter of nuclear destruction that has loomed over us since 1945.
 Catch it if you can at one of the thirty theaters around the globe – in just eleven states, four provinces, and three other countries – showing the 70mm IMAX film release. But try not to sit, as I did, in row 2.
 Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005)
 “What the Scientists are Saying About the H-Bomb,” https://thebulletin.org/premium/2020-12/1950-what-the-scientists-are-saying-about-the-h-bomb/
Albert Einstein, “Atomic War or Peace,” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1947/11/atomic-war-or-peace/305443/