Print Friendly and PDF
only search

The United States's nuclear fix

About the author
Lisa Lynch is an assistant professor of English and media studies at the Catholic University of America. She teaches courses on the rhetoric of disaster in the mass media.

On the first Saturday of May and October, the biannual open-house days of the Trinity Site National Historic Landmark, thousands of people travel to the New Mexico desert in order to visit the site of the word's first atomic explosion. When they get there, they discover that there's not much to see. A scrubby patch of sand and weeds encircled by a chain-link fence, the Trinity Site is distinguished mainly by a stone obelisk and a few shards of the vaporised detonation tower.

In order to spruce things up for the visitors, the army trucks in a full-scale replica of the plutonium bomb tested at Trinity; it also hangs a series of grainy black-and-white photographs of the resulting mushroom cloud on the fence that separates Trinity from the rest of the White Sands Missile Base. Mostly, though, families just line up to get their picture taken next to the obelisk, pointing to a placard that reads TRINITY SITE: WHERE THE WORLD FIRST NUCLEAR DEVICE EXPLODED ON JULY 16, 1945.

To say that the Trinity Site is visually underwhelming is not to dismiss its impact, but rather to point out the contradiction between its featurelessness and its power. The skin-prickling aura of Trinity seems, more than sixty years after the fact, to have at least as strong a half-life as the low level of radiation that remains at the site, crackling into legibility when an occasional Geiger counter is swept across the ground. Perhaps, though, it is best to speak of Trinity's auras.

To some visitors, the obelisk stands in for a moment of national pride, and the end-point of a period of collaborative scientific genius. Others, however, come to Trinity to mourn – or protest – the beginning of the atomic era and the arms race. When Los Alamos director J Robert Oppenheimer named his test site after the "three person'd God" in Donne’s "Sonnet XIV", he might have foreseen that the place would come to embody a locus of conflicting meanings.

Man and myth

Recently, Americans have had ample opportunity to reconsider the meanings of Trinity, Los Alamos and the figure of Oppenheimer, the man known as "the father of the atomic bomb". Since mid-2004 (the centennial year of Oppenheimer's birth), a half-dozen major biographies of Oppenheimer have been published: Jennet Conant's 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos (Simon & Schuster); Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf); Priscilla J McMillan's The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Birth of the Modern Arms Race (Viking); Jeremy Bernstein's Oppenheimer: Portrait of An Enigma (Ivan R Dee) ; David Cassidy's J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century (Pi Press); and Abraham Pais's J. Robert Oppenheimer, A Life (Oxford University Press).

In October 2005, Oppenheimer's role in the Trinity Test was the centerpiece of an ambitious production of the San Francisco Opera, John Adams and Peter Sellars’s Doctor Atomic. Prompted by the books and opera, lengthy articles about Oppenheimer appeared in the second half of the year in major newspapers and in periodicals such as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

Inarguably, all of this scholarly and artistic examination of Oppenheimer has shed new light on a complicated man and on the development of the atomic bomb. At the same time, however, the coincident arrival of all of these mediations on Oppenheimer does alter the way atomic history is told. Given that the world is currently engaged in a series of atomic standoffs whose dimensions are still unmapped, it is important to consider how shifting the way in which we think about the atomic past might have bearing on the way we narrate the nuclear present.

Past and present

Taking on Oppenheimer is no easy task. In his review of four of the Oppenheimer biographies in the New York Review of Books, Thomas Powers notes that prior biographers often "came to loathe [Oppenheimer] and dropped out of the project". Sherwin, in fact, sat on his notes for American Prometheus for about fifteen years, finally calling in a co-author (Kai Bird) to help him finish what eventually became a 700-page opus.

As the title suggests, the biographers also relied on a classical allusion to frame their narrative. The analogy works quite literally: Oppenheimer, like Prometheus, is eventually punished for bringing fire down from the heavens. But Bird & Sherwin also find the scientist to be Promethean in temperament, suggesting his phenomenal abilities are matched by a self-importance that enables both his success and his destruction.

Altogether, American Prometheus was a quarter-century in the making, begun in a moment when the cold war was firmly entrenched in and when the Soviet threat loomed far larger than the threat of terrorists armed with "weapons of mass destruction". Yet the authors suggest that Oppenheimer's life story is timely reading. For one thing, they write: "it is worth recalling that at the dawn of the nuclear age, the father of the atomic bomb warned us that it was a weapon of indiscriminate terror that instantly had made America more vulnerable to wanton attack." At the time, Bird & Sherwin note, Oppenheimer was adamant that the only way to prevent such attacks was to eliminate the existing atomic arsenal.

Two other biographies about Oppenheimer, Priscilla J McMillan's The Ruin of J Robert Oppenheimer and David Cassidy's J Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century, also suggest that the Oppenheimer story is particularly resonant today. Both books focus on the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) hearings in 1954, when Oppenheimer lost his security clearance amid allegations that he was a communist and possible spy.

In her reckoning of this piece of history, McMillan argues convincingly that while McCarthyism was the tool used to bring Oppenheimer down, the impetus for the AEC hearings was not fear of his associations with the Communist Party; instead, Oppenheimer was removed because he was seen as an obstacle to building up the nuclear arsenal, and especially to developing the hydrogen bomb. Like Bird & Sherwin, McMillan and Cassidy recast Oppenheimer as a mythic figure, this time a Cassandra whose fate is an unfortunate cautionary tale for contemporary scientists who take on politically charged issues. As McMillan writes, "there are stories like [Oppenheimer's] today."

These three biographies — scholarly works by serious historians — succeed, for the most part, in the difficult task of using the narrative of Oppenheimer's life as a means to illuminate history. However, the balance between history and biography plays out a bit differently in Jenent Conant's 109 East Palace, a bestselling account of Oppenheimer's time at Los Alamos. In order to cover new ground, Conant — also the author of Tuxedo Park — focuses on details of everyday life. We learn, for example, that the Sears Roebuck catalogue was a treasured commodity, and that General Groves, military commander of the base, was frustrated that the scientists kept getting their wives in the family way and exacerbating the housing shortage. We also learn that Oppenheimer charmed his secretaries, especially his chief administrative assistant Dorothy McKibben, whose affectionate memoir was an important source for Conant's book.

109 East Palace, for all of its attraction, illustrates the danger of too much focus on Oppenheimer's quirky genius: the anecdotes infuse the story with a nostalgic tone that sometimes reduces history to the personal. Viewing the progress of the Los Alamos "gadget" through McKibben's loyal and sometimes maternal gaze, the reader is placed in the position of wishing that the Trinity test will work for Oppenheimer's sake alone. And when the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Conant focuses more on the ways in which the act shatters the innocence of Oppenheimer and the other Los Alamos scientists than on the effects of the bombings themselves.

Like others who have seen Los Alamos as a sort of scientific utopia, Conant runs headfirst into the Los Alamos paradox: she wants to celebrate the creation of the bomb without endorsing the bomb itself. Her solution is to finally urge the reader towards sympathy for a group of brilliant and well-intentioned men — Oppenheimer chief among them — who did not quite realize the implications of what they were doing.

A contested history

Conant's turn towards the personal and away from the larger facts of atomic history has a precedent that illustrates far more clearly the risk of such an approach. In 1993, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum announced plans to exhibit the newly refurbished bomber Enola Gay as the centrepiece of an exhibition that questioned the decision to bomb Japan. The US Air Force Association's vehement objections to this exhibit spurred a debate over both the correct historical interpretation of the bombing of Japan and the role of a national museum in representing such history.

After a bitter ten-month fight, Smithsonian officials eventually capitulated to Congressional pressure, fired museum director Martin Harwitt, cancelled their original exhibit, and created a new "neutral" presentation for the Enola Gay that focused in large part on the thoughts and feelings of the pilots of the Enola Gay on the day of their mission. Asking us to celebrate the heroism of the pilots, the revised exhibit short-circuited critical evaluation of the actual bombing.

In some ways, Oppenheimer is the Enola Gay of the sixtieth anniversary of the atomic age. Given a fresh coat of paint by his biographers, he is being used as the centerpiece of a fresh approach to early atomic history. The question is whether this newly refurbished Oppenheimer will lead us towards nostalgia or towards a critical application of that history towards the present moment. As long as we grasp hold of the "right" Oppenheimer from the tangle of paradoxes that these biographies attempt to untangle, we might learn from him how one might engage in a public conversation about how to manage our nuclear future.

The American exception

This week, there is an anniversary that might help us to reflect on Oppenheimer's attempt to get such a conversation going. On 24 January 1946, the United Nations general assembly held its inaugural meeting: its first resolution was to create a commission to bring about "the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction" For a brief period of time, as the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission first took shape, there was hope that a cooperative agreement between the United States, the Soviet Union, and other nations might play a substantial role in shaping a world that had been left shaken by the bombing of Hiroshima.

Oppenheimer, as shaken as anyone, lobbied to play a central role in mitigating what he saw as an impending crisis. As Bird & Sherwin explain in American Prometheus, the physicist was largely responsible for drafting a report for the UN commission — the Acheson-Lilienthal report — that promoted scientific transparency and cooperative disarmament. The report, which Bird & Sherwin describe as "a singular model for rationality in the nuclear age", also reflected a keen awareness that that the budding conflict with the Soviet Union could best be defused by pledging to rid the US of atomic weapons as a means of stopping the Soviet weapons programme.

Also in openDemocracy on nuclear weapons and global politics:

Achilles Skordas, "A right to use nuclear weapons? "
(February 2003)

Patricia Lewis, "The NPT review conference" (June 2005)

Paul Rogers, "By any means necessary: the United States and Japan" (August 2005)

Brian Cathcart, "Britain and the atomic bomb" (August 2005)

Brian Cathcart, "Joseph Rotblat’s humanity" (September 2005)

Paul Rogers, "The United States, nuclear weapons, and Iran"
(January 2006)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Over the following months, Oppenheimer, Acheson and Lilienthal watched as their visionary report was revised by Bernard Baruch, the statesman appointed by Truman as US representative to the commission: in the end, the document retained the sense of moral urgency that Oppenheimer had brought to the table, but it was equally infused with a sense of American's unique privilege as the sole atomic power.

In June 1946, the Baruch plan, announced in a speech to the UN general assembly, featured a clause allowing the US to maintain an atomic arsenal for the purposes of enforcing the disarmament process. Predictably, the Soviets said no: the commission remained, in essence, deadlocked until it was disbanded in 1953. Its successor organisation within the UN system, the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), was born in 1957 with a remit of concerns in three areas: nuclear verification and security, safety and technology transfer.

In 2006, the IAEA is preparing for a special meeting on 2 February to discuss the resumption by Iran of research into the enrichment of uranium at its Natanz plant, and the wider question of whether Iran's self-declared civil-nuclear research programme is also the outward face of a strategy to acquire nuclear weapons in the short-to-medium term. It is possible that one result of the IAEA consultations will be referral of Iran to the United Nations Security Council.

The increasingly bitter dispute involving Iran makes it painfully clear how much and how little progress has been made since that moment in January 1946 when the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission was formed. Sixty years of treaties and agencies later, the legacy of the Baruch plan still directs how the United States envisions nuclear governance: reserving the right to expand its own arsenal while attempting to keep nuclear weapons in the hands of its allies instead of its enemies.

These days, American atomic exceptionalism is reaffirmed by an administration that uses cold-war language to talk about the "war on terror", ascribing "endless ambitions of imperial domination" to the adversaries of US policy in the middle east. It is further reaffirmed when we tell heroic stories about Los Alamos, or when visitors to the Trinity site fail to make the connection between the desert crater they have come to admire and the "weapons of mass destruction" they have come to dread.

To me, the greatest tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer's life was not that he was publicly disgraced, but that no one heeded his warnings about of the dangers of such atomic exceptionalism. If they had, we might have inherited a far different world from him and his team at Los Alamos. Most certainly, we would be telling a far different version of atomic history.

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.