The Oppenheimer paradox: Scientists vs. the military-industrial complex
Left: The bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Center: Scientist Robert J. Oppenheimer. Right: The bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. | Public Domain

The new blockbuster film Oppenheimer has brought back the memories of the first nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. It has raised complex questions on the nature of the society that permitted such bombs to be developed, used them, and stockpiled arsenals that can destroy the world many times over.

Did the infamous McCarthy era and hunting for Reds everywhere have any relationship with the pathology of a society that suppressed its guilt over the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, substituting it instead with a belief in its exceptionalism?

What explains the transformation of Robert Oppenheimer, who had emerged as the “hero” of the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb, to a villain and then to a forgotten figure of history?

I remember my first encounter with American guilt over the two atom bombs dropped on Japan. I was attending a conference on distributed computer controls in Monterey, Calif., in 1985, and our hosts were the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories.

This was the weapons laboratory that had developed the hydrogen bomb. During dinner, the wife of one of the nuclear scientists asked the Japanese professor at the table if the Japanese understood why the Americans had to drop the bomb on Japan.

She asked whether they understood that it saved the lives of a million American soldiers? And those of many more Japanese?

What was her purpose? Was she looking for absolution for the guilt that all Americans carried? Or was she seeking confirmation that what she had been told and believed was the truth? That this belief was shared even by the victims of the bomb?

This article is not about the Oppenheimer film; I am only using it as a peg to talk about why the atomic bomb represented multiple ruptures in society.

Not just at the level of war, where this new weapon changed the parameters completely. But also the way in which the bomb sparked the recognition in society that science was no longer the concern of the scientists alone but of all of us.

For scientists, it was also the moment when there could no longer be any doubt about whether what they did in laboratories had real-world consequences, including the possible destruction of humanity itself. It also brought home that this was a new era, the era of big science that needed mega bucks.

Strangely enough, two of the foremost names of scientists at the core of the anti-nuclear bomb movement after the war also had a major role in initiating the Manhattan Project.

Leo Szilard, a Hungarian scientist who had become a refugee in England first and then in the U.S., sought Albert Einstein’s help in petitioning President Franklin Roosevelt for the U.S. to build the bomb. He was afraid that if Nazi Germany built it first, Hitler would conquer the world. Szilard joined the Manhattan Project, though he was located not in Los Alamos but in the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratories. Szilard campaigned within the Manhattan Project for a demonstration of the bomb before its use in Japan.

Einstein also tried to reach Roosevelt with his appeal against the use of the bomb. But before he could do so, Roosevelt died, to be replaced by Vice President Harry Truman. Truman thought that the bomb would give the U.S. a nuclear monopoly and therefore help subjugate the Soviet Union in the post-war period.

Turning to the Manhattan Project. It is the scale of the project that was staggering, even by today’s standards. At its peak, it employed 125,000 people directly, and if we include the many other industries that either directly or indirectly produced parts or equipment for the bomb, the number would be close to half a million.

The costs were huge as well, $2 billion in 1945 (around $30-50 billion today). The scientists involved were an elite group that included Hans Bethe, Enrico Fermi, Nils Bohr, James Franck, Oppenheimer, Edward Teller (the villain of the story later), Richard Feynman, Harold Urey, Klaus Fuchs (who shared atomic secrets with the Soviets), and many more glittering names. More than two dozen Nobel Prize winners were associated with the Manhattan Project in various capacities.

But science was only a small part of the project. The Manhattan Project wanted to build two kinds of bombs: one using uranium-235 isotope and the other plutonium.

How do we separate fissile material, U-235, from U-238? How do we concentrate plutonium using gaseous diffusion? How to do both at an industrial scale? How do we set up the chain reaction to create fission, bringing sub-critical fissile material together to create a critical mass?

All these required metallurgists, chemists, engineers, explosive experts, and the fabrication of completely new plants and equipment spread over hundreds of sites. All of it had to be done at record speed. This was a science “experiment” being done, not at a laboratory scale, but on an industrial scale. That explains the huge budget and the size of the human power involved.

The total devastation left behind in Hiroshima. | Public Domain

The U.S. government convinced its citizens that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and three days after that of Nagasaki, led to the surrender of Japan. Based on archival and other evidence, it is clear that more than the nuclear bombs, the Soviet Union declaring war against Japan was what led to its surrender.

They have also shown that the number of “one million American lives saved” due to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as they avoided an invasion of Japan, had no basis. It was a number created entirely for propaganda purposes.

While the U.S. people were given these figures as serious calculations, what were completely censored were the actual pictures of the victims of the two bombs.

The only picture available of the Hiroshima bombing—the mushroom cloud—was the one taken by the gunner of Enola Gay. Even when a few photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were released months after the nuclear bombings, they were only of shattered buildings, none of the actual human beings.

The U.S., basking in the glow of its victory, did not want the good times to be marred by the visuals of the horror of its nuclear bomb. The U.S. dismissed people dying of a mysterious disease, what the U.S. knew was radiation sickness, as propaganda by the Japanese. To quote General Leslie Groves, who led the Manhattan Project, these were “Tokyo Tales.”

It took seven years for the human toll to be visible, and only after the U.S. ceased its occupation of Japan. Even this was only a few pictures, as Japan was still cooperating with the U.S. in hushing up the horror of the nuclear bomb.

The explosion was so powerful that some people were vaporized instantly, leaving only permanent shadows behind.

The full visual account of what happened in Hiroshima had to wait until the 1960s: The pictures of people vaporized leaving only an image on the stone on which they were sitting, survivors with skin hanging from their bodies, people dying of radiation sickness.

The other part of the nuclear bomb was the role of the scientists. They became the heroes who had shortened the war and saved one million U.S. lives.

In this myth-making, the nuclear bomb was converted from a major industrial-scale effort to a secret formula discovered by a few physicists which gave the U.S. enormous power in the post-war era.

This was what made Oppenheimer a hero for the U.S. people. He symbolized the scientific community and its god-like powers. It’s also what made him a target for people like Teller, who later on combined with others to bring Oppenheimer down.

But if Oppenheimer was a hero just a few years prior, how did they succeed in pulling him down?

It is difficult for some international observers to imagine that the U.S. had a strong left movement before the Second World War. Apart from the presence of the Communists in the workers’ movements, the world of the intelligentsia—literature, cinema, academics, and scientists—was also characterized by a strong Communist presence.

The idea that science and technology can be planned, as J.D. Bernal was arguing in Britain, and should be used for the public good was what many left-wing scientists had embraced. That is why physicists, at that time at the forefront of the cutting edge in sciences—relativity, quantum mechanics—were also at the forefront of the social and political debates within the scientific community and discussion about the role of science among the broader population.

It is in the world of science that a critical worldview collided with the emerging new world of the mid-1940s where the U.S. state was pushing itself as “the exceptional nation” and the sole global hegemon.

Any weakening of this hegemony could only happen because some people, traitors to this nation, gave away “our” national secrets. Any development anywhere else could be only a result of theft, and nothing else. So the story went.

The campaign to cast suspicion on scientists was also helped by the widespread belief that the atomic bomb was the product of simply a few equations that scientists had discovered and could therefore be easily leaked to enemies.

This was the genesis of the McCarthy era, a war on the U.S. artistic, academic, and scientific communities. It was a groundless search for spies under every bed. The military-industrial complex was being born in the U.S. and soon took over the scientific establishment. Any voices critical of that development had to be silenced.

It was the military and the energy—nuclear energy—budgets that would henceforth determine the fate of scientists and their grants.

Oppenheimer needed to be punished as an example to others. The scientists should not set themselves up against the gods of the military-industrial complex and their vision of world domination. Oppenheimer’s fall from grace served another purpose, though. It was a lesson to the scientific community that if it crossed the security state, no one was too big to take down.

Even though Rosenbergs—Julius and Ethel—were executed, they were relatively minor figures. Julius had not leaked any crucial atomic secrets; he’d only kept the Soviet Union abreast of general developments. Ethel, though a Communist, had nothing to do with any spying.

The only person who did leak atomic “secrets” was Klaus Fuchs, a member of the Communist Party of Germany who escaped the Nazis by fleeing to Britain, worked in the bomb project there first and then as part of the Manhattan Project with a British team based in the U.S. He made important contributions to the nuclear bomb-triggering mechanism and shared these with the Soviet Union.

Fuchs’ contribution probably shortened the Soviets’ bomb development efforts, at best, by a year. It was not as if the USSR would not have made the breakthrough within a short time anyway. As a whole host of nations have shown, once everyone knows a fissile bomb is possible, it is easy for scientists and technologists to duplicate it. It’s been done by countries as small as North Korea.

Oppenheimer’s greatest tragedy was not that he was victimized in the McCarthy era and lost his security clearance. Einstein never had a security clearance, so that need not have been a major calamity for him either. It was the public humiliation during the hearings when he challenged the withdrawal of his security clearance that broke him. The physicists, the golden boys of the atomic era, had finally been shown their true place in the emerging world of the military-industrial complex.

Einstein, Szilard, Rotblatt, and others had foreseen this world. They, unlike Oppenheimer, took to the path of building a movement against the nuclear bomb.

The scientists, having built the bomb, had to now act as conscience-keepers of the world, against a bomb capable of destroying all humanity. That bomb still hangs as a Damocles sword over all our heads.

This article is republished from


Prabir Purkayastha
Prabir Purkayastha

Prabir Purkayastha is an engineer and a science activist. He is President of Free Software Movement of India and Editor, Newsclick.