Two of my favorite actors on the 1940s and 1950s Cold War stage are Harry S. Truman (no middle name just an initial that suited both grandfathers Shipp and Solomon) and Julius Robert Oppenheimer. They are poles apart on the physical, philosophical, educational, and political scales and each has his own significant following of vehement detractors and name callers. What is not appreciated is that they set the opposing goal posts between which the truth lies.
Harry Truman, a small, wiry man with a high school education and a quick wit replete with a ready smile, ascended the presidency with the unexpected death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was a man of few words, an attribute I like in a politician. When he spoke, though, his words were memorable. Like him or hate him, he took his office and its responsibility seriously. Truman took office on April 12, 1945 and was ‘read-in’ (allowed to know about a classified project) on the Atomic Bomb project in New Mexico thirteen days later. He responded that “If it explodes, as I think it will, I’ll certainly have a hammer on those boys” as he called the Russians. The Russians, of course, knew about the Atomic Bomb well before the former Vice-President became aware. When Truman let the bomb nugget drop at Potsdam in July 1945, Stalin was armed to play the Russian bear showing zero reaction. The football was in play and Russia would soon have its own atomic weapon. The race already started before Truman knew the gates were open.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, a tall, attractive, introspective theoretical physicist educated at Harvard University, Georg-August University of Göttingen, and University of Cambridge (to name a few) headed the Manhattan project. His intellect drove him forward in pursuit of the atomic bomb; his philosophical underpinnings added the misgivings. According to his brother, Frank, Oppenheimer exclaimed “It worked” as the Trinity shot at Alamagordo, New Mexico changed the world in July, 1945. During an interview for the documentary, The Decision to Drop the Bomb (1965), Oppenheimer expressed the fruits of his introspection. “We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. 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.”
Harry Truman has been accused of being a war criminal because he used the weapon that he viewed as a tool. J. Robert Oppenheimer was accused of being a communist and drummed out of the federal system to his great sorrow. The hounding of Oppenheimer was evil and reached across generations. Eventually, Oppenheimer was cleared of the charges and his country tried to make amends. Following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, he received the Enrico Fermi Award in 1963. Even Edward Teller, a fellow brilliant theoretical physicist and most bitter rival who sided with the government bigots against Oppenheimer, tried to make amends. In spite of the recognition of his innocence, years later the pall had not lifted. Oppenheimer’s daughter, Katherine, committed suicide after being denied a security clearance as a translator at the United Nations because her father’s accusers could not let the past go. It is the way of the three letter agencies, although not all within them, to destroy and destroy again.
The truth about nuclear weapons lies between Truman and Oppenheimer. To employ an old saw, nuclear weapons are neither fish nor fowl. They are neither tools nor mythical gods of annihilation. Nuclear weapons are dreadful, horrifying, appalling weapons. Anyone with any doubts should read Charles Pellegrino’s Last Train to Hiroshima, which describes a two day period following the August bombing s of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The weapons used as a tool ended one war and began another to see who could out do horror. The weapons have not yet been the destroyer of worlds. That, I think, will be left to the contemporary generation of weaponized nanotechnologies, chemical, and biological weapons. In fact, nuclear weapons are pretty belt and suspenders stuff compared to other contemporary categories. We humans seem to be very slow learners when it comes to the development of the ethics and philosophy needed to manage technology.
The danger is out there. You can see it clearly as the tensions ramp-up between North Korea, the United States and China. Nuclear and other weapons will be used again sometime, somewhere, unless we get lucky. The knowledge has permeated new geographic areas bulging with agile, brilliant minds filled with optimism that they will make the difference through the appropriate use of destruction and force. Meanwhile back in the United States few are left who could develop the systems to counter such an attack. It is knowledge base that is being lost in the mists of time and deaths of the old ones. It will reach critical mass once all who remember the horrors chemical, biological and nuclear weapons wrought are gone and young bucks take the reins free of the burden of experience.