Reporting the underreported threat of nuclear weapons and efforts by those striving for a nuclear free world. A project of The Non-Profit International Press Syndicate Japan and its overseas partners in partnership with Soka Gakkai International in consultative status with ECOSOC since 2009.

INPS Japan
HomeLanguageEnglishThe destroyer of worlds

The destroyer of worlds


Relevance of Oppenheimer’s biography in the age of global wars and the climate crisis

by Sonia Awale

A lot has happened since American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin was first published in 2005. The book set off ripples after it won a Pulitzer, but created a tidal wave of interest after Christopher Nolan adapted it for his 2023 blockbuster movie Oppenheimer which is dominating this award season. JAPANESE

American Prometheus is a nuanced portrait of a scientist ‘whose brilliance was matched only by his internal conflicts’, and by retelling its protagonist’s life and times the book is a call for rationality in the nuclear age to contain the fearful threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and terror. 

The book took 25 years to research and write and is a sobering reminder that the doomsday clock is closer to midnight today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. It has been ticking ever since the world’s greatest scientific minds got together in Los Alamos in New Mexico in 1943 to build an atom bomb before the Germans did. 

Germany surrendered, but that did not stop hawks in the US military to use it to kill 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The Americans justified this by saying that a long-drawn assault on the Japanese mainland would have cost a lot more lives. And Oppenheimer himself felt that the first military use of atomic weapons should be so spectacular and destructive that its ferocity would deter future use. The book reminds us that he opposed the detonation of the second bomb over Nagasaki, and the development of the hydrogen bomb.

The fact that nuclear weapons have not been used in war for the past 80 years shows the reasoning could have some merit. But it has not stopped nuclear proliferation, and countries like Pakistan, India and North Korea now own atomic warheads as well. 

Read also: The nuclear weapons story is not over, Nepali Times

Speaking with Nepali Times ahead of his session at the Nepal Literature Festival in Pokhara on 17 February, Kai Bird emphasised that the nuclear story is not over, and it could still end very badly: Vladimir Putin’s threat to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, Israel’s strategic ambiguity, and Iran’s impending nuclear arsenal.

Closer to home, Nepal is surrounded by nuclear-armed countries which are not exactly friendly with each other. India has frequent border skirmishes with Pakistan and China, and Nepali soldiers serve in the Indian Army. 

Amitav Ghosh in his 1999 book Countdown following the Indian nuclear test wrote that even tactical use of nuclear weapons could result in fallout carried by prevailing winds to Himalaya glaciers that could turn Asia’s rivers radioactive and contaminate aquifers.  

If Middle East tensions escalate into a nuclear confrontation, it will endanger 2 million Nepalis who work there and most will have to return home for safety. Nepali students were killed by Hamas in Israel, and continue to die for Russia in Ukraine. 

The staunchest critic of nuclear weapons was the architect of the first atomic bomb himself. The book recounts how after the Japanese surrender, Oppenheimer met President Truman and said he felt he had “blood in his hands”. Truman told aides later he never again wanted to see that “son of a bitch … cry-baby scientist”.  

Oppenheimer used his newfound fame as a celebrity scientist to slow the nuclear arms race. ‘He tried valiantly to divert us from the bomb culture by containing the nuclear threat he helped to set loose,’ the authors write in Prometheus. 

Read also: What the movie Oppenheimer missed, Katsuhiro Asagiri

But at the height of the anti-Communist McCarthy purges in the 1950s, Oppenheimer was singled out for his peace initiatives in  hearings designed to silence and humiliate the scientist. 

“Oppenheimer became the chief celebrity victim of the McCarthyite witch-hunts. And today around the globe we seem to be experiencing similar xenophobia about immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities and workers disrupted by technology and globalisation,” Bird says in his interview (overleaf). 

The dense 700-page biography reads like a political thriller that starts with Oppenheimer’s precocious childhood. He is so fascinated by rocks and minerals that the New York Mineralogical Club invites him to deliver a lecture not knowing he is only a 12-year-old boy.

He is miserable at Harvard and Cambridge, his mental well-being is put to a test and he is diagnosed with schizophrenia. But he flourishes in Göttingen in Germany where he learns quantum physics. Back in America, his Berkeley department becomes the centre of fundamental research into atomic physics. He supports leftist causes but never joins the Communist Party. 

Today, there is a theoretical debate about which is worse: all out nuclear war, or climate breakdown.  One has more immediate and irreversible implications than the other, but the fact is that both are manmade threats and we have it in our power to remove them. 

Read : Ukraine’s lessons for sandwiched nations like Nepal, Bhaskar Koirala

Harnessing atomic energy was always a double edged sword. Besides the bomb, many energy planners are pushing for nuclear reactors to be climate-friendly. But atomic reactors have a problem with radioactive waste disposal, and the dangers of Chernobyl or  Fukushima type meltdowns. 

The future may be in fusion reactors, the same physics that drove the thermonuclear bomb that Oppenheimer so staunchly opposed. Fusion is cleaner energy with water as the only by-product. 

“It is becoming increasingly likely that the problem will not be resolved with renewable energy – which is growing too slowly to make a significant difference – or expensive technologies like carbon capture and sequestration and green hydrogen,” says Nouriel Roubini of New York University’s Stern School of Business. “Instead, we may see a fusion energy revolution, provided that a commercial reactor can be built in the next 15 years.”

Oppenheimer said that the only defense against nuclear terrorism was the elimination of nuclear weapons, and in the age of nuclear arms race he was also worried about mankind’s moral survival. His friend, a fellow theoretical physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi said, ‘You drop a bomb and it falls on the just and the unjust.’

In Japan, surviving hibakusha and their descendants continue to suffer genetic defects. In the South Pacific, Kazakhstan and other nuclear test sites, many still suffer devastating health consequences from fallout. The Los Alamos site itself led to inter-generational sickness from radioactive fallout for 15,000 Navajo people living downwind. They were not warned before the test, and they have been forgotten since. 

American Prometheus reminds us of the urgent need for nuclear arms control in a volatile world. Bird and Sherwin have narrated the moral dilemma and persecution of the inventor of a fearful weapon, coming generations will have to grapple with ways to keep prevent its use.

Read also: Year of reckoning, Editorial

American Prometheus NT
Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.

Most Popular