May “Oppenheimer” Stimulate Conversation About the Issues He Was Desperate to Speak About

May “Oppenheimer” Stimulate Conversation About the Issues He Was Desperate to Speak About

May Oppenheimer Stimulate Conversation About the Issues He Was Desperate to Speak About

What it means to be a patriot, a scientist, and a heretic.


After the first-ever test of a nuclear bomb, Gen. Thomas Farrell characterized the explosion’s light as “that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately.” Seventy-eight years later, one of Hollywood’s most prominent directors has sought to capture not just that moment but also the weight of its consequences.

Oppenheimer—Christopher Nolan’s upcoming movie about the man who led that test—seems to be the rare biographical drama with the power to become a major blockbuster. (Full disclosure: I’ve already purchased my ticket and published my double-feature itinerary.) Its source text is Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, American Prometheus—and Bird has said he hopes the adaptation will “stimulate a national, even global conversation about the issues that Oppenheimer was desperate to speak out about—about how to live in the atomic age, how to live with the bomb and about McCarthyism—what it means to be a patriot, and what is the role for a scientist in a society drenched with technology and science, to speak out about public issues.”

More than just entertain, this film could shape public discourse and even policy decisions. And well it should. Because, in his final years, J. Robert Oppenheimer started that conversation himself.

From an early age, Oppenheimer was taught not to take democracy for granted. As Bird and Sherwin detail, he was the son of an immigrant, and educated at the elite Ethical Culture School, which emphasized progressive values and public service. He was also a scientific prodigy. No wonder this heady mix of brilliance and activism led him to become the original Berkeley hippie. While teaching physics there in the 1930s, he was an early and outspoken opponent of fascism. This patriotic dissent marked Oppenheimer’s burgeoning sense of civic responsibility—even as he would go on to lead the development of humanity’s most destructive creation. In fact, that guiding sense of patriotism and anti-fascism—bolstered by a fear that Nazi Germany would develop the capacity for mass destruction first—has been well-documented as a crucial motivation for his participation in the Manhattan Project.

After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer’s patriotism took another turn. He came to feel deep ambivalence about the nuclear weapon he had helped create, fearing the escalating arms race would permanently sever all international cooperation. For that reason, he opposed America’s expanding imperialism, as well as the development of the exponentially more powerful hydrogen bomb.

This conscientious objection would be Oppenheimer’s last. At the height of the Red Scare, proponents of the H-bomb launched a smear campaign against him, alleging that he was an agent of the Soviet Union. Despite no concrete evidence of Communist Party membership, his security clearance was revoked. And while this decision was posthumously reversed last year by the Biden administration, he spent the rest of his life feeling as disgraced as the titular Greek hero of Bird and Sherwin’s biography, having sacrificed his reputation to issue a dire warning for humanity.

With the release of Oppenheimer, the lessons of American Prometheus could now reach a new, younger, more mainstream audience—at a time when such lessons remain as relevant as ever.

Today, the United States has hardly warmed to scientists speaking the truth. Last year, a West Virginia man was sent to federal prison for threatening to beat and set fire to Dr. Anthony Fauci over his leadership on Covid-19 vaccination. Meanwhile, Republicans continue to censor scientists and attack their allies, as demonstrated by the House GOP’s recent kangaroo interrogation of John Kerry on climate change. The ostensible reasons for discrediting scientists may have changed since the Un-American Activities Committee, but the basic strategies remain the same.

To combat the ongoing reactionary campaign against science, it will take robust institutions like the World Academy of Art and Science—which Oppenheimer cofounded with opponents of nuclear proliferation like Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell. Today, in spite of some struggles to maintain funding, WAAS’s mission has expanded beyond nuclear disarmament, to encompass our current moment of hastening climate change and mutating artificial intelligence.

That shift in mission speaks to the fact that the unintended consequences of ambition could once again be threatening our species’ very existence. Sure enough, during the publicity campaign for this film, Nolan himself has said that AI is facing its “Oppenheimer moment.” The technology’s developers can choose either caution or acceleration. That’s why the Oppies of today, the voices urging vigilance, have become so invaluable.

There’s reason to believe that a film like Oppenheimer could persuade both the general public and influential policy-makers to adopt that cautiousness. Research has found that movies can be effective in changing people’s perspectives; the unassuming TV movie The Day After played a role in persuading Ronald Reagan to sign a nuclear arms treaty with the USSR.

So here’s hoping that audiences will view Oppenheimer as a portrait of not just a man but also a nation. Because Nolan—with the help of Bird and Sherwin—has presented an opportunity for Americans to reflect on the values that could avert the most devastating consequences of human ambition: supporting science, heeding scientists, and engaging, always, in patriotic dissent.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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