Robert Oppenheimer’s Real Story As Seen In ‘To End All War: Oppenheimer & The Atomic Bomb’


I don’t think one needs godly powers to become a god. Instead, they need to get rid of the core weakness that makes them human, i.e., our conscience. The American physicist Julius Robert Oppenheimer used a verse from the “Bhagwat Gita” in an interview and said that after witnessing the first successful test of the A-bomb, he felt like he had become the destroyer of worlds. During the Mahabharata, Krishna, or the incarnation of Vishnu, who speaks the original shloka, refers to himself as “Time” before calling himself Death and Destroyer. Time erodes everything, be it humans, planets, or even an entire galaxy. But you see, the passing of time is inevitable. Everything ages, and everything dies. Time is the law of nature. But blasting an atom bomb wasn’t a natural process. It was a choice. A choice made by men.

Religious texts can often be misinterpreted, especially if they involve violence. Humans have often tried to put themselves on the same pedestal as God, but we still don’t know the first thing about God’s actions and the reasons behind them. We don’t even know the real truth behind the mythologies beyond the multitudes of interpretations. Maybe, Oppenheimer was unaware of the mass destruction his invention was capable of causing until he saw it with his own eyes. For this reason, he spent his days convincing the Government to denuclearize them. But the Genie had already left the bottle. Oppenheimer was a complex ball of contradictions and dilemmas, which is why Christopher Nolan repeatedly says in his interviews that a personality like Oppenheimer raises more questions than he has answers to.

After watching the documentary To End All War, we are certain of one fact. Oppenheimer was a man with a heavy conscience. He might have created the world’s deadliest weapon, but he never had the desire to take human life. At least, that is what he realized in the later stages. Oppenheimer was a man of poetry. We can understand his drive to invent things. He kept telling himself that the weapon was to end “the” war. It was created to end “all” wars. But was he too naive to see what humans are capable of? Maybe he knew and kept living a lie because he wanted to make a name for himself. A nobody who wanted to be recognized. If only Oppenheimer was more like our political leaders or like the fascist who took charge of Germany, maybe then he would have been able to bear the burden of his actions. But instead, he turned out to be a man who soon realized that he had blood on his hands and had to bear the burden of a guilty conscience forever.

Christopher Cassel’s documentary traces the important events of the great physicist’s controversial life and discusses the dilemmas that haunted him throughout. Anyone looking for a basic understanding of these events can stream the documentary before watching the film, and we believe it is indeed going to elevate the movie experience. So, without any further ado, let’s look at what happened in To End All War and what we can expect from Nolan’s film.

The Necessity To Create A Weapon Of Mass Destruction

Oppenheimer often said in his interviews that he not only wanted to create the most lethal weapon but also wanted it to be used so that the world would know what it was capable of. He believed that an atomic bomb would end all wars. That was a miscalculation. Oppenheimer might have been a genius physicist, but he was certainly unaware of human greed and its response to fear. The necessity for the weapon arose after Adolf Hitler took charge of Germany and started his blitzkrieg through Europe. Oppenheimer, being a Jew himself, could understand the urgency of the situation and the need to put an end to fascism at all costs.

As the war began in 1939, Oppenheimer was a professor at Berkeley who found out through one of his students that fission had been discovered. He quickly came to the conclusion that Fission could be used to generate pure energy that civilizations could use to power their modern technologies. But that was not the end of the possibilities. Fission can also be used to create a weapon of mass destruction. The discovery was made in Nazi Germany, which worried scientists and political leaders throughout the world. They believed that Hitler had already initiated his plan to build an atomic bomb, and the growing fear among the world leaders started the nuclear arms race. America had kept its distance from the European War for a long time, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they couldn’t resist any longer. The war had engulfed the entire world.

The Manhattan Project

In the summer of 1942, the American Army started a secret project to build its own atomic bomb before the Germans could. Leslie Richard Groves had been appointed to hire scientists who could accomplish the task. For General Groves, who didn’t understand the nitty-gritty of the scientific community, it was a huge task until he came across a man named Oppenheimer. As a person, he was quite charming and excellent at explaining things. His words probably made sense to Groves, which is why he entrusted Oppenheimer to build a team on his behalf.

The project needed a testing ground, and for security reasons, it had to be away from everything. Oppenheimer suggested the New Mexico desert, a place he had previously visited during his college break. As per the documentary, Oppenheimer wanted to combine the two loves of his life, i.e., New Mexico and physics, and that was the reason why he chose Los Alamos. The army soon established a base in the desert, where they started developing it until it could be tested here.

A Matter Of Choice

By the spring of 1945, the war with Nazi Germany had come to an end. Hitler had shot himself, and the Nazis were no longer a threat. Hitler had been planning to make a nuclear bomb, and the scientists in Los Alamos feared that they wouldn’t be able to use the bomb before the war ended. Oppenheimer wanted to use the bomb so as to make civilization realize what mass destruction it was capable of. He was of the idea that once they witnessed such doom with their own eyes, no one would ever dare to use it again. And thus, after the fall of the Nazis, Japan became the target.

Henry S. Truman became the next US President after President Roosevelt’s death. At that time, America was involved in a protracted war campaign against the Japanese Empire. Hundreds of young American soldiers landed on Japanese occupied territory to put up a fight against the fascists. Japan was already defeated, but they hadn’t surrendered. The war wouldn’t have ended until they had unconditionally surrendered and thus came the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer’s bomb became a means to end the ongoing war.

On July 15, 1945, The Manhattan Engineering District tested the bomb at a site called Trinity, which many believed was named after the poetry of John Donne. Oppenheimer used to read those poems in bed with his lover, Jean Tatlock, and perhaps it was his last tribute to her after her death. The atomic bomb was a success and was ready to be dropped on enemy lands. The country had multiple choices at this point. They could have dropped the bomb in Tokyo Bay or any other isolated location in Japan where it wouldn’t kill a lot of people and would only inflict fear on the Japanese Empire, forcing them to surrender. But this wasn’t an option anyone wanted to pick. Even Oppenheimer rejected the idea and wanted the world to see its real power. They wanted maximum impact, which is why they selected Hiroshima, which was a flat city where the effect of the bomb could be seen all the way out to the edges. On August 6, 1945, as humans, we finally accomplished the unimaginable. Hiroshima was ruined to the ground, with tens of thousands of people losing their lives and generations to come affected by its radiation. Perhaps they waited for Japan to surrender at this point, but when no such news came in for three long days, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Was it necessary?

The War Came To An End, But The Guilt Didn’t

As planned, Japan surrendered, thereby ending the Second World War. The media and the country hailed Oppenheimer as an American Hero whose invention brought about an end to war. Oppenheimer, who struggled with his identity during his early years, was no longer a nobody. He enjoyed the name and fame he had made for himself, but at what cost? He had witnessed the aftereffects of his own creation and could foresee what doom lay ahead. Oppenheimer felt responsible for the weapon of terror and understood the importance of controlling such technology, but who was listening?

The government wanted more and more bombs. They wanted bigger ones. They wanted to create a monopoly so that the entire world would be on its leash. As per the documentary, President Truman believed that the Russians would never be able to make such a bomb. Oppenheimer knew that the person sitting in front of him knew nothing about science, and he tried to share his guilt with the President but ended up offending him. That was the beginning of the end for Oppenheimer. As simple as it can be, whichever field you work in, you will be the government’s favorite as long as you align with their policies and goals. But the day you dare question them, you are an anti-nationalist. Oppenheimer had made an enemy. Someone who was willing to destroy his life in the most humiliating way

The Race For A Hydrogen Bomb

In 1949, the Soviets successfully tested the atomic bomb. The news shook the US to its core. It created an alarming situation for the political leaders, who eagerly wanted to create a more lethal bomb to lead the nuclear arms race. And the next step was the Hydrogen bomb, which was a hundred, maybe a thousand times deadlier than the atomic bomb.

Soon after the destruction of two Japanese cities, the guilty conscience hit Oppenheimer, who became a part of the International Disarmament Community to stop the creation and use of such deadly weapons. He requested his fellow scientist, Edward Teller, to stop his obsession with the Hydrogen bomb, but Teller wanted to create something bigger. Was it just curiosity or a competition with Oppenheimer? We don’t know. But we are certain that Teller’s obsession led to the creation of a genocidal weapon. Oppenheimer and his fellow committee members opposed the idea of a hydrogen bomb and decided to put a stop to Teller’s research, but their ideas didn’t align with those of the Air Force and especially the government. Perhaps President Truman wanted Oppenheimer out of the picture, but he had already become a hero. They couldn’t just kick him out. They had to tarnish his image so that the public didn’t see him as a hero anymore, and that’s where Lewis Strauss came in.

A Political Pariah

Oppenheimer and the members of the committee had delayed the research on the hydrogen bomb by 18 months. Evidently, he became a political threat in a country that was involved in a nuclear arms race against its arch-nemesis, the Reds. To deal with the crisis, the government brought in Lewis Strauss, who became the new head of the Atomic Energy Commission. As per the documentary, Strauss had been previously humiliated by Oppenheimer during one congressional hearing and thus started despising the father of the atomic bomb. As he took charge, Strauss dug up old files on Oppenheimer, all the way back to the 1930s, when he used to teach at the University of California, Berkeley.

Oppenheimer, being a simple young man, was deeply affected by the adverse effects of the Great Depression. He found out that many of his students didn’t have enough to eat and were living on cat food. Perhaps such misery made him drift politically to the left. Though Oppenheimer never joined the American Communist Party himself, his brother and wife were active members. Additionally, Oppenheimer met a young woman during those years. Her name was Jean Tatlock, and she was studying to become a psychiatrist. Oppenheimer fell in love with her; he even got engaged to her twice, but they never married. Apparently, Tatlock had horrors of her own. She was diagnosed with depression and was struggling with her sexual identity. However, the matter of fact here is: Oppenheimer was interested in communist ideas and donated a large sum of money to the party, which he might have done out of love. These activities were not criminal when the Soviet Union acted as an American ally during the Second World War. But as soon as the Cold War began, all communists or those associated with them became national threats.

Based on this evidence and his interference in the research of hydrogen bombs, the government decided to revoke Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Everyone around him suggested letting it go, but Oppenheimer decided to save his honor. During the hearing, or some may call it a trial, Oppenheimer was accused of having a conversation with an old friend named Haakon Chevalier. He had called Oppie during the research of the A-bomb and asked him if there was any way he could leak the information from the research to the Soviets, which Oppenheimer evidently denied. But he made one grave mistake. He didn’t inform the authorities about the conversation, which backfired later. During the hearing, the officials suspected they had many reasons to believe that Oppenheimer did indeed leak the information and helped the Soviets create their own nuclear weapon.

The last betrayal came from another friend, Edward Teller. He testified against Oppenheimer during the trial and expressed that the security of the country shouldn’t rest in the hands of someone like Oppenheimer. And that was it. The final blow. The members of the hearing stripped Oppenheimer of his security clearance, and the media didn’t waste a moment to call him a traitor and a Red sympathizer. A man who was once a hero. A man who had done all in his power to make his country a superpower didn’t deserve to be treated in this way. Oppenheimer went back to his teaching job at Princeton and never commented on the atomic policies again. He had faced such a blow that it had made him hollow from within. He was never the same again. In 1966, he was diagnosed with throat cancer caused by his chain smoking. He took his last breath at the age of 62. Oppenheimer never won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to the field of science. But everyone knew he deserved it more than anyone else.

In 2022, the Atomic Energy Commission re-examined the minutes of Oppenheimer’s security hearing and found them flawed. They dismissed the verdict that accused Oppenheimer of being a Soviet spy. It probably restores the status, love, and respect the American Hero deserves. But alas, he is no longer among us to cherish justice. Like all good things, it came too late. At some point, Nazi Germany mistreated the genius brains of its country, and many had to flee to different nations to protect their lives. Perhaps a similar thing happened with Oppenheimer and other scientists. Maybe they weren’t threatened with being killed by their government but were humiliated enough to leave the country or live the rest of their lives in eternal dilemma and shame.

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Shikhar Agrawal
Shikhar Agrawal
I am an Onstage Dramatist and a Screenwriter. I have been working in the Indian Film Industry for the past 12 years, writing dialogues for various films and television shows.

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