William Borden In ‘Oppenheimer,’ Explained: Did He Propose The Idea Of Nuclear Missiles?


William L. Borden, who had once been an integral part of the JCAE (also known as the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy), knew about the inexorable march of technological advancement and how, in the years to come, every nation would be making use of atomic weaponry for their defense. The man had always been at loggerheads with Robert Oppenheimer for various reasons. The two men had their own set of experiences because of which they abided by certain ideologies, and they were both quite strong-headed and uncompromising in their approach. William Borden was an intelligent man, and his strength was that he could articulate his thoughts and feelings in a manner that could stir something inside the person reading them. Contrary to Oppenheimer, he didn’t struggle with any kind of dilemma or internal conflict. He knew what he had seen, and he was absolutely sure about what he wanted to do.

A graduate of the prestigious Yale University, Borden joined the Air Force and tried his level best to help his nation in whatever capacity he could. Borden took part in many missions during his stint as a pilot and during one such mission, something happened that changed his life completely. He was coming back after dropping supplies in the Netherlands when he saw a German V-2 rocket speeding and moving through space, and the mere sight made him quiver in fear. The rocket was moving with such great velocity that he felt like his aircraft was not even moving. It was a terrifying sight for a young man, and it had an impact on his perceptions and pretty much molded the way his life was going to be. It was probably the first time he had witnessed a long-range ballistic missile in his life, and his heart skipped a beat thinking about the kind of devastation it was going to cause. Borden knew that the day was not far when the German forces or any other enemy of the United States of America would launch a transoceanic attack.

Whenever Borden thought about the V-2 rocket, he realized how drastically his country’s war strategies needed to be altered. He went on to write a book that was published in 1946, and he mentioned in detail what, according to him, needed to be done and what kind of preparations needed to be made in preparation for a war that he believed was imminent. He wanted his nation to make scientific progress and make some daring maneuvers and that too quickly as he believed that they didn’t have a lot of time before an enemy state would stand on their heads with a nuclear weapon. He wrote that the government needed to understand that having a fully equipped nuclear arsenal should be its top priority. He knew that a time would come when the United States of America would lose the monopoly it had on nuclear weaponry, and other nations like the Soviet Union would soon join the race. He wanted the American government to take full advantage of this monopoly, and according to him, the government was not using it to its full potential.

Borden knew that it was about time to tell nations, especially the Soviet Union, that if they didn’t put a stop to their treacherous activities then the united states of america was not going to show any mercy and make them face the consequences of their actions. Borden didn’t want their government to show any kind of mercy and in fact, asked the president to directly warn Stalin and ask him to give in. Borden was scared about the future of his nation, and he believed that they didn’t have a lot of time before things changed for the worse. So basically, what we want to establish here is that Borden was engulfed in hatred and anger, and he wanted his country to go all out, even if it meant being called tyrannical. Hence, it was obvious that he was going to see the man who was talking about disarmament, as an enemy of the state. On November 7, 1953, Borden wrote a letter in which he stated that Robert Oppenheimer was a Soviet spy and that he had leaked a lot of information to the Soviets when he was in charge of the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer was under the radar of the intelligence agencies as it is, primarily because he was surrounded by communists on all sides and sent money, via the communist parties in Europe, for the cause of the Spanish refugees. Though Borden’s letter was weak in evidence, it created a stir and added fuel to the fire. Also, one more thing that caused conflict between Oppenheimer and Borden was that the former was vociferously against the creation of hydrogen bombs. Borden didn’t understand this radical change of heart that the great physicist had after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, and after that, there was no stopping Borden because he could see his fears taking the form of reality. In the year 1950, Harry Trueman gave the order for the creation of the hydrogen bomb, but there were quite a lot of roadblocks that needed to be cleared before it became a reality.

Apart from the technical issues, there were a whole bunch of scientists who were totally against it. Where Oppenheimer still believed that it was time to call for international cooperation in promulgating the concept of disarmament, Lewis Strauss, McMahon, Edward Teller, and William Borden were among those who believed that Oppenheimer was delusional and way too idealistic to think it was possible. In Christopher Nolan’s film, we saw that William Borden was given access to the file that the FBI had maintained on Oppenheimer because Lewis Strauss wanted to revoke his security clearances. It might have seemed that it was under the influence of Lewis Strauss that Borden wrote that letter trying to incriminate Oppenheimer, but the reality was that William Borden was already suspicious of him, mainly because of his sudden change of perspective and his involvement in the communist movement.

The evidence that was provided by William Borden in his letter was never conclusive. The presiding officers never found any information that could corroborate what he was claiming, and Oppenheimer was given a clean chit. Borden might have been portrayed as the antagonist in Nolan’s film, but he believed that what he was doing was for the benefit of his nation. Whatever people thought of him, one thing that cannot be denied was that he had an immense amount of clarity about what he wanted and what he deemed fit for the nation. 

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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