The biographical drama “Oppenheimer” traces the story of one of history’s most famous scientists J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is often called the father of the atomic bomb. The movie draws its inspiration from the nonfiction book “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, which examines Oppenheimer’s life, career, and inescapable legacy. Before you head out for one half of 2023’s most unlikely double feature, here’s what to know about the real man behind the story.
Who Was J. Robert Oppenheimer?
Julius Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist, active primarily in the 1930s and 1940s, who specialized in quantum mechanics and nuclear physics. He studied at Harvard, Cambridge, and the University of Göttingen, where he honed his scientific work in the 1920s. Early work included publishing with his mentor, Max Born, on what came to be called the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, a mathematical separation between nuclear motion and electronic motion in molecules that is, today, one of the cornerstones of molecular dynamics.
Oppenheimer’s Political Views
Though initially politically disconnected, Oppenheimer became intrigued by communism in the 1930s, after watching the start of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe. According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Oppenheimer’s political leanings made him “likely sympathetic to the communist goals” but not a full-fledged member of the party. He associated with many political progressives and communists, including his early love, Jean Tatlock, a left-leaning writer, and later psychiatrist. His brother, Frank, as well as his friend Haakon Chevalier and his eventual wife Kitty Oppenheimer, were also members of the party or associated with it.
Oppenheimer’s politics later led him to be tracked and questioned repeatedly by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, particularly during the “Red Scare” of the post-war era, and even have his security clearance revoked at one point over paranoia that he was secretly a Soviet asset.
Who Was Oppenheimer’s Wife?
Oppenheimer’s personal life, as the film shows, was somewhat messy. After a three-year, sometimes volatile relationship with Tatlock, Oppenheimer began dating Kitty Puening, and they married in 1940. After his marriage, however, Oppenheimer and Tatlock rekindled their affair. They continued to see each other, on and off, until Tatlock’s death by suicide in 1944, which reportedly shook Oppenheimer deeply.
In his later, post-atomic-bomb life, Oppenheimer continued his scientific work through a variety of institutes, projects, and panels, although that work was disrupted by political controversies. He did, at his security clearance hearing, share information and names about other left-leaning colleagues. Throughout the 1950s, Oppenheimer went more public about his concerns over the dangers of unchecked inventions.
In 1965, Oppenheimer was diagnosed with throat cancer after decades of being a chain smoker, and died in 1967.
What Was the Manhattan Project?
Oppenheimer is certainly best known in history for his pivotal role in the Manhattan Project, the top-secret World War II-era government project that ultimately developed the nuclear bomb. Fearing that Nazi Germany might figure out how to harness nuclear fission to build a terrible and dangerous weapon, the American government assembled a team of its own to try to win the arms race once and for all.
The center of the project was Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, where Oppenheimer was named director. A team of top scientists – both Americans and allies – worked to develop the theory and technology necessary to create a nuclear bomb.
The Trinity Test
On July 16, 1945, the “Trinity test” took place (so named by Oppenheimer, reportedly as an allusion to the work of poet John Donne, whose work Tatlock had introduced him to). It was a success, resulting in the world’s first nuclear explosion in the desert of New Mexico.
The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan
Only a few weeks later, the nuclear bomb was used for the only two times in human history. On Aug. 6, 1945, the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and days later, on Aug. 9, the second was dropped on Nagasaki. While the bombings ultimately contributed to World War II ending weeks later, it wasn’t without devastating, and long-lasting ramifications.
Hundreds of thousands of people (mostly Japanese civilians) died as a result of the bombings, and countless more suffered long-term health effects from exposure to radiation in the years and decades that followed. Additionally, following the end of World War II, nuclear weapons became the center of the Cold War, with both sides developing new ways to increase destructive capabilities over the tense decades.
What Did Oppenheimer Think of the Atomic Bomb?
Oppenheimer famously described feelings of immense regret and sadness over the ultimate “success” of the Manhattan Project.
He admitted to feeling some combination of awe and grief when the Trinity Test succeeded, proud that the theories work but also recognizing just what they had created. Years later, for a 1965 NBC documentary about the project, Oppenheimer recalled what was going through his head at the time.
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a 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.”
It is that quote, with its tragedy and regret, that came to define Oppenheimer’s feelings about his creation. According to the Smithsonian, he even angered President Truman during a 1945 meeting by telling him, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”