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TECHNOLOGY REVIEW /
From the Editor
Oppenheimer s Ghost
Can we control the evolution and uses of technology?
In a 1965 documentary, The Decision to Drop the Bomb,
J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been the scienti c
director of the American e ort to build an atomic bomb
during World War II, described his emotions on witness-
ing the rst nuclear detonation. He said, "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 multiarmed form and
says, Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. I
suppose we all thought that one way or another."
It is mesmerizing television. (You can watch the clip on
atomicarchive.com.) Oppenheimer---pale, penitent, emaci-
ated, and already elderly at 61---cannot face the camera. He
looks down as he speaks. His manner is not tentative---he
knows precisely which words he wishes to employ---but
painfully subdued. He blinks, he looks away, and at one
point he actually seems to wipe away a tear.
This legendary recollection, which today appears in
every account of July 16, 1945, may have been theater. His
brother Frank, who was at the Trinity test site that day,
remembered that Oppenheimer said simply, "It worked."
William Laurence, a New York Times reporter who inter-
viewed Oppenheimer a few hours after the explosion,
wrote in his 1959 history, Men and Atoms: The Discov-
ery, the Uses, and the Future of Atomic Energy, that he
would never forget the "shattering impact" of the quota-
tion. But Laurence s initial account, published in the Times
in September 1945, has no reference to the Bhagavad
Gita. The earliest version of the story occurs in a pro le of
Oppenheimer published by Time magazine in late 1948.
It doesn t matter. Whether Oppenheimer invented the
story of a sudden, vertiginous consciousness of mankind s
new destructive powers or imagined years later that he had
thought or said such a thing, the documentary shows a sin-
cerely su ering human being.
Oppenheimer has become a secular saint because he
opposed building an early version of the hydrogen bomb
when he was chair man of the U.S. Atomic Energy Com-
mission. That opposition led to his persecution by anti-
communists and a public hearing to investigate his loyalty,
after which his security clearance was permanently
revoked because of what were called his "defects" of char-
acter. Since his death, biographies have represented him
as a cultured leftist intellectual at odds with br utish right-
wing militarists. But the physicist s attitude to the nuclear
bomb---and to the capacity of technology to be used for
both moral and immoral ends---was more complicated.
In 1965, Oppenheimer told the New York Times Mag-
azine, "I never regretted, and do not regret now, hav-
ing done my part of the job." But he also said to Harry
Truman, "Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands."
In truth, he appears to have felt both emotions at once.
The nuclear bomb might never have been built without
Oppenheimer s energetic leadership, and he fought hard
to see it dropped on civilians at Nagasaki and Hiroshima;
but he also thought that its use was mass murder. He justi-
ed his role on the grounds that the bomb was necessary
to win the war and that it might be a deterrent to future
wars, ushering in Immanuel Kant s era of perpetual peace.
More interesting, Oppenheimer believed that technol-
ogy and science had their own imperatives, and that what-
ever could be discovered or done would be discovered
and done. "It is a profound and necessary truth," he told
a Canadian audience in 1962, "that the deep things in sci-
ence are not found because they are useful; they are found
because it was possible to nd them." Because he believed
that some country would build a nuclear bomb, he pre-
ferred that it be the United States, whose politics were
imperfect but preferable to those of Nazi Germany or the
Soviet Union. When he later opposed building a hydrogen
bomb, he was not being inconsistent, nor was he awaken-
ing to paci sm late in the day; he opposed an early, infea-
sible proposal, but he later recanted when the physicist
Edward Teller proposed a "technically sweet" design.
Oppenheimer was a fatalist about the evolution of tech-
nology and science, which goes some way to explaining
his attraction to the deeply fatalistic Gita. Consistent with
Vishnu s teaching to Prince Arjuna, Oppenheimer thought
it our duty to perfor m, as best we can, the jobs that our
historical moment allots us. (This aspect of his thinking
has been described by the historian James Hijaya in an
essay, "The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer.") He looked
to humanity s most progressive institutions to restrain the
malignant use of technology. Oppenheimer was asked to
build a nuclear bomb, and he hoped reason would dictate
that it be used twice, in a just war, and then never again.
Well, so far at least, his ghost must be less troubled
than the disturbed gure who appeared in that old docu-
mentary. But history lasts a very long time. Write to me at
email@example.com. Jason Pontin
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