Three Things from Oppenheimer that Are Happening Again

March 6, 2024 | 11:44 am
Los Alamos National Lab
Jennifer Knox
Policy & Research Analyst

Read more of UCS’s critical analysis of Oppenheimer and the global security issues it examines here.

Oppenheimer documents humanity’s transition into the nuclear age through the eyes of Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb.” While it is a faithful rendition of a critical chapter of nuclear history, what is most striking about the film is how that history is repeating itself. 

1. The United States is once again preparing to run a nuclear arms race, this time against two adversaries at once. Just like last time, everyone will lose.

While Oppenheimer himself failed to fully anticipate the consequences of his invention, not all his fellow scientists were sleepwalking into the future. In Nolan’s film, one quiet but charged scene depicts an encounter between Oppenheimer and fellow physicist Leo Szilard. Szilard circulated a petition urging President Truman not to use nuclear weapons against a human population; though 70 Manhattan project scientists ultimately signed this petition, Oppenheimer declined.  

Tragically, the petition never reached President Truman. But its text reveals an eerie and clear-eyed warning about the decades to come. Scientists knew that the first nuclear weapons represented only the early stages of a destructive power with “almost no limit,” and they argued that setting the precedent of their use would mean “opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.” They knew that the US technological lead would be temporary, urging that all US resources be devoted to creating a system of international control over nuclear weapons. 

But in the years following the end of the war, early diplomatic efforts to restrain nuclear proliferation collapsed over suspicions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Another opportunity for international control came in 1949, when the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon, breaking the US monopoly over nuclear weapons 15 years earlier than policymakers predicted. Instead of re-engaging diplomatically, the United States decided to pour its efforts into building a hydrogen bomb, seeking to maintain an advantage over its rival.

To many scientists, even in 1945, it was obvious that any technical or quantitative advantage in a country’s nuclear forces would only be temporary. But US leaders slipped into the circular logic of an arms race, chasing the illusion of superiority. Over the decades of the Cold War, the US spent over 5 trillion dollars expanding and refining its nuclear arsenal. At its peak, that arsenal included over 30,000 nuclear warheads. The result of these enormous expenditures was not “security,” but a rival—the Soviet Union—that had built the same absurd doomsday machine bristling with 40,000 more nuclear weapons. 

Since the early ’90s, the world enjoyed a brief reprieve from arms racing, and global nuclear stockpiles have been reduced by 90%. But for the first time since the Cold War ended, those numbers are starting to rise, and some political forces in the United States are using fears about China to justify a major expansion of the US nuclear arsenal. If they succeed, the result will be the exact same destructive cycle of arms racing, except this time the United States would be trying to outpace both Russia and China at once.  

A key lesson of the Cold War is that no one wins an arms race, and the United States has even less hope of prevailing against two adversaries at the same time. But it remains to be seen if diplomacy, foresight, and restraint will be able to overcome the instinctive fears that drove such destructive policies in Oppenheimer’s time.

2. US defense spending is at a record high, and there is no will in Congress to prevent waste and corruption. 

No film could fully capture the scale of the Manhattan project, one of the largest scientific and industrial efforts in modern history. The project, cloaked in the highest possible secrecy over three years, involved dozens of universities, hundreds of project sites, and over half a million workers.

But while the risks and the consequences of the Manhattan project were unique, this level of industrial mobilization had become a normal part of war in the 19th century. Wartime utterly transformed the economic, political, and social fabric of the nation state, harnessing every possible resource to fuel the war effort.

In prior wars, peace meant a return to normal. The war machine, having fulfilled its purpose, was dismantled. But this didn’t happen after World War II. Instead, the private defense industry became a permanent part of the US economy, and baseline defense spending never returned to peacetime levels. In 1961, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower named the entanglement of defense and private industry the military-industrial complex, warning that its outsized influence over the government was a threat to peace and democracy.

The conditions that so alarmed Eisenhower persist today. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the most expensive wars in US history. But now, after both wars ended, the defense budget has not gone down – in fact, it has risen to record-high levels. As the defense budget approaches a trillion dollars a year, there is no meaningful oversight of how those funds are spent. The Pentagon has never passed an audit—and it never will, so long as Congress refuses to demand any meaningful accountability.

Oppenheimer naively hoped that the invention of nuclear weapons would make the cost of war too high to bear, resulting in a permanent peace. Instead, the constant threat of mass destruction has made true peace impossible, and we pay the costs every day. We live in a perpetual twilight, always under the shadow of rapid extinction, our society impoverished and distorted by the designs of war.  

3. Facing existential risks to all people and the planet, scientists are organizing to fight for a better world.

The final act of Nolan’s Oppenheimer covers the 1954 show trial over Oppenheimer’s security clearance that ended his political career. After the war, Oppenheimer used his status as a celebrity scientist to warn the public about the dangers of the nuclear age and advocate for international controls of nuclear weapons. He was particularly opposed to the development of the hydrogen bomb, a weapon that could be thousands of times more destructive than the ones used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer’s political opponents used his former left-wing associations to destroy his reputation, ending his influence over US nuclear policy.  

But others refused to be silenced. Former Manhattan project scientists and other experts created organizations that worked to prevent nuclear war. Some, like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and the Federation of American Scientists, still carry on that mission to this day. In the Cold War atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia, scientists played a critical role in educating the public, pressuring policymakers, and developing solutions to emerging technical problems.  

When Christopher Nolan accepted the award for Best Director at the BAFTA Film awards in London, he acknowledged the “individuals and organizations who have fought long and hard to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world. Since its peak in 1967, they’ve done it by almost 90%” Even though global nuclear arsenals are once again threatening to expand, those accomplishments “show the necessity and potential of efforts for peace.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists is proud to be a part of that history and community. And we are even prouder to continue pressing forward. In the Global Security Program, we are working to simultaneously stem the budding arms race through our Securing Tomorrow campaign and seek justice for those who were impacted by the US governments relentless pursuit of the bomb, from the days of Oppenheimer through the Cold War through our True Human Security campaign. Scientists in our Science Network lend their voices and expertise every day to lessening the threat from nuclear weapons and righting the wrongs perpetrated in their pursuit. Our members take up the mantle of scientists before them to fight for a better world.   

Oppenheimer concludes with a chilling question: will humanity survive the forces unleashed at Los Alamos in the early morning of July 16, 1945? Seven decades later, there’s still no definitive answer. We have avoided a catastrophic nuclear war by the hard work of millions of people and a decent dose of luck. True security won’t be possible until we eliminate nuclear weapons. But we know the path towards a world without nuclear weapons, and we’re ready to do the work.