What Oppenheimer can teach the new generations about nuclear weapons

By Magritte Gordaneer | July 31, 2023

Younger generations should build upon Oppenheimer's warnings that growing nuclear arsenals cannot achieve global peace, Magritte Gordaneer argues. (Image design by François Diaz-Maurin)

In the summer of 1945 nuclear weapons were first used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Eight days following the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chief scientist over the atomic bomb’s development at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, sent a letter to the secretary of war doubting the possibility of peace through continued development of nuclear arsenals. In 1953, Oppenheimer would further warn about the potential for this new weapon to provoke an arms race fueled by profiteering, the instability of the myth of “nuclear peace,” and the constant overwhelming risk these weapons pose to the existence of civilization.

Today, 70 years later, Oppenheimer’s post-war concerns appear amply justified. And those of us who have only ever known the atomic age Oppenheimer ushered in have had enough of this risk.

Eight years after the first nuclear test, in a July 1953 article in Foreign Affairsreprinted the same month in the Bulletin—Oppenheimer warned about the escalatory nature of nuclear weapons in the evolving post-war arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. He made clear that security could not be achieved through a rapidly expanding arsenal of these weapons, and that every person should be deeply aware of the consequences and gravity of a technologically advancing and increasing nuclear capacity. He further cautioned against the hostility, secretiveness, and suspicion that surround the development of nuclear weapons and increase the likelihood of conflict between countries that possess nuclear weapons.

As nuclear arsenals have increased in capacity and size since 1945 and spread to eight more countries, our world has not become more secure. Unlike those who created the atomic bomb may have hoped, a war now rages in Europe involving a nuclear-armed aggressor threatening to use these weapons of mass destruction. Today, the Doomsday Clock sits at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. The warning from Oppenheimer that growing nuclear arsenals cannot achieve global peace has become our reality and our responsibility.

American Prometheus—the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppenheimer written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin on which Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer is based—reveals numerous instances in which Oppenheimer questions the security of nuclear weapons. In a panel discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations in 1953, he warned against nuclear war while sowing doubts about the United States’ resilience to a nuclear conflict at any point in the future. Oppenheimer often used the analogy of a “scorpion stalemate” to describe the dynamic of US and Soviet nuclear weapons—where either can kill each other, but not without risking their own life.

Nuclear deterrence is the existential threat, not the nuclear ban treaty

Our world will never be prepared to handle a nuclear war. Between the massive immediate humanitarian consequences of a nuclear attack and the prospect of global food insecurity and famine from nuclear war, future generations cannot continue being burdened with the constant threat from weapons they did not create.

In a report to the State Department’s disarmament panel, MacGeorge Bundy and Oppenheimer made clear that nuclear weapons deeply threatened civilization, and the proliferation of these weapons in just a few years had left many individuals with the ability to promptly end the world as we know it. Bundy and Oppenheimer further warned that if peace could be seen through a “strange stability” of nuclear non-use, it would likely be fragile and require those possessing nuclear weapons to consistently, without wavering, act without any recklessness.

Today, with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia—the country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal—nuclear weapons have not prevented war from breaking again in Europe. As Oppenheimer warned in 1953, the hope that nuclear weapons would end war once and for all comes at the expense of an inevitable risk that each nuclear-armed country’s leader is taking every day in possessing these weapons. It’s a risk the publics must no longer accept.

Oppenheimer also criticized the scientific community’s reliance on the military—a connection that Eisenhower would later describe as the “military-industrial complex”—further contributing to the revocation of his security clearance, without which the physicist could no longer advise the US government on weapons issues.

By keeping nuclear weapons, governments and their industrial associates continue to transfer unnecessary risk onto future generations. In 2022 alone, the nine nuclear weapons-possessing countries spent over $80 billion on maintaining and modernizing their nuclear weapon arsenals. This spending could rather be used for projects addressing the climate crisis. with obvious benefits to future generations, instead of maintaining a Sword of Damocles over their very existence.

Oppenheimer envisioned the tactical use of nuclear weapons. Putin now threatens it

Although Oppenheimer never truly criticized nuclear weapons with the explicit goal of disarmament, the concerns he raised 70 years ago still remain important indicators of how much we have failed during all these years to achieve nuclear peace.

Populations, including younger generations, are largely against the possession of nuclear weapons and favor banning them through the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (also known as the ban treaty), even in NATO countries such as Spain, Italy, and Belgium. A 2020 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross found that 84 percent of millennials think using a nuclear weapon in war or armed conflict is “never acceptable.” A so-called “nuclear peace” does not provide a sense security for younger generations. As this same study further shows, most young people today believe a nuclear attack is imminent within the next decade.

Young people, nuclear test survivors, and Hibakusha—the survivors of the atomic bombings on Japan—recently wrote a joint letter calling on the film director Christopher Nolan to include an epilogue in Oppenheimer recognizing survivors and the ban treaty.

Future generations will already have to deal with the existential threat of climate change, so they should no longer carry the cost and risk of nuclear weapons. Only complete disarmament could finally put an end to nuclear risk. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is the most effective way to achieve this objective, and a growing number of young people see the critical importance of their country joining it now—before nuclear weapons are used again, whether by accident, miscalculation, or madness.

While J. Robert Oppenheimer remains a controversial figure—whose decisions and actions should not be taken out of their own historical context—younger generations should build upon his warnings and concerns about the weapons of mass destruction he helped create to address the contemporary issues they pose.

The true challenge—and responsibility—that Oppenheimer bequeathed to future generations may be for them to put the genie back in the bottle, for good.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments