Nuclear weapons since Oppenheimer: Who’s in control?

By Lisbeth Gronlund | August 4, 2023

J. Robert Oppenheimer (as portrayed by actor Cillian Murphy) and Gen. Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) converse at the Los Alamos Laboratory in a scene from Christopher Nolan's film 'Oppenheimer'. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The theme of control—and the lack of it—appears throughout Christopher Nolan’s latest film Oppenheimer.

In an atomic weapon, the fission of a small number of atoms will lead to an uncontrolled chain reaction of more and more fissioning atoms. The pressure generated by these reactions will blow the weapon apart, ending the fission, releasing radiation, and creating extreme heat and pressure waves. Many scales of magnitude above the atomic level, the film shows Manhattan Project scientists working to avoid another kind of uncontrolled chain reaction: a US-Soviet nuclear arms race.

The film includes several scenes in which the scientists show concerns following their efforts to build the first atomic bomb. Many believed that the current—but surely short-lived—US monopoly put it in a unique position to prevent an arms race and control this new threat to humanity.

Among them, J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during the Manhattan Project, repeatedly argued that the only way to prevent an arms race with the Soviet Union was to brief the Soviets on the Manhattan Project before the weapons were used and propose a treaty prohibiting such weapons. In early July 1945, 70 Manhattan Project scientists working at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory signed Leo Szilard’s petition to President Harry Truman arguing that if the United States used these weapons on Japan it would “bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.”

While others were not so sanguine, Oppenheimer expected that he and other scientists who built the bomb would have a hand in future US policy. This belief also proved to be short-lived.

The scene in which the two bombs that would be detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki are boxed up and handed over to the military hammers home the point that the scientists were no longer in control of these weapons—literally and figuratively. (A year later, the weapons were put under civilian control, eliminating the military’s authority over the weapons.)

There is a remarkable scene in the Oval Office in October 1945, when Oppenheimer tells Truman that he has blood on his hands, after which the president looks at the scientist with disgust and tells him that he had nothing to do with the bombing. It was he, Truman as the president of the United States, who made the decision to use these weapons. In other words, Oppenheimer had only provided the weapon and had no responsibility for its use—nor control over how it might be used again.

Who really has been in control all these years? No one.

Policy makers—not just in the United States but in all nations with nuclear weapons—have abdicated their responsibilities to curb and eliminate the threat posed by their nuclear weapons. They have let the interests of their military and arms producers control the agenda—and the budget for these weapons. They have been swayed by the abstract goal of “deterrence,” which is a creature with a voracious appetite.

During the 2020 presidential election campaign, President Joe Biden pledged to adopt a “no first use” policy. It is shocking that the United States still considers using nuclear weapons first to be a viable option, even though it would likely spur a wider nuclear war. Sadly, it was not shocking that President Biden’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review did not include this promised policy change. Instead, the president gave in to the military, which does not like to foreclose options. But, of course, that’s exactly what he and his overseas counterparts need to do—foreclose options. Take control.


A Manhattan Project historian comments on ‘Oppenheimer’

Although Nolan’s film is not technically accurate throughout, the adjustments in 'Oppenheimer' are made for understandable artistic reasons, writes an historian of the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer’s vision for arms control is still upon us

Oppenheimer's vision for arms control was incompatible with those drawing power from the bomb. We are still there today, a nuclear policy expert argues.

‘Oppenheimer’ is terrific. But it’s just a movie

'Oppenheimer' might not have a lasting impact because the world-ending potential of nuclear weapons is now essentially taken for granted in public discussions, a Princeton physicist argues.

Thought-provoked by ‘Oppenheimer’

Christopher Nolan’s "Oppenheimer" authentically conveys the contradictions of the man, some I discovered in a small way, a physicist writes.

‘Oppenheimer’, the bomb, and arms control, then and now

The viewers of 'Oppenheimer' might walk out of theaters with a lot of blind spots, an arms control expert writes.

‘Oppenheimer’ depicts a man becoming powerful—and irrelevant

Oppenheimer did not have the temperament and skills to confront the US political and military leadership on critical decisions about nuclear weapons, a nuclear policy expert writes.

Nuclear weapons since Oppenheimer: Who’s in control?

After Oppenheimer, policy makers of nuclear-armed countries have let the interests of their military and arms producers control these weapons, an MIT physicist argues.

What ‘Oppenheimer’ can teach today’s scientists

'Oppenheimer' shows scientists cannot turn back to a world in which research is pure and unencumbered with its consequences. They need to take part in the public arena, a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine argues.

Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’: an artistic visual tapestry of the bomb’s science and power intricacies

A nuclear non-proliferation expert explains how Nolan's artistic portrayal of Oppenheimer effectively connects the science of nuclear fission with technology, war, and power.

Widening the field of view on ‘Oppenheimer’

A Princeton physicist argues viewers of Christopher Nolan's 'Oppenheimer' must broaden their field of view to understand the issues that J. Robert Oppenheimer confronted for the first time in human history.

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