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[MINI-DOC] Beyond the Bomb: The Tragic True Story of Oppenheimer

Refugee scientists gave America the bomb…then America turned on science. But why?



Before there was a bomb, there was an idea. An idea that something like it could be possible, and if it were made, it could end...not just world war two, but all war…forever. It was a belief held deeply by most of the people who made that bomb a reality, but it was doomed to be a dream denied, as the government they made it for, the government they trusted, believed in, and served, once empowered with this unprecedented weapon, chose a darker path.

This is the story of why America won the race for the bomb, and why it betrayed the scientists who created it.


Before his election in 1933, Hitler was asked by a journalist, who would be the brains of the country, if he won. His reply? “I’ll be the brains.”[1]

Now, for decades, Germany had been the world capital of scientific advancement. And by the 1920s, progress was turning from chemistry to physics, as new technology enabled unprecedented insights into the secrets of the atom: the building blocks of the universe.

The country was full of important universities stuffed to the brim with the world’s best and brightest, but just take the University of Göttingen, for example. Here, in one school, near-mythical men of science like Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and Albert Einstein were instructing and molding countless future legends: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Werner Heisenberg among them.[2]

As the 1930s rolled around atomic physicists were hitting their stride in Germany, every day delving deeper into the atom. But all that was about to change.

Adolf Hitler was elected in January. By March he assumed emergency powers and seized near-total control over Germany. In April, his government passed the first of over four hundred anti-Jewish laws. “The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.”[3] It had one clear demand: civil servants “descended from non-Aryan, especially Jewish, parents or grandparents” “must retire.”[4]

And in Germany where universities were run by the government, professors were technically civil servants. In other words, Hitler was making good on his promise, that he would be the brains of the country, because this law cost Germany most of its top scientific minds, and almost all of its theoretical physicists: the men and women who were about to make the most monumental advances in human power since the mastery of fire.


Among those banished was Albert Einstein. Given his incredible fame…and his Judaism, Einstein had long been a target of antisemitic abuse and even assassination attempts. He’d grown accustomed to living abroad, returning occasionally to teach in Berlin. But in December 1932, while in America on the cusp of Hitler’s ascension, Einstein canceled his trip home and confided in his diary, “I shall essentially give up my Berlin position and shall be a bird of passage for the rest of my life.”[5]

Also luckily beating the Nazis to the punch was a Jewish-Hungarian physicist, an old friend and business associate of Einstein’s: Leo Szilard. The two once upon a time invented a new refrigerator, but it never caught on[6]. Szilard was en route to Vienna just as Hitler’s purge got underway, and he heard the news when he arrived. He’d gotten out just in time.[7]

Less fortunate was Hans Bethe, who was teaching at the University of Tübingen when he learned of his own firing from a student who read it in the paper.[8] For Bethe, it was all a shock. In his own words, “I was not Jewish. My mother was Jewish, and until Hitler came that made no difference whatsoever.”[9] Luckily for Bethe, however, his reputation preceded him, and he was able to quickly find work and refuge abroad.

Recognizing that most scientists did not have a reputation like Bethe’s, Szilard set to work creating a committee to help resettle the hundreds of jobless—and deeply vulnerable—academics outside of Germany.

And thanks to Szilard’s tireless, selfless work—he was still unemployed—hundreds of scholars were able to flee Germany. While the most popular first stop by far was Britain, it would ultimately be the United States where most refugee scientists—and the most consequential—would find permanent homes and jobs.[10]

And it’s here we can first glimpse the core dilemma at the heart of the story of the bomb. In Hitler’s twisted mind, the Jewish scientists he’d purged had been a threat to German security and German greatness.

For Germany to be safe, Germany had to be closed. Closed to enemies, closed to outsiders, closed to anyone a little different, anyone who challenged the dominant wisdom: in science, in politics, or in religion.

Except, all this closed-ness…it made Germany less safe! Being closed meant kicking out some of the greatest geniuses in history—the people who would invent the atomic bomb!

And who scooped them up? Who welcomed them in? Yes, Britain, but, more importantly in the end, America.

And it would be America’s openness — to refugees, to scientists, to bold, new ideas and experiments — that would bring it security…at least for now. Because it was openness that would win the race for the bomb.

All that said, America’s still America, and this is still the 1930s. That openness was pretty selective. In 1939 the government turned away 20,000 Jewish refugees and a few years later ordered the imprisonment of one-hundred-twenty-thousand Japanese-Americans, all while millions of Black Americans were shut out of politics.[11] This isn’t some rosy-perfect ra-ra America story.

Still, it matters, and the many academics who made it were grateful for the welcome, because back in Europe, Hitler’s shadow was growing. In 1938 he annexed Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia. The UK and France did nothing. Less than a year later, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression pact and invaded Poland. It was September, 1939, and Europe, for the second time in living memory, was at war.[12]


Under the ominous pall of the war, yet safely beyond its reach in America, Leo Szilard finally had the chance to pursue an idea he’d had years ago in Vienna, just after he’d fled Germany: the chain reaction.

Szilard’s idea was deceptively simple. Atoms have two main components: a positively-charged core, or nucleus, surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. And that nucleus is itself made up of two different things: a bunch of little positively-charged particles—protons—and these weird, neutral particles that don’t have any charge—neutrons.

Szilard’s idea then, was that if you could shoot a neutron at an atom’s nucleus, maybe you could knock out more than one neutron, maybe a few. Then those neutrons would go flying out, and bash into other nearby nuclei, which would release more neutrons, and then…you’d have a chain reaction.

Simple, right? Well, not terribly complex, at least.

But deceptive…because if this could be done, simple as it was, it would generate an unprecedented amount of energy. A bowling ball of chain-reacted substance could produce an explosion equivalent to millions of tons of TNT.

For years, he’d been absorbed in resettling refugee scientists, but now Szilard could team up with Enrico Fermi, former University of Göttingen student and Italian physicist extraordinaire, who had fled to New York after Mussolini adopted Hitler’s anti-semitic policies. His wife was Jewish.

Over time, it became clear to the duo that a chain reaction was indeed theoretically possible with the right materials, and they were immediately terrified by the apocalyptic danger that Hitler or Mussolini might harness this immense power first.

And they were right to worry. In April, scientists in Nazi Germany had begun work on chain reactions and alerted the Reich Ministry of War to the opportunity. Almost instantly, the German quest for the bomb was on.[13]

For Szilard and Fermi, cooperation from Washington wasn’t nearly so forthcoming. They spoke to some men from the Navy, but they hardly understood a thing.[14] So the duo sought out Einstein, whose star power might be able to connect them to President Roosevelt.

Together, Szilard and Einstein wrote a letter to the President, detailing the explosive potential of this science and warning that Germany had just recently banned the export of uranium: a sure sign that they were on the scent.[15]

It took months to reach him, but Roosevelt was convinced. Fermi and Szilard would have their funding. The race for the bomb had one more competitor.


One more…sluggish competitor, that is. The first steps toward an American nuclear program were painfully slow—so slow that incompetent leadership almost killed it in the cradle.[16] It wasn’t until 1942 that Szilard and Fermi finally demonstrated the first chain reaction, and so it was time to finally cut the purse strings, go all in, and find someone who could really lead the project.[17]

America was now well-endowed with the world’s supply of geniuses, but this new program, the Manhattan Project, needed a wiz scientist and a top-notch administrator.

Enter J. Robert Oppenheimer. What’s the “J” stand for? Don’t ask, we don’t know.[18] And actually, Oppenheimer wasn’t the obvious first choice. The Army didn’t trust him, given that he’d spent the better part of the 1930s involved with, in his own words, “just about every Communist front organization on the West Coast.”[19] However, following the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and as it became clear to him that his country may need his help beating the Nazis to the bomb, Oppenheimer cut off those relations unequivocally.[20] For some, though, that would never be enough.

But Oppenheimer wasn’t just a sharp scientist with radical politics. He was energetic, ambitious, charismatic, and extremely well-read, with a real knack for leadership. He could talk with anyone, about anything—except sports.[21] In other words, he was just the man for the job, however much some in the army may have loathed him. In late 1942, he was appointed to head up the Manhattan Project’s central laboratory.

But where would that central laboratory be? Somewhere away from prying eyes, given the top secret nature of the project—Oppenheimer and his military counterpart Leslie R Groves knew that much.[22]

EDWIN McMILLEN: “Oppenheimer spoke up and said, ‘Well if you go on up the canyon, it comes out on top of the mesa, and there’s a boy’s school there, which might be a useful site. So we all got in cars, and went up to Los Alamos ranch school. I remember arriving there. There was a slight snow falling, just a tiny drizzly type of snow. Soon as Groves saw it, Groves said, ‘This is it.’”

So, onto this remote plateau, from around the country, thousands of scientists, engineers, and military men, not to mention their families, descended to transform Los Alamos, New Mexico into something between a town, a military base, and a laboratory, complete with a schoolhouse, rows of family homes, even a movie theater.[23]

Almost immediately, there was friction between the scientists and the Army. Military leaders like Groves wanted an extreme degree of secrecy; not just between the project’s few different labs across the country, they thought even scientists at Los Alamos working on different aspects of the bomb shouldn’t talk to each other unless immediately necessary! If the theoretical physicists didn’t need to know what the engineers were working on to do their jobs, for example, then they shouldn’t know.[24]

This clashed with everything the scientists thought about their profession and their mission. Not only was it wrong, it would slow down their work. The scientific principle of openness was an ethical and practical one, and the scientists were right. Eventually the military relented.

Though the scientists won this round, it would not be the last time they butted heads with a government wrongfully obsessed with closed-ness and secrecy as a means to security.

In the meantime, thanks to this openness, progress on the bomb began to accelerate. Theoreticians, led by Hans Bethe, met weekly with experimentalists and engineers, discussing progress, obstacles, and setbacks, exchanging ideas about how certain problems might be solved and processes improved, showing once more how, perhaps counter-intuitively, openness can improve security.

One crucial insight became clear: a sufficiently large mass of refined Uranium or Plutonium, stuck together with some source of free neutrons like Beryllium, would be so unstable, it’d react spontaneously, neutrons flying about bashing into nearby nuclei. A massive explosion.

But, problematically, you clearly couldn’t have this critical mass together until you were ready to actually detonate the bomb. Somehow the bomb would have to contain a sub-critical mass which could, in an instant, be made critical.

There were two competing theories for how to do this. First, simply build the bomb around, essentially, a small cannon which could fire a chunk of Uranium or Plutonium into a larger, just sub-critical, chunk, and boom! The two combined would form a critical mass, and you’d have the explosion.

The second was more complicated. Instead of combining two chunks of material, there would be just one subcritical ball in the bomb. To make it critical, you could surround it with explosives, and if you timed them perfectly, the explosives would compress the ball, pushing those nuclei closer together, in turn lowering the critical mass threshold, and boom! You’d have a critical mass…and the explosion.

Both theories would be pursued. You couldn’t know which might work first. But they would need two different bomb designs: one, a round, bulbous shape to accommodate the ball of explosives, and the other, a long, skinny shape to fit the cannon. Fat Man and Little Boy.

But as fast as the scientists were moving, the war effort was moving faster. The Allies were almost certain to defeat Germany before the bomb was finished.

Some scientists increasingly worried the bomb would be used even if it wasn’t necessary and that it could cause an apocalyptic arms race. So they tapped Albert Einstein and the legendary Danish physicist Niels Bohr to meet with Franklin Roosevelt and encourage him to open talks with the Soviets, to set the stage for international control of the weapon, and for world peace.[25] FDR seemed persuaded, but when he took the idea to Churchill, the British Prime Minister was enraged by the suggestion.[26] In April, 1945 Bohr and Einstein prepared to try again, but before they could FDR passed away. Harry Truman would prove less friendly.[27]

The scientists’ push for openness had failed. On May 8, the allies declared victory in Europe. The Nazis were vanquished, but the bomb’s secretive development carried on.

It’s now July. The first bomb is finished. Some two hundred miles south of Los Alamos lay a patch of desert known then as Jornada del Muerto — the Path of Death.

It’s here, the first atomic bomb will be tested…and witnessed.

Set away from Zero Point ten thousand yards—about five-and-a-half miles—were three bunkers. The northern would house measurement instruments; the western, 52 cameras; and the southern, this new leviathan’s inventors: Oppenheimer, and a few others.[28]

Twenty miles northeast of Zero Point lay Compañia Hill. There, dozens of scientists fidgeted in nervous anticipation. One produced some sunscreen and passed it around. Hans Bethe took his share. The sun hadn’t yet risen, but most wore sunglasses. A few brought chunks of glass made for welder’s masks.

Back in the southern bunker, Oppenheimer whispered to himself just loud enough for another to hear, “Lord these affairs are hard on the heart.”[29]

And then,

It was silent for them, too, at first. But silence couldn’t last. The bomb was real.


Less than a month later, at 2 in the morning on August 6, on the Pacific island Tinian, a B-29 superfortress started its four massive engines, and radio’d the tower.

“Dimples Eight Two to North Tinian Tower. Taxi-out and take-off instructions.”[30]

“Dimples Eight Two from North Tinian Tower. Take off to the east on Runway A for Able.”

The massive plane lumbered to Runway A. The tower called out, “Dimples Eight Two cleared for take-off.”

Six hours later, the B29’s bomb bay doors swung open above Hiroshima, Japan. Little Boy was away. Thousands were vaporized or cooked to a blackened hunk in an instant. They were the lucky ones. Thousands more burned slowly or were left dismembered, stumbling through the streets. Some took weeks to die. Those who survived would never be the same.

The US government demanded unconditional surrender. The Japanese military rejected it out of hand.

Nagasaki was next. Thousands more suffered.

The Emperor surrendered, despite the military’s continued objections.[31]

The bomb had ended the war, but at what cost?

It wasn’t just the world’s heretofore clueless civilians who were suddenly forced to confront the power of man’s new fire. Prometheus too had to look upon his works, and many Los Alamos artificers weren’t the least bit comfortable with what they’d wrought. The bomb was born. Their idea of it was dead. Anxiety over an apocalyptic arms race once more reared its head, but the government wouldn’t listen. So, the scientists took an idea to the American people.

The atomic bomb had fundamentally altered the reality of geopolitics. Civilians—rather than the military—should control atomic energy at the domestic level, and nations should open their facilities to mutual inspection, to ensure the avoidance of an arms race.[32]

Perhaps their vision was naive, or maybe their faith in human nature would have been rewarded. We’ll never know. Viewed as pie-in-the-sky at best and the product of Soviet interference at worst, atomic scientists were quickly subordinated to the military, or, if they chose to resist, forced out of political life.[33] Scientists were some of the earliest victims of the red scare, subjected to bruising, sometimes public, investigations and show trials.[34] It was an ugly time, and in no uncertain words a betrayal, both of the scientists and of the very notion of the open society.

Oppenheimer, though, had managed to avoid the persecution of the early years of the red scare, a combination of his personal charm, his embrace of anti-Soviet politics, and his near-mythic status as the father of the atomic bomb. But with his political history, his worldview, and his symbolic importance, he couldn’t possibly escape the injustice of his times.

His problems began with the hydrogen bomb, the atomic bomb’s much more powerful successor. Oppenheimer had opposed the H-bomb from the outset, but as it neared reality, he became an increasingly vocal critic. This was understandable—he had hoped that the atomic bomb could be the beginning of the end of war, rather than just version 1.0 of a new method of mass killing.[35] But for America’s cold warriors, that smelled like treason.

A veritable conspiracy to destroy Oppenheimer took shape, launched by FBI director and certified lunatic J. Edgar Hoover.[36] Hoover and his allies dredged up Oppenheimer’s long-abandoned Communist associations and an attempt by an old friend in 1943 to get him to share atomic secrets with the Soviet Union. Oppenheimer had rejected it flat out as treason.[37] Still, nothing would ever be enough.

Soon, the Atomic Energy Commission joined in with an inquiry in 1954 that put Oppenheimer’s security clearance on the line.[38] Over four weeks, using underhanded methods like guilt-by-association and evidence from illegal FBI surveillance, the inquiry shamelessly hounded Oppenheimer and attempted, piece by piece, to shred his reputation as a national hero.[39]

In the end, Oppenheimer lost his security clearance, any chance of future government work, and, to a great extent, his good name.[40] The inquiry was more reminiscent of a Soviet show trial than anything resembling due process, a kind of ritual humiliation designed to ruin a man merely for his private convictions and his questioning of authority.

In the realm of science, it’s almost inconceivable that openness—the very heart of the engine of discovery—could ever be a bad thing.

In the world of politics, though, it’s hardly so simple. Sometimes, perhaps usually, openness is exceptionally good, and closed-ness a horrible tool of human suffering. Other times, as in the race for the bomb, closedness may be a necessity and openness, at least of some kinds, a real danger.

But though the balance is difficult to strike, it’s safe to say that America—and the world—would have benefited a great deal, if American leadership hadn’t so totally betrayed its promise of openness.

In Oppenheimer’s own words…

J.R. OPPENHEIMER: "The trouble with secrecy isn't that it doesn't give the puiblic a sense of participation. The trouble with secrecy is that it denies to the government itself the wisdom and the resources of the whole community, of the whole country. And the only way you can do this is to let almost anyone say what he thinks, to try to give the best synopses, the best popularizations, the best mediations, of technical things that you can, and to let men deny what they think is false, argue what they think is false. You have to have a free and uncorrupted communication. And this is, this is so the heart of living in a complicated technological world; it is so the heart of freedom, that that is why we are all the time saying, 'Does this really have to be secret? Couldn't you say more about that? Are we really acting in a wise way?' Not because enjoy chattering, not because we are unaware of the dangers of the world we live in, but because these dangers cannot be met in any other way."

  1. Atomic Heritage Foundation, “Scientific Exodus.” ↩︎

  2. Wikipedia, “List of University of Göttingen People.” ↩︎

  3. Richard Rhodes, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” 27. ↩︎

  4. Wikipedia, “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.” ↩︎

  5. Quoted in Rhodes, 188. [Clark (1971), 539] ↩︎

  6. Rhodes, 22. ↩︎

  7. Ibid., 194. ↩︎

  8. Ibid., 190. ↩︎

  9. Quoted in Rhodes, 190. ↩︎

  10. Eric Weiss, “The Impact of the Intellectual Migration on the United States and Eastern Europe.” ↩︎

  11. Dara Lind, “How America’s rejection of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany haunts our refugee policy today,” in Vox, 27 January 2017. ↩︎

  12. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (Random House: New York, 1989), 338-339. ↩︎

  13. Rhodes, 298. ↩︎

  14. Ibid., 297. ↩︎

  15. Atomic Heritage Foundation, “Einstein-Szilard Letter.” ↩︎

  16. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, _American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer _(Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 180. ↩︎

  17. Rhodes, 442. ↩︎

  18. Bird and Sherwin, 11. ↩︎

  19. Ibid., 500. ↩︎

  20. Ibid. 184. ↩︎

  21. Ibid., 185-186. ↩︎

  22. Ibid., 187. ↩︎

  23. Ibid., 256-259, 263. ↩︎

  24. Ibid., 223-228. ↩︎

  25. Rhodes, 527. ↩︎

  26. Bird and Sherwin, 275. ↩︎

  27. Ibid., 289-192. ↩︎

  28. Rhodes, 654. ↩︎

  29. Rhodes, 670. ↩︎

  30. Ibid., 707. ↩︎

  31. Rhodes, 744. ↩︎

  32. Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Science, Anticommunism, and the Cold War (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1999), 10-14. ↩︎

  33. Ibid., 85-94. ↩︎

  34. Ibid., 88, 99, 110, 150. ↩︎

  35. Bird and Sherwin, 417-423. ↩︎

  36. Ibid., 344-345. ↩︎

  37. Ibid., 195-201, 437. ↩︎

  38. Ibid., 482. ↩︎

  39. Ibid., 490; “J. Robert Oppenheimer Personnel Hearing Transcripts,’ Atomic Energy Commission. ↩︎

  40. Ibid., 540. ↩︎


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