Exeter, Devon UK • Sep 23, 2023 • VOL XII
Exeter, Devon UK • Sep 23, 2023 • VOL XII
Home Features On Robert Oppenheimer – an interview with Ray Monk

On Robert Oppenheimer – an interview with Ray Monk

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On August 15th 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced the unconditional surrender of Japan in WWII. His reason for their surrender was, as he succinctly put it, “a new and most cruel bomb”. The devastation caused by the A-bomb has seared itself into the world’s memory. To date, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been the only nuclear weapons used in warfare. On the 70th anniversary of Little Boy and Fat Man, I spoke to Ray Monk, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton and biographer of Robert Oppenheimer, to discover more about the man who lead the Manhattan Project to develop such a weapon:


Robert Oppenheimer. Image: en.wikipedia.org

Monk first started researching Oppenheimer having been asked by The Observer to review a collection of his correspondence. I wonder what had captured his attention in those letters and held it over the subsequent 11 years of research he put into his biography, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center. “They revealed all sorts of aspects of his personality that I didn’t know,” Monk tells me. “I didn’t know that he was an expert on French Literature, that he wrote French poems, he wrote short stories. He was very interested in Hinduism, he was very interested in philosophy. He was a real polymath. Certainly my sense that he is an endlessly fascinating character was born out of that. There wasn’t a single moment in those 11 years when I wasn’t bored of him. He will remain enigmatic no matter how long you think about him or how much research you put into him.”

To many, Oppenheimer is remembered as the brilliant theoretical physicist who lead the Manhattan Project in developing the atomic bomb for the US in WWII. Few realise to what extent their success was driven by Oppenheimer’s personal investment in the project. “You can’t write the history of the Manhattan Project without writing about the personalities involved” Monk says. “[Oppenheimer] was, in a way, the least likely choice. He wasn’t the most distinguished in America at that time – there were several Nobel prize winners who General Groves could have asked – plus he wasn’t a laboratory physicist. He’d never worked in a laboratory, let alone directed one. Nuclear physics wasn’t his main area and in addition to all that, he was held in great suspicion because he was very visibly a supporter of every communist organisation on the West coast of America.”

Y12, a research site for the Manhattan Project. Image: en.wikipedia.org

The odds were stacked against him. However, on a chance meeting in California, when Groves was trawling universities for a candidate to lead the Los Alamos laboratory, Oppenheimer made his impression. “He alone among the scientists was able to explain the physics of fission to Groves. Also, Oppenheimer was absolutely consumed by the urgency of the project. The other scientists were very knowledgeable and expert on the physics, but not particularly interested in building a bomb. What was unique about Oppenheimer was his focus and concentration on the idea that they had got to build a bomb as soon possible. He turned out to be an inspired choice [for director]”.

Clearly, something had occurred to Oppenheimer about the technological and political advancements in the war. “The reason he was so keen to develop a bomb was that he was convinced that the Nazis would do it as they had Heisenberg. He thought it was of the utmost importance for civilisation. That was the argument he used to get the other scientists on board.”

This justification was familiar to me, however, Monk explains to me that when Neils Bohr joined the project in 1944, he developed a different line of argument that Oppenheimer adopted. “The weapon was so powerful – as well as being the worst thing that humans had ever created, it might also be the best because it might put an end to war itself. I don’t think that thought had occurred to Oppenheimer before Bohr outlined it to him. However, once he was convinced that that was true, after the war, when Oppenheimer became consultant on uranium and atomic energy, he would deliver that argument on several occasions.”

I wondered whether, in light of his sustained enthusiasm for the Manhattan Project and later work with government agencies, Oppenheimer’s conscience was clear on all accounts. Notoriously, he opposed the accelerated program for the H-bomb and Monk tells me why. “He couldn’t imagine anyone ever using it. That very much remains true – no one has ever used a hydrogen bomb in warfare. It would be horrendous. It would be something potentially thousands of times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. In what situation would you even conceive of using something like that?”

Neither Monk nor Oppenheimer are quite so black and white about the legacy of Little Boy and Fat Man. “The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki wouldn’t have been much different if Nagasaki hadn’t happened. Oppenheimer was in favour of using the bomb immediately against Japanese civilians in order to bring about the surrender. I think the two bombs are very different – there is a case to be made for the Hiroshima bomb, but I don’t believe so with Nagasaki. The US wanted to give the impression that it could keep dropping these things. It wasn’t true.”

Ray Monk. Image: www.southampton.ac.uk

In many ways, Oppenheimer was right about the sweeping legacy of the bombs. The H-bomb has never been used. However, the arms race of the Cold War and the persistence of nuclear deterrents as part of military strategy kept the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki firmly in the collective memory of world leaders throughout the 20th century to the present day. I ask Monk what, if nuclear warfare has become unthinkable, he considers to be the Manhattan Project of today.

“That’s a tough question” he begins. “I suppose my instinct is to say that there isn’t anything that shouldn’t be researched. On the whole, I think mankind has got it right – since Nagasaki, nobody has used an atomic bomb or a nuclear bomb in anger and it doesn’t look likely to happen any time soon. I dare say there are fanatics who, if they had a nuclear bomb, would use it, but I think on the whole the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that governments are extremely reluctant to use these weapons as we have seen just how horrendous they were.”

Ray Monk is currently working on a film script on the life of the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, with interest from the film industry.

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