I felt compelled to watch Oppenheimer because of all the buzz. We all know that Robert Oppenheimer was the creator of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, finally defeating the relentless WWll Japanese attack on the US at Pearl Harbour and the invasion of China and other far east countries.
Over the first two hours of the film, Oppenheimer one gets glimpses of the painstaking and unpredictable process of scientific inquiry and the many players, institutions and financial resources involved in such an endeavour. The film’s last hour is taken up by the political machinations that affected Openheimer’s life after 1954.
From watching the film, it was tough to assess who Oppenheimer was. Was he a Communist and passed secrets to the USSR? What was his extra-marital affair about? How does it affect him when his mistress commits suicide? His face throughout is challenging to read. I must admit that I found it hard to understand the film, so I researched online.
JNS editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin speaks with historian Harvey Klehr, author of several books on Soviet spies in the US and shares the reality of intense soviet interest in spying on the Manhattan Project from the 1930s onward. Starting at 16:28, Harvey Klehr (*1) reports on the efforts of the Soviets to penetrate the Manhattan Project.
There were many members of the communist party in America before WWll. Apparently, at the Berkkley University lab, many of Oppenheimer’s students were members of the communist party. It was not illegal, and many of Oppenheimers’ friends and relatives, including his wife, were known members of the Communist party. Some of them did have contact with intelligence forces in the university. The FBI knew all this when Oppenheimer was chosen to lead the lab. It is also known from wiretaps that once Oppenheimer was named to head the project, he distanced himself from the Communists, and the Soviets were never able to get him to cooperate. However, there were two spies inside the Manhattan Project. One of them is Ted Hall, a brilliant young graduate student who may not have been a party member. He was not “recruited” but “volunteered” to spy for the Soviets. He later confessed and was sent to jail. The other one, Ted Fuchs, a British double agent, later became known to the FBI. Still, he never revealed, and the FBI could never prosecute him because the evidence would have betrayed US intelligence secrets.
As for the truth about the third hour of the movie, the best description I found about what the actual motivations were behind the secret trial that eventually removed Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954 is fully revealed in an Article initially published in the September 1977 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 33, No. 7, page 12. It is much more complicated than the personal jealousy and treachery implied in the movie. The attack on Oppenheimer came partly from the newly elected president Eisenhower, who wanted to show that the Democrats had been soft on the Communists along with Roy Cohn, the treacherous head of the FBI’s obsessions and the hidden conflicts between Oppenheimer and some of the players in the atomic project. (*2)
In an opinion piece in the NY Times, (*3) Kai Bird, author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the book on which Oppenheimer the movie is based, writes as follows.
Sadly, Oppenheimer’s life story is relevant to our current political predicaments. Oppenheimer was destroyed by a political movement characterized by rank know-nothing, anti-intellectual, xenophobic demagogues. The witch-hunters of that season are the direct ancestors of our current political actors of a specific paranoid style…Oppenheimer did not regret what he did at Los Alamos; he understood that you cannot stop curious human beings from discovering the physical world around them. One cannot halt the scientific quest, nor can one un-invent the atomic bomb but it is up to each and every one of us to ensure that our current technologies are integrated by our leaders into a sustainable and humane civilization.
Yom Kippur confronts us with the fragility of man in the face of the viccisissitudes of both man made and natural disasters. These three historic movies, Golda, Shttl and Oppenheimer, remind us that a human being’s insight is limited in contrast with God’s gaze who sees all and judges each of us every year on this day. This is one of the main themes of Yom Kippur as expressed in this hymn:
You (God) remember all the workings of the universe
And you note all the creatures of this world
All events and mysteries are revealed to you
Because there is nothing forgotten before Your Holy Throne
Or hidden from your gaze.
Yishai Rebo, the popular Israeli singer has just posted a new chant of these Hebrew prayer verses: Hebrew transliteration, Ata zocher below *4
But as humans we are all subject to the vicissitudes of human failings.
The Yom Kippur service repeats many times that these three things alone have the potential to allay the evil of any harsh decrees that may befall us –
Teshuva/desire to change, tefila/asking for our needs, and tzedaka/deeds of charity and kindness –
Yom Kippur is the day designated for us to confront this reality by sharing our private struggles before our God and praying to be remembered for life and for goodness in the coming year.
Here is the haunting Yom Kippur refrain sung by Cantor Gideon Zelermayer and the Shaar Hashomayim Montreal Synagogue choir: * from the standard Yom Kippur prayerbook.
Remember us for “Life”,(*) oh King Who Desires Life,
and Inscribe us in the Book of Life
For your sake, Oh Living God.
*1. JNS editor-in-chief Jonathan Tobin speaks with historian Harvey Klehr about the movie Oppenheimer and the legacy of American Communism. The story re communism starts at 16:30 min. https://youtu.be/sYCyMCR4ynA?si=fp1Wbq5uSENNd49D&t=990
*2. The Oppenheimer case: A study in the abuse of law by Harold P. Green, July 17, 2023, Published in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
*3. NY Times opinion piece by Kai Bird, author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
*4. YouTube: Ishay Ribo & Mordechai Ben David – Ata Zocher