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Guest Post: Oppenheimer – Not The Morality Of The bomb

Written by Martin Sand & Karin Jongsma

The recently released Christopher Nolan movie “Oppenheimer” proves to be a phenomenal movie that deserves being watched on screen. Despite its 3 hours length, “Oppenheimer” is an intriguing portrayal of a genius, albeit somewhat narcissistic character, who – in the second half of the movie – seemingly regrets being involved in the development and deployment of the atomic bomb. “Oppenheimer” is much more than a biography of a memorable scientist; it’s a tale of the complex relation between science and politics, and the complexity of moral decision-making in an uncertain world faced with unprecedented suffering and cruelty. It provides insights into how the political climate in the “era of ideologies” (Karl Dietrich Bracher) could make it difficult for scientists to have left-leaning views, while pursuing successful scientific careers in the US. Those times and experiences are worth recollecting, also for ongoing discussions about censorship and academic freedom.

The movie itself does not provide a definitive stance on the question of the moral quality of Oppenheimer as a person, which is a great strength of this monumental portrayal. Arguably, one of the biggest mistakes one could make in quest for a definitive moral judgement – and one that Oppenheimer himself seems to have fallen trap to – is to reduce this question to the moral justifiability of dropping the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This would mean, as we shall argue, to arbitrarily end the history of atomic weapons with their deployment in 1945 and reduce his involvement to his contribution to their development, neglecting his wavering and the uncertainties in the early phases of the war and his work after.

It is the dropping of the bombs that brings Oppenheimer in greatest moral distress. His underlying assumption that those actions were gravely morally wrong, is opposed by only few philosophers nowadays who defend the droppings of these bombs mainly in utilitarian spirit. A great majority of philosophers doubt that – even if we accepted a moral theory that allows for the aggregation of lives and the drawing of conclusion that those action that saves most lives are the ones that are permitted – that droppings were in fact the actions that saved most lives. Many commentators believe that the War could have been over after the Potsdam Conference had the American conceded immunity to the Japanese emperor and many believe that even the continuation of the war would not have been quite as devastating as, for instance, Henry Stimson, Secretary of War assumed. This, then – if one were to follow the aggregationst assumptions – had been the better courses of action.

Of course, the justifiability of the droppings will have to be considered in light of the knowledge that was ready at hand at the time and not after the fact and one will never know how certain one could have been at the time about the number of people that will be saved and killed.

But an answer to this question of justifiability, if one would want to pursue it in this way, of course, presumes much more than such knowledge (assumptions about probabilities of deaths and success rates): Namely that the weighing of lives (civilian and non-civilian) or their suffering is at all a morally acceptable basis for military decision-making. Given its possible implications such conviction is clearly one that is in need of a careful defense.

The empirical question is furthermore complicated when considering the long term development – the history of the a-bomb after the droppings of August 1945: Here, one would have to speculate whether such weapons were never used again after Nagasaki and Hiroshima, because this single time they were deployed has been the best deterrent and gravest warning to everyone after. The immediate effect on the stalemate between the Soviets and the US on European soil, that might have otherwise quickly escalated, cannot be underestimated either, but must remain equally speculative. Additional counterfactuals would come into play.

Let us assume – for the sake of argument – that the bombings were morally wrong and blameworthy. It seems then obvious that given Oppenheimer’s known contribution to the project, this taints him in some way – despite Truman’s insistence that he might overplay his role significantly (“You think anyone in Hiroshima or Nagasaki gives a shit who built the bomb? They care who dropped it. I did. Hiroshima isn’t about you.”). His causal contribution is undeniable and so his character must be tainted by those deaths. However, a mere causal contribution does not suffice for blame as responsibility theorists will readily point out – what about his foreknowledge and intentions?

That will require looking at the story from the beginning rather from the end: The original decision, the intent behind getting involved in the first place, aside from prestige and being flattered to be leading this operation – was to win the war against Germany, as expressed in his own words: “It’s not your people they’re herding into camps! It’s mine!”, as he explains to Ernest Lawrence. Furthermore, several moments in the movie show that Oppenheimer continues to naively assume that he might impact the deployment decision of the bomb in a later stage – a central naivety that might be –a key moral flaw of the movie’s protagonist. In a meeting, in which he senses how pointless his interventions are, he nevertheless insists that there are no suitable military targets in Japan, still being illusory about the idea that the bombs might be dropped on cities. Stunned and disappointed, Groves later makes him aware in a conversation after the Potsdam Conference, where several scientists including Oppenheimer consider the deployment of a bomb somewhere in the countryside merely to deter from further military action or to use it on, how others in contrast see his role: “Robert, we’ve given them an ace. It’s for them to play the hand.”

He has contributed to the development and deployment of these bombs, but not with this intent in mind, and he had limited control, albeit trying to exert so that the bombs are not used. Does this absolve him? Perhaps, while this is the one most often evoked, that is not real question that the movie wants us to explore. It might be rather this: Is his response – the remorse and guilt that he feels – fitting? This fittingness is not completely determined by his responsibility. Moral regret might be genuine, yet unfounded and it might be absent, yet actually morally expected. It is this intertwinement of the question of responsibility with the question about the fittingness of his moral sentiments that makes this movie ethically interesting and the biographic portrayal captivating.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Both the politics as well our individual life are full of situations that cannot be solved according to the absolute moral values. Often we have to choose between two or more possibilities that are bad.

    Therefore neither the life nor the politics are about the moral categories. It is not dispute between good and evil. The pragmatic approach must be applied because the moral categories are missleading.

    In 1938 when Czechoslovakia was forced to obey the Munich treatment, the Czechoslovakian president Beneš said: I do not make justice, I make politics.

    And in the politics what is often the real reason for this tragic dilemas?

    Activist politics that lead to totalitarianism. Beneš had to decide in 1938 because there was nazi regime in Germany. The nuclear bomb in
    Japan had to be used on the similar base – because there was some authoritarian, non-democratic regime.

    That is why we should be aware of authoritarianism. We should be aware of activistic politics that is too greedy and has ambition to overregulate our lifes. Such politics tend to extremism.
    And the means through which we are subsequently forced to defeat such activistic politics and non-democratic regimes must also be extremist (i. e. nuclear weapon)

  2. “He has contributed to the development and deployment of these bombs, but not with this intent in mind, and he had limited control, albeit trying to exert so that the bombs are not used. Does this absolve him? […] Is his response – the remorse and guilt that he feels – fitting?”

    Perhaps I set too much store by revealed preferences rather than declared ones, but I’m not sure his remorse is morally significant. Can’t help but be reminded of Maria Theresa’s tears during the partition of Poland. “She cried, when she took; the more she cried, the more she took!?” Oppenheimer worked on the atom bomb; it worked as designed – Japan surrendered and the war was over. He could then afford to feel as bad about it as he liked. He, like Maria Theresa, was choosing perhaps the least bad course of action as they saw it at the time. Maybe they felt bad about that; maybe they’d feel worse if they later found there were even less bad options available. But, having won, they had this luxury.

  3. As the documented original intent was to win the war against a Nazi ideology:
    “expressed in his own words: “It’s not your people they’re herding into camps! It’s mine!”, ”
    appears historically accurate, much of the subsequent justificatory writing, like the comments:
    “The pragmatic approach must be applied because the moral categories are missleading. ”
    “But, having won, they had this luxury ”
    do arise out of a pragmatic reasoning which can effectively (depending upon the breadth of focus allowed during the immediacy of any moral reasoning process applied to the initial decision) mask or deny moral/ethical conflict at the time. The exertion of a contorted self will at that point, could well then later be converted into mere power. The use of the word contorted is meant to indicate the moral/ethical struggles a normal being would struggle with during a development process for something which could only be used to threaten/coerce/kill very large numbers of people.) The possibly initial personal motivations for revenge, or a reckoning, would not serve to ameliorate the scale of the devastating outcomes, wherever the device were used, unless a worldview were constantly applied which supported ideological actions of that type. A mix that in a broadly reflective being would create internal conflict.

  4. Also in our individual life we sometimes have to face or make the decision which is harmful for somebody. This situation is called dilema. The decision must be made and for us or some people it will be damaging, injurious etc.
    In which way the words like “moral” or “ethics” can advise in such dilema?
    Historian Paul Johnson in his famous book “A History of 20th Century” notices that also Nazi ideology was by the Nazis justified by the moral categories. So this word “moral” can be misused very easily.
    Therefore the bomb cannot be simply evaluated as moral or not. It is (not) moral in some circumstances and in some time.

  5. You’ve clearly missed the fact that the Japanese did not surrender as a result of the bombs, they surrendered as a result of the loss of Manchuria. (And that there was never going to be a ground war)

    The bomb was not dropped to save lives. It was not dropped to end the war.
    The bomb was dropped so the world could see it dropped.
    We know this because Truman used it to threaten Stalin and completely back out of all promised reparations for the nation that stopped the Nazi’s dead in their tracks. (But lost 60% of its nations infrastructure in the process)
    This of course, started the cold war. (That happens when you threaten another nation with a super weapon)

    The crass violent st*p*d*ty won out. Since Truman was the right-wing a**h*le that didn’t win legitimately regardless. And was imposed anti-democratically. (He had no ethical or moral right to be there in the first place) *Anti-democracy is anti ethics.
    They could have just as easily announced the bomb by publicizing a test for the diplomats of all to see.
    Instead they murdered more than a hundred thousand people. And then kicked off the worst political disaster of the 20th century.

    This isn’t just unethical, it is absolutely evil. (And patently stupid) *A major hallmark of right-wing politics throughout history.

    1. ” Japanese did not surrender as a result of the bombs, they surrendered as a result of the loss of Manchuria.”
      I am not really sure if this is true.
      After the bomb in Hiroshima was dropped Y. Nishina, the chief of the Japanesse nuclear research ,was tasked to produce Japanesse nuclear weapon within half a year.
      So one bomb was clearly not enough….
      The bomb on Nagasaki was dropped on August 9, 1945.
      The final Japanesse decision about surrender was made on August 14, 1945.
      The Japanesse minister of war and two staff commanders were against surrender. Prime minister Suzuki had to submit the dispute to the emperor Hirohito.
      It was the first opportunity for the Japanesse emperor to express his own will and his own responsibility.
      The emperor recorded the surrender message in which he said that there is need to prevent wiping out of human civilization.
      This message was broadcasted despite the Japanesse military commanders wanted to destroy it and they killed the emperor guards commander and the prime minister’s house they put into the fire….
      After the broadcasting the surrender message the minister of war committed suicide on the palace courtyard.
      All this shows that without nuclear weapons there would not be Japanesse surrender.
      The dead people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the victims of the military and paralytic system that seized the political power in Japan and denied to surrender…
      Sources: R.J.C. Butow: Japan’s Decision to Surrender”, Stanford, 1954, 248,
      David James, The Rise and Fall of the Japanessw Empire, London, 1951, p. 328,
      John Tolland The Rising SUn: the decline and fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945, London, 1971, p. 813,
      W.G. Beasley The Modern History of Japan, London 1963, p. 77-288.

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