From Troubled Beginnings: The Journey of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Unraveling the complex layers of a nuclear genius

Every conscientious adult must see Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer. Nolan deserves our deepest gratitude for using his enormous talent and notoriety to raise awareness of humanity’s nuclear weapons problem. Many critics have justly praised the film’s entertainment and artistic value. This review aims to provide historical context that might deepen the viewer’s appreciation of this timeless film, Oppenheimer

There are two crucial aspects of Oppenheimer, the man, that were not fully revealed in the film: (1) his antipathy to human beings and (2) his unbridled arrogance. These aspects of the man might be lost on viewers since Nolan did not cover Oppenheimer’s formative years. Still, these features of the man are critical, for they help explain his susceptibility to developing weapons of mass destruction.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was born in 1904 to a wealthy family. He had an extremely overprotective, germaphobic mother, and she deprived him of a normal childhood. She did not allow him to do ordinary things like eat junk food or visit the barbershop. Sadly, the young Oppenheimer had very little interaction with other children. The child’s sheltered and isolated environment permanently stunted his social development. 

Oppenheimer acknowledged that he was a terribly obnoxious child. He constantly lorded his intellect in grade school over other children to make them feel stupid. Since other children did not like this know-it-all, the young loner spent almost all his time studying. This issue persisted when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. Unfortunately, Oppenheimer had few friends and never went on a single date. He admitted, “I had very little sensitiveness to human beings.”

This brings us to the seminal “poisoned apple” incident during his graduate days at Cambridge. In the movie, Oppenheimer poisons an apple with potassium cyanide and leaves it for Patrick Blackett. At the last moment, he returns to save Blackett from eating the apple. This scene is probably enough to raise serious questions about Oppenheimer’s appreciation for human life. However, there is much more to this problematic story. 

In reality, Oppenheimer never went back to save Blackett. Fortunately, Blackett learned that Oppenheimer tried to poison him and discarded the deadly apple. The incident was reported to Cambridge officials, and Oppenheimer was busted. 

Why wasn’t he charged with attempted murder? It is uncertain if Oppenheimer’s wealthy father bribed Cambridge officials. But he got involved and somehow managed to bail out his son. The history of the twentieth century might have been different if Oppenheimer had been properly punished in late 1925 for his attempted murder of Blackett. 

Oppenheimer was put on probation at Cambridge and forced to see a psychiatrist. Although he did not know about the poisoned apple, the psychiatrist diagnosed Oppenheimer with schizophrenia (dementia praecox). Rather than admitting the severity of his mental problems, the spoiled, unremorseful, and arrogant young miscreant claimed that his psychiatrist was too stupid to comprehend him. 

The poisoned apple incident was a pivotal turning point for Oppenheimer. The incident triggered his move to Göttingen, Germany, in the summer of 1926. And this is where Oppenheimer transitioned to the study of theoretical physics. In short, the illicit poisoned apple incident was the watershed event that put Oppenheimer on the path to building the atomic bomb.

In Germany, he developed a reputation for insufferable arrogance. He had a terrible habit of interrupting professors—even eminent figures like Max Born. Other students complained that it was impossible to learn in the same room as him. In one case, the entire class refused to attend lectures unless the professor kicked Oppenheimer out of the course.

After he returned to the U.S., Oppenheimer’s students at Berkley and Caltech were victims of his vicious personality. He was a horrible, incomprehensible lecturer who blamed his students for his own inability to teach. He was cruel to his students, reducing them to silence and even tears: “You’re stupid. Don’t be so stupid.” He would even get caustic with renowned colleagues like Freeman Dyson and Hans Bethe.

In Nolan’s defense, Oppenheimer’s social behavior improved later in life. However, it must be stressed that the improvement was not natural. He was astute enough to realize that his difficult personality held him back professionally. Thus he constructed a fake personality to hide his severe nature. He lived as an actor with no core identity for the rest of his life.

Yet Oppenheimer always remained apathetic. One piece of evidence is the way he treated his daughter Toni. She was born in 1944 at Los Alamos, and he completely neglected her. Finally, he asked the baby’s caretaker to adopt Toni. When the caretaker refused and asked why, Oppenheimer replied, “Because I can’t love her. . . . I’m not an attached kind of person.” 

Thankfully, Nolan does not shy away from Oppenheimer’s socialism. But it is vital to emphasize the connection between Oppenheimer’s socialism and his intellectual arrogance. As F.A. Hayek argued in The Fatal Conceit, socialism is the politico-economic manifestation of intellectual pride. Given his limitless conceit, it is not surprising that Oppenheimer fell into the errors of socialism.

Oppenheimer’s socialism proves that he was no universal genius. On the contrary, he was an economic ignoramus. He impressed his best friend Chevalier by reading Marx’s Das Kapital in the original German and Lenin’s Collected Works. Oppenheimer’s “brilliant” mind apparently could not see through the basic errors of Marx’s labor theory of value or exploitation theory of interest. 

Predictably, Oppenheimer argued that socialism is the only way to protect humanity from the weapons he created. A polite characterization would be that he advocated the international control of nuclear energy. More precisely, he proposed the creation of an international government authority to socialize the world’s uranium mines. 

Given his post-war views on the atomic bombing of Japan, the naiveté of Oppenheimer’s scheme is mind-blowing. As Nolan informs viewers, Oppenheimer thought, “we bombed an enemy that was essentially defeated.” The film does not reveal that Oppenheimer thought the U.S. Army lied to him about the need to invade Japan. 

The atomic bombing of Japan should have taught Oppenheimer two lessons: (1) governments cannot be trusted to make good decisions about using nuclear weapons, and (2) governments cannot be trusted to tell the truth before or after they use nuclear weapons. Regrettably, Oppenheimer’s socialism blinded him to these lessons. His naïve, unlimited faith in government led him to advocate international socialist control of the production and use of nuclear weapons. Thank goodness his socialist scheme was never realized.

Christopher Nolan deserves Best Picture of the Year for the instant classic Oppenheimer. It is a brilliant film that raises awareness of the existential nuclear weapons problem. Still, viewers must remember that Oppenheimer is the story of a villain, not a hero. Specifically, it is the story of how an arrogant, schizophrenic socialist developed weapons of mass death at the behest of the Democrats. Oppenheimer is a stark warning of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the fatal conceit of socialism.

Edward W. Fuller ([email protected]) MBA, is a graduate of the Leavey School of Business.
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