John Humphrys - Oppenheimer: Destroyer or Saviour?

July 21, 2023, 10:47 AM GMT+0

This column does not normally indulge itself in film reviews but I have to make an exception for “Oppenheimer”. Not because it’s a spectacular film (which it is) but because it raises questions that are as relevant today as they were when the brilliant scientist himself pressed the button that detonated the world’s first atom bomb and afterwards uttered those immortal words: “I am become death… the destroyer of worlds”. For the 200,000 souls who were killed or horribly injured at Hiroshima and Nagasaki a year later the world was indeed “destroyed” but no nuclear weapon has been used in anger since.

The threat, however, remains and so does this question. Has the existence of nuclear weapons served to prevent another world war that could destroy humanity as we know it? Or has it merely served to delay the inevitable? In short, should we revere Oppenheimer for his extraordinary achievement or curse him?

Most historians accept that when Harry Truman, then president of the United States, ordered that the atomic bomb should be dropped on two of Japan’s great cities he made the right decision. We shall never know how long the war might have lasted otherwise but we can be certain that vastly more lives would have been lost had the war continued than even in the hell of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It was reported that when Oppenheimer was invited to the White House after the war to meet Truman he was in tears. He may not have been the “destroyer of worlds” but he reportedly told Truman that he had blood on his hands. Truman told him that the blood was, in fact, on his hands. It was he who had given the order to drop the bombs.

At that point, of course, America was the only nation that possessed them. If the Japanese or, more realistically, the Nazis had one would he still have given the order? History suggests the answer to that question is no. But the world had yet to enter the era of that terrifying acronym MAD. Mutual Assured Destruction.

Not for long was the ultimate weapon restricted to our democratic friends across the Atlantic. The genie of nuclear proliferation could not be put back in the bottle. Many of us spent our childhoods terrified of what would happen if – or when – our communist foes dropped their atom bombs on us. The War Game, a documentary depicting a post-apocalyptic Britain, was produced in 1965 and was so horrific it took the BBC twenty years to transmit it.

CND was born at that time and staged some of the biggest marches and demonstrations in the nation’s history. Nuclear disarmament was dominated by the left, but it was a Labour government under Clement Attlee that approved the development of Britain’s first nuclear weapons. The party has been seriously divided over it ever since. In 1989 Neil Kinnock, party leader at the time, managed to persuade his national executive to abandon his party’s policy of uniliteral nuclear disarmament. Yet only last week it was reported that several of Keir Starmer’s shadow ministers have put their names to a motion calling for Britain to scrap its nuclear missiles. Greenpeace offers five reasons to justify its demand for nuclear disarmament.

  • They cause “catastrophic harm”. Not only do they wreak devastation, but they have “long-term radiation effects that harm future generations.
  • They are “pointless” because they can offer no defence against the main threats of our era such as climate change, terrorism or cyber attacks.
  • They “cost us a fortune”. Imagine, they say, “if this money went instead to health, education, the fight against climate change, assistance to survivors, and other services to ensure human security.”
  • They carry huge risks of proliferation. Greenpeace concedes that an international non-proliferation treaty became a reality in 1970 with the aim of preventing non-nuclear states from developing nuclear weapons and getting nuclear states to reduce their arsenals. But it claims that those undertakings “remain for the most part empty rhetoric”. And it asks: “How can it be possible to claim that the security of a nation is based on a nuclear deterrence policy when at the same time other nations are asked not to use this means of security”?
  • And finally, they are “the only weapons of mass destruction which have not yet been (really) banned”.

Tom Harris, the former government minister and Labour MP, argues the opposite. He predicts that cinemagoers will flock to watch Oppenheimer “whose guilt over developing the weapon that ended World War II has made him a poster boy for advocates of disarmament everywhere”. Like many others he says that, terrible though nuclear weapons are, “they constitute a necessary part of our global defence network and play a crucial role in our international alliances.”

He attacks the “dozen or so 'peace' campaigners” in Starmer's Shadow Cabinet who “can only trumpet their disapproval because they live in a liberal, democratic country where dissent is tolerated. They have no counterparts in North Korea, China or Russia. And if the Western peaceniks ever achieved their goal, the only nations which would still wield the destructive power of nuclear weapons would be those that remain utterly opposed to our values. Would that be a better world than the one we have now? Seriously?”

Mr Harris cancelled his CND membership before he joined the Labour Party and became an MP in 2001. That was four years after Blair’s landslide victory in 1997. He writes in the Daily Mail: “I knew that electoral success couldn't be achieved without compromises on policy. That's what politics is about. Labour had to grow up before voters would take us seriously. But Britain's nuclear deterrence shouldn't be just a compromise. It's not good enough to say Trident should be tolerated because the electorate is not ready and the timing is not right to remove it.

“Any party that aspires to government needs to believe with absolute certainty that Trident must and will play a central role in our defence policy for the foreseeable future. It isn't about cost, even ethics; it's about a commitment to defending this country against those who would do us harm.

“And those people need to know that if they ever aimed a nuclear weapon at Britain, we would respond, not just in kind, but by wiping out their country. They need to know that attacking us or our allies will guarantee them and their citizens instant, fiery death.

“That's an uncomfortable position to take and you will find few opposition MPs willing to enunciate it. But it is explicitly the logic behind the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD).”

Do you agree with that? Do you believe it is true that the reason the Cold War did not become a hot war was because both sides had missiles pointing at each other which are capable of mass destruction on a scale we cannot even begin to imagine? And even if that is true, do you believe we can rely on the concept of MAD for ourselves and future generations? What if a deranged risk-taker assumes power in Moscow? Or Washington? What is somebody, somewhere, makes a terrible mistake?

In short, was Oppenheimer right all those years ago to see himself as the “destroyer of worlds”?

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