In a 1965 documentary, The Decision to Drop the Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been the scientific director of the American effort to build an atomic bomb during World War II, described his emotions on witnessing the first nuclear detonation. He said, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multiarmed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that one way or another.”
It is mesmerizing television. (You can watch the clip on atomicarchive.com.) Oppenheimer–pale, penitent, emaciated, and already elderly at 61–cannot face the camera. He looks down as he speaks. His manner is not tentative–he knows precisely which words he wishes to employ–but painfully subdued. He blinks, he looks away, and at one point he actually seems to wipe away a tear.
This legendary recollection, which today appears in every account of July 16, 1945, may have been theater. His brother Frank, who was at the Trinity test site that day, remembered that Oppenheimer said simply, “It worked.” William Laurence, a New York Times reporter who interviewed Oppenheimer a few hours after the explosion, wrote in his 1959 history, Men and Atoms: The Discovery, the Uses, and the Future of Atomic Energy, that he would never forget the “shattering impact” of the quotation. But Laurence’s initial account, published in the Times in September 1945, has no reference to the Bhagavad Gita. The earliest version of the story occurs in a profile of Oppenheimer published by Time magazine in late 1948.
It doesn’t matter. Whether Oppenheimer invented the story of a sudden, vertiginous consciousness of mankind’s new destructive powers or imagined years later that he had thought or said such a thing, the documentary shows a sincerely suffering human being.
Oppenheimer has become a secular saint because he opposed building an early version of the hydrogen bomb when he was chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. That opposition led to his persecution by anticommunists and a public hearing to investigate his loyalty, after which his security clearance was permanently revoked because of what were called his “defects” of character. Since his death, biographies have represented him as a cultured leftist intellectual at odds with brutish right-wing militarists. But the physicist’s attitude to the nuclear bomb–and to the capacity of technology to be used for both moral and immoral ends–was more complicated.