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In 1965, Oppenheimer told the New York Times Magazine, “I never regretted, and do not regret now, having done my part of the job.” But he also said to Harry ­Truman, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” In truth, he appears to have felt both emotions at once. The nuclear bomb might never have been built without Oppenheimer’s energetic leadership, and he fought hard to see it dropped on civilians at Nagasaki and Hiroshima; but he also thought that its use was mass murder. He justified his role on the grounds that the bomb was necessary to win the war and that it might be a deterrent to future wars, ushering in Immanuel Kant’s era of perpetual peace.

More interesting, Oppenheimer believed that technology and science had their own imperatives, and that whatever could be discovered or done would be discovered and done. “It is a profound and necessary truth,” he told a Canadian audience in 1962, “that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.” Because he believed that some country would build a nuclear bomb, he preferred that it be the United States, whose politics were imperfect but preferable to those of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. When he later opposed building a hydrogen bomb, he was not being inconsistent, nor was he awakening to pacifism late in the day; he opposed an early, infeasible proposal, but he later recanted when the physicist Edward Teller proposed a “technically sweet” design.

Oppenheimer was a fatalist about the evolution of technology and science, which goes some way to explaining his attraction to the deeply fatalistic Gita. Consistent with Vishnu’s teaching to Prince Arjuna, Oppenheimer thought it our duty to perform, as best we can, the jobs that our historical moment allots us. (This aspect of his thinking has been described by the historian James Hijaya in an essay, “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”) He looked to humanity’s most progressive institutions to restrain the malignant use of technology. Oppenheimer was asked to build a nuclear bomb, and he hoped reason would dictate that it be used twice, in a just war, and then never again.

Well, so far at least, his ghost must be less troubled than the disturbed figure who appeared in that old documentary. But history lasts a very long time.

Write to me at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com

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Credit: Mark Ostow

Tagged: Computing

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