A theater marquee promoting Oppenheimer.

Grove’s Theater marquee announcing the opening of Oppenheimer is pictured in Los Angeles California, on July 20, 2023.

(Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Oppenheimer: From Trinity to Doomsday

The service that the new Christopher Nolan film has brought forth, providing public awareness about nuclear weapons, demands that we cannot remain silent.

I attended this weekend’s Los Angeles opening of Christopher Nolan’s epic film, Oppenheimer. This must-see film provides a critical opening for an essential conversation about nuclear weapons and their role in our security and the fate of the planet. The film, notably released 78 years to the week after the Trinity test, chronicles Robert J. Oppenheimer’s life, both personal and scientific, from his vetting to direct the Los Alamos laboratory for the Manhattan Project, to the development of the first atomic bomb and through the difficult subsequent years and the active campaign to smear him.

The Film

The film does a remarkable job of raising public awareness in presenting the theoretical physicist’s brilliance and the struggles he and fellow project scientists dealt with in the application of that knowledge in developing the atomic bomb, its potential ramifications and risks, and even remorse that followed the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that resulted in the deaths of roughly 200,000, mainly civilians. Close friend, colleague, and fellow physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi expressed reticence before joining the project, fearing their work would result in the “Culmination of three centuries of physics to be a weapon of mass destruction.”

Oppenheimer voiced fear that failing to immediately contain these weapons would lead to an unstoppable arms race. Realizing that this containment would not be a reality in the immediate aftermath of the Trinity test, Oppenheimer said, speaking from the Bhagavad Gita Hindu sacred script, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The film’s end recalls an earlier conversation with Oppenheimer questioning their calculations of the nuclear chain reaction set in place by the nuclear explosion possibly igniting the atmosphere, saying, “We thought we might start a chain reaction that might destroy the world.” Albert Einstein responds, “What of it?” To this, Oppenheimer responds, “I believe we did.”

Today’s reality 

That prescient fear plays out in today’s reality. We have entered a new arms race in recent years with the modernization of all global nuclear arsenals. With current global arsenals estimated at 12,500 weapons, many up to 80 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the danger faced by all of humanity is greater than ever. This led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to reset their infamous Doomsday Clock this year in January to 90 seconds till midnight, with midnight representing nuclear Armageddon, the closest it has been since the dropping of the atomic bombs.

We now recognize that these bombs are far more dangerous than we had previously thought. The tremendous firestorms and radioactivity released with their explosion is only a small part of their devastation. While not burning up the atmosphere as feared by the Manhattan Project scientists, we now recognize the subsequent catastrophic climate change could lead to a global famine, following even a limited regional nuclear war, using less than 1/2% of the global arsenal. For example, a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, who have been on a war footing for decades, using 100 Hiroshima-size weapons, would potentially kill 2 billion people, or roughly 20% of the world’s population, by causing a nuclear famine. This has shifted the Cold War MAD doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction to SAD, Self Assured Destruction, as any nuclear war threatens all of humanity, particularly those most vulnerable and food insecure.

If we are to survive, we must change the way we think and critically ask what role nuclear weapons play in our security.

This knowledge goes unheeded by global leaders, with the United States alone spending over $90.3 billion in tax dollars this fiscal year, or ~$172 thousand dollars every minute, on all nuclear weapons programs as we work to rebuild our entire nuclear arsenal with enhanced nuclear weapons. The myth of deterrence is at the core the main driver of this buildup. Not to be outdone, every other nuclear nation is following our lead, bringing us closer to nuclear apocalypse. We sleepwalk toward the fear expressed by Einstein when he said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” With this knowledge, if we are to survive, we must change the way we think and critically ask what role nuclear weapons play in our security. In reality, they do nothing to advance our security while robbing our communities of precious resources. Rather, they are the greatest threat to it.

The Demand 

This is a scenario that does not have to be. We have created nuclear weapons, and we know how to dismantle them. At the height of the Cold War we had over 60,000 weapons and today have 12,500. What is needed is the political will supported by the public demand to work toward a verifiable, time-bound, complete elimination of these weapons. While it’s easy to feel paralyzed and fall into a state of psychic numbing, as described by physician and abolitionist, Dr. Helen Caldicott, there is much that is being done, and each of us can be part of this and play a role. The service that this film has brought forth, providing public awareness, demands that we cannot remain silent.

The Response 

We must move back from the brink of nuclear war. There is a rapidly growing grassroots, community-based, intersectional movement that is happening across this country and working to prevent nuclear war called “Back from the Brink.” Heeding this call and acknowledging the significance and urgency of nuclear abolition, U.S. Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) has put forth H. Res 77 that urges the U.S. government to lead an international effort to abolish nuclear weapons, supporting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and common sense precautionary measures during this period of negotiations that include: no first use of a nuclear weapon, ending the sole presidential authority for any sitting president to independently launch a nuclear attack, removing our weapons from hair trigger alert, and finally canceling the $1.5 trillion rebuild of our nuclear arsenals with enhanced weapons.

As of this writing, there are now 35 additional cosponsors of this U.S. House resolution. In our democracy, when the people lead, the leaders will follow. Everyone is encouraged to contact their representatives to cosponsor this critical House resolution. Those interested in helping disseminate information about H. Res 77 or distributing information at screenings are invited to download flyers at this Back From the Brink resource page.

In the February 1949 edition of The Atlantic, Oppenheimer wrote in his “The Open Mind“ article, “It is in our hands to see the hope of the future not lost.” If you, like I, are concerned about climate change, economic, social, health, and environmental justice or peace, it’s essential to know that none of it matters in the aftermath of a nuclear war. We must realize the intersectionality of each of these concerns and work together to eliminate nuclear weapons before they eliminate us, so that we can continue our work for justice.

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