When we were in Canada in July 2003 we saw enough US TV catch the hype when Christopher Nolan's latest ‘blockbuster’: Oppenheimer got its release.
This was an instance of serendipity, as I had just ordered Joseph Kannon’s ‘Los Alamos’, for my Kindle, having recently read his brilliant ‘Stardust’. Now here we were in Hollywood on the last day of our trip. Stardust indeed! With a few hours to spare and Wendy shopping, I went to the movies:
Oppenheimer, the movie - official trailer
In case you are not across the history of ‘the bomb’, J. Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the ‘Manhattan Project’, the race to beat the Germans to create the first nuclear weapon. As a result of the Project’s success, he was dubbed: ‘The Father of the Atom Bomb’.
The movie, based on the Bird and Sherwin biography 'American Prometheus' has been praised for its historical accuracy, the actors often repeating the actual participants recorded statements verbatim. The Kannon book is more speculative and covers different ground but there are facts and historical figures in common.
Oppenheimer, the movie, is very long – three hours - and much of it is about the politics – more ‘West Wing’ than ‘Dam Busters’. Yet, I was entranced.
And if you want to build a plutonium implosion bomb like 'Fat Man' (detonated over Nagasaki on 9 August 1945) it pretty well tells you how to go about it, not that plutonium is easy to acquire. 'Little Boy', the Uranium 235 bomb, dropped on Hiroshima, three days earlier, is in development in the background in the movie, as it was untested until dropped.
If 'Fat Man' worked they were reasonably certain that 'Little Boy' would too and they only had sufficient fissile material for one U235 bomb. For a lot more information click here...
But as the Kannon book reveals, that cat was out of bag, even before the successful ‘Trinity’ test at Los Alamos. The Russians were urgently trying to find out what their allies, the Americans and the British, were up to and used their sympathisers in both countries to spy on the program - the subject of hundreds of spy novels and movies. The Germans were less successful.
Among the problems for the Germans were that Werner Heisenberg, director of their program, had led them up a false path, possibly deliberately. So, they spent a lot of time and resources extracting 'heavy water' from sea water, useful for a hydrogen bomb but not without a 'trigger', and by the time they realised that they needed to enrich uranium or manufacture plutonium, they had neither enough fissile material nor the resources to do it. And before they could correct their mistake, the uranium that they did have was captured by the allies.
Both the film and the book allow us to speculate on what would have happened had Hitler won that race; and how imperative it was that he did not.
Both have characters fretting about the decision to actually use the weapon. Now on the Japanese. We get the impression that 'Oppie' was desperate to actually use it, while others thought the race was over. Both reflect on the ‘Communist menace’ and both also speculate on what might have happened had the Pentagon been the sole possessor of this super weapon.
Although meticulously researched, both the film and Kannon’s book are works of fiction, with some liberties taken. (Yet nothing on the scale of those taken in that travesty: ‘The Imitation Game’, allegedly about the real Alan Turing.) See: What Does 'Oppenheimer' Get Wrong?
We learn that ‘Oppenheimer’ opposed going further to develop the Hydrogen bomb. President Truman did indeed say "Don't bring that crybaby into my office again," but not at the point depicted in the film.
What could we possibly need a super weapon for, that is a thousand times more powerful, when we can already kill 130 thousand people at a time with a single weapon? The answer is of course MAD: mutually assured destruction. The end of civilisation as we know it. 'Dr Strangelove', another great movie everyone must see.
"Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!"
Wernher Von Braun was a controversial figure, as he had led the Nazi missile program targeting London. That program had employed thousands to slave labourers, recruited from Nazi concentration camps, to dig out vast underground caverns and to work on the production lines.
At the end of the war both the Americans and the Russians wanted the German technology and recruited German scientists and engineers to work for them. In return, the Americans overlooked their previous political affiliations and probable war-crimes, to the dismay of the Jewish constituency. This is the subject of another Kannon book: 'The Good German'.
|"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down..."|
In 1952 the USSR (Russia) surprised the world by launching 'Sputnik' the first artificial satellite; followed, in 1957, by the launching of Laika, the first dog in space, on Sputnik 2. Then, in 1961, Yuri Gagarin, became the first Cosmonaut.
The American program, initially based on the German V-2 rocket, and directed by Wernher Von Braun, had faltered from one disaster to another, until 1962 when newly elected President Kennedy, who had been critical of the program in opposition, declared that the goal was now to: "walk on the Moon by the end of the decade". America just made it in time, with that "one small step for (a) man...", in July 1969.
Of course, the real concern was mutually assured destruction. Space supremacy was essential in the event of nuclear war. How else could we wipe out those Ruskies, before they got us?
The discovery and application of atomic energy – unfortunately in this case used to murder hundreds of thousands of people – is a pivotal event in the progress of human kind, as suggested by the title American Prometheus, equivalent to the harnessing of fire.
It is one from which we cannot go back.
Since Los Alamos, Russia, The United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Israel, and North Korea have armed themselves with atomic weapons.
Only South Africa has given them up.
It was not until 1973, when Australia ratified the ‘Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons’, that our country finally renounced the acquisition of nuclear weapons (see: Surprise Down Under: The Secret History of Australia’s Nuclear Ambitions click here... ).
Other potentially nuclear capable nations, like Canada and Japan are also signatories. Yet now the US and Russia are facing off again over the Ukraine. Let's hope we can hose that one down soon.
The events depicted in this movie led to my birth and if you are younger than 78 to yours too.
Go and see Oppenheimer, you will think about it for days afterwards.