Oppenheimer and the Anti-Nuclear Movement
The release of the movie Oppenheimer this month has sparked a lot of public conversation about nuclear weaponry, how it was first developed, and the moral dilemmas faced by those who worked on the project. This blog post will look at how the story explored in the film links to our collection at The Peace Museum, and at the response from contemporary peace activists working for nuclear disarmament around the world.
J Robert Oppenheimer is the scientist at the centre of the new film, which largely focuses on his work on The Manhattan Project. The US project, which ran from 1942 to 1946, saw a team of scientists develop two types of atomic bombs, one of which was tested in New Mexico in July 1945. This type of bomb would go on to be used in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a month later, an event which Oppenheimer told President Truman made him feel that he “had blood on his hands”. The initial blasts killed an estimated 214,000 civilians, with many thousands more dying in the following years as a result of radiation sickness.
While his opposition to continued nuclear development, and past ties to the Communist Party, saw him go to trial in 1954 and lose his position working with the government, Oppenheimer’s concerns about nuclear weapons did have an impact. His influence on President Eisenhower could be seen within his 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech, which highlighted the importance of using nuclear research for peaceful development rather than war. Although some have argued that the message of this speech was not meant sincerely, the phrase ‘Atoms for Peace’ was used by peace activists in the years following, as seen on some of these badges from our collection:
One figure from the Manhattan project who didn’t make it to the big screen is Professor Joseph Rotblat. Rotblat was the only scientist who left the project, upon realizing the potential devastation that the atomic bomb could cause, and the fact that Nazi Germany was not developing similar weapons. He spent the rest of his life campaigning for the abolition of nuclear weapons, including founding the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs; he received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1995 for his work with Pugwash. Upon his death in 2005, The Peace Museum received a number of his personal items, including his glasses, typewriter, and this calculator.
Estate of Joseph Rotblat
The release of the film has led to mixed responses from peace groups, with some suggesting it failed to show the true horrors caused by the testing and deployment of the atomic bombs, and some seeing it as an opportunity to highlight the importance of disarmament today. Amongst those groups keen to use the release of the film to open discussions around nuclear disarmament is the Nuclear Free Local Authorities, who have emphasised that the issues explored in the film remain pertinent today. In a recent media release, NFLA Steering Committee Chair Councillor Lawrence O’Neill said:
“Faced by the awful, awesome might of nuclear weapons, it is understandable for individuals, or even Councils, to feel powerless against the threat, but we can all do something to work to make our world more peaceful and nuclear free. Even Oppenheimer and many of the prominent scientists who played a part in the development of the atomic bomb, such as Albert Einstein and Joseph Rotblat, grew to revile it and to instead dedicate themselves to disarmament.”
The film has certainly made Oppenheimer a household name for a new generation, who may not have been familiar with his work or later opposition to nuclear weapons. At the same time, the film has faced criticism from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, amongst others, for failing to show the negative impact of the project. Carol Turner, co-chair from the London branch of CND, said:
“The overall impact of the film is unbalanced – people leave the theatre thinking how exciting a process it was, not thinking ‘God, this was a terrible weapon of mass destruction and look what’s happened today’”
Oppenheimer’s reservations were in part due to a fear of an escalating arms race if the US was to continue developing more powerful weapons. Since the 1950s, the nuclear arsenals of countries around the world have grown substantially, with 9 countries now possessing nuclear weapons. While these weapons bear some relation to those created during the Manhattan Project, they are much more powerful than those developed by Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists – some are up to 80 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
One of the aims of The Peace Museum is to make our audiences think about violence and experiences of war, and to tell the stories both of peacemakers from the past, and those who are working to make the world a better place now. You can see some of the objects from our collection, including the personal items of Joseph Robtlat, on our collections site here.
NFLA media release,24 July 2023