May 24, 2024

Oppenheimer and the Nuclear Chain Reaction

Nuclear war is not inevitable, but it only takes one person to fire the first shot: a person with near-unlimited power. And once that act is completed, our fate will be sealed.

A 1963 portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the subject of the biography “American Prometheus” and a new film based on the book. Image Credit: Eddie Adams/Associated Press

This past summer saw the release of Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan, a biopic of the man who was instrumental in creating the atomic bomb that changed the course of history forever. The film ends with a message about the nuclear arms race and its threat, which persists today and can make us seriously ponder our future in an era of high dangers.

The second half of the film covers Oppenheimer’s inquiries and trials, where he is accused of being a communist. The man who tries to bring down Oppenheimer is Lewis Strauss, head of the Atomic Energy Agency, who had offered Oppenheimer the position of director at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. When they first met, as shown in the film, Oppenheimer exchanged some words with Alber Einstein. Strauss believed that the two had conspired against him, which motivated him to launch the inquiries against Oppenheimer. In the last scene of the film, though, the truth of what was said is revealed. Firstly, Einstein predicts to Oppenheimer how he will be treated in this era of peace now that the war is over. Then, as Einstein is about to leave, Oppenheimer stops him, and this exchange occurs:

Oppenheimer: “Albert. When I came to you with those calculations, we thought we might start a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world?”

Einstein: “I remember it well. What of it?”

Oppenheimer: “I believe we did.”

Einstein walks away while Oppenheimer has a harrowed expression on his face, and much like the rest of the film, we see what he is thinking. In this instance, he is visualizing how a nuclear arms race will lead to the complete destruction of the entire world. This means Oppenheimer must be feeling guilt that he began the process of what could well be humanity’s extinction. Or, as Robert J. Oppenheimer would call it, a “chain reaction”.

In Christopher Nolan’s new film, Oppenheimer, Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who oversaw the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M. Image Credit: Universal Pictures

The message of the Oppenheimer film’s ending carries weight because while so-called nuclear deterrence has avoided an Armageddon scenario, this may not be the case today or in the future due to rising geopolitical tensions, especially between China and the United States. Nuclear war is not inevitable, but it only takes one person to fire the first shot: a person with near-unlimited power. And once that act is completed, our fate will be sealed. Policywise, nuclear weapons have been employed as a deterrence since the Cold War: a nation would not dare continue a transgression if its neighbor threatened to annihilate it with nuclear warheads. The wisdom behind this policy is that it will prevail as nobody wants another Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

To link this to current world affairs, when we look at nuclear weapons, it is shocking how many nuclear stockpiles still exist today. Today, several countries possess nuclear warheads in descending quantitative order, with the United States, Russia, and China having the largest number of nuclear warheads, followed by France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, and Israel. What’s more concerning is that Russia, India, China, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom are increasing the number of nuclear warheads they currently have: this can only lead to more tension and peril between nations.

More recently, in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War, Russia has issued nuclear threats, some of which have increased significantly since March 2023. While nothing has come of these threats, it is worth noting that it does not exclude the fact Moscow may decide on the nuclear option if the Kremlins see they cannot win the war by conventional means. The reason for this is Russia is, for all intents and purposes, an authoritarian regime much like North Korea, which has issued nuclear threats in the past, especially against the United States. The latest one was October 13th, when North Korea warned of a preemptive nuclear strike due to the arrival of the U.S. carrier USS Ronald Raegan to South Korea, citing the move as provocative.

Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un are leaders who possess a personality cult built around them, as well as being surrounded by people who always agree with him or “yes-men” out of fear of reprisals. This means there are not many checks on the power wielded by these leaders. Of course, they both have a lot to lose if they decide to activate the nuclear alternative, especially against a state that has more nuclear weapons than them, such as the United States. However, they also risk losing credibility in the eyes of their regime and the world to the point nobody may take them seriously again. For Russia, this is a slippery road, especially as they promised after the Second World War that they would never want to bring about the horror of nuclear devastation. Russia is also now a pariah state in the eyes of the community, and this would only make things worse.

International treaties like The Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) exist to stop the spread of nuclear weapons through forums and collaboration. The former treaty’s goal is the total disarmament of nuclear weapons, a situation to which states should aspire to eliminate the risk of nuclear destruction. There is particular hope for the upcoming second meeting of state parties for the TPNW, which will occur from November 27-December 1, which will help to solidify the treaty as the main instrument to carry out denuclearization thanks in part to the mobilization of youth groups and populations affected by nuclear testing. This will most likely lessen the threat of atomic weapons.

Nuclear disarmament can and should be performed, so we are no longer living on the cusp of destruction. Thus, Oppenheimer’s spirit can rest more peacefully. Should we fail to carry out nuclear disarmament, Oppenheimer’s worst nightmares could become reality and mark the end of our species. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *