Oppenheimer, the film, and the Manhattan Project
By Karl Grossman
Oppenheimer, the movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, is a great film, extraordinary, as most movie reviews are accurately saying, and so, so important.
Causing the formation of the Manhattan Project was a letter from Long Island, New York to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was signed by Albert Einstein who spent summers in New Suffolk on Long Island, New York.
It was 1939 and the splitting of the atom—fission—had been done the year before in Germany. The Einstein letter said: “This phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable—though much less certain—that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed.”
The aim of the Manhattan Project was to fight fire with fire—to use fission to create an atom bomb before Hitler and the Nazis did.
Einstein in the end regretted the letter. “If I had known that the Germans would not succeed in constructing the atom bomb, I never would have moved a finger,” he wrote in his 1950 book Out of My Later Years.
I first saw the two-page letter as a boy on a family trip to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, next to what was FDR’s home, in Hyde Park in upstate New York. It was there in a glass display cabinet. My sense: what an important letter!
Written on its upper right: “Albert Einstein, Old Grove Road, Nassau Point, Peconic, Long Island, August 2nd, 1939.” Below and to the left was to whom it was addressed: “F.D. Roosevelt, President of the United States, White House, Washington, D.C.”
On a personal note, Nassau Point is seven air miles from where my wife and I have lived for nearly 50 years, a hamlet called Noyac on Long Island’s South Fork, across Little Peconic Bay from New Suffolk.
Oppenheimer takes place largely in Los Alamos, New Mexico where the main work of the World War II crash program was done. Why then was it called the Manhattan Project? Its initial headquarters in 1942 was in Manhattan at the North Atlantic Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. General Leslie Groves, its director, was in the Corps.
The story of how several scientists, like Einstein refugees from the Nazis, found Einstein on the North Fork of eastern Long Island is amazing. It has been told by the late British journalist Alistair Cooke. Cooke gave this account over BBC radio as part of his “Letter from America” series. (Cooke incidentally had a home in Cutchogue on the North Fork.)
“Well, it began, on a drenching hot day in midsummer 1939 with two men, two refugees getting up in the morning and getting out a map and deciding to drive to the end of Long Island,” Cooke related. He said these “these two refugees, both Hungarians who had been run out of their labs in Germany, heard through the underground of their old friends who’d fled to various countries of Europe, two things. One was that there had been a secret meeting of German physicists, in Berlin, and that Germany had, quite suddenly and secretly, forbidden all exports of a certain kind of ore from the occupied country of Czechoslovakia.”
The ”ore” was uranium.
“These two refugees wondered, if the American State Department had any notion what the coincidence of these two items could signify.” But they were concerned that “if they had gone in person to the State Department or the White House they would quite likely have been waved away, or locked up as nuts.”
One of the scientists “remembered the old man, another refugee, but better known.”
This was Einstein.
“He might carry a little weight,” Cooke went on. “That was it, get to the old man, tell him what was meant by the equation: one secret meeting plus one export ban. But where was the old man? Well, one of them had heard that he was down at the end of Long Island, summering in a cottage rented from a local doctor. Doctor… doctor… wait a minute, Moore that was it? But now the place.”
One of the scientists “remembered all this, but couldn’t recall the name of the nearest village,” said Cooke. “Now Long Island is 120 miles long and full of place names. And the English names might be forgettable enough to a couple of Hungarians, but how about the Indian names? Aquebogue and Noyac and Mattituck and Ronkonkoma…and the like.”
One scientist said it was spelled “with a ‘P.’ They saw a name 90 miles down the island on the map in red letters, ‘Patchogue, that’s it, that’s the one.’ So they drove off. And they got out, and they asked in stores and petrol stations, ‘Anybody know the whereabouts of Doctor Moore’s cottage?’ Nobody had ever heard of him. They got into the car again and sweated over the map.” Then still driving they neared a bay—Peconic Bay—and one scientist said: “Could it be Peconic?”
“’That’s it,’ cried the other, ‘now I remember.’”
And they drove on. “Less than two miles from Peconic” they came to Cutchogue and “saw a boy…standing on a corner with a fishing rod in his hand. The old man [Einstein] was a great fisherman. ‘Sure, said the little boy,’ he lives in Doctor Moore’s cottage.’” The boy “climbed” into the scientists’ “car and he led them there. The old man [Einstein] came out in his slippers and they told him their news. And they had a hot hour explaining to him what it all [the splitting of the atom in Germany] meant or could mean.”
There was a second visit, Cooke related, by Leo Szilard, one of the scientists on the first trip, and this time Szilard was accompanied by Edward Teller, yet another refugee.
A ”bold and simple letter” had been drafted, noted Cooke. Einstein signed it. “The president got the letter.” And that led to the Manhattan Project.
In a book I wrote, Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power, published in 1980, I present a facsimile of much of the Einstein letter and discuss it and the Manhattan Project. Through the years since, nuclear technology has been a focus of mine and I’ve written more than a thousand articles and additional books and have been the presenter of many TV programs on the subject.
In 1999 I went to Los Alamos for an event in which the Nuclear Free Future Awards for that year were presented. I had been invited to be a member of a panel of judges for the award given to people involved in education about and also challenging nuclear technology.
The setting of the awards ceremony was right out of the Manhattan Project, literally.
Claus Biegert, head of the Nuclear Free Future Awards program, arranged for it to be held in Fuller Lodge, a main building among the original structures used by the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. Among those present was Peter Oppenheimer, son of J. Robert Oppenheimer and an opponent of nuclear weapons who warmly welcomed Biegert to Fuller Lodge. There are several scenes in Oppenheimer filmed in the Fuller Lodge.
I stayed at a motel in Los Alamos a few blocks aways—a motel the halls of which were lined with photographs of nuclear bombs exploding with their mushroom clouds.
The morning after the ceremony, I had breakfast at the motel at a table with Arlo Guthrie, involved in the awards program and long a musical advocate of peace. And here we were in a building glorifying nuclear bombs. But glorification of nuclear weapons has been and is still going on especially in places like Los Alamos that are involved in their production, thus having a vested interest.
Not only did Einstein regret signing the letter—he called it, too, “one great mistake in my life”—but Szilard was also left with deep concerns about a future in which nuclear weapons would proliferate.
Szilard in 1945 put together a petition to President Truman signed by 70 other Manhattan Project scientist asking the president not to use the atomic bomb on Japan without first giving Japan the opportunity to surrender and further declaring: “The development of atomic power will provide the nations with new means of destruction. The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction, and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available…”
Truman never saw the letter before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with accounts saying its delivery to him was blocked by Groves and Secretary of State James Byrnes.
Meanwhile, Teller then and through his life believed nuclear war was feasible and winnable. He led the development of an even more powerful nuclear weapon than the atomic bomb—what he called the “super,” the hydrogen bomb. His conflict with Oppenheimer over this is repeated throughout the Oppenheimer film.
I had a run-in with Teller in requesting the use in Cover Up of passages from one of his books that claimed “we can survive” nuclear war. I was told no. I quoted from it anyway.
Go see the brilliant Oppenheimer film.
Can the nuclear weapons genie be put back in the bottle? Chemical weapons were outlawed—put back in the bottle—through a set of international treaties after World War I in which their terrible consequences were demonstrated. The vehicle today for eliminating nuclear weapons is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, passed at the United Nations by a vote of 122 nations in 2017. It is now backed by two-thirds of the world’s nations and is international law.
The treaty bans the use, development, testing and production of nuclear weapons and also prohibits threats to use them. However, the nine countries that now possess nuclear weapons—which include the U.S., Russia and China—are not supporting the treaty.