FAIRFAX, Va. - During his 63 years (190467), J. Robert Oppenheimer engaged all the great transformative forces that roiled the 20th century: quantum physics, with its new understanding of the universe; the communist movement, with its alternative vision of capital and labor; and the Manhattan Project, with its atomic weapon that immediately threatened the world's security, sanctity and sanity.
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer sought to exorcise the demon he had strived so mightily to conceive. In this effort to prevent a nuclear arms race, he failed. The continued proliferation of nuclear weapons today links his nuclear world to ours, and Oppenheimer, "Father of the Atomic Bomb," to the president of the United States.
On April 5, 2009, President Obama took up Oppenheimer's cause. Speaking in Prague, he noted, "The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War." Nuclear proliferation has escalated, nuclear testing has continued, terrorists are trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and the technology necessary to produce them is more widespread, he reported.
With that historic speech President Obama brought the central goal of Oppenheimer's postwar life full circle. In October 1945, he had told President Truman how dangerous nuclear weapons would be to human survival, but Truman countered with the advantages of our atomic monopoly. Oppenheimer's warnings that advantages would be short-lived while the threat would grow and last forever went unheeded.
Oppenheimer was guilty of insufficient enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, which he viewed - in President Ronald Reagan's words - as "totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on Earth and civilization."
Three years before President Obama's Prague speech, a variant of this view was promoted by a most surprising quartet: former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Sen. Sam Nunn. On Jan. 4, 2007, these longtime supporters of the U.S. nuclear arsenal wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal arguing for "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons."
"Nuclear weapons today present tremendous dangers, but also a historic opportunity," they stated. "U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage - to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world."
Oppenheimer would have gladly endorsed that letter for it says what he tried to tell President Truman, Congress and the military. But he didn't need to - President Obama did it for him.
Martin Sherwin is co-author of "American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer." He teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
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