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Oppenheimer’s Dark Legacy

Yuksel Durgut*

“We knew the world wouldn’t be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people stayed silent.”

This statement was made by American nuclear theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” to a media organization 20 years after the consecutive dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, who invented the first atomic bomb under the Manhattan Project initiated to develop nuclear weapons before World War II, was portrayed in cinemas last month.

The film titled ‘Oppenheimer’ is a 3-hour biographical representation focusing on theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s struggles, hardships, and the invention of the atomic bomb. The majority of the film centers on Oppenheimer’s work at the Los Alamos laboratory during the war and the subsequent political persecution he faced from government official Lewis Strauss. It has already claimed the title of the highest-grossing World War II film.

78 years have passed since the first nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Over 100,000 people lost their lives following the detonation of the first bomb. Three days later, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, resulting in the deaths of approximately 80,000 people.

The scale of destruction was so immense that no country, not even the United States, which dropped the two bombs, ever used nuclear weapons again.

The greatest effort in the creation of these two bombs belonged to American scientist Oppenheimer. He publicly expressed regret for the terrible legacy he had left behind while still alive. Like the rest of the world, he learned from the aftermath of the devastation that a nuclear war equated to global annihilation.

This led to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which was opened for signature by all participating states in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. The NPT is built upon three main pillars: disarmament, non-sharing of nuclear technologies for military purposes, and promotion of the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The NPT extended an offer to all countries for the negotiation of a more comprehensive and protective agreement. By that time, there were already five countries that had developed nuclear weapons: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and China (Nuclear-Weapon States or NWS). All other countries that joined the NPT committed to not developing nuclear weapons, with the assurance that these five countries would pursue disarmament and assist in the sharing of civilian nuclear technologies.

However, in reality, none of these five countries worked towards complete disarmament of their nuclear arsenals. Agreements were only signed between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The first of these agreements was the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), followed by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) – the only nuclear arms control agreement between the two countries. Lastly, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) focused on the elimination of medium-range and short-range missiles.

According to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published in 2023, the operational nuclear weapons count is on the rise due to modernization and expansion plans by nuclear-armed states. The inventory released indicates a total of 12,512 warheads, with 3,844 of them deployed on missiles and aircraft.

The proposal of NPT for a grand agreement didn’t gain acceptance from all countries. The main reason for this failure was the ongoing rivalry and animosity between countries. The world was already divided between those possessing nuclear weapons and those that didn’t.

The disappointment arising from the lack of progress in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, primarily held by the United States and Russia, led many countries to accept the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017. All five known NWS opposed and did not sign the treaty, citing security concerns.

It appears that the world is still ignoring the possibility of a nuclear war. According to the SIPRI report, around 2,000 nuclear weapons are awaiting orders for deployment in a state of high alert. The report highlights that the majority of these belong to Russia and the United States.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin continues to openly and covertly threaten the potential use of nuclear weapons, particularly in the context of the Ukraine conflict. The atmosphere of fear created by Putin’s threats regarding the use of nuclear weapons is engulfing the world. In contrast to Oppenheimer’s statement that “most people stayed silent,” the presence of certain individuals who choose not to remain silent threatens global peace.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus is a clear example of this. Furthermore, Putin keeps Russian nuclear forces on high alert, already in a state of red alarm.

In addition to the five major nuclear-armed countries, four more have been added to this list: North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India.

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Since their declarations of independence, the risk of a nuclear conflict has always loomed between the neighboring countries of Pakistan and India in South Asia. Both nations have conducted numerous missile tests capable of carrying nuclear warheads, showcasing their capabilities. Pakistan made its mark as the first Islamic nation to possess nuclear weapons.

Due to the lack of sensible leadership in North Korea’s regime, the risk of using nuclear weapons has always been present.

Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of Oppenheimer has hit the big screen with a runtime of three hours. While the film captures the road to the atomic bomb and its aftermath, many historical truths from that era have been left out.

The victims of the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, towards the end of World War II, were absent from the scenario. No Japanese characters or voices are included in the film.

The people living in Los Alamos, where the laboratories of the Manhattan Project were established, and in Trinity, New Mexico, where the bomb was tested, are also missing from Oppenheimer’s scenes. Many Latin American farmers, like the Japanese, have been overlooked despite their lands being expropriated.

The film will likely receive many awards, but the owners of the lands in New Mexico where the bombs were tested and the 180,000 lives lost among the Japanese have not been included.

In a world where modern weapons are more powerful, there is a need to look for the dark traces of the past, requiring both the silver screen and historical knowledge. The realities should never be relegated to the background, in the interest of not forgetting certain pains and not staying silent.

As nuclear theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said, “The world is not the same anymore.” It is necessary to bring laughter to those who cry in these final days.

*Yuksel Durgut is a journalist specializing in Global Politics.

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