Robert Oppenheimer (1904

Raised in a cultured and well-to-do family in New York, a family of German-Jewish origin, Robert Oppenheimer was a sensitive and brilliant child. Once in charge of military nuclear research, he was torn between the need to develop atomic weapons in the United States before the Nazis got it, and ethical questions that prompted him instead to refrain from develop this weapon.

A view of the interior of Los Alamos National Laboratory as researchers work on a nuclear testing project in 1974
A view of the interior of Los Alamos National Laboratory as researchers work on a nuclear testing project in 1974

©Getty
– Photo by Atomic Energy Commission

Melancholic as a teenager, Oppenheimer absorbs his anguish in New Mexico by taking a walk there with a classmate and a teacher. Their walks lead them very close to the future site of Los Alamos, the future secret laboratory, established in the desert, where the Manhattan Project will be developed.

As a student, Oppenheimer went to Germany and England and met the most brilliant physicists of his generation. In 1945, he was recruited by General Leslie Grooves to federate a team of researchers capable of developing an atomic bomb. The mission is accomplished in a remarkable way, Oppenheimer being a hard worker with infectious enthusiasm. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are bombed, much to Oppenheimer’s regret. In October 1945, he obtained an appointment with President Truman to which he said: “I have blood on my hands.” Truman is furious because he has taken on even more responsibility than Oppenheimer: “CIt’s not for the physicist to complain“. The alliance between civilian Oppenheimer and the military produces sparks that lead, in April 1954, to the establishment of a commission of inquiry into Julius Robert Oppenheimer.

Excerpt from “Culture et destin” (1961), in which Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes receives Jacques Prévert, who talks about homo sapiens and the atomic bomb

3 mins

He is accused of having friendship for the Soviets, which is false. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, is on the left, and has been for a long time. He never joined the Communist Party but he has friends there, and his wife was a member. He also expressed his reservations about the H-bomb in preparation, a thousand times more powerful than the A-bomb. Oppenheimer still pleads for the sharing of the secrets of making the bomb with the USSR, since the war is over. This position does not work in his favor. After two bombs explode in Japan, Oppenheimer no longer believes in nuclear deterrence. He wants the research to focus on civilian energy only. The three-week hearing will be a mock trial after which Oppenheimer will not only be disheartened and exhausted, but also removed from the General Advisory Committee. This body had been set up after the war to give direction to American nuclear policy.

Refusing to sign the slightest petition against nuclear power, Oppenheimer directed, until 1966, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Robert Oppenheimer and television journalist Edward R. Murrow (right) at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study (1954)
Robert Oppenheimer and television journalist Edward R. Murrow (right) at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study (1954)

©Getty
-Bettmann collection

It is this tension between research and ethics, and the originality of this scientist that the documentary highlights thanks to the contributors and the archives.

To talk about it

The radioactive plume from the bomb dropped on the city of Nagasaki, seen 9.6 km away, in Koyagi-jima, Japan, August 9, 1945.
The radioactive plume from the bomb dropped on the city of Nagasaki, seen 9.6 km away, in Koyagi-jima, Japan, August 9, 1945.

©Getty
– Photo by Hiromichi Matsuda/Handout from Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum/Getty Images

Bibliography

Ina archive released : 5 featured columns (1962)

Excerpt released: Hiroshima my love (1959) by Alain Resnais. Screenplay and dialogues, Marguerite Duras. Main actors, Emmanuelle Riva “her” and Eiji Okada “him”.

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Music

  • Requiem, Wolfgang AmadeusMozart
  • Stabat mater, Antonio Vivaldi
  • Saint James infarmery, calling all bars, cruisin with CabCab Calloway
  • Dobro, pollen path, answered prayersDavid Sylvian
  • The java of the atomic bombsAndré Popp
  • Silence, Charlie Haden and Chet Baker

Robert Oppenheimer's home in Los Alamos, New Mexico (USA, 06.2022)
Robert Oppenheimer’s home in Los Alamos, New Mexico (USA, 06.2022)

– Bruno Tertrais

Generic

A documentary by Virginie Bloch-Lainé, directed by Clotilde Pivin. Sound recordings, Yan Fressi and Pierre Bornard. Mixing, Allison Ascrizzi. Coordination, Anaïs Kien. Archives Ina, Delphine André. With the collaboration of Annelise Signoret from the Radio France Library. Production and web page assistant, Sylvia Favre-Steyaert.

News

1) French Culture

LSD documentary series "The Cold War in our heads" by Anaïs Kien, directed by Benjamin Hu
LSD documentary series “The Cold War in our heads” by Anaïs Kien, directed by Benjamin Hu

©Getty
-Fanatic Studio/Gary Waters, Getty

2) Cinema

Oppenheimer, a feature film by Christopher Nolan starring Cillian Murphy as the American physicist. Released in cinemas on July 19.

Why are we (very) impatient to see the Oppenheimer film?an article by Marthe Mabille for the magazine vogue (20.12.2022)

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For further

Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), architect of the Manhattan Project