How did J Robert Oppenheimer react to the first nuclear weapons test?
Historian and Oppenheimer biographer Kai Bird explains how the so-called ‘father of the atomic bomb’ reacted after its first detonation on 16 July 1945…
At the moment of the explosion, from all accounts, he turned to his younger brother Frank and simply said “it worked”.
A few days later, he was interviewed by a New York Times reporter who had been assigned to begin to gather the reporting and to reveal what had been created, once the weapon was used. And in that interview, the reporter asked Oppenheimer, what thoughts went through his mind when he saw the explosion. And it was at that moment that he referred to the Gita, the Hindu scriptures, and quoted the famous line, “I am death, destroyer of worlds”. So he had a very theatrical sense to him too. He knew how to get up on the stage and perform. But when the Trinity test actually exploded, he simply turned to Frank and said “it worked”.
During the three weeks between the Trinity test and the use of the bomb on Japan, at one point, he was walking to work with his secretary, Anne Wilson. I interviewed Anne and she told me that one day, soon after the Trinity test, they were walking to work together. And suddenly Oppenheimer started muttering under his breath – “those poor little people, those poor little people”. And she stopped him and said, “Robert, what are you talking about?” And he said, well, the Trinity test shows that the gadget has worked and now it's going to be used on a large target in Japan, meaning a city and there are going to be innocents, thousands of innocents killed – those poor little people.
So he was painfully aware of the tragic implications of the gadget. And yet what's interesting, Marty [the late Martin Sherwin, co-author of American Prometheus] pointed out to me when I told him this story from Ann Wilson, he says, well, you know, chronologically that's the same week that he was briefing some of the bombers who were going to be on the aeroplane that was going to drop the bomb. And he instructed them exactly at what altitude they should detonate the weapon to have the most maximum destructive power and that it should be dropped on the centre of the city.
Kai Bird is co-author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005). You can hear the full interview on the HistoryExtra podcast
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