9 min read

Oppenheimer Beach

Oppenheimer Beach

In The Idiot Dostoevsky wrote, “God has such gladness every time he sees from heaven that a sinner is praying to Him with all his heart, as a mother has when she sees the first smile on her baby's face.”– It is spoken by the protagonist, Prince Myshkin, who is a Christ-like figure. The quote is about the joy that God feels when a sinner prays to him with all their heart. Dostoevsky believed that God is a loving and compassionate being who wants to forgive sinners. He also believed that even the most hardened sinner can find redemption if they turn to God with a sincere heart. The quote from The Idiot expresses this belief. It suggests that God is as overjoyed when a sinner prays to him as a mother is when she sees the first smile on her baby's face; it shows a capacity for humanity, for sensitivity, and well, the tragedy of Toni Oppenheimer, born in the shadow of, her father, Robert Oppenheimer's sins, and raised in the shadow of its consequences, and so too of the anti-nuclear movement that sprung forth from this era, is that this capacity was overmatched at the scale of the new era of a nuclear state. Redemption is possible, but you have to be willing to pursue it without it being probable. When one is fundamentally powerless to affect change, as Toni perhaps felt she was, on any level in society, she could at least be best remembered for an act of sincerity and preservation of a world that, for the most part, could no longer exist.

In The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg tells a possibly apochryphal story about Donald Trump shortly before taking office: while the President-Elect is being briefed about the use of the nuclear codes, he asks the logical question about their (lack of use), to which he is told their existence, and the threat of their use is potent enough to get the desired result without actually using them. Oppenheimer, unfortunately, did not anticipate that their use would be necessary to make the threat of their existence comprehensible to force that outcome in the future, just as he miscalculated the evil required to threaten their use in the first place as a mechanism of mass death; it would be naive to suggest he didn't anticipate this in its entirety, but it would be instructive in his mindset to understand that he became horrified and baffled by the development of yet bigger bombs still.

Ellsberg wrote, “Whether rightly or wrongly, we are the only country in the world that believes it won a war by bombing—specifically by bombing cities with weapons of mass destruction, firebombs, and atomic bombs—and believes that it was fully justified in doing so. It is a dangerous state of mind.” This is the world Oppenheimer had hoped to prevent, the bomb being a symbol of a Final Conflict for humanity, a nation going beyond the pale, and war becoming obsolete, but helived to see his nation dig in deeper, worsen this sickness; it's not hard to see how this can cast a shadow longer than one can care to live. Oppenheimer missed the key piece of evidence, the fatal flaw in his roundabout approach to pacifism, essentially that this was never the way of the Allies, as Ellsberg puts it: “The atom bomb did not start a new era of targeting or strategy or war making in the world. Annihilation of an urban civilian population by fire had already become the American way of war from the air, as it had been the British way since late 1940.”– it was always going to get worse. This is the world Toni was brought into, by the man who lived under the weight of having to simultaneously defend, rationalize, and rebuke his role in it. You see in Oppenheimer the guilt the state, as a whole, should have felt itself– instead, it did not, because this is not a rational moral system, but an institutionally mad one, as Ellsberg called it, willing to embark on this in the first place.

None of this is to excuse or apologize for Oppenheimer, but it is to give shape and context to the role of guilt over his family, just like it created a sense of guilt for generations horrified by the routineness of mass murder this ushered in socially for the world, ostensibly in the name of a global fight against fascism, while committing an atrocity against civilian populations, and bringing about exactly another administrative institutionalization of fascism and imperialist terror for generations to come. He is an object lesson in various aspects of this dynamic– the house always wins, being the primary one; you can't behave as a radical or even meaningfully as an anti-war figure in an institution designed to first and only act in a warmaking capacity, no matter how much they rely on your expertise, you will not guide policy, and that is a hard way to realize you no longer live in a democracy, and perhaps never did, likely for the man but surely for the society he represented.

Per Kafka, “My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.”; a quote by Voltaire, “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.”

In the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer became increasingly haunted by the knowledge that he had helped to unleash a weapon of unimaginable horror. He often quoted the words of the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

These quotes by Kafka and Voltaire provide two not necessarily incompatible but opposing insights into the nature of Oppenheimer's guilt. Kafka's quote suggests that guilt is a powerful force that can never be fully erased, but proves instructive in the understanding of why one does what they do. Even if we are not necessarily, or even singularly, responsible for our actions that produce guilt, we may still feel guilty for the consequences of those actions and allow our behavior to modify because of it– this can take the form of self-destruction, but it can also take the form of owning a grave mistake, making no apologies for it, but advancing the notion that you, more than anyone, can speak to the harbinger it represented. Voltaire's quote, on the other hand, suggests that while guilt can also be a motivating force, if we feel guilty for the good we have not done, it suggests a moral calculus in neglect– would Oppenheimer have been derelict in his duty as a scientist not to speak to the dangers of nuclear armament, if he did not become an advocate against their use, whether or not he felt guilt for the creation of the atom bomb.

Oppenheimer's guilt, as it turned out, turned out to be a bit of both: it led him to, rather than seek forgiveness that rightly would not be forthcoming, indeed, become a vocal advocate for nuclear disarmament. He spoke out against the use of nuclear weapons and worked to promote peace and understanding between nations. He also helped to establish the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which brought together scientists from around the world to discuss nuclear issues. Oppenheimer's guilt was a burden that was, of course, his to carry for the rest of his life. However, it also drove him to try to make amends, metaphysically distinct from apology, it seeks to mitigate and instruct; his work on nuclear disarmament and his efforts to promote peace and understanding helped to make the world a safer place by bringing this destructive and pervasive force into the proper context, that this weapon should not have yielded more and more destructive weapons, but that it should have yielded such fear of them that war, as we knew it, became an obsolete concept. A naive notion, given for whom and under what circumstances the bomb was produced and used, but a logical and rational one, assuming good faith on the part of the global community, of which the scientific community was roundly in favor of.

But this essay isn't about Robert Oppenheimer, it's not even really about guilt, as such, it's about the shadow it casts, the one cast by unimaginable regret, and the presence it holds when what was done is unforgiveable, but you try anyway, because basic humanity demands it of you, knowing that the cost is tremendous and still not enough to repay it. This shadow of guilt, a dark hue around every moment from Los Alamos, may have manifested itself in the lives of his children, particularly his daughter, Toni; an avatar for what this set of decisions and consequences did to a society, subsequent generations, and indeed, the future trajectory of national hope.

In Killing Hope, William Blum cites Former Chinese Premier Chou En-lai: “One of the delightful things about Americans is that they have absolutely no historical memory.” – how this happens is the anodyne effect of American imperialist propagandization, of its global terrorism as necessary and just despite failing on the observable merits, a society that rather than  face the suffering of deep social and internalized guilt, a society inculpates the victims of imperialism as having had it coming (think about every time "communism" was why Korea and Vietnam "had it coming" despite admitting the wars in question were unjust; this accomplished much more completely in the case of bombing civilians in response to Pearl Harbor); a crazymaking condition for a society if there ever was one, being asked to tolerate, even cheer on, scaled imperialist violence in the name of neutralizing some vague threat to one's way of life in the imperial core.

By way of example, consider the magnitude of what propaganda to justify the world Oppenheimer perhaps thought he was preventing, but materially contributed toward, asks to tolerate. Again, per Blum: “While many nations have a terrible record in modern times of dealing out great suffering face-to-face with their victims, Americans have made it a point to keep at a distance while inflicting some of the greatest horrors of the age: atomic bombs on the people of Japan; carpet-bombing Korea back to the stone age; engulfing the Vietnamese in napalm and pesticides; providing three decades of Latin Americans with the tools and methods of torture, then turning their eyes away, closing their ears to the screams, and denying everything … and now, dropping 177 million pounds of bombs on the people of Iraq in the most concentrated aerial onslaught in the history of the world.” – this occurs using the same logic that necessitated the bomb, one built by scientists who were openly recruited as having an axe to grind against the Nazis, and built with that expectation, only to find that as their work concluded, that they were to use it on a different, functionally defeated, enemy entirely, and not even the Enemy proper (the military), its civilians. One can perhaps understand how a child of this transition in cultural memory might be deeply impacted in their sense of materialism, assaulted by a contradictory metaphysics, under the weight of a new global hegemon's insistence.

Toni Oppenheimer was born in 1944, during the height of her father's involvement in the Manhattan Project. She was a bright and sensitive child, but she also suffered from severe depression. She attempted suicide several times as a teenager, and she eventually died by suicide in 1977. It is impossible to say for sure, of course, whether Toni's depression was caused by her father's guilt, there is some evidence to suggest that it may have been a factor. For example, Toni's mother, Kitty Oppenheimer, had written that Toni was "deeply affected" by her father's security problems in the 1950s. At that time, Oppenheimer was investigated by the government for his alleged communist ties. He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, but the investigation took a toll on his reputation and his mental health, an attempt to wash the state's hands of Oppenheimer, whose work afforded them this unchecked right to combat imaginary enemies domestically; even those who made the hegemon most threatening weren't immune. It is suggested that Toni's depression was also influenced by her father's own guilt about the development of the atomic bomb; the dark hue around everything Oppenheimer himself acknowledged that he felt "a sense of personal responsibility" for, the deaths and destruction caused by the bomb. He wrote that he "lived with the burden of these thoughts for the rest of my life."

Of course, Toni was not the only child of a scientist who struggled with depression. Many children of scientists have reported feeling isolated and misunderstood, as they grew up in families where their parents were constantly preoccupied with their work. However, Toni's case is particularly tragic, as all death is, but significant for what it represents culturally, given the fact that she was so beloved by her family and friends, and after the death of her parents, that of the community where the family once lived in the summer, where she lived until she died, with locals naming the location Oppenheimer Beach, a location untouched by the testing of atomic weapons, distant from the society all of this was done in the name of, a place where a child of the previous, not blameless or without transgression but comprehensible nonetheless, epoch came of age unable to reconcile the new metaphysics of her society. An enclave of isolated privilege for its American residents, unaware of the world about to greet them, the last place on Earth, as Toni Oppenheimer saw it, to know what was coming, the vast apathy, the mass death to subsidize a way of life, and just as she felt out of step with society, so too would the subsequent generations be made sick by what this world cost– this is the real namesake of the beach, in a very real and perhaps unintended way, the reminder that things were never going to be the way they were before, that the Rubicon had been crossed, an extremity too far to ever look back.