At a press conference in Tokyo on Sept 5, 1960, physicist and former Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer was surrounded by a group of reporters from Japanese newspapers. Blinding camera lights and popping noises from photographers nearly ended the interview before it started.
“This country is famous for its optical equipment,” Oppenheimer said, wincing from the rush of light. “But perhaps we should stop.”
They didn’t. One cameraman was so persistent that Oppenheimer, lighting his pipe, tossed a match at him. “I won’t say another word until the lights are out.”
With the lights dimmed, one nervous reporter had a question for the atomic bomb “mastermind.”
“I should like to ask you — although the question may be a little bit naive — to say a few words about your feelings in coming to Japan as a man responsible for the development of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Ever since accepting the invitation by the Japan Committee for Intellectual Interchange (JCII) to deliver a series of lectures in Tokyo and Osaka, Oppenheimer expected this question would arise. Dressed in a suit and smoking his pipe, the physicist grinned, then said that “it is not a naive question.”
He took a moment to gather his thoughts.
“I do not think coming to Japan changed my sense of anguish about my part in this whole piece of history. Nor has it fully made me regret my responsibility for the technical success of the enterprise.” He paused, then tried to summarize: “It isn’t that I don’t feel bad. It is that I don’t feel worse tonight than last night.”
He was also asked another predictable question: Will you be visiting Hiroshima?
Perhaps jetlagged, his response was short and to the point: “I would like to, but it is not clear that it will be practical.”
Political tension in Japan surrounded Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty. Just four months before his visit, a crowd of at least 210,000 pro-Communist Japanese watched in celebration as protesters hanged and burned effigies of President Dwight D Eisenhower and Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, their faces resembling a “grotesque, leering puppet with big pointed ears.” A sign on the gallows in Japanese kanji read: “Kishi, Eisenhower, We Order You Transferred To Hell.”
The crowd wanted to send a message that they were furious with the newly negotiated U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and were demanding more favorable working conditions as well as nuclear disarmament. Eisenhower had been set to receive an honorary doctorate from Tokyo University in June but cancelled his visit due to security risks.
Oppenheimer knew all about security risks. He was one — at least according to a September 1954 decision by the Atomic Energy Commission. In the throes of McCarthyism, the AEC concluded that Oppenheimer, due to his suspicious Communist ties, could not be trusted with top-secret government information, and his security clearance was revoked. For years, Oppenheimer had been persona non grata in Washington, D.C., but welcomed by a world eager to learn more from the atomic scientist.
As Oppenheimer began his trip, he found the Japanese people grateful, even enthusiastic, at his presence in the country. Aspiring scientists were eager to learn from him, and the majority at least appeared to hold no ill will toward him for the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
While talking to the press at the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto on Sept 13, Oppenheimer was clear: he wanted to educate as many as he could about the importance of science. “[Atomic scientists] professionally involved have the responsibility to inform and explain what they know publicly, if allowed,” he said, perhaps in a slight jab at the American government. “They are responsible for imparting their fears to the government if necessary… this responsibility is not specific to scientists but is true to all others who follow their vocation and conscience.”
Then, he made his answer more personal. “Japanese people know that this is a time in human history of profound change and problems. I have the duty and hope to talk and meet your people about our common problems and about the difficulty which confronts us.”
One reporter latched on to these “problems” and asked him if he believed the world would soon face “annihilation” due to scientific advancements.
Oppenheimer gave him a quick retort. “I share that fear.”
During his trip, the JCII did an excellent job keeping Oppenheimer from any kind of public spat. Still, all he needed to do was pick up an English-language Japanese newspaper to read headlines about the lingering effects that his Manhattan Project team helped put into motion nineteen years ago.
From The Japan Times:
- “A-FALLOUT POLLUTION INCREASING” (Sept. 10, 1960)
- “GENSUIKYO SLATES ANOTHER CAMPAIGN” (Sept. 12, 1960)
- “LEUKEMIA CASES GROWING IN NAGASAKI, HIROSHIMA” (Sept. 19, 1960)
Perhaps due to the potential of Gensuikyo (Japanese for “The Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs”) protesters, most of the lectures were closed to the public, but the physicist did have at least one recorded moment of downtime. In Tokyo, there was an assembly of professors who met each month, their general committee name being The Society of Science and Man. The surviving transcript revealed an honest, direct man rather than what biographer Ray Monk described as Oppenheimer’s public voice, “courtly, evasive and elaborate.”
“The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish. This war, that has ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand.” –J Robert Oppenheimer, October 1945
In this safe space of intellectuals, an ocean away from his home country, Oppenheimer felt able to express himself without any kind of protectiveness. He criticized England as “a small society because of its inherent snobbery… [the elite] go to the same colleges, they meet at the same clubs and they frequent each other and read the same things.” More specifically, Oppenheimer took a shot at the English philosophers, saying they are “out of touch with science, they are out of touch with politics, they are out of touch with history. And what they are in touch with is themselves.”
The relaxed discussion also flipped to the lack of shame in the field of advertising, one of Oppenheimer’s true peeves. “[Advertisers] fill the air, the newspapers, the magazines, the TV screen and the very atmosphere with incredible and vulgar lies. Everybody knows this. It creates a background against which excellence withers and it is my great hope that you will be spared and will help spare your country from this pestilence.”
One moment on his trip through Japan stood out. On the afternoon of Sept 17, Oppenheimer appeared in front of a “capacity” crowd at the Asahi Kaikan Hall in Osaka. His crowds had been “large and appreciative” so far and that day’s lecture was labeled “Tradition and Discovery.” Different than his other talks in front of physicists and other like-minded scientists, Oppenheimer was looking to inspire and enlighten rather than inform and instruct. He started with a history of science, going as far back as the ancient Greeks and then on to modern times.
“When Columbus set out on his voyage, he wrote in the first page of his book, 'Jesus and Mary be with us on our journey.’ This was, of course, partly because of the terror of going into an unknown world and partly because of the realization of the great and irrevocable change his journey was to bring about. In this mid-20th century, we are in a similar position.”
Still, there was no turning back, even if a discovery, such as the atomic bomb, had become “a source of terror.” As Oppenheimer saw it, “many of us talk about living in the Atomic Age. I sympathize with this talk. But we cannot by any action recreate the world of 20 years ago. The knowledge of [the] atomic bomb cannot be buried away.” The physicist emphasized a need to continue having dialogues and sharing information to promote a “universal brotherhood,” then told the packed house a concern that applies especially to us now living in 2019. “There are strong temptations to reduce the world to smaller communities of specially chosen men. But I hope we will never yield to these temptations.”
Near the end of his talk, perhaps during a question-and-answer session, a 21-year-old American student named Ted Reynolds rose from the crowd and introduced himself. His family lived in Hiroshima and they had been active in protesting nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific, most famously in 1958 by taking their family yacht, the Phoenix, near the Eniwetok Atoll (a part of the Marshall Islands). Young Ted hadn’t come to publicly debate Oppenheimer. Rather, he’d been sent by his father to deliver an invitation: Come to Hiroshima, they ask. In the letter, which Oppenheimer accepted during his talk and would keep for the rest of his life, the Reynolds family was sincere: “[Hiroshima citizens] bear no animosity toward any individual for the tragedy which overtook them… their only hope is that there will never be another Hiroshima.”
The letter went on. “We can understand the delicacy of the situation, but I do hope your decision was not dictated by any feeling that you might meet with personal unfriendliness.”
Oppenheimer told Ted that he would love nothing more than to “quietly” see Hiroshima without the annoying cameras or press, and perhaps visit the recently completed Peace Park. For most of his post-war career, Oppenheimer had held complicated feelings about the atomic bomb, once confessing to President Harry Truman that he had “blood on his hands” (said Truman: “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again!”). Later, in a state of deep melancholy, he quoted a Sanskrit translation from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Oppenheimer never did visit Hiroshima. Again, the JCII did not want any trouble, and they were paying him handsomely to deliver talks as he enjoyed sightseeing, “tea parties” and honored “receptions” with Kitty.
Yet for a man who helped birth the atomic age and who grappled profoundly with the consequences, it may have felt somewhat relieving for him to see a country forgive and embrace the man who’d been dubbed the “father of the atomic bomb.”
After what ended up being an extended trip abroad, Oppenheimer and his wife returned to the United States. In late 1963, the stigma of being a “security risk” was lifted after he was awarded by John F Kennedy the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award (posthumously by Lyndon Johnson), for his work in theoretical physics. Four years later, in Princeton, New Jersey, Oppenheimer died of throat cancer at the age of 62.
Our next installment of the Japan Yesterday series will feature inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his connection to Meiji-era Japan.
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Patrick Parr is the author of "The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age." His work has appeared in Politico, the Atlantic and American History Magazine, among others.© Japan Today