February 1, 2011 Seth Perkins

Heroes : My Favorite 20th C Moral Drama

Official portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer, fi...

J. Robert Oppenheimer - Image via Wikipedia

This afternoon, I was introduced to someone from Oak Ridge, TN about a work related topic.  He introduced himself as being from the town that housed the Manhattan Project and needless to say our conversation quickly digressed to a piece of history that compels me.  The Manhattan Project was the US WWII effort to create the first atomic weapon.  When I was in undergrad, Professor Ostrower asked us to name two Americans in history we would visit with a time machine.  #1 on my list was, and is, the head of the Manhattan Project: J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man oft referred to as “The Father of the Atomic Bomb”.

“Why Oppenheimer?”, my professor asked.

Because I want to be able to talk one-on-one with the man who later compared the Trinity Test (the first atomic detonation) to a Hindu passage “I am become Death, the Destroyer of worlds.”  It’s one thing to read books and watch interviews, but I wish I could talk to him while he was in the mire.  “How did you reconcile your humanity with your duty to country and ‘the greater good’?”  My friend from Oak Ridge made the point that all those researchers felt the conflict.  I’m sure that’s true.  If you are a part of something of that magnitude and do not feel conflicted, maybe you shouldn’t be taking part.  Oppenheimer, as the project lead, though, had a whole other layer to contemplate.  I feel this story is one of the greatest human dramas of the 20th Century.

I don’t feel what Oppenheimer did was good or bad.  That’s not why I want to talk to him.  My desire is just to understand his process, his feelings, his humanity, because on its own scale, it is a snapshot of our larger human drama and the conflicts which shape our world, and the conflicts which shape our lives.  Sure, on a daily basis, most of us don’t deal with the invention of the single most destructive instrument on the planet, but nonetheless, our own moral dramas deal with the same core: self vs duty, love, hopes, and the compromises we make to advance the story.

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