J Robert Oppenheimer and India
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American theoretical physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, best known for his contribution towards creating the atomic bomb.
As Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, Oppenheimer led the so-called ‘Manhattan Project’ — and the team of scientists who worked to harness 20th century advances in nuclear physics for the purposes of war.
However, after witnessing firsthand the devastating potential of nuclear weapons, Oppenheimer became one of the strongest voices against their proliferation, and of the growing nuclear arms race between the United States and the (erstwhile) Soviet Union.
Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad Gita
Despite the job that he did, Robert Oppenheimer always had doubts about “bestowing humanity the possible means for its own annihilation”. After witnessing the Trinity Test, his reservations were amplified manifold. And like so many others, he sought the meaning of his actions in the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.
In 1965, speaking on the first-ever detonation of an atomic bomb, he quoted the Gita. “Vishnu (Krishna) is trying to persuade the Prince (Arjuna) that he should do his duty, and to impress him [He] takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’,” Oppenheimer said.
Today, Oppenheimer’s “I am become Death” quote has become inextricably tied to the nuclear age, an apt description of the terrifying and awesome destructive potential of nuclear weapons. It also provides insight into how Oppenheimer himself understood the atomic bomb and his role in creating it.
In his paper ‘The Gita of J Robert Oppenheimer’ (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 2000), the American historian James A Hijiya wrote that Oppenheimer used the Bhagavad Gita “as an anodyne for the pangs of conscience”.
“For an uncertain soldier like Oppenheimer, nervously fashioning his own atomic ‘arrow’, Arjuna sets a good example,” Hijiya wrote. “If it was proper for Arjuna to kill his own friends and relatives in a squabble over the inheritance of a kingdom, then how could it be wrong for Oppenheimer to build a weapon to kill Germans and Japanese whose governments were trying to conquer the world?” he wrote.
Oppenheimer, the Bhagavad Gita, Nehru
Christopher Nolan’s upcoming drama ‘Oppenheimer’ has sparked much interest in the life of its controversial protagonist. But few know that J Robert Oppenheimer’s career intersected with India in some noteworthy episodes. During the early 1940s, Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, was chosen to spearhead the top-secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Laboratory, New Mexico. He led the project that made possible the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands, and causing immediate Japanese surrender.
As he struggled with his conscience, he sometimes turned to the Bhagavad Gita for answers. In a television interview, while remembering the moment he witnessed the world’s first nuclear detonation, he said he thought of the words Vishnu (or more accurately, Krishna) says to Arjuna when revealing his divinity: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. ” The line wasn’t chosen simply for its gravitas. Historian James A Hijiya has argued that the Gita shaped Oppenheimer. He read it in Sanskrit (which he learned at Berkeley), browsed and quoted it repeatedly, and gifted it to friends. It was, to him, “the most beautiful philosophical song existing in any known tongue. ” Contrary to popular perception, Oppenheimer wasn’t likening himself to Krishna (the ‘destroyer of worlds’), but instead to Arjuna to whom Krishna explained that the warrior’s dharma is to fight. Just as Arjuna’s dharma enjoined him to aim his deadly bow at relatives, Oppenheimer believed his duty as a scientist during World War II was to deliver a bomb.
Despite defending the decision to make and deploy the bomb, its consequences convinced him that he had blood on his hands. Oppenheimer would become a steadfast critic of nuclear armament, hoping that the weapons would never be used again. Archival material shows that it is in this context that he made contact with Indian officials.
On February 10, 1950, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the Indian Ambassador to the US, received a worrying phone call. It was from an agitated Oppenheimer — then director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission. In a letter classified ‘Top Secret’, Pandit wrote to her brother Nehru, the Prime Minister: “Dear Bhai,…. [Oppenheimer] wanted to communicate something of a very urgent nature. ” But he wasn’t willing to say it on the phone, so would send word through an intermediary.
The message from Oppenheimer was that “work of a most ‘horrible and deadly nature’ is being done on the Atom Bomb — that step by step America is ‘deliberately’ moving toward a war of annihilation…For this purpose more and more Thorium is required and the US desires to stock pile all available Thorium. Oppenheimer has reason to believe that an approach will be made very soon to India directly and through Britain…The argument used for obtaining Thorium will be that it is intended for humanitarian purposes. According to Oppenheimer no such purpose can at present be achieved…India holds the key to peace at present …Oppenheimer ‘begs India in the name of humanity’ to maintain her present foreign policy and not be swayed by any pressure. ”
Oppenheimer knew of Nehru’s rep- utation as a postcolonial statesman who was publicly aghast at the human toll of atomic weapons. They had even met the previous year, when Nehru visited Princeton University, and was a lunch guest (along with Albert Einstein) of Oppenheimer. Nehru responded to Pandit’s letter saying that the Indian government didn’t propose to take any step regarding thorium. Pointedly concealing the identity of their informant, he continued: “I do not know if it will be possible for you to arrange a casual meeting with the person who sent you the message…so that you may have a personal talk. ” Ambassador Pandit’s papers don’t reveal more.
After the war, Oppenheimer became a celebrity-scientist, appearing on the covers of Time and Life magazines. But his profile would take a turn from which it wouldn’t recover in 1954. During the McCarthy-era hysteria about communist infiltration in America, Oppenheimer’s pacifism and associations with people in the Communist Party orbit led to his security clearance being revoked (a decision the Biden administration recently described as flawed and politically motivated). Pandit, witnessing the ‘Red Scare’ from up close, described it to Nehru as “like a page from a medieval witch hunt”.
After Oppenheimer’s downfall — we know from a new biography of Homi J Bhabha by Bakhtiar K Dadabhoy — Nehru invited him to India, even extending the possibility of immigration. The prime minister also commented on the targeting of Oppenheimer in a letter to Home Minister K N Katju. They were determining what to do about two young employees of the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta whom secret police reports alleged were communists, but were vouched for by the Institute’s director, P C Mahalanobis. Nehru explained to his minister that there were serious costs — to citizens and to the nation — if they were to persecute anyone with past communist associations, or even current communist views. The radicalism of youth often faded, he wrote, and targeting communists could even result in hardening ideology. What mattered was the individual’s character and whether their jobs had national security implications; “from where he can do mischief”.
Nehru would soon be defending Mahalanobis from similar accusations. As the statistician-turned-planner released a draft of the Second Five Year Plan in 1955, critics claimed that Mahalanobis was a Soviet-sympathiser and his Plan posed a threat to liberal democracy. Nehru’s faith in him didn’t waver, presumably based on the considerations laid out in the letter to Katju. Five Year Plans were critical, not confidential.
Mahalanobis was safe. But it begs the question: how would India have treated someone accused of being a communist, and working in a confidential domain? Like, for example, an Oppenheimer?
Nikhil Menon is the author of ‘Planning Democracy: How a Professor, an Institute, and an Idea shaped India’ and assistant professor of History at the University of Notre Dame