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Did Oppenheimer Ever Apologize for the Atomic Bomb?

Did Oppenheimer's complicated feelings about unleashing the nuclear era ever lead to an apology?

By Matthew Jackson

Oppenheimer, the new historical drama from writer/director Christopher Nolan, is built around the atomic bomb. The film spends its first half ramping up to the famed Trinity Test of the first atomic weapon in the New Mexico desert in the summer of 1945, then spends the rest of its substantial runtime focusing on the consequences of that test, from the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the arms race that followed. Through it all, the film attempts to chart the complicated emotions of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) himself, as he reckons with what he's created. 

But one question is left unanswered: For all his second thoughts, did Oppenheimer ever apologize for the bomb?

Did J. Robert Oppenheimer ever apologize for his part in inventing the atomic bomb?

In one of the film's most memorable scenes, in the wake of the bombings in Japan, Oppenheimer visits President Harry S. Truman (Gary Oldman) in the White House, and confides in him that he feels he has "blood on [his] hands," prompting disdain from Truman. This conversation really did happen, according to Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's Pulitzer-winning biography American Prometheus, and it illustrates how Oppenheimer felt in the months and years following the creation of the bomb. What Oppenheimer did and didn't do with those feelings is a little more complicated.

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In his speech to the Los Alamos scientists in the fall of 1945, as he left the facility behind for other pursuits, Oppenheimer did not give voice fully to these second thoughts. As the Nuclear Museum notes, he felt that someone was always going to build the bomb eventually, and as the film illustrates, he felt that it was important that the United States reach that milestone first, particularly when it was clear the Nazis were also trying to develop an atomic weapon. In that sense, Oppenheimer's belief in duty made him, if not always proud, then at least resigned to his role in the creation of the bomb. 

But of course, that doesn't mean he had no regrets. The "blood on my hands" moment alone is enough to illustrate just how heavily the bomb weighed on Oppenheimer over the course of the rest of his life, and then there's all the time he spent lobbying for international oversight of all atomic projects, believing that transparency and openness would be the policy that might prevent an eventual nuclear war. He came to regard the bomb itself as "an evil thing," and believed that subsequent "super" Hydrogen bombs were little more than engines of genocide. Cleary, he took it seriously, and continued to take it seriously for the rest of his life. At one point, he even visited Japan, stopping in the country in 1960 on a trip with his wife. There, surrounded by reporters, he was asked if setting foot in the country had changed his feelings about his role in the bombs. 

“I do not think coming to Japan changed my sense of anguish about my part in this whole piece of history," he said, according to Japan Today. "Nor has it fully made me regret my responsibility for the technical success of the enterprise. It isn’t that I don’t feel bad. It is that I don’t feel worse tonight than last night.”

RELATED: The True Story of Oppenheimer’s First Love, Jean Tatlock, And How She Shaped His Views

So, Oppenheimer did feel bad, on some level, for his role in the bombings, but did he ever outright apologize? While he may have said something privately that was for some reason never recorded, so far as historical accounts can tell, the legendary physicist never offered a formal or informal apology for the bomb, its use at test sites, or its use in Japan. He remained concerned with the nature of the bomb as an existential threat to humanity for the rest of his life, but an outright apology never came. It is, according to Nolan, one of the things that makes the last two decades of Oppenheimer's life so fascinating.

“As with everything related to Oppenheimer, you can view things in very contradictory ways," he told physicist Brian Cox in an interview with Esquire. "If you look at it from the perspective of 2023, there are two ways to interpret his post-war actions. Although he was an eloquent and careful speaker, he never apologized for the bombings of Japan, nor did he express personal shame about his role in it. Nevertheless, all of his actions and policies post-1945 reflect those of a deeply guilty man, very aware of the consequences of his actions.”

Oppenheimer  is now in theaters; click here to pick up tickets. For more on the true story, check out To End All War: Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb, now streaming on Peacock.

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