Oppenheimer, the story after: Edward Teller & the H-Bomb

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Oppenheimer, the 2023 movie directed by Christopher Nolan, is one of those films able to teach us true, historical events through a new perspective. The world didn’t know in detail how J. Robert Oppenheimer contributed to creating the atomic bomb, and spectators had the chance to discover lesser famous aspects of this story. One of the most fascinating parts of the movie is the controversial relationship between Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, the scientist who testified against him after World War II and then led the research team that created the H-bomb, the hydrogen bomb, much more destructive than the one used in the war. Let’s discover how things really happened beyond what we saw in the movie.

You can watch the official trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer here on Youtube.

Oppenheimer, the story after the movie: Edward Teller & the H-Bomb

The plot of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer focuses primarily on how the American scientist ended up leading the infamous Manhattan Project that led to the construction of the atomic bomb. As we see in the movie, the original concern was that the Nazis would build the bomb before anyone else, using the recent scientific knowledge published in the years before World War II. Edward Teller was part of the Manhattan Project, working under Oppenheimer’s leadership, but he soon shifted his research toward nuclear fusion, a practice that could lead to a much bigger destructive power than the nuclear fission used by Oppenheimer’s team.

The relationship between J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller was initially based on mutual respect. However, things slowly changed after the test of the first atomic bomb (the Trinity test we see in the movie, which took place on July 16, 1945): the atomic bombing of Hiroshima took place just 20 days after that test, ordered by President Truman, and it led to more than 200.000 deaths directly and indirectly related to that explosion. At that point, Oppenheimer felt he had “blood on his hands,” as he will personally tell President Truman in October 1945. From that moment, Oppenheimer pushed to drive American research into the creation of smaller atomic bombs, supporting at the same time the constitution of an International Program to control nuclear proliferation.

Meanwhile, Edward Teller was going in the opposite direction. His studies focused on building a hydrogen bomb that used nuclear fusion, which would lead to the second generation of atomic weapons. In other words, while Oppenheimer worked to prevent nuclear development escalation, Teller was promising the American government to build the most destructive bomb in human history. After World War II, the planet fell into the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the Americans had evidence that the Russians were already developing an atomic bomb that used nuclear fusion (using the knowledge stolen by Klaus Fuchs directly from the Manhattan Project – this part of the story is also in the movie). The course of history was easy to predict: in January 1950, President Truman approved the construction of the H-Bomb against Oppenheimer’s explicit advise.

The H-Bomb arrived a short time later. On November 1, 1952, the first full-scale test of an H-Bomb took place in the Enewetak Atoll, in the Pacific Ocean: the destructive power generated by the explosion was 450 times bigger than the bomb dropped in Nagasaki. As a term of comparison, the Nagasaki bomb caused the death of 60-80 thousand people. 450 times 80,000 is 36 million people: more than the total population of Texas in 2023.

The H-Bomb was never used in any war in human history. However, it became the protagonist of global nuclear deterrence, the theory that would prevent an atomic war, relying on the awareness that the destructive power of these weapons will simply end the world.

The feud between Edward Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer became evident when Teller publicly testified against Oppenheimer in his security clearance hearing in 1954, after he was suspected of being a Communist agent. Teller will say that “he would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands than Oppenheimer’s.” His testimony will be determinant for the decision not to grant clearance to Oppenheimer, which will lead to his scientific exile in the Virgin Islands. The scientific community strongly criticized Edward Teller for his conduct. Still, the American government took him into great consideration for his contribution to the H-Bomb development in the United States. 

The development of the most potent H-Bomb didn’t stop among the countries that invested in this direction. In 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the infamous Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever developed in history: it was five times stronger than the H-Bomb tested in 1952 in the United States. The long sequence of events that led to the H-Bomb had its origin with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and the Manhattan project, born in 1942. They are considered the two fathers of the first and the second generation of atomic bombs and, ultimately, the scientists who transformed modern geopolitics.

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