Have you seen the movie “Oppenheimer”?
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The physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer had a great influence on society—some say the greatest—because he spearheaded the development of the atomic bomb and thereby the end of World War II, but with the potential to end the world. We do not know exactly what would have happened if this bomb was not built and used for devastating destruction against Japan. You cannot do double-blind scientific comparisons in situations like these. Fortunately, that bomb and its successors have not been used again, although concern has recently increased with Russia’s threat toward Ukraine. Instead, nuclear energy became an alternative energy source to fossil fuels, though accidents at the plants have caused some devastation.
As a very popular movie, Oppenheimer really brings him to the masses, and thereby media coverage and commentary. However, it is important to remember that it is a retrospective movie and not necessarily an accurate portrayal of all that happened.
For all the military success of the bomb, Oppenheimer had moral ambivalence, perhaps best described with his own quote:
“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Actually, ambivalent mixed feelings are laced throughout his portrayal. On the other hand, President Truman, who made the final decision to drop the bombs, seems much more certain that this was the right thing to have done.
The Greek Prometheus myth is referenced in the title of the book upon which the movie is based.1 Prometheus is eternally punished by the gods for bringing the benefits and dangers of fire to humans.
There also seems to be an earlier reference to the Adam and Eve story about choosing knowledge over ignorance. In a startling scene from his college years, Oppenheimer leaves an apple he has poisoned on the desk of his tutor, but takes it away just in time. Apparently, that led to some required psychotherapy, with unclear results. Later, with Freud and other psychiatric books in the background, he begins a personal and sexual relationship with a woman in training to become a psychiatrist. He married another woman, but this affair continued until her death by apparent suicide in 1944 after he ended it.
He is viewed as a hero after the bomb’s success, though he regretted that it was not available earlier to help others against the Nazi genocidal goal. However, about a decade later he loses his security clearance under a Kangaroo court, which is only restored posthumously last year. Nevertheless, he still goes on to lead a productive think tank.
Probably most in our field would be interested in his character as a person, along with that of some of his colleagues. For “Oppie,” there are some startling and inventive depictions of flashbacks, dissociation, temptations, fears, brilliance, naivety, and flashing blue eyes.
The last part of the movie portrays organizational politics, with which I have had some familiarity, especially the danger of encountering combined jealously and humiliation. Some may also be reminded of the destructiveness of for-profit managed health care with its dual ethical allegiances.2
I am most reminded of the psychologist Timothy Leary and psychedelics. Psychedelics, it could be said metaphorically, is the atomic energy of the mind, with great potential for harm or benefits. In that respect, Leary is psychiatry’s Oppenheimer. Psychedelics were federally outlawed and he was imprisoned off and on by the 1970s. It appears that he never had second thoughts, nor moral reservations, about advocating and using them until his death in 1996. Recently, there is a second coming of their potential benefits.3
Now the world is confronting the potential benefits and harms of artificial inteligence. We in medicine and psychiatry try to follow the Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm. It is an ideal for living worth pursuing by anyone, because assessing harm versus benefits is part and parcel of most everything we do, whether that is done consciously or not.
In case you are wondering, as portrayed in the movie, did I think that the benefits of the bombing were worth the accompanying harms? With anguish, yes. Did I think that the harms, which seemed to be only minimally covered, could have been less and better addressed during and after the use of the atomic bombs? Yes. And you?
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.
1. Bird K, Sherwin M. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Vintage; 2006.
2, Moffic HS. The Ethical Way: Challenges & Solutions for Managed Behavioral Healthcare. Jossey-Bass; 1997.
3. Moffic HS. The road less taken: the rise and fall and second coming of psychedelics. Capital Psychiatry. 2022;3(1):12-17.