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Good Letters

I read through the article breathlessly, astonished at the moral implications of what I was learning. When I got to the end, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying to begin to take in the import of what I’d just read.

The article was “The Private Heisenberg and the Absent Bomb,” by Thomas Powers, in the December 22, 2016 issue of The New York Review of Books. I’d been drawn to the article because, during the 1980s, I’d studied and written about the development of the atomic bomb in the U.S. during World War II and the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union which followed the war.

The U.S. wartime project to develop an atomic bomb, supported by Britain and Canada, was named the Manhattan Project. Its Scientific Director at New Mexico’s Los Alamos Laboratory was physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. The U.S. Army, intensely eager to create an atomic bomb before the Germans did, allocated immense resources of money and manpower to the project.

Finally, on July 16, 1945, the bomb was ready to be tested in the southern New Mexico desert. Oppenheimer gave the test the code name “Trinity,” thinking of John Donne’s line “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” The test was a magnificent success: that is, the detonation worked, the mushroom cloud reached seven and a half miles high, and the desert sand beneath the blast turned to green radioactive stone.

I’ve been to the site, now a National Historical Monument celebrating the Trinity Test. But to Oppenheimer, the test’s success became less than celebratory. He said later that what had passed through his mind at the moment of viewing the bomb’s power was a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Ever since I learned all this in the 1980s, Oppenheimer has been a sort of hero for me. Not because of his scientific achievement.  Rather, because of his literary and spiritual depth (shown in his familiarity with Donne and the Gita) and because in that line from the Gita he expresses a horror at what he and his scientific colleagues have done—a horror that displays a moral sensibility.

But now, after reading Thomas Powers’s article, my impression of Oppenheimer has changed. It was changed by what Powers—reviewing the newly published letters between German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his wife Elisabeth—reveals about Germany’s wartime bomb project. Here’s the gist of Powers’ presentation.

Heisenberg was one of the major physicists working in Germany during the war. He had already developed the “uncertainty principle” for which he’s best known. And in 1932 he had won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his role in the formulation of quantum mechanics. When World War II broke out, Heisenberg and his colleagues had already started work on developing components that could lead to an atomic bomb. But as their work proceeded, and they realized what a horrifically destructive weapon they were developing, they collectively had second thoughts.

In September 1939, Heisenberg and his fellow German physicists were summoned by top army officials. As one of the physicists later wrote to a colleague:

Because of this summons, the most intimate circle of atomic physicists…had convened in advance of the meeting. Speculation was that they would be asked whether they could build an atomic weapon…. [But] the group had agreed that such a dreadful weapon should, under no circumstances, become available to the world, and that it was their duty to refuse collaboration on such a project on account of ethical considerations. Such outright refusal could obviously not be voiced because it would be viewed as sabotage, if not treason. [So] the assembled group agreed to take the position not to deny outright the possibility of building an atomic bomb, but, in view of the present war situation, to make the point that it could not be implemented within a realistic time frame.

Publically, and even to his wife during the war, Heisenberg always maintained that the German physicists “had been spared the difficult moral decision of whether we should build an atomic bomb.” But now, thanks to these letters and Thomas Powers’s article expanding on the subject, we know that Heisenberg’s and his colleagues’ action was a profoundly moral decision: they creatively found a way to say no to the bomb without actually saying the word “no.” In effect, they were a resistance group against Hitler.

Here’s how Powers ends his article:

In the thirty years that remained to him, whenever Heisenberg was asked to explain the German “failure” to build a bomb, his answer was what he had written to Elisabeth in letters before, during, and just after the war—that he had stayed in Germany because it needed him, and he had been spared the difficult moral decision of whether to build a bomb by the impossible immensity of the task—exactly what you might expect to hear from a man who didn’t want to do it, and found a way to say no.

What took my breath away, reading this article, was two-pronged. First was Heisenberg’s moral courage in implicitly saying no to the bomb, at great risk (should the German Army discover the physicists’ true motive). But simultaneously came my necessary re-assessment of Oppenheimer and his colleagues, who never said no. (After the Trinity Test, they went right on to design the bombs which would be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

Alas, Oppenheimer can no longer be my wartime physicist hero. His place as moral actor has been taken by Heisenberg.

As I think about all this now, as we are plunged into a new national crisis, I wonder: who will emerge as our risk-taking moral heroes?

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

The above image of Werner Heisenberg is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.


  1. David W. Landrum on March 27, 2017 at 5:48 am

    I’m currently reading American Prometheus, a biography of Oppenheimer. It is long, detailed, fascinating. I have not yet got to the portion that deals with his thinking on the ethics of what he did. Will be fascinating to read. (I started reading the book to look into this very question.)

    • Peggy Rosenthal on March 27, 2017 at 6:27 am

      Wonderful! Oppenheimer was a very complex person, and so was his ethics. I plan to write a future post on this.

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