“The reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Delivered 2 November 1945, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, this speech was given three months after Hiroshima. Oppenheimer explored why scientists created the atomic bomb and considered the future cooperation between nations that would now be necessary. In 1942, Oppenheimer had been asked to lead British and American physicists in finding a way to harness nuclear energy for military purposes. The first atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico on 16 July 1945. Some years later, Oppenheimer described the reaction: ‘We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent…’
Biography in brief: Born in 1904, Robert Oppenheimer studied physics at Harvard and quantum mechanics and relativity theory at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. In 1942, as part of the Manhattan Project’s research and development work, Oppenheimer was asked to coordinate work on the atomic bomb, as he was widely acknowledged as a brilliant director. In 1945 he resigned and returned to California, although he continued to advise the government on the use and control of nuclear weapons. Although he maintained that he felt no guilt for his work on atomic weapons, he never denied his sense of moral responsibility. His speech at Los Alamos sets out his beliefs in international collaboration and the duty of science. He died 18 February 1967 in New York of throat cancer.
“In considering what the situation of science is, it may be helpful to think a little of what people said and felt of their motives in coming into this job. One always has to worry that what people say of their motives is not adequate.
Many people said different things, and most of them, I think, had some validity. There was in the first place the great concern that our enemy might develop these weapons before we did, and the feeling — at least, in the early days, the very strong feeling — that without atomic weapons it might be very difficult, it might be an impossible, it might be an incredibly long thing to win the war. These things wore off a little as it became clear that the war would be won in any case. Some people, I think, were motivated by curiosity, and rightly so; and some by a sense of adventure, and rightly so. Others had more political arguments and said, “Well, we know that atomic weapons are in principle possible, and it is not right that the threat of their unrealized possibility should hang over the world. It is right that the world should know what can be done in their field and deal with it.”
And the people added to that that it was a time when all over the world men would be particularly ripe and open for dealing with this problem because of the immediacy of the evils of war, because of the universal cry from everyone that one could not go through this thing again, even a war without atomic bombs. And there was finally, and I think rightly, the feeling that there was probably no place in the world where the development of atomic weapons would have a better chance of leading to a reasonable solution, and a smaller chance of leading to disaster, than within the United States. I believe all these things that people said are true, and I think I said them all myself at one time or another.
…But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing. If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.
…It is not good to be a scientist, and it is not possible, unless you think that it is of the highest value to share your knowledge, to share it with anyone who is interested. It is not possible to be a scientist unless you believe that the knowledge of the world, and the power which this gives, is a thing which is of intrinsic value to humanity, and that you are using it to help in the spread of knowledge, and are willing to take the consequences.
…We are not only scientists; we are men, too. We cannot forget our dependence on our fellow men. I mean not only our material dependence, without which no science would be possible, and without which we could not work; I mean also our deep moral dependence, in that the value of science must lie in the world of men, that all our roots lie there. These are the strongest bonds in the world, stronger than those even that bind us to one another; these are the deepest bonds — that bind us to our fellow men”.