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Aired Monday May 23rd, 2011 at 8:00 pm on KUED HD Ch. 7.1
J. Robert Oppenheimer was brilliant, arrogant, proud and charismatic. Under his direction during World War II, the U.S. became the first nation to harness the power of nuclear energy to create the ultimate weapon of mass destruction -- the atomic bomb. But after the bomb brought the war to an end, in spite of his renown, America turned on him, humiliated him and cast him aside. The question The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer: American Experience asks is, "Why?"
Featuring Academy Award-nominated actor David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck, The Bourne Ultimatum) as Oppenheimer The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer airs Monday, May 23 at 8:00 p.m. on KUED Channel 7.
Featuring interviews with Oppenheimer's former colleagues and scholars, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer presents a complex and revealing portrait of one of the most important and controversial scientists of the 20th century. The film traces the course of Oppenheimer's life: his rarefied childhood, his troubled adolescence, his emergence as one of America's leading nuclear physicists, his leadership of the Los Alamos laboratory and his tragic humiliation.
In 1939, the discovery of nuclear fission launched an international race to build the atomic bomb. In England, Germany, France, Japan and the Soviet Union, the world's best scientists were working covertly to create a weapon of mass destruction. In the U.S., the man leading that race was Oppenheimer, the atomic scientist handpicked to head the Manhattan Project's top-secret laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was tested in the Alamogordo desert. Less than a month later, on August 6 and 9, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, putting an end to World War II. Overnight, Oppenheimer was transformed into a national hero. But his newfound fame did not relieve his personal anguish over the destructive power he had helped unleash.
"He was a great supporter of using the bomb. But he understood all along that he was on the cusp of a new terror," says historian Martin J. Sherwin.
After the war, Oppenheimer recommended putting control over atomic energy into the hands of an international agency. Appointed a key advisor to the newly created Atomic Energy Commission, a position that offered him an important voice in Washington and a top-secret security clearance, he spoke out for moderation as tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States escalated. He advised against the development of the hydrogen bomb, a device with unlimited destructive power, and took a stand against building nuclear-powered aircraft and submarines. But to powerful Washington insiders, Oppenheimer was standing in the way and they wanted him gone.
They already harbored suspicions because of his connections to communists when he was a professor at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1930s. Although Oppenheimer himself never joined the communist party, many of those close to him had, including his wife and brother. Both Army Intelligence and the FBI considered the eminent scientist a security risk. His phones were tapped, his office was wired, his mail was opened and his comings and goings were closely monitored. In 1953, at the height of the "Red Scare," Oppenheimer's past connections to communists became a pretext to revoke his security clearance. When he insisted on a hearing to regain his reputation, Washington insiders made certain that he wouldn't stand a chance.
"The Oppenheimer hearings had a tremendous impact on the nuclear arms race," says Mark Samels, executive producer of American Experience. "Once Robert Oppenheimer's voice of moderation was silenced, the U.S. began building an arsenal of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and the Soviet Union followed suit."
"There are so many ways to look at the Oppenheimer story," producer David Grubin says. "For me, the idea that the loyalty of one of our most distinguished scientists could be called into question and the rules of justice set aside, all justified because we were in a war against communism, is a tragic reminder of how staunchly we must protect our freedoms, especially in perilous times."
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