james a. hijiya
, James T. Patterson’s
, David Halberstam’s
, Richard Rhodes’s
The Making of the Atomic Bomb
, andWalter A. McDougall’s
. . . The Heavens and the Earth
and it hasprovided the titles for at least two books, an article, and a documen-tary video.
As early as 1969 a scholar said that “Oppenheimer’s men-tal association at that blazing instant” had become “legendary.”
Shattuck reports that nowadays many children learn the quotation inschool.
The quotation is useful because it vividly conveys the awe-some destructiveness of even the most primitive nuclear weapons.There is more to it than that, however. As Oppenheimer supervisedthe invention of the bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, he wrestledwith misgivings about bestowing upon humanity the possible meansfor its own annihilation. He dreaded failure, he later told a reporter,but he also dreaded success.
“Lord,” he exclaimed to a colleague,
am become Death.” If Laurence published the “shatterer” passage before his 1959 book, Ihave not discovered it. The earliest publication of this variant that I have been able to locateis in
, 8 Nov. 1948, p. 77. The fullest version is in Robert Jungk,
Brighter than aThousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists
, trans. James Cleugh (NewYork: Harcourt, Brace, 1958), 201: “A passage from the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred epic of the Hindus, ﬂashed into his mind:If the radiance of a thousand sunswere to burst into the sky,that would be likethe splendor of the Mighty One—Yet, when the sinister and gigantic cloud rose up in the far distance over Point Zero, he wasreminded of another line from the same source:I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.” Jungk interviewed Oppenheimer before writing the book, and the quotation may be fromthis interview. If so, it could be Oppenheimer’s later extrapolation on the sentence originallyheard by Laurence.
Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography
(New York: St. Martin’s,1996), 174n; Patterson,
Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974
(New York: Oxford,1996), 6; Halberstam,
(New York: Ballantine, 1993), 34; Rhodes,
The Making of theAtomic Bomb
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 676; McDougall,
. . . The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age
(New York: Basic Books, 1985), 456.
Martin J. Sherwin,
A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance
(NewYork: Knopf, 1975); Peter Goodchild,
J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds
(New York:Fromm International, 1985); Richard Rhodes, “‘I Am Become Death’: The Agony of J. Robert Oppenheimer,”
28.6 (Oct. 1977), 70–83;
I am become death/ they made the bomb
(New York: First Run/Icarus Films, 1995). In addition, Jungk’s title,
Brighter than a Thousand Suns
, is derived from a preceding part of one variant of Oppenheimer’s quotation (cf. n. 3).
Philip M. Stern,
The Oppenheimer Case: Security on Trial
(New York: Harper & Row,1969), 81.
, 174n. My interpretation of Oppenheimer is quitedifferent from that of this scholar, who sees him as a “chastened Frankenstein” and a“Hamlet” (174, 175).
Lincoln Barnett, “J. Robert Oppenheimer,”
magazine, 10 Oct. 1949, 133.