16 July 1945.
The very first nuclear explosion in history takes place in the American desert in New Mexico. It is the culmination of the biggest and most expensive military project of any of the warring powers, and it attracted scientists from all over the world.
Nobody who saw it ever forgot the moment. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” said Robert Oppenheimer, after having seen the incredibly bright light and felt the heat from the explosion from 10,000 yards away.
‘Oppie’ had been plucked from relative obscurity, at the age of only 38, to take charge of the top-secret Los Alamos laboratory, where the main thinking behind the invention of the A-bomb took place.
There, he had led a team of scientists from all over Europe and the Americas, desperately working against the clock to develop the Bomb before Hitler did. Those who remained when Hitler was dead – including Oppie – felt huge guilt that it had been used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki without any warning.
After the war, Oppenheimer faced a campaign against him led by Lewis Strauss, the chair of the Atomic Energy Commission. Strauss conceived a great animus against Oppie, which continued throughout his life. He forced Oppenheimer to take part in a hearing lasting three weeks, to answer charges that he was a communist and Soviet spy - and which removed his security status and virtually exiled him in his own country.
Among those who gave evidence against him was his former friend Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb. His evidence set scientist against scientist, and helped ratchet up a global arms race.
After 1945, Oppenheimer had become a well-known figure around Washington. pressing for openness about the weapon he had created – desperately trying to avoid the nuclear arms race he believed would destroy civilisation.
But these were seriously dark days in the USA. Joe McCarthy was at the height of his power – and anyone who stepped out of line was suspect. As Oppenheimer discovered to his cost...