Oppenheimer's great forgotten cause

Oppenheimer's great forgotten cause
Published: Mar 31, 2024
Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer believed there was only one way to save the world from Armageddon. Were they dreaming?

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Garry Davis' fingers on his world passport. They are still issued, and accepted in some countries. [o]


J. Robert Oppenheimer sat in the Oval Office, wringing his hands. The ‘father of the atomic bomb’ was meeting President Harry Truman for the first time. “Mr. President,” said Oppenheimer, “I feel I have blood on my hands.”

And he did. Just a few weeks earlier, two atom bombs had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and 200,000 people had died or would die horrible deaths. The famous physicist had come to persuade Truman, in a scene accurately dramatized in the film Oppenheimer, that the Soviets would soon get the Bomb and another war would mean the end of civilization. Oppenheimer thought he had a way of avoiding this catastrophe. But his guilty outburst angered the President and he was dismissed. Later Truman would refer to Oppenheimer as a 'cry-baby.'

The solution that Oppenheimer wanted was for nuclear weapons to be placed under what he called "international control." And, if control of the ultimate weapon were international, it would effectively mean a world government.


Nationalism is the measles of the human race.


Today, world government may seem either alarming or ridiculously utopian, something out of Star Trek. Yet in the 1940s it was a central part of the postwar debate. Albert Einstein was one of its strongest proponents. “There is no salvation for civilization, or even the human race,” he wrote, “other than the creation of a world government.” For a while, even President Truman came to support what would have amounted to a government for the whole world. The story of how this happened – and how the idea failed – begins with the people who built the Bomb.

In Los Alamos, the secret town built high on a New Mexican mesa, many of the scientists who designed and built the first atomic weapons came to believe that they should not be used. Work on the Bomb had been set in motion when Einstein had co-written the letter to influence the late President Roosevelt to authorize the project, fearing Hitler was already doing so. But Hitler was dead and now Japanese civilians were the targets. A majority of Los Alamos scientists wanted a demonstration bombing: if the Japanese knew how terrible the Bomb was, they would surrender.

Oppenheimer was not among them. He pushed back against his scientists and supported dropping the bombs on cities. He apparently believed that only the full horror of the devastation would be shocking enough to end war. And this would happen through control of the supreme weapon by an international body. That goal would prove elusive.


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Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer at Princeton, 1947. [o]


Almost all scientists could see three facts: that the Soviets would get the weapon; that there would eventually be another great power conflict. And that a resulting atomic war would mean the end of civilization. “The unleashed power of the atom,” wrote Einstein, “has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

The United Nations had been formed just a few months before, but it had (and still has) limited power, thanks to a great power veto. Einstein saw the UN merely as “a transitional system toward the final goal... a supranational authority vested with sufficient legislative and executive powers to keep the peace.”

If supreme military power in the form of the atom bomb were held by a United Nations body, as Oppenheimer wanted, then it would almost be a world state. In fact, many scientists explicitly advocated a 'world federal government.' They published a book, One World Or None, with an accompanying film [see film below]. This view was not just held by scientists. One of the supporters was Gen 'Hap' Arnold, the head of the United States Air Force — the man in charge of dropping the bomb. The idea of international control even took root at the highest levels of government.

President Harry Truman had two advisers with diametrically opposed views. One was Henry Stimson, the elderly and aristocratic Secretary of War. The other was James Byrnes, Secretary of State. Stimson had famously prevented the Bomb's being dropped on Kyoto, a city he had once visited with his wife. Plus, he had an almost mystical view of how the world had changed. He thought the Bomb “should not be considered simply in terms of military weapons, but as a new relationship of man to the universe.” Stimson’s plan also included international control via the new UN agency: “It must be controlled if possible to make it an assurance of future peace rather than a menace to civilization.”


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Harry Truman, Gen. George Marshall, James F. Byrnes. [o]


Byrnes was having none of it. He saw the weapon as a means of extracting concessions from the Soviets, and ensuring US dominance into the future. He did all he could to undercut Stimson's view.

Harry Truman, the man in the middle, seemed to lean towards Stimson's view. When people had asked him about his commitment to international organization, he would take a folded piece of paper out of his wallet and read some lines from “Locksley Hall.” This was a prophetic poem written in 1837 by Tennyson which had predicted a world war fought in the air, a war that ended in a “Parliament of man, a federation of the world... lapt in universal law.” Truman seemed to believe it. “It will be just as easy,” he told an audience, “for nations to get along in a republic of the world, as it is for you to get along in the republic of the United States.” 4

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. Figures as diverse as Wendell Willkie, the Republican who ran against Roosevelt, was a “One Worlder,” and even Winston Churchill proposed steps toward international military power. In his famous 1946 speech where he introduced the term ‘iron curtain' (“An iron curtain has descended across the continent...”), Churchill also proposed the creation of a global air force!

More significantly, in a poll a majority of the US public supported the idea of the UN's transformation into an actual government, which would effectively end the US’s absolute sovereignty. Einstein was a vocal supporter of an organization called the United World Federalists (UWF), led by a young man named Cord Meyer, a charismatic Marine veteran who had lost an eye fighting in the Pacific. The UWF, counting 50,000 members in the US, advocated a democratic world federation.


What drove him was the feeling that allegiance belonged not to one nation, but to all humankind.


In this imagined world, decisions would be made as locally as possible, and there would still be national governments. But the power of nations would be limited, and above them would be a global government that would address worldwide problems – and seek to keep the peace. It would be a democracy, with an executive, a parliament elected by world citizens, and a judiciary with a criminal court. In a sense, the UWF projected the United States onto the whole planet, but adding one final level of government. What was key was that the world government would have the capacity to police the planet to prevent war, just as domestic police, ideally, stop those who are committing violence.

In Europe, coalitions of feminists, pacifists, and anti-fascists campaigned for both a world federation and a European Union — both mocked as impossible. In France, a movement sprang up around an unlikely figure, a former Broadway song-and-dance man named Garry Davis. As a pilot in the war, Davis had bombed German cities and had lost a brother, killed in battle. Convinced that national sovereignty would only lead to more wars, and that the United Nations did not go nearly far enough in ensuring peace, Davis disrupted UN meetings5 and relinquished his US passport. What drove him, and many others, was the feeling that allegiance belonged not to one nation, but to all humankind. In Paris, he declared himself a citizen of the world, displaying his 'world passport.' He was arrested, but thousands rallied in support, including intellectuals Albert Camus, André Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre. At its height, 750,000 people registered as 'world citizens.'

In 1946, President Truman commissioned what was to be known as the Acheson-Lilienthal Report,6 largely written by Oppenheimer. Its goal was to set up an international agency in charge of nuclear weapons and energy. The authors of American Prometheus wrote that "[i]t remains a singular model for rationality in the nuclear age."

But by then the political mood had begun to change.


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Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves, US Army Corps of Engineers officer and head of the Manhattan Project, at ground zero showing melted remains of atomic bomb tower after first atomic test, July 16, 1945. Oppenheimer's first words: "I guess it worked." [o]


A year earlier in September 1945 a Soviet Embassy clerk in Ottawa had defected. Igor Gouzenko revealed Stalin's spying on the atom bomb project. Truman was now coming under pressure from his right wing, and many people began to fear Joseph Stalin more than war. Secretary Byrnes got a Wall Street millionaire, Bernard Baruch, to present Oppenheimer's international control report to the UN. Baruch, the Gordon Gecko of his time, had interests in the uranium business, and he was careful to add some specific conditions to Oppenheimer's report: that the US would keep its monopoly on the Bomb, and, that other countries would have to submit to intrusive inspections and punishment if they tried to build one. Baruch and Byrnes made an offer the Soviets had to refuse. And they did, using their Security Council veto.7

Oppenheimer was deeply disappointed, but continued to advocate that “in the field of atomic energy there be set up a world government” with no veto power, no national sovereignty, and “that in this field there be international law.”

Of course Einstein had always been a pacifist and socialist — a fact often left out of popular depictions of the fuzzy-haired genius — and he had come to regret his letter to Roosevelt. Einstein insisted that a democratic world state was the only way to prevent an even worse war than the last. “Nationalism is an infantile sickness,” he wrote. “It is the measles of the human race.”


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President Harry Truman receiving a report on the bombing of Japan from Secretary of War Henry Stimson, 1945. [o]


But the disease proved resilient, and the Cold War's cold logic gradually overcame the idealists. Stimson retired, and Truman became more of a hawk, founding the CIA and declaring the US would stop communism anywhere it sprouted on the planet. It is hard to know how sincere he ever was about international control, but what is certain is that Locksley Hall was forgotten, and the witch-hunts would soon begin.

Cord Meyer was disillusioned by what he claimed was communist infiltration of his organization. The head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, persuaded him to join the agency. Ironically, the leader of the United World Federalists came to run international covert operations for the CIA.8

Even Oppenheimer — though he was always ambivalent about what he had helped to create — became something of a hawk with respect to the Soviet Union. Yet that didn't save him from being humiliated as a security risk for opposing the hydrogen bomb, as depicted in the movie.

Einstein never wavered in his views. “With all my heart,” he wrote, “I believe that the world's present system of sovereign nations can only lead to barbarism, war and inhumanity, and that only world law can assure progress towards a civilized peaceful community.” He died in 1955.


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Garry Davis, activist, author and world passport holder, among leaflets and followers. [o]


But the movement he supported never quite disappeared. The European Union did come about. And the 1960s saw a revival of idealism, inspired in part perhaps by the first pictures of the Earth from space. In 1998, World Federalists helped to fulfill one of the old ideal's greatest ambitions: the creation of an International Criminal Court. Amid great suspicion of globalism, or “goo-goo one worldism” as one conservative termed it in 2002,9 activists are even now campaigning for world law and an elected parliamentary assembly at the UN.

Back in 1946, Oppenheimer wrote: “Many have said that without world government there could be no permanent peace and without peace there would be atomic warfare. I think one must agree with this.”

Maybe his ambition was naive, maybe dangerous. But nowadays, pandemics, globalized capital, and climate change have made a joke of national borders. Sovereign states seem unable to face these challenges, but they remain powerful in one way: their capacity to make war. And Oppenheimer's children still lurk in the shadows — 12,000 of them, most much bigger than the Hiroshima bomb — waiting for us to use them again, should the whole world go to war. ≈ç



1.  Albert Einstein. Ideas And Opinions. Broadway Books (2010), p.53.

2., 3.  Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Knopf Doubleday (2006).

4.  Harry S. Truman. 'Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States.' (1945). Also in Harry S. Truman, Mr. Citizen. Popular Library (1961).

5.  Film: Citizens interrupt UN meeting (1948).

6.  The Acheson-Lilienthal & Baruch Plans, 1946. Office of the Historian, US Department of State.

7.  Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko. The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War. Yale University Press (2008).

8.  Meyer, Cord. Facing Reality: From World Federalism to the CIA. Harper & Row (1980).

9.  Charles Krauthhammer. 'The Unipolar Moment Revisited.' The National Interest. No. 70 (Winter 2002/03), pp. 5-18 (14 pages). Published By: Center for the National Interest.



Altiero Spinelli: an unrelenting federalist and anti-fascist

'Iron Curtain' speech by Winston Churchill in Fulton, UK, 1946.

Rosika Schwimmer: Hungarian feminist and pacifist.

World passports — get yours here.




BARRY STEVENS is a documentary filmmaker and writer. He was an editor of Peace Magazine and a member of Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament; his documentaries include Offspring (Emmy nominated), Prosecutor, and the series War Story (stories of Canada's military participation in war), which has won multiple awards. Barry is currently co-writing a film on Daniel Ellsberg and nuclear war. He lives in Toronto.




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