Note: This was a writing exercise where the story's purpose was to apologize.
February 2, 1967
I write this letter to my unborn grandchild because I am of failing health. I’ve asked your father to give this to you upon your 21st birthday, as its content is better understood with an adult mind. It’s become evident that cancer will end my life before you will be born. This is my effort to apologize for what I have done, and to explain why I did what I did.
You certainly learned early in your life that your grandfather was a scientist. I became interested in the sciences at a very young age. I was blessed with a mind for science and passionate desire for mastering it. My hope for you is that you find such a passion in your life.
How I went from a passionate pursuer of scientific knowledge to being called The Father of the Atomic Bomb, I will try to explain. The fact that I was involved in such as project is something that I have regretted for decades. I’m not arrogant enough to think that without me, there would be no nuclear bomb. I just wish my name wasn’t connected to it.
For this I sincerely apologize to you, grandchild.
I apologize because you have to share the last name with my moniker of destruction and death. Your last name will be forever associated to mine. In my heart of hearts, I hope you’re a baby girl because then, perhaps you’ll marry and rid yourself of the Oppenheimer name and my curse to it.
I apologize for being part of a team that knowingly created a weapon that we knew would change warfare for lifetimes to come.
We knew that man had never, not used a weapon he’d created, and that using this one would leave its target devastated and reduced to uninhabitable, radioactive rubble.
I apologize because I knew that I was helping create a nuclear arms race. Giving one nation an atomic bomb meant that others would do everything they could to negate this threat by making their own. After that, it would be a numbers game. Governments and their militaries would think that the nation with the most atomic bombs had an advantage. Eventually, their stockpiles would number the thousands.
I apologize for giving you The Cold War, for leaving you with a world of uncertainty. A world that can be destroyed in minutes, by the press of a button, and entrusting that button to soldiers
You must be asking why I would I be involved in such a project? There are multiple reasons.
First, President Roosevelt asked me to help. During a war, when the President of the United States calls upon you to serve your country by developing a weapon that could save American lives, you do as you are asked. Sadly, the other two reasons why I took part in this project were not so patriotic.
I wanted a challenge. I thought it could be done and I wanted to be a member of the elite group of scientists that made the first atomic bomb. The cause was a weapon, but it could have been anything else of great challenge, and I would have wanted to be involved.
Ego was the second reason. I wanted to be involved because other great scientists would be taking part. I wanted to prove to myself that I was better than them, and that I could be chosen to lead the group. I was. I was the best of the best. As a result, history has forever linked the Oppenheimer name is to this weapon.
If you’ve studied the history, you know that we first tested the weapon in New Mexico. After I saw the successful results of our first test, I was quite relieved. Nearly speechless, I told a military officer, “It worked.” However, in my thoughts was a quote from the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”[sic] As I mentioned before, I feel this bomb was inevitable. However, I’m very sorry I am known for its creation.”
Nothing can really make up for what I did. History carries with it some facts, fiction, and plenty of speculation about my life. What I have written in this letter is fact. I will not burden you with the veracity behind what else may or may not be fact. Any burden I wish to place on you would be that of using the Oppenheimer name to better mankind. Perhaps you’ll go into medical research and use the popularity of the name to secure funding for cancer research. Such a thing would not absolve me of my sins, but the thought does sooth this old man’s heart.
So grandchild, I close the letter by wishing you a wonderful life of love, joy, and peace.
With love, your grandpa,
J. Robert Oppenheimer