Oppenheimer’s Message

What is the Message of J Robert Oppenheimer?

By Lorin Peters:

A message to the Board of the

 Metta Center for Nonviolence

Has the new “Oppenheimer film, come to your respective countries?


I probably never mentioned that my engineer Dad met J Robert Oppenheimer and helped build the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  My Berkeley physics professor Owen Chamberlain helped design it, but later wore a "ban the bomb" button religiously (1964) and led the movement to freeze nuclear testing (early 1980s).


So my wife Lacksana and I saw the “Oppenheimer” film on opening day, July 21.  The iMax sound effects were impressive.  The cast of characters is vast - I am somewhat familiar with most of the physicists’ names, but had trouble remembering some of their faces in the film (except EO Lawrence, who is a dead ringer for the real Lawrence, who my Dad was close to).  So I have been trying to put its message into my own words.  Because I understand America's addiction to nuclear weapons as a spiritual illness, I suggest two spiritual teachings to challenge my fellow Americans.  Here is what I have offered to a thousand of them thus far:


What was Oppenheimer’s vision of how to deal with nuclear weapons?

Oppenheimer clearly saw the danger of an arms race with kilo-ton and mega-ton yield weapons.  Deterrence promotes more violent weapons, and mistrust, and is inherently unstable and risky (think about Cuba, or Ukraine).  So he proposed that no nation be allowed to have nuclear weapons, and that only the United Nations (or similar body) might possess a small number, under international control (presumably with a system of challenges and inspections for verification).

Why was Oppenheimer’s security clearance revoked?

Possessing nuclear weapons gave (and still gives) the US strong domination over world affairs.  Daniel Ellsberg discusses 25 historical cases where the US threatened other nations with our nuclear weapons. [1]  In other words, the US was already behaving as an empire.  Most Americans were (and still are) unaware of this imperial behavior.  Oppenheimer probably saw through it.  In any case, he thought it wiser to relinquish our power than to risk a nuclear war.  Because he was highly respected and influential, he represented a direct challenge to our imperial establishment, which responded by revoking his security clearance to discredit him.

Will Oppenheimer’s vision work?

Several nuclear nations have offered, at various times, to abolish their nuclear weapons if all the other nuclear nations would do the same.  But US culture values freedom more highly.  Our American elite believe freedom includes the freedom to dominate and exploit other people, and other nations.  Because our nuclear weapons are what empower our domination of the world, our elite will be very unlikely to agree to any reduction in this power.  So Oppenheimer’s vision, of a world of free and equal states, will encounter more resistance in the US than in other nations.

How can we make Oppenheimer’s vision work?

Wealthy Americans believe their money is what “saves” them.  Therefore they are willing to risk everything to make money.  That is why they gamble with our nuclear weapons to maintain their power and domination.  The US has always rejected any “No First Use” policy, and continues to design and build first strike weapons.

Many wealthy Americans claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth.  But he taught that his kingdom is reserved for the poor in spirit.  What is “poor in spirit”?  Clearly, it is not worship of money.  For me, it has come to mean detachment from money.  That is what Jesus told the rich young ruler who wanted to join him.  It means living as simply as possible - think of St Francis.  Global income per person averages about 18,000 dollars.  So that may be the appropriate and sustainable life-style for followers of this Prophet.

Our other option is continuing to worship money.  Continue to risk nuclear war.  Martin Hellman, a senior nuclear risk analyst for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), wrote, “Continuing possession of nuclear weapons makes nuclear war inevitable.” [2]

Nuclear war will result in death by heat, blast, firestorm, and/or radiation, of roughly one-hundred-million people.  But the smoke from a thousand burning cities will rise into the stratosphere, where it will block much of our sunlight, for a decade or so.  Temperatures will drop near winter levels.  Crops will not mature during this endless ‘nuclear winter.’  This ‘nuclear famine’ will kill five or six billion.  99% of Americans will not survive. [3]

Our economy will collapse – no food, no running water, no fuel, little electricity, no jobs, no paper money, no medicine, very few doctors and nurses, little internet, lots of misinformation, farming by oxen, travel by foot, a few horses, few if any charging stations, but possibly wood-burning automobiles [4] or trains.  Daniel Ellsberg estimated that it will take 1,000 years to rebuild civilization.

I believe God is still trying to rescue us from our violence.  If many of us cooperate, God has a possible chance of working through us.  But if many refuse to try, God may have no choice but to let us destroy ourselves, again.  When the Biblical Flood came, all God could do was send Noah.  (Was that an early case of global warning and warming? 😊)

But that is not the end of humanity.  The Christian Prophet also said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  The arrogant apparently miscalculate the risks of war.  Perhaps we will finally learn to live in beloved community, where everyone shares everything and takes care of everyone else.  That will be the Prophet’s heaven on earth.  All it requires is meekness, humility, gentleness, what we now call ‘nonviolence.’

When I started this paper, I did not intend to write about our prophets.  But on September 11, 2001, the first thing my world-class Gandhian mentor [Michael Nagler of the Metta Center] said about the attack was, “There is a laboratory to learn nonviolence.  It is our meditation class.”  I meditate each morning on the words of Moses, and Buddha, and Jesus, and Mohammed, and Francis.

I have now begun to realize that what we face is more than a political crisis.  It is a spiritual crisis. America has lost much of its spiritual values, of truth and love, selflessness and redemption, humility and mercy, community and sharing.

The night before his assassination, Martin Luther King said, “The choice before us is no longer violence or nonviolence.  It's nonviolence or non-existence.

"Which is your choice?"

 [1] “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” pp 319-322

[2] “Rethinking National Security,” Federation of American Scientists, 2019 May

[3] “Nuclear Famine,” International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, 2022 Aug 15, page 15

[4] In 1965 my Thai villagers told me that the first cars that ventured into their remote villages in 1945 were wood-burning.  There were no gas stations.

I met Lorin Peters through our mutual affiliation with the Metta Center for Nonviolence. Lorin graduated from UC Berkeley in physics, 1965.  He spent the next four years with the Peace Corps building a water treatment plant in rural Thailand.  He received a death threat, but was given a dream of a nonviolent response.


He taught physics at Bishop O'Dowd HS 1971 – 2001, where he was asked during Vietnam to create and teach alternatives to war and violence, 1972-2007.


He spent seven summers with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Palestine, and taught Gandhian nonviolence in the mostly Muslim International Institute of Peace Studies outside Bangkok for seven winters.


Since 2019, he spends two afternoons a week outside local Rapid Transit stations engaging passengers with questions about nuclear weapons, empire and alternatives.