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Independent Cause

The Destructive Threat “Oppenheimer” Warns Us About Isn’t Nuclear Bombs – It’s Partisan Paranoia 

7 min read
Alex Furlin · Jul 31, 2023

Over the past two weekends, cinemas nationwide have been gripped by the ongoing ‘Barbeheimer’ phenomenon, driving the simultaneous, couldn’t-be-more-different releases of Barbie and Oppenheimer to box office glory. One is a candy-colored ode to nostalgia and modern womanhood, and the other is a dour, 3-hour historical biopic about the march towards creating weapons so destructive they could end the human race if left in the wrong hands. 

What’s particularly interesting about Oppenheimer, however, isn’t that it’s just a movie about the ethically dubious creation and use of the first atomic bomb – as compelling as that story is. Director Christopher Nolan takes great pains to illustrate that the grave threat facing humanity’s survival isn’t this one specific bomb (or the many more powerful nuclear weapons developed in its wake) – it’s humanity itself. 

And despite being a biopic primarily set between 1939 and 1954, the central message – warning, even – of Oppenheimer’s tragic tale couldn’t be more relevant in today’s age of hyper political polarization, paranoia, and demonization of “the other side.” The same dark forces that are driving modern politics to their ugliest, most dangerous points in decades are indeed the same forces that Oppenheimer found himself struggling against once his atomic kitten was let out of the bag.

SPOILERS AHEAD for those who have yet to see Oppenheimer. (See it!)


So, what does Oppenheimer really have to say about our modern day political discourse? The key to unlocking its message is found in the last hour of the film, or essentially everything that happens after the Trinity test – the first nuclear explosion in human history. 

Prior to the test, Oppenheimer’s team of world-class physicists are racing to develop an atomic weapon before Nazi Germany can beat them to the punch. However, Hitler ends up killing himself before they can finalize their first prototype weapon, and Germany surrenders before their project is finished. But with Japan yet to surrender, the project’s goals change – they’re now creating the atomic bomb to force Japan into a quick surrender, compared to using it against the Nazis before they could finalize nuclear technology themselves. 

Although the Trinity test is a huge “success,” and despite receiving thunderous applause and praise from everyone working under him in Los Alamos, Oppenheimer quickly realizes that his triumph will immediately be taken out of his hands, to be controlled by political operatives and bureaucrats who lack the intuitive scientific understanding of just how world-endingly destructive these atomic weapons actually are. 

After two atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, World War II ends and the U.S. shifts its focus to containing the Soviet Union – the start of the Cold War. It’s here that Oppenheimer’s past association with Communist Party members – despite never being an actual Communist himself – comes back to haunt him. 


During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, Congress was gripped by McCarthyism, a paranoid delusion that secret Communists had infiltrated all levels of American politics, science, and academia, plotting to overthrow democracy from within and thus grant “victory” to the Soviet Union. So intense was this anti-Communist fervor that hardline anti-Soviets came after Oppenheimer simply for having Communist friends.

This point in the film shifts towards the ruthless persecution of Oppenheimer by the anti-Communist politician Lewis Strauss, who seems convinced that Oppenheimer – despite dedicating three years of his life towards providing the United States with the most powerful weapon in human history – was actually a Soviet sympathizer who was working to undermine America’s military might the entire time. 

Ultimately, Oppenheimer’s brief flirtations with a few individual Communists – and his guilt-racked mission to urge the U.S. to halt the exponential development of hydrogen bombs (which are thousands of times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan) – signaled to the U.S. state that Oppenheimer was “anti-American” enough to strip him of his security clearance, effectively ending his career as a scientist and as a voice for science within the highest levels of government. 

Oppenheimer was previously praised in the American media as “the man who won the war,” the man who made this seemingly impossible weapon actually work. Yet all it took was perceived political differences to destroy his reputation and take this new, ultra-deadly technology out of his hands altogether, and into the hands of hardline partisans who couldn’t grasp the true scale of destruction they could now deploy at a moment’s notice. 

That’s the real danger of Oppenheimer’s story – it’s not that a devastating weapon was created, but that its future was ripped from more cautious hands and into the hands of hardline partisans who viewed as their patriotic, anti-Communist duty to make as many atomic weapons as possible, and to make them as deadly as possible, with no further regard to the precedent that this would set over the course of human history. 

Had Oppenheimer not been tarred and feathered over partisan concerns, it’s very likely that nuclear weapons development would have been significantly curbed in both the U.S. and in Soviet Russia. At the absolute height of nuclear paranoia, the U.S. contained over 31,000 nuclear weapons. The Soviets, at their height, possessed 39,000. Currently, both nations have a stockpile of around 5,500 - 6,000 – certainly better than 40,000, but still a sufficient amount to wipe humanity off the face of the earth forever. 

This ending wasn’t inevitable, but rather induced by the same “us vs. them” polarized mentality that is currently ripping apart our current two-party system. Oppenheimer does an exquisite job of illustrating just how foolishly dangerous that kind of mentality truly is. Christopher Nolan exemplifies the deep despair wrought by the hyper-polarization of political entities hellbent on destroying the other at any cost with the movie’s final, haunting scene.


Oppenheimer’s final scene is the revelation of a conversation he had with Albert Einstein, a conversation alluded to several times throughout the film, but not revealed until the film’s final minutes. Oppenheimer approaches Einstein and asks if he remembers when scientists weren’t sure if triggering the world’s first atomic weapon would create an atomic chain reaction that couldn’t be stopped, which would eventually lead to Earth’s entire atmosphere exploding, thus “creating a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world.” Luckily, the atomic bombs didn’t actually set fire to the atmosphere and destroy the entire world – but back then, it was a very real possibility. 

Einstein responds yes, he remembers the fear of setting off an uncontainable chain reaction that would lead to the end of the world. “What of it?” 

“I believe we did [set off that chain reaction],” says Oppenheimer. 

The chain reaction that will eventually end the world wasn’t their feared atomic chain reaction, but rather the chain reaction set forth by self-interested human beings, warring back and forth at each other for political purposes, this time armed with a weapon that truly could destroy everyone.

That’s the true danger that Oppenheimer lays out so eloquently: short-sighted political polarization. 

Politicians who put party over country – party over the survival of the human race even – are as prevalent in the halls of Congress today as they were at the dawn of the Cold War. On top of nuclear armageddon, we now face the catastrophic, global threat caused by climate change, yet another world-critical scientific issue that has been politicized and split down party lines in such a way that all but guarantees we get the worst possible outcome: inaction. 

Just as Oppenheimer was unable to stop more nuclear weapons from being created, our current polarized political system is completely unable to stop climate change from wreaking havoc on just about every facet of our ordinary lives. And just like Oppenheimer in the early 1950s, we’re only at the beginning of this horrible chain reaction – a race to the bottom. 

The themes in Oppenheimer underscore the dire necessity of electing independent leaders that do not follow the “us vs. them” herd mentality of political parties. Because if we don’t alter our course now, we’ll be driven straight into a more dangerous, more fearful, more paranoid world by those who put party over country and self-interest over the common good. Oppenheimer showed us how it happened back in the 1940s – it’s up to us to help prevent it from happening again in the 2020s.


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By Alex Furlin
Alex Furlin is a freelance writer for Good Party.