3 WARM BLOOD ON MY HANDS
J Robert Oppenheimer died in 1967 from his use of a narcotic but not the kind made by Walter White . Oppenheimer was a heavy tobacco smoker and, like Walt in Breaking Bad, his body was invaded by cancer. The cigarettes ruined his throat. If the medical treatment available to Walt had been around for Oppenheimer, it might have been different. Science supersedes the previous science but not quick enough for those dying from incurable diseases. On the street it is different. Science has continued to advance the methods of crystal meth production. The latest technique is ‘shake and bake’. All it requires is a plastic bottle and elbow grease. The scale of production is small but it can be done by almost anyone and avoids the need for expensive equipment.
Walt was a chemist, and Oppenheimer a physicist. Both men were blessed and cursed by science. Science and chemistry enabled them to demonstrate their talent but their gifts led the two men to conspire with villains. The tragedy for Walt was that his scientific ability only ever facilitated odorous success. In middle age he worked with gangsters. The unrealised opportunity when Walt was young, if fulfilled, would have meant wealth but being pestered throughout his life by a truly horrendous pair of friends. For both Walt and Oppenheimer success guaranteed tragedy.
J Robert Oppenheimer was the head scientist on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. The Manhattan Project developed the first atomic bomb. The site is less than a hundred miles from Albuquerque and from the home of Walter White. In an episode of Breaking Bad the henchmen of Jesse are visited by Walt. They meet in the National Museum of Nuclear Science to discuss sales of the crystal meth that Walt has manufactured. Someone on the writing team of Breaking Bad thought using the Museum as a location was a good idea. If he or she were thinking of anyone, it was Oppenheimer.
The distinction between chemistry and physics is recent. Before the distinction it was all science, and before that the scientists called themselves alchemists. Walt is a modern alchemist. He uses his chemical knowledge to turn a particular substance into gold or its modern equivalent, money. Because of his eminence, Oppenheimer was offered fame, a decent living and the power to play with destiny. The military allowed him to think he was deciding whether thousands of Japanese civilians would live or not. Oppenheimer was cultured, sensitive and even more intelligent than Walt. In interviews his eloquence allowed him to express an impressive moral sensibility but his regrets over the consequences of the Manhattan Project allowed the powerful to undermine his articulate authority. The FBI and House Un-American Activities Committee crawled over the friendships with communists that he had when he was a young man. His security clearance to work for the Government was revoked. The USA Government built a nuclear arsenal, and Oppenheimer taught and lectured. In quieter moments he sailed his boat. Oppenheimer had been open to his interrogators about the activities of his friends. His liberal sympathisers, though, forgave his revelations. They believed Oppenheimer had been martyred by the people he served. The powerful thought differently. President Truman said Oppenheimer bleated too much about having ‘warm blood on my hands’.
Oppenheimer, like Walt, had enough flaws for them to cast a shadow, to constitute his dark side. Despite knowing that the previous five fire bombing raids of Japan had killed fifty thousand Japanese civilians and razed five cities Oppenheimer helped the USA military to develop an atomic bomb. Like the gangsters in Breaking Bad, the military knew how to raise the stakes. Oppenheimer reckoned he was serving physics. Walt was tempted by people who had access to money. He convinced his conscience with dubious arguments about free will. General Groves, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project, said that his tame scientist Oppenheimer had ‘overweening ambition’ that made him ‘reliable and even pliable’. Oppenheimer was seduced by the powerful and their pretence of patriotism.
As a young man, Oppenheimer used a flashlight to read Proust by night. He had a big brain, and it was capable of rationalisation. He told people that the atomic bomb would have no added military impact. Instead he stressed the psychological and mythic potential. ‘The visual effect of the atomic bombing would be tremendous. It would be accompanied by a brilliant luminescence which would rise to a height of 10,000 to 20,000 feet.’ C P Snow wrote about the post war divide in Western culture that existed between the sciences and the humanities. That division is a theme within Breaking Bad. Walt is the chemist, and his partner Jesse likes to draw superheroes. Oppenheimer was inspired by big clouds, and Jesse thought that adding chilli powder to his crystal meth made him an artist.
The bomb managed something more than brilliant luminescence. Counting the dead is difficult when so many were burnt to a crisp but we can assume that at least 100,000 Japanese civilians died in Hiroshima and maybe more than 50,000 were killed in Nagasaki. The body count for Walter White in Breaking Bad is 199 but that includes a Boeing 737 air crash not really intended by our favourite crystal meth maker. Both Oppenheimer and Walt wanted to make omelettes and both were willing to break eggs.
The two men, though, had regrets. True he was stubborn and vindictive but Walt just wanted people to do what they were told and realise his importance. He was proud of making the purest crystal meth and of demonstrating superior science. The majority of the scientists at the Manhattan Project did not want the bomb to be dropped on Japan but they needed to see and hear it explode. Oppenheimer and his team did not create the biggest bang ever but the really big one was so long ago no one heard it. Oppenheimer was not the first to raise objections to the military use of the bomb. When his fellow scientists suggested the Japanese military be invited to witness the planned test and be persuaded to surrender, the proposal offended his vanity. Oppenheimer worried that the bomb might not explode. How embarrassing would that be, he thought. But after the successful test Oppenheimer reckoned the best idea might be to have the Japanese witness a second atomic explosion in the desert of New Mexico.
It did not happen. The USA government was not interested in whether Japan wanted to surrender or not. Oppenheimer was being kidded and in spotting a double cross he was more like dopey Jesse than sharp paranoid Walt. President Truman had been told by his Secretary of State that the Japanese were willing to plea for peace. General Eisenhower also advised against using the bomb and was convinced the Japanese were willing to surrender. But President Truman and his friends were not worried by small operators like the Japanese. There was a big gang of Russian hard cases in the neighbourhood. Truman thought that dropping the bomb would keep the Russians out of Japan. In 1946, Oppenheimer gave a speech at the MIT and declared that the USA had ‘used weapons against an enemy which was essentially defeated’. He added that the ‘bomb was used to forestall a Soviet share in the occupation of post war Japan’. After that speech it was welcome to the House Un-American Activities Committee for Oppenheimer. When the bomb was dropped, Oppenheimer was not aware that Truman knew the Japanese were seeking peace. Or so he said, and so some people think. The arguments about what happened at Los Alamos have been partisan but the Pulitzer Prize winning biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin j Sherwin should convince anyone sane about the villainy of President Truman.
Those who admire Walt believe that, if he had been there in Los Alamos, he would have spotted the deceit. Walt could have resisted the villainous plans of Truman by creating a scientific device that would have helped him find an exit route out of the project. But overall Walt was as ineffective as Oppenheimer. The achievements of Walt, like those of the nuclear physicist, were memorable but transitory and destructive. Walt was proud of a superior product that would wreck lives, and Oppenheimer admitted to feeling elation when he witnessed an horrific bomb being exploded in New Mexico. It is not what most Westerners carry around in their brains but at the event Oppenheimer had recalled the opening lines of the Hindu Scripture. ‘Now I become death, the destroyer of worlds.’ He must have felt similar to how Walt did about his skill as a drug dealer. ‘I was good at it. I felt alive.’
Even when destructive a scientific discovery can offer a new world and different possibilities. The deck has always been loaded in favour of scientific progress because we remember what it achieves and what it destroys slips into the past and vanishes. Walt and Oppenheimer wanted more than contentment. Oppenheimer explained. ‘To try to be happy is to build a machine with no other specification than that it shall run noiselessly.’ Walt and Oppenheimer were two men who needed to make a noise. They paid a price but they experienced elation even if it was short lived. In the end neither man won anything, and without realising each acquiesced to everything. The USA government had its bomb and a military-industrial complex. And despite the woundings inflicted by Walt, the gangsters inherited an expanded market for crystal meth. As always, the rich made more money and the powerful stayed in the same seats.
Howard Jackson has had eight books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.