Sakharov and Oppenheimer: twin triumphs and tragedies

The Soviet dissident and the radical American were both scientific geniuses of independent thought who shared deep anxieties about the consequences of their work. Both lives are worth telling.

A mural of Andrei Sakharov on the Berlin Wall in East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. Credit: Azoor Photo / Alamy Stock Photo
A mural of Andrei Sakharov on the Berlin Wall in East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. Credit: Azoor Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

During the Cold War, the United States manufactured more than 70,000 nuclear weapons at a cost of more than five trillion dollars. The Soviet Union built even more warheads. Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer has masterfully brought into view the controversial life and achievements of the head of the US atomic bomb project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the genius and hubris, the errors and missteps of the great theoretical physicist in his personal and scientific lives. In spite of his brilliant leadership of the secret Manhattan Project to create weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Oppenheimer lost his “Q” security clearance in 1954 for his opposition to a crash program to build thermonuclear weapons. Nolan’s film reminds us that, in a battle between scientific openness and secrecy, between democratic institutions and the military-industrial complex, bombs will come first. Nolan could have made a similar film about the achievements of Andrei Sakharov, the creator of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and later a human rights activist, who faced greater challenges for seeking arms control and human rights in the face of vigilant Communist Party officials, KGB secret police and Soviet generals.

‘Oppie’ and Sakharov arrived at the pinnacle of the nuclear establishment and derived their ultimate misgivings about WMD from entirely different experiences. From his youth, Oppenheimer was surrounded by music, art and literature. He talked about philosophy and theoretical physics with friends and colleagues. He spoke six languages, wrote dozens of influential research papers, and was friends with Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and many other leading figures in his field. He was deeply interested in social justice, which led him to an interest in socialism for its promises of equality of the masses.

Sakharov (1921-89) was completely devoted to science, but later turned to human rights. He was a product of the Stalin era, a loner, had few close friends, and would rather read a book than go out. Sakharov was aware of the great changes that occurred under Stalin, of forced industrialisation and collectivisation, of the famine that devastated Ukraine in 1932-33. By the mid-1930s the Party had embarked on constant purges and arrests. Perhaps one tenth of the USSR’s physicists were lost to the gulag, a strange fate for persons whose research was crucial to the state’s modernisation efforts. Still, Sakharov remained focused on his studies at Moscow State University and the Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences (FIAN).

At the start of the Second World War, the Soviet authorities hurriedly evacuated industry and science to the East. Sakharov was transferred to a radio factory in Ashkabad, Turkmenistan, then a munitions factory in Ulyanovsk, before entering a graduate program. In 1948, on the personal order of secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, the counterpart to Oppenheimer’s General Groves, Sakharov was ‘drafted’ to the Arzamas Soviet weapons design facility, the counterpart to the American’s Los Alamos. Eventually, he developed the hydrogen bomb and, in June 1953, received his PhD without defence and was elected to full membership of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. The academicians who voted on his candidacy read his top-secret dossier under watchful eye of the KGB.

In the 1950s, after the death of Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev’s support of a “thaw” in culture and science, Sakharov’s misgivings about nuclear weapons began to harden. A Soviet thermonuclear test in November 1955 killed or injured numerous observers and innocent bystanders scores of kilometres away. Like Oppenheimer, who sought negotiations with the Soviets, not an arms race, Sakharov contemplated both the moral implications of weapons research and the nature of the authoritarian Soviet state. The Bertrand Russell-Albert Einstein Manifesto (July 1955) called for an end to the arms race and led to the Pugwash Movement of scientists for peace, which resonated with Sakharov, though he was denied the right to join. When he sought discussions with officials, he understood they were uninterested in the questions of the morality of WMD. Khrushchev angrily rejected his attempts to interfere, telling him to stay out of politics.

Sakharov, however, had long abandoned any diffidence about his relations to the state, and turned his attention fearlessly to human rights, reading underground literature voraciously. When in 1966, as part of a crackdown on dissent, Leonid Brezhnev ordered a Stalinist-style show trial of authors Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel on charges of anti-Soviet activity, Sakharov publicly supported them. Over the next fifteen years, he became a prominent dissident. He wrote an appeal to society to democratise – Thoughts on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom (April 1968) – which soon fell into the hands of the KGB head Yuri Andropov.

Just as the FBI kept its eye on Oppenheimer, the paranoid KGB saw Sakharov as the enemy. Andropov catalogued 584 volumes of Sakharov’s transgressions, and orchestrated public letter-writing campaigns against him, which implied he was a traitor; in October 1975 he denigrated Sakharov’s Nobel Peace Prize. Sakharov’s outspoken criticism of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led Andropov to arrest and send him into exile. He was permitted to return to Moscow in 1986 only after Gorbachev’s assumption of power, where he served as the conscience of perestroika until his death in December 1989.

After his ostracisation by the US government in the McCarthy era, Oppenheimer endured similar charges that he was a security risk. Humiliated by the US Atomic Energy Commission, he declined to sign the Russell-Einstein Manifesto or to attend Pugwash meetings. Alone, he wrote and lectured on science and politics, worried about academic freedom, fretted about the arms race, and supported the study of the history and philosophy of science. In 2022, fifty-five years after his death, US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm symbolically restored his security clearance, citing ‘the bias and unfairness of the process that Dr Oppenheimer was subjected to while the evidence of his loyalty and love of country have only been further affirmed’.

Sakharov loved his country, too. In his latter years, Sakharov promoted human rights, arms control, and democratisation. He pointedly rejected “Star Wars” anti-ballistic missile systems as destabilising, and said so to the face of his main promoter in the US, Edward Teller, the self-important co-creator of the US hydrogen bomb, whose testimony against Oppenheimer in 1954 rightly earned him the enmity of the US physics community. Sakharov supported the creation of “Memorial,” a Soviet human rights organisation to preserve the memory of those repressed under Stalin, and was its first chairman. (Memorial has been shut down by Vladimir Putin, who has often repeated his regard for Stalinism.)

Both brilliant and flawed, Sakharov and Oppenheimer sought to slow proliferation. The story of the history of WMD is always a story of men, rarely of women, and usually of triumph (the bomb), but then tragedy (the destruction of two men). It is a story that science is vulnerable to government abuse of power, and about failed efforts to secure lasting arms control treaties. The United States and the USSR signed a number of agreements, but only the New START Treaty is still in place and it will expire in 2026. If Nolan were to produce another film – on Andrei Sakharov – he might even more pointedly indicate that work on WMD can never be a moral endeavour.


Paul Josephson