Why President Harry Truman Didn’t Like J. Robert Oppenheimer

robert oppenheimer and president truman with hiroshima aftermath in the background
Oppenheimer and Truman Met Once. It Went Badly.Photo illustration by Tom Messina using Getty Images; texturefabrik (Textures)
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Although physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and President Harry S. Truman were both pivotal figures in the development and use of the atomic bomb during World War II, the two men only met in person one time. It didn’t go well.

Accounts differ as to the exact words spoken, but the October 25, 1945, meeting exemplified the contrasting feelings both men had regarding the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the future of atomic weaponry. Oppenheimer famously claimed to have “blood on his hands,” during his meeting with Truman, a comment that infuriated the president.

“Blood on his hands; damn it, he hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have. You just don’t go around bellyaching about it,” Truman said, according to the book Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk. He called Oppenheimer a “cry-baby scientist” and said, “I don’t want to see that son of a b–– in this office ever again.”

Two Men, Two Different Attitudes

a black and white photo of j robert oppenheimer, wearing a suit and sitting at a table, speaking to someone off camera
J. Robert Oppenheimer testifies before the Special Senate Committee on Atomic Energy in 1945.Getty Images

Oppenheimer is famous for having said the Trinity test—the first successful atomic bomb detonation on July 16, 1945—reminded him of words from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” But shortly after, Oppenheimer didn’t look very contemplative to those around him; he looked like he was celebrating.

“I’ll never forget his walk; I’ll never forget the way he stepped out of the car,” physicist Isidor Rabi said, according to Monk. “His walk was like High Noon… This kind of strut. He had done it.”

But Oppenheimer’s feelings of elation following Trinity and the bombing of Hiroshima three weeks later changed after the bombing of Nagasaki, which he found unnecessary from a military perspective. On the contrary, he was a “nervous wreck” after the second attack on August 9, 1945, and distressed by the growing reports of casualties, according to Monk.

Truman, on the other hand, maintained for the rest of his life that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved hundreds of thousands of Allied lives by hastening the end of the war. He repeatedly defended himself against arguments that a demonstration of the bomb in an uninhabited area might have forced Japan’s surrender without loss of life.

“The president cannot duck hard problems; he cannot pass the buck,” Truman said in 1948. “I made the decision after discussions with the ablest men in our government and after long and prayerful consideration. I decided that the bomb should be used to end the war quickly and save countless lives, Japanese as well as American.”

Meeting for the First Time

In August 1945, Oppenheimer wrote to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson expressing his concerns about the military and political consequences of atomic weapons. The following month, Oppenheimer was offered what Monk called a “golden opportunity” to play a role in the control of atomic energy policy: a one-on-one meeting with the president of the United States.

Oppenheimer entered the Oval Office on October 25 at 10:30 a.m. Truman knew him by reputation as an eloquent and charismatic figure and was intrigued to meet the celebrated physicist face-to-face, according to the book American Prometheus: The Triumph & Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.

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After introductions by the new Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson, the only other person in the room, Truman began by asking for Oppenheimer’s support for the proposed May-Johnson bill, which would have given the U.S. Army permanent control over atomic energy. “The first thing is to define the national problem, then the international,” Truman said, according to Bird and Sherwin.

After an uncomfortable silence, during which Truman impatiently awaited a response, Oppenheimer finally said, “Perhaps it would be best first to define the international problem.” This meant, unlike the president, Oppenheimer felt the first step was to prevent the spread of atomic weapons through international controls over atomic energy, according to Bird and Sherwin.

The conversation only became more terse from there. At one point, Truman asked Oppenheimer to guess when the Soviet Union might develop their own atomic bomb. According to Monk, when the physicist said he didn’t know, Truman smirked and confidently boasted that he knew the answer: “Never.”

“Blood on my Hands”

a mushroom cloud over the city of nagasaki in japan
The nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945Getty Images

Oppenheimer felt Truman’s answer was utter foolishness. As he and his fellow scientists at the Los Alamos Laboratory had previously warned, Oppenheimer knew the technology for using the energy released from nuclear fission to make a bomb wasn’t something that could be kept secret, and Russia would eventually unlock it, according to Monk.

Oppenheimer already felt Truman had erred by being secretive with the Russians and gaining their trust in preparation for international collaboration of atomic weapons, Monk wrote. The physicist felt Truman’s glib comment only confirmed his fears that the United States planned to bully the Soviet Union with their new weapon, rather than work toward arms control.

Noticing Oppenheimer’s hesitation, Truman asked what was wrong, prompting Oppenheimer to infamously respond: “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” The comment infuriated Truman, who later said of his response, “I told him the blood was on my hands—to let me worry about that,” according to Bird and Sherwin.

In later years, Truman embellished the story of the meeting even further. At one point, he claimed he sarcastically responded to Oppenheimer, “Never mind, it’ll all come out in the wash,” according to Bird and Sherwin. In another telling, Truman claimed he offered Oppenheimer a handkerchief, saying, “Well here, would you like to wipe your hands?”

Regardless, it effectively marked the end of the meeting. The last thing Truman said as he ushered the physicist out the door was, “Don’t worry, we’re going to work something out, and you’re going to help us.” However, Oppenheimer knew he had offended the president, and any chance of collaborating with him in the future was now lost, according to Bird and Sherwin.

Although often known as charming and persuasive, Oppenheimer could be antagonistic with authority figures, according to Bird and Sherwin. “Oppenheimer left Washington a chastened man,” they wrote. “His attempts to insinuate himself into the top levels of U.S. politics had failed, and in making them, he had alienated the politically active scientists he had hoped to lead.”

Nevertheless, Truman awarded Oppenheimer a presidential citation and a Medal for Merit in 1946, with Stimson saying the development of the atomic bomb was “largely due to his genius and the inspiration and leadership he has given to his colleagues.”

Stream Oppenheimer Now

Based on the book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, Oppenheimer follows the story of the nuclear physicist known as the father of the atomic bomb. The movie stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer, and Matt Damon as Manhattan Project Director Leslie Groves Jr., along with Gary Oldman as President Harry Truman. Directed by Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer is now streaming on Prime Video and Apple TV+.

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