“Oppenheimer’s” Omissions: Trifling or Consequential?

Image of Oppeheimer.

Image courtesy Universal Studios Photo.

This summer’s blockbuster hit “Oppenheimer” promises to popularize a pivotal moment in world history, the decision to use the atomic bomb in World War II. Despite it’s grueling, challenging length and the Physics 101 recitation, “Oppenheimer” is sure to become the unofficial version of the Manhattan Project for a mass audience. The problem is not what was in the at-times-thunderous film, but rather what was unfortunately omitted from this filmic extravaganza by British director Christopher Nolen.

To begin, there is controversy about the number of American lives that would have been lost without the use of the atomic bomb in Japan. The original estimate claimed that one  million American lives would be lost if we proceeded with the planned Operation Downfall. That number was later cut in half to 500,000. Since then the number has been revised downwardly. It remains a fact though that 80% of Americans – at that time – favored using the atomic bomb on Japan.

More importantly, some very critical facts were left out of the discussion of the July 1945 Potsdam Conference in a suburb of Berlin between the “Big Three.” Following the defeat of Germany, and now shifting focus to the war in the Pacific, Truman and Stalin worked out a strategy to defeat the Japanese and end the war. The Soviet Red Army would invade Japan, after conquering Manchuria between August 8th and 9th. Not wishing to divvy up Japan in the post-War period, Truman backhandedly decided to preclude the Soviets from invading Japan by dropping the first atomic bomb [“Little Boy”] on Hiroshima on August 6th.

While the Red Army amassed 1.5 million troops in Manchuria , the U.S. was about to denotate the second atomic bomb [“Fat Man”] over Nagasaki. The day before on August 8th, the USSR declared war on Japan, which sent shockwaves through the Japanese policy makers. Meanwhile, Japanese officials were initiating back-channel negotiations for surrender through the Soviet Union.

Japan surrendered because the Soviet Union entered the war, and realized it was over. On August 14th Japan finally capitulated. This, plus the atomic bombings led to Japan’s surrender. Japanese leaders said the bomb forced them to surrender because it was less  embarrassing to say they had been defeated by a miracle weapon, than by the USSR. [Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs]

Another important issue, superficially glossed over in the film, was the high-level opposition to attacking Japan with atomic bombs, including six out of the seven then-five-star officers. Gen. Eisenhower warned Truman not to use the A-bomb in Japan, and said “I voiced my grave misgivings on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.” After the war, Eisenhower recounted his plea to then-Sec. of Defense Henry Stimson: “I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.

Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.” Adm. William Leahy, commander of the Pacific theater said “We had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the dark ages.” After the war Leahy wrote “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, the tough and outspoken commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, which participated in the American offensive against the Japanese home islands in the final months of the war, publicly stated in 1946 that “the first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment.” The Japanese, he noted, had “put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before” the bomb was used.

Robert Downey Jr’s Admiral Lewis [“Energy too cheap to meter”] Strauss is sure to win a Best Supporting Actor nod. Adm. Strauss is the same AEC director who, nine years later, would pronounce the world’s first deliverable hydrogen bomb – Bravo equaling 1,000 Hiroshimas – a success at the AEC’s Pacific Proving Ground at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The alibi that the deadly radioactive fallout from Bravo, afflicting numerous inhabited islands and thousands of islanders downwind from Bikini, was an “accident” and due to “sudden wind shifts” originated with Adm. Strauss at a press conference he held with President Eisenhower on April 4, 1954.

Coincidentally, I lived with the downwind victims of Edward Teller’s 15-megaton H-bomb creation Bravo for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Marshall Islands. Teller developed Bravo – following his despicable betrayal of Oppenheimer – in 1954 to produce maximum radioactive fallout so as to create a health and environmental simulation of a prospective nuclear exchange with the former USSR at a fraught moment in the nascent Cold War.

A disappointing omission in “Oppenheimer” concerns British and American physicist Joseph Rotblat, who worked on tube alloys with the Manhattan Project. Rotbalt walked off the Project in 1943 when he was convinced Germany was unable to produce a nuclear weapon, and because of his fear that an A-bomb could be used against the USSR. His example led to the 1945 Szilard petition with 70 Project scientists calling to pre-warn the Japanese before using the A-bomb, a petition quashed by Oppenheimer.

Because of his early opposition to the use of nuclear weapons, Roblat went on to win – with his organization Pugwash – the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for his post-war campaigning to abolish nuclear weapons.

On a personal note, I had the good fortune of spending an afternoon with Joseph Rotblat in his London office in 1985 while on a U.K. speaking tour about the plight of the Marshall Islanders. Rotblat grilled me about the Marshallese and could not have been more interested in my interviews with downwind Marshallese women and their problems with pregnancy following Bravo’s lethal fallout.

A glaring omission of the film completely ignores the fact that Los Alamos, far from being an empty sector of land in New Mexico, was occupied by thousands of indigenous Native Americans and other “downwinders” caught in the lethal radioactive fallout from the first atomic test “Trinity” on July 16th, 1945.

Finally, try to imagine if the haberdasher-turned Senator from Missouri had not replaced then-Vice-President Henry Wallace in the 1944 Democratic convention, a vital issue given FDR’s rapidly deteriorating health concerns. Wallace was a popular New Deal Democrat with progressive politics regarding women, racial integration, elimination of rural poverty, national health insurance, etc. Wallace was the Sen. Bernie Sanders of the day.

If FDR had not dumped Henry Wallace at the 1944 Democratic convention, under pressure from the Manchins and Sinemas of the day, and if Truman had not become the Vice- President instead, Henry Wallace would not have dropped the atomic bomb in Japan. These are some of the more serious omissions from “Oppenheimer,” our contemporary cautionary tale, a tale made resonant with President Putin’s threats of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.