Oppenheimer: A Revolutionary Fighting Inside and Against a Reactionary System

In the film Oppenheimer—the story of the man who built the Atom Bomb—Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy have created an explosive exploration of the ugly history of U.S. Imperialism and its anti-communist, racist roots.  It is also a brilliant personality study of an ambitious, idealistic, driven, and ultimately tormented man Oppenheimer sheds light on the roots of the Cold War, how the U.S. used the communists in its short-term fight with fascism, organized them to drop a genocidal weapon of mass destruction on Japanese civilians,  only to turn on its war-time communist allies. Oppenheimer is the story of the brilliant physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who was close to the Communist Party, worked for the veterans of the Spanish Civil War (most of whom were also close to or in the Communist Party), worked to organize a union of scientists, and was known as “the father of the atomic bomb”. In the great final scene of the film, Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein are talking. Einstein tells him, as Oppenheimer is being red-baited and villainized for opposing the nuclear project he began, “They will punish you, then time will pass, and then when they no longer fear you, they will bring you back, give you a medal, but remember, they are doing it for themselves, not you.” Oppenheimer, tells Einstein, “When I first talked to you about the Atom Bomb, I told you the worst possible outcome was that it would start a chain reaction that could blow up the world.” By that he meant that the single bomb was so powerful that it could literally trigger a series of other explosions upon detonation.  He says, “While I was wrong about that one explosion, the arms race has now created that chain reaction we can’t stop.”

Oppenheimer’s despair was validated in the epic scene with U.S. president Harry Truman in which Oppenheimer argues that the bomb’s greatest achievement would be to create a nuclear disarmament movement where all nations agree not to build or use it. Truman replies, “No, this is the start of a whole new expansion of our weapons to take over the world” and as Oppenheimer leaves Truman says, “Don’t ever bring that crybaby into my office again.”

The film shows that the Manhattan project, the Los Alamos Project, and Oppenheimer enthusiastically built the first weapon of mass destruction in which the mass murder of civilians was the explicit objective.

Oppenheimer is also a story of an idealistic, driven man who, like many great physicists including his brother Frank, believed they could build a bomb to stop the Germans and then use its devastating consequences to build a movement for nuclear disarmament. Instead, the system used him for its murderous ends, and then turned on him, as a Jew, a communist, an introspective human being, when he came to denounce the very project of which he was the “father.”

This  essay is an interrogation of the history of the times. It is a political rebuttal to the central historical distortion of the film—Christopher Nolan’s conscious choice to erase the central objective of the Nuclear program— to build a weapon of terror to be used against the Soviet Union.  So, I want to as much as possible, appreciate the film’s political contribution to the historical discussion and its spectacular success as political theater. But in the end, it humanizes Robert Oppenheimer and dehumanizes the 220,000 Japanese civilians who were instantly killed upon the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. stood by while Hitler and his army killed 26 million Soviet soldiers and civilians. Then it entered the war to replace the British as the leader of the imperialist world and position itself for a post-war war against the communists.

Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy make Robert Oppenheimer into an attractive character, which he was, out of all historical context. But even some on the anti-imperialist left, including me, are manipulated by symbolism. I had greater hostility to ugly Johnson than “attractive” Kennedy, ugly George W. Bush than attractive Barack Obama. In the end, the charisma, brilliance, and charm of Robert Oppenheimer was used by the U.S. military to be the face of their explicitly genocidal plans. And Oppenheimer, with his own ferocious drive, put on a military uniform went to work with General Leslie Groves, and was the project manager for one of the worst crimes against humanity.

Oppenheimer’s charm and the deception of the film makes the audience, including me, sympathetic to him, a New York Jew, a dedicated communist ally, a tortured soul with blood on his hands, and puts Oppenheimer, not the dead and tortured at Hiroshima at the center of history—reinforcing the white man as the world protagonist in the eyes of U.S. and European barbarism.

Oppenheimer the film as entertainment, spectacle, and epic.

Oppenheimer is a massive success as spectacle, great character development, brilliant plot juxtapositions, a compelling cast headed by the incandescent performance of Cillian Murphy. It has big name stars thrilled to get a part—Matt Damon as General Leslie Groves, Emily Blunt as Kitty Oppenheimer, Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, Florence Pugh Jean Tatlock, Rami Malek as David Hill, Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr, David Krumholtz as Isidor Rabi, Gary Oldman as Harry Truman, and Tom Conti as Albert Einstein. Still  the film begins and ends with Cillian Murphy—a brilliant leading man who as an Irish gang leader Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders and Robert Oppenheimer is not just the protagonist but the center of every scene as he truly commanded the project and the screen.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Oppenheimer’s Cast

As the white actors in Oppenheimer are falling all over each other with self-serving praise—nominating each other for Oscars, the absence of Black lead actors in Oppenheimer is unacceptable. I know, says Nolan, “it’s not my fault all the real characters were white.” But come on Christopher, this is Hollywood where the audience comes to suspend disbelief. It would have been courageous, but also brilliant casting for Denzel Washington to play Robert Oppenheimer, Viola Davis as Kitty Oppenheimer, Halle Berry as Jean Tatlock, Samuel L. Jackson to play Truman, Morgan Freeman to play Albert Einstein, and James Earl Jones as General Leslie Groves. I have given real thought to this cast and after an initial thrill from Black audiences, even the white folks would be dazzled by the all-star cast and come to see Black as normal—if only inside the four walls of the theater. Christopher Nolan who broke the rules in Memento should have thought of this himself, but now he knows and should follow these Black casting priorities for the remake—Black Oppenheimer—with every one equal to or better than the original.

 Oppenheimer was not just a brilliant scientists but an organizer, of people, scientists, of the project itself, the charismatic, dedicated man who Hans Bethe, one of the great geniuses of his time, said had an intellect greater than any other person he had met. Oppenheimer read all three volumes of Das Kapital in German on a train ride across  the U.S. and according to legend, read every word of Lenin’s collected works. He was the life of the party, women loved him, men loved him, he was  Jew, a communist, an anti-fascist—and the victim of a vicious red-baiting campaign. Cillian Murphy/Robert Oppenheimer are so attractive that we want to forgive or mitigate their sins. We see everything through his eyes, as Christopher Nolan wants us to see him. And then it hits you—this film is not about Oppenheimer but the Atomic Bomb. It is The Bomb (code name, “the gadget”) that is the real protagonist. When Oppenheimer tells Truman, “I have blood on my hands” Truman replies,  “You are the one who built the bomb, but I’m the one who dropped it on Hiroshima”—not to reassure Oppenheimer but to assert you have to take responsibility for your actions.

Throughout the film, I came to see the dangerous manipulative capacity of  the medium I call “identification with the protagonists.” The audience has all the information to feel that Oppenheimer is an unsympathetic and even unsavory character.  Oppenheimer drove the project on to conclusion even when he knew that Germany had surrendered. He pushed the project staff to “complete what we have started” to defeat the Japanese. And when his rationale could not convince the dedicated scientists who wanted to end the Los Alamos project, he convinced them, or mainly himself, that dropping the bomb, killing and torturing more than 220,000 people, was a noble experiment. He argued, in Dr. Strangelove fashion, that the mass suffering would teach the  world the horrors of nuclear war. But in the film, so often used for cultural manipulation, we feel attraction to and empathy for Oppenheimer—the Jewish communist bomb maker as a movie star. Oppenheimer is such explosive political theater that when he tells his angry, alienated, alcoholic wife, Kitty, played by Emily Blunt, that they will be finally testing the Atom Bomb at Los Alamos, she tells him, affectionately,  “Break a leg” as if he is about to go on the Broadway stage. . But in fact, the “play” is real and I find myself rooting for its success, knowing that on July 16, 1945 it “succeeded” and less than a month later it was used for vaporizing 220,000 people and creating the most painful illnesses and injuries for hundreds of thousands more, with deaths from radiation poisoning and so many deformed children that the deaths and torture continued for decades.  In the end, thee are no redeeming qualities to Robert Oppenheimer and the Los Alamos gang.

My view of the history Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the great world war against fascism.

In my forthcoming book, I Saw a Revolution with My Own Eyes: History, Strategy, and Organizing for the revolution we need today, I frame the challenge of writing Movement history —“There is no such thing as “history. There is only the struggle over historical interpretation” So, let me frame the politics of the film through my own interpretation of the history of those times, for without that worldview, how can you evaluate a film’s historical accuracy

The film is set in the 1930s, during the high point of the U.S. Communist Party, of whose work Robert Oppenheimer was a supporter and many of whose members, including his brother Frank and his wife Jacqui, were his close friends. The Party’s “united front against fascism” and “popular front” politics of building broad alliances moved its membership from 10,000 in the early 1930s to 50,000 by the end of the decade. Because communists were skilled organizers and built broad-based organizations those 50,000 members touched the lives of millions of friends and supporters.

Long before Adolph Hitler and the Nazi’s came to power in 1933, they had many powerful allies in the U.S. —Joseph Kennedy Sr, Henry Ford, the German-American Bund—and very few militant opponents in U.S. ruling circles. The United States and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were  never anti-fascist, and in fact, tried to co-exist with fascism in an anti-communist bloc until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Roosevelt supported British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Premier Edouard Daladier at the Munich agreement of September 30, 1938 that allowed Nazi Germany to invade and annex part of Czechoslovakia. That “appeasement” only emboldened Hitler who then organized the invasion of Poland in 1939. The Hitler/Stalin pact of August 1939, which is my view was a necessary tactic for the Soviets after their abandonment by the Western capitalists, was one year after Britain, France, and the U.S. at Munich, refused to unite with the Soviets against the German fascists. The U.S., still neutral, did not enter the war until 2 years later and even then, only after being attacked.

The central agreement between the U.S., England, and France—reflected in their tacit support for the rise of the fascist powers under General Francisco Franco in Spain—was that fascism, despite its racism, anti-Semitism, and expansionist ideology, was still a form of capitalism. In that communism was the only system opposed to capitalism and in support of the African and Asian national liberation struggles against U.S. and European colonialism, the entire capitalist world agreed that the Soviet Union, not the fascists, was their main enemy. So, while the U.S. communists formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight in Spain against the fascists,  Roosevelt stayed neutral, while more than half of U.S. volunteers were killed in action. The great documentary film, To Die in Madrid, tells the story of the heroism of the Loyalists and the barbarism of the Germans and Italians with tacit U.S. support.

The U.S. tried to stay out of the war for as long as possible, but the French and British were no match for Hitler. France capitulated to the Germans in 1940 after barely firing a shot with many French praising the Nazi invasion. England was trying to survive Nazi bombings with little capacity for offensive action. After Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor and Germany broke the “non-aggression pact” to invade the Soviet Union in June, 1941 an alliance of necessity was formed between the U.S., the Soviet Union, England, and capitulated France against the German and Italian fascists.  While U.S. communists had dreams of a post-world anti-fascist United Front led by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the ruling classes of the U.S., England, and France had no such illusions. They all understood that as soon as the hostilities with Germany and Japan were successfully concluded, they would work to rehabilitate the fascists, create a U.S. dominated world imperialist order, and once again go to war against the Communists inside and outside the U.S.—especially the Soviet Union. While they double-crossed their most devoted allies, the U.S. kept its promise to itself to replace the British as the world’s imperialist power and allow the subordinated French and British to maintain their empires but as junior partners to the U.S. Colossus. The using and discarding of the U.S. and Soviet communists, the use of Oppenheimer to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal to, if necessary, use against the Germans but most importantly use to threaten the Soviets, is the central political truth of the 1930s until 1945 that Christopher Nolan, who studied the period with great attention to detail, chose to cover up in his film.

The film humanizes U.S. communists and portrays Robert Oppenheimer and the communists as dedicated, noble people.

Today, with the erasure of revolutionary history, few can grasp the enormous power, prestige, and influence of the U.S. Communist party from the early 1930s well into the 1950s. The CPUSA, aka, “The Party” had hundreds of  thousands of active supporters and allies among the best and brightest of the Black, labor, women’s peace, cultural, artistic, literary, and political worlds. In the show trial against Oppenheimer at the Atomic Energy Commission in 1955, Oppenheimer was accused of being a communist. If that was defined as being a “card carrying” member of the CPUSA, he was not one. But during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s,  being a “communist” went far beyond actual party membership to anyone who willingly worked with the CPUSA in united front organizations. In the film, Oppenheimer supported a trade union for scientists, which was radical in itself, and, though he was not a communist, he worked side by side with many communist organizers for good causes.  At that time, the “communists were everywhere” and so many groups fighting for the rights of Black people, trade unions, immigrant rights, cultural radicalism had communists in leadership positions. The CPUSA led the fight for the Scottsboro Boys, founded the National Negro Congress, condemned the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, led the United Auto Workers, and was critical in the building of the CIO. James Ford, Angelo Herndon, Wyndham Mortimer, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Claudia Jones, some of who were in the party and others who were close friends, were respected by millions. Communists trained leaders and built organizations of resistance.

Do you think that U.S. imperialism after WW II, led by Harry Truman and a bi-partisan cold war cabal, cared about who was in or out of the communist party’s official membership? In 1947, the U.S. Congress passed the Taft Hartley Act, which said that communists could not hold union office—even though communists led the movement to unionize the U.S. working class. Do you think right-wing, social democratic, trade unionists like Walter Reuther fought for the rights of communists or gave a damn about who of his communist and pro-communist opponents were in or out of the party? In 1947, the U.S. House Un-American Committee moved against artists and writers in the Hollywood. They subpoenaed 40 artists and ten refused—great writers, great people—and each was sentenced, with no proof, to 1 year in prison and were whitelisted when they got out. While Dalton Trumbo and 9 others defied the committee, the Screen Actors Guild agreed to ban members with communist ties. Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, the two greatest intellectuals of their time, were trapped inside the U.S. as the U.S. revoked their passports as Black liberation fighters who were friends of the Soviet Union.

The film describes Oppenheimer’s passionate affair with Jean Tatlock (played by Florence Pugh) a CPUSA member who tried to recruit Oppenheimer to join the party. Then, Oppenheimer married Kitty Harrison (played by Emily Blunt) who in the film, under questioning, said she did not remember when she left the party, though she was clearly still allied with the communists. The film captures the passion, commitment, and humanity of the broad pro-communist anti-fascist movement that drove Robert Oppenheimer to accept the challenge to organize the Los Alamos Research Project and to deliver the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Robert Oppenheimer as a brilliant organizer

In academia, there were theoretical and practical in each field—theoretical physics, applied physics, theory and practice. But nothing in the field taught you how to organize. When Leslie Groves approaches Oppenheimer, he tells him he is a known as arrogant, a womanizer, and a leftist. But again, none of those would qualify him for the job of a project manager of a massive start-up. It was Oppenheimer’s close relationship to communist led organizations that made him such a unique choice—how many physics professors could organize their way out of a paper bag. The communists were uniquely creative, the just created new organizations and institutions out of thin air—they imagined a specific for of organization and then knew, step by step, how to build them. The communists were visionaries—Trade Union Educational League, National Negro Congress, American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, International Labor Defense, Scottsboro Boys Defense Committee, and the faculty, professional union he worked with at UC Berkeley. The communists taught about “the unite front” in which an organization had to have principles of unity but within that, had to tolerate and encourage people of different views under that umbrella to work together. It takes a lot of patience and genuine affection for people.

The Los Alamos center became a tiny village of 6,000 people and Oppenheimer was called “the mayor” “the police chief” and any other title that reflected “the person in charge.” Trying to organize physicists made herding cats seem easy, but there is an organizers mindset that trains you to get people to get excited about the worldview, the organization, and over time, to be good organizational players—at Los Alamos fueled by 200 proof home grown whisky. Oppenheimer was a lot like Steve Jobs, he knew about every element of the project, theoretically, practically, but also emotionally and organizationally. Groves kept talking about “compartmentalization” so that if someone infiltrated only a few people in each area knew the secrets. But Oppenheimer disagreed and was a group builder. If the team does not grasp the whole  vision it can’t grasp where the project is going and will retreat into narrow self-interest and factionalism. When Saul Alinsky wrote his reactionary book, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals he began with an anti-communist tirade. Historically, he said, communism and organizing have been inseparable, but my job is to split the atom—to separate organizing from communism. Alinsky’s groups were narrow, self-interested and had no revolutionary fervor or vision. But he got one thing right, it was the communists who made “organizing” the center of their theory of social change. Oppenheimer was not just a “fellow traveler.” With so many close associates in the CP, he learned the art and science of being a mass leader and it was those qualities that made him not just perfect for the job, but the only person imaginable who could have led that team. But at the height of its anti-fascist vision, group élan, comradery and sacrifice, it was Oppenheimer the communist who had the ideology and class stand to move the group through three years of non-stop work. The tragedy continues that all those skills for a project that was doomed to moral failure were not just wasted, but created unimaginable harm in the world.

Oppenheimer as an anti-nuclear activist.

In the film, the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, they show a crowd of 100 white U.S. scientists at Los Alamos, cheering madly for “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby.” But as Oppenheimer moves to the stage, he is already shaken, terrified, imagining he is stepping on human—Japanese—flesh on the way. He says, with some forced bravado, “We dropped the bomb on Japan. I don’t think they liked it very much. I only wish we had dropped it on Germany.”—but at that moment, we see human transformation: a unique human being, a scientist at the height of his power and celebrity, grasping he had committed an unpardonable sin.

Imagine that on August 17, 1945, only 8 days after the bombing of Hiroshima, Oppenheimer has had a revolutionary transformation into an anti-nuclear crusader. In a letter to Secretary of War Henry Stinson (note before the U.S. changed it to “defense”) Oppenheimer concluded:

We are not only unable to outline a program that would assure to this nation for the next decades hegemony in the field of atomic weapons; we are equally unable to insure that such hegemony, if achieved, could protect us from the most terrible destruction. The  development, in the years to come, of more effective atomic weapons, would appear to be a most natural element in any national policy of maintaining our military forces at great strength; nevertheless, we have grave doubts that this further development can contribute essentially or permanently to the prevention of war. We believe that the safety of this nation – as opposed to its ability to inflict damage on an enemy power – cannot lie wholly or even primarily in its scientific or technical prowess. It can be based only on making future wars impossible. It is our unanimous and urgent recommendation to you that, despite the present incomplete exploitation of technical possibilities in this field, all steps be taken, all necessary international arrangements be made, to this one end. We are not only unable to outline a program that would assure to this nation for the next decades hegemony in the field of atomic weapons; we are equally unable to insure that such hegemony, if achieved, could protect us from the most terrible destruction.

Oppenheimer is a rare case when someone high in the establishment, and yes, complicit in its crimes, has the courage to look squarely at their life and the times, and change sides. But if he understood the terror to which he had contributed on August 17, how could he have encouraged it on August 8 and 11th?

Oppenheimer on Trial—Nolan’s brilliant use of the vicious and unprincipled interrogation of Oppenheimer to expose the perfidy and sadism of the system.

By 1954, 9 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer continued being an outspoken opponent of nuclear weapons, nuclear war, and the delusional idea of a U.S. monopoly on the bomb. And yet, he still testified in front of Congress believing he still has prestige and power. In 1953, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance. By now, Oppenheimer’s many political enemies, led by Admiral Lewis Strauss, who plays the jealous antagonist—Salieri obsessed with Mozart—had figured out the best tactic to discredit him. Rather than a public trial, in which public support for the father of the bomb might backfire, Strauss, who had been chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, sets up a  star chamber, private hearing to sustain Oppenheimer’s removal from the AEC and taking away of his security clearance. Can you imagine, the father of the atom bomb expelled from the atom bomb club! Jason Clarke plays Roger Robb, a rabid anti-communist judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit who serves as special counsel for the hearing that led to the revocation of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance in 1954. The film shows Robb as a vicious and malicious interrogator. Some have questioned whether a government official could be so horrible, but Nolan makes clear he got those quotes from the actual hearing transcripts for his film

The film shows Oppenheimer as strangely passive at his own hearing.  Though he is calm and wants only to tell his story, he is just beginning to grasp that a verdict has already been reached. Oppenheimer is urged by his wife Kitty to “stand up and fight” but this is not who he is. He is a scientist, a passionate man who devoted his life to building a bomb he believed could save the world. By 1955, even more  guilty over it, tortured by it, He does  not wish to be self-righteous as much as, scientifically, to restore the record of the truth. But the U.S. government has no such introspection or ambivalence. The agonized Oppenheimer has become an enemy of the state precisely because he is no longer their cheerleader. The scene, long and winding, is one of the greatest in the film, and it shows the U.S. as the brutal interrogator that it is.

But his wife Kitty bitterly grasps the truth, “You wanted the abuse because of the guilt you felt about Hiroshima.” In the interrogation, Robb yells at Oppenheimer, “You opposed the hydrogen bomb on moral grounds but you fought for the atomic bomb. How many people did you kill? Oppenheim says, “80,000 people at Hiroshima 40,000 in Nagasaki. But even them, the fill script distorts the agreed upon figures of 140,000 at Hiroshima and 80,000 at Nagasaki. How could Nolan even understate the terrible toll.  The tragedy of it all is that while the witch hunt trial goes into ugly detail into his private life, distorts his achievements, degrades his character and even accuses Oppenheimer, a truly “loyal American” as being a Soviet spy—Oppenheimer’s still has to live with the fact that his theory that the U.S. should drop the bomb to show the world its horrors, and the resultant mass murder, is the central defining fact in his life and legacy.

Oppenheimer, still believing in his self-importance, the logic of truthful argument, and the essential fairness of the system, leaves the hearing devastated. His soul repeats his own mantra after Hiroshima from the Bhagavad Gita” Now I become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Nolan chooses to not show the horror of the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the excruciating suffering it caused

On August 6 and August 9, 1945, the U.S. dropped nuclear weapons on Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They killed more than 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred when people were incinerated instantly by the explosions—virtually all of them were “civilian non-combatants.” And that does not count the long-term cancer deaths of those exposed to massive radiation from the bombs. The multiple levels of human torture are documented in John Hersey’s book, Hiroshima, and dozens of documentary films and books. How do you begin to explain a weapon that would vaporize people, tear the skin off them, leave the survivors in excruciating pain many for the rest of their short lives? How do you talk about the radiation sickness, nausea, exhaustion, leukemia, cancers, anemia, and keloids—when a wound develops a permanent scar that causes excruciating pain and itching for life?

I share the outrage expressed  by many anti-war groups that Nolan made a conscious choice to not show any scenes of the death, dying, deformities, excruciating pain, and trauma. How in the world could he not  show scenes of obliterated bodies on the ground, children and adults screaming, or pictures of entire communities 5 years later suffering the aftershocks.

In one of the most reactionary reviews, a columnists chastised those who raised those criticisms, and outrage as “not knowing the difference between art and politics.” He  argued that the film clearly showed Oppenheimer’s turmoil in the scene when he walks to the podium to acclaim, feeling he is stepping over dead bodies on the way. But it is neither sufficient or even germane as to whether Oppenheimer feels guilt, which he does, telling Truman “I have blood on my hands.”  Let’s be clear. Oppenheimer was even aware of the U.S. targets. The U.S. army planned as The Day After Trinity explains, to leave several cities un-bombed, as “virgin targets” so it could measure the severity of the damage, which it hoped would be beyond anything seen or imagined, and Hiroshima was one of them. According to the film, Oppenheimer was aware of the targets. This is premeditated mass murder, a war crime, a crime against humanity, genocide. It is the people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki  whose lives and deaths must  come alive, touch the viewers, so the audience, not Oppenheimer, can judge his life and its crimes. Nolan consciously covers this up and for so many people all over the world, this is not an “omission” but an inexcusable artistic and political decision. By not showing the excruciating suffering of the Japanese people, Nolan protects Oppenheimer from the consequence of his actions, portraying his inner turmoil but not his impact on hundreds of thousands who died and hundreds of thousands more whose injuries and illnesses were  a fate worse than death.

The film hints at, but does not fully develop Oppenheimer’s inflated self-image, belief he could change policy, and his desperate belief he could influence those in power by his charisma, loyalty, and persuasive argumentation.

General Leslie Groves chose Oppenheimer as the leader of the Los Alamos mission because he had the ego, charisma, and organizational brilliance to build a project from inception to completion seemingly out of thin air. Oppenheimer was a leader people wanted to work for and with, charming, attractive to women and men, able to negotiate the infinite egos of white men who were renowned for their intellectual brilliance but still had a higher opinion of themselves that those who gave them the highest praise. In turn, Oppenheimer became obsessively identified with the project and focused on “completion” not the consequences of their collective experiment in terror.

In The Day After Trinity,  Freeman Dyson, a noted physicist and close colleague of Oppenheimer observed:

Leslie Groves gave him power, money, ego. What began as a project of 50 people ended up with a small city of 6,000 and Robert was the driving force. Robert made a deal with Groves and the military. Once you sell your soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power, there was no going back on it.

In Trinity, Robert Wilson, another famous scientist at Los Alamos,  tells a chilling story: Before the nuclear test at Los Alamos, a group of scientists at Los Alamos, called a meeting, titled, “The Impact of the Gadget on Civilization.” Wilson argued that with the surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945, there was no longer a need to “test” the bomb, let alone use it— given the unfathomable human suffering it would cause. Wilson was proposing an internal protest, which would have been courageous, but the first self-delusion was that after coming this close to testing and using the bomb, the U..S. government would care about the opinions of those who had been paid to build it. Worse,  Oppenheimer argued that the weapon had to be used to show the United Nations the horrors of nuclear weapons so it could ban its further use. This scene is also in the Oppenheimer film. But can the viewers grasp that this where Oppenheimer, as a real person not a sympathetic film character, has gone  over the edge into madness—to argue for the necessity to o use a bomb against civilians that will be so ghastly that after 220,000  are killed and a hundreds of thousands more will suffer grotesque injuries,  it will “teach a lesson” to those in power. This pushes the real Oppenheimer from self-delusion into a conscious proponent of mass murder.  In the scene, you see Oppenheimer using his power of persuasion and intimidation to abuse his role as project director.

Wilson says, “We were programmed as automatons. We just kept going, the machinery had caught us in a trap, we were anxious to finish the project. It began with anti-fascist fervor but developed a life of its own. We should have stopped the project after the German’s surrendered on VE Day. May 8, 1945. I should have walked away.”

The Central Question of Oppenheimer. Why would the U.S. army invest $2 billion and 3 years to build the Atomic Bomb? This  can be best understood through a timeline of events. The answer? The Manhattan project was never part of an anti-Nazi military strategy. It was a critical element of the U.S. post-war plan to go to war with the Soviet Union.

In 1939, Albert Einstein wrote  a letter to President Roosevelt arguing that breakthroughs in the theory of nuclear fission indicated that  there was  good reason to believe Nazi Germany had initiated a nuclear bomb project. It was estimated that the U.S. was  already a year or more behind.  The U.S. did not prioritize the program until  in August 1942 after rebuilding its navy after Pearl Harbor. But by that  time, the Germans had discontinued their nuclear project. It can be argued the U.S. only had this knowledge by 1943, but given the ties between scientists on both sides in the war, and the extensive espionage networks the U.S., Germany, England, and the Soviet Union were operating, the “secret” of Hitler focusing on long-distance, missile carrying rockets instead was common knowledge among the elites.  So, the Manhattan project was not needed to counter a terminated German nuclear program.  Now, whether the U.S. would have used a nuclear bomb against Germany nonetheless can be debated, but my assessment is the U.S. would never drop a nuclear bomb on a white, Christian, capitalist nation, and given Roosevelt’s and the U.S. vicious anti-Semitism, it could care less about the mass murder of the Jews. So, by the time the Manhattan project was initiated in 1942, the idea of pre-empting a German nuclear attack was no longer an objective of the program but rather, a rationale to motivate its Jewish, pro-communist scientists.  It is the courageous experience and testimony of Joseph Rotblat that provides the factual verification of these assertions.

Joseph Rotblat, was a British physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, believing it was necessary in view of German atom bomb development. His  Wikipedia profile explains, Rotblat continued to have strong reservations about the use of science to develop such a devastating weapon. In 1985, he related that, at a private dinner at the Chadwicks’ house at Los Alamos in March 1944, he was shocked to hear the director of the Manhattan Project, Major General Leslie R. Groves, Jr., say words to the effect that the real purpose in making the bomb was to subdue the Soviets. Indeed, Groves testified under oath at the 1954 hearing about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security record that “there was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this project, any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy and that the project was conducted on that basis.”  How is it possible that this central theme as part of Groves’ testimony in the long hearing scenes is not mentioned let alone the central story.

In 1942, just when the Los Alamos project began, scientists and spies all over the world came to understand that the German nuclear project had been unsuccessful and abandoned.   By 1943, Rotblat resigned and was given permission to withdraw from the Manhattan Project—in itself unique because once in it was hard to get out. To Rotblat it was clear that Germany would not manage to make an atomic bomb before the war was over. He also feared that nuclear weapons might be used in a clash with the communist Soviet Union.

The refusal by Nolan to explain to the audience that the U.S. strategy of post-war confrontation and even nuclear war against the Soviet Union was the primary motivator of Los Alamos makes the politics of the entire film based on what can only be a political choice and conscious misrepresentation.

If Rotblat left the project in 1943, he needed a security clearance to do so, given U.S. fear of scientists defecting to the Soviet Union or providing nuclear information to the Soviets,  Given that Oppenheimer wanted control of all aspects of the operation, and given the great significance of a challenge to the entire premise of Los Alamos,  a noted scientist who says there is no German nuclear program, there is no way Rotblat and his views are not vetted by Oppenheimer and the military team. Why doesn’t the film show this “smoking gun” But whatever intelligence, it is a fact that Germany surrenders in May of 1945. So, if Germany never had the bomb, and then surrendered, why did the Manhattan project continue? To create a unilateral military terror that the U.S. could use to subdue and threaten its communist enemies. To position the U.S. as the unchallenged world hegemon replacing England. To bomb Japan before Russia got involved in the anti-Japanese ground forces.

To be clear, Hitler said his primary objective was to destroy the Soviet Union. He began the invasion in June 1941 and ended in May 1945 when German troops surrendered to the Soviets. During that period the Germans murdered 26 million Soviet soldiers and civilians. Even in their retreat they burned and destroyed every farm, factory, bridge, school, and electrical system. The impact on the Soviet economy and the loss of an entire generation of Soviet people was so devastating few expected the Soviets to recover. So, Hitler wanted to destroy the Soviet Union, Churchill and Truman wanted to destroy the Soviet Union right after the war.

The scene in the film when Oppenheimer asks Groves, “Did Truman tell the Soviets about the bomb” and Groves replies, “Well, at Potsdam, Truman said he had a new very powerful bomb, but did not go into detail.  The Potsdam Conference took place from  July 17 to August 2, 1945.   That is why General Groves told Oppenheimer, “I don’t care if it’s raining or snowing, the test must take place no later than July 16 because Truman wants the information in Potsdam.” The test went off right on time to the day, armed with the knowledge that he would rush the bombing of Japan right after Potsdam, Truman lies to Stalin and only says he has a new, very powerful bomb. It should be clear that Truman was going to drop the bomb on the Japanese with the clear goal to terrorize the Soviet Union in the post-war period of hope for unchallenged U.S. hegemony. And had the test failed, Truman, knowing of the massive U.S. casualties in any invasion of Japan, would have needed Soviet military support—which he saw as a threat not a help.

The rationale that the bomb had to be dropped on Japanese civilians to stop a massacre of U.S. troops invading is a lie. The U.S. claims it  needed to drop the Atom Bomb to force a recalcitrant Japan to surrender. It was argued that dropping the Atomic bomb was needed to  prevent massive losses from a U.S. invasion of Japan A study prepared for U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stinson estimated a land invasion of Japan in 1945 could have resulted in 1.7 to 4 million Allied casualties, of which 400,000 to 800,000 were expected to be fatalities and 5 to 10 million Japanese fatalities—a lot through the continued saturation bombing of Japan.

But the U.S. cleverly made it seem that those were the only choices. Clearly the Saturation bombing of Japan was taking a major toll, razing entire cities killing 1 million people. But it was also understood, through secret diplomatic channels, that the Japanese were prepared to surrender. So why did  Truman demand “unconditional surrender” when yes, some preservation of the monarchy might be the price—especially since the U.S. planned to take over Japan after the war. Why the rush—there was no need for a timeline of the invasion. Why not demonstrate the bomb off site which was proposed? The U.S. answer is that if it failed, the Japanese would be emboldened. Why August 6 in Hiroshima, only a few days after Potsdam, then why a second bombing at Nagasaki, what else was there to prove. Why not give the Japanese fascists time for internal debate in the face of a genocidal attack?

By now you know the answer to every question—the U.S. war against the Soviet Union as its primary post-war objective.  when in fact there were secret negotiations with the Japanese. And why didn’t the U.S. “demonstrate” to the Japanese that it had the bomb. And why, after Hiroshima did it need to also drop the bomb on Nagasaki? And it turns out it had planned a third nuclear attack.

Conclusion, with the defeat of Germany by the Soviet Union, the U.S. was planning a world war against communists and the Soviet Union. The nuclear attack on Japan was actually a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Before Potsdam, the Soviets, had not declared war on Japan because it was on its border and they could not fight on two fronts. But Stalin and the Soviets  decided after the defeat of Germany to declare war on Japan and join the Chinese communists, and U.S. to a war on Japan. On August 8, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and moved 1 million troops to confront the Japanese in Manchuria. In my view, and many historians, the real reason the U.S. feared a land war in Japan is that the Soviets would win major victories coming in from the West, and then would have post-war power in  Asia and Europe. So, the dropping of the bombs was to stop Russian influence in Asia, not to prevent a U.S. land war in Asia.

So back to Oppenheimer the man and Oppenheimer the film.

The scientists at Los Alamos were being used by the U.S. military. When Oppenheimer at first was strutting  around in a military uniform, his friend, Isidor Rabi a New York Jew and Nobel Laureate, tells him to take it off—”you are a scientist not a general”. Oppenheimer agrees and goes back to his iconic pork pie hat. But Rabi was also trying to protect Oppenheimer. Strutting along with  that military jacket would have tipped off the civilian nuclear scientists that it was Groves and Oppenheimer who were their military supervisors. Oppenheim going back to civilian clothes created the illusion he was a civil project manager and one of the team, when in fact he was the project manager for the U.S. army.

Oppenheimer, as a brilliant organizer, working with his odd fellow General Leslie Groves to make the military charming, had gained such a sense of power, with 6,000 people at Los Alamos, it began to shape his sense of himself as more powerful politically than he was. He saw himself as a diplomas bridging the civilian scientists and thee military establishment through the  illusions of his own independent power. But if he understood that the German nuclear program had failed by 1942, which Nolan covers up, and clearly the Germans surrendered in May 1945.  Neither the Japanese nor the Soviets have any nuclear weapons,  why didn’t he throw himself on his sword? In that way, he would not have the blood of others on his hands but his own. The reason, by now Oppenheimer had been seduced and recruited into the U.S. military machine by the wily good old boy General Groves, saw himself part of the army and the political establishment, and carried out the self-delusion that murdering un-armed civilians as the logical extension of the “completion of his task.” Within his twisted logic, he was the ultimate project manager. There is a great scene towards the end of the film when Oppenheimer, having delivered the bomb, starts giving instructions to the military commanders who now possess it. The army guy says to Oppenheimer, “thanks a lot, we can take it from here.” Oppenheimer figures out the bomb was never his to stop or start, he had become a willing tool of a higher power.

Nolan covers up the movement among friends of the Soviet Union all over the world to help them develop a nuclear bomb when it became clear the U.S. objective was to use it against the Soviets

 Throughout the film, there is an undercurrent of concern about why the U.S. was not sharing its nuclear information with the Soviets. Oppenheimer says he would like the U.S. to do so but would not tell the U.S. government what to do. Oppenheimer also becomes aware that at least one member of his team was seeking information to pass to the Soviets. He considered that “treason.”

The U.S. used the  communists and preyed on their hopes that they could be communists and also “loyal Americans. Thrilled with the U.S. alliance with the Soviet Union, the communists in the U.S. and England in the Los Alamos project,  assumed the U.S. would share any military information, including the plans for the atomic bomb, with the Soviets. After all, the Soviet Union was involved in a bloody battle with the German Nazi’s who had invaded their country, suffering what would end up as 26 million dead. Without the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany, the war would have continued and “The Allies “would have lost the war.  But, when they realized that the U.S. was working directly with England on the bomb but would give no information to the Soviets, they understood that Churchill and Roosevelt were building a bloc against the Soviets. There were a significant number of scientists inside and outside the Manhattan project who believed that in the interest of world peace, they had to get information on how to construct a deterrent bomb to the Soviets.

This sentiment in the international scientific community is best reflected in the British film, Red Joan—based on a novel of the same name written by Jennie Rooney, which was itself inspired by the life of Melita Norwood. Norwood worked at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association as a secretary and supplied the Soviet Union with nuclear secrets. The information that Norwood gave to the Soviets hastened the pace at which they developed nuclear bomb technology. In 1945, Norwood is appalled by the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is frightened when it is suggested that Britain should develop its own atomic bombs for possible use against the Soviet Union. She provides additional information about the British nuclear programme to the Soviet Union. When her role as a “spy” for the Soviets come to light 40 years later, she argued that her disclosures of classified work helped to avoid the possibility of a third world war involving the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Rather than disown her, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) called her “a real heroine” and “a consistent fighter in defense of peace and socialism.”

Nolan goes out of his way to portray Oppenheimer as a “loyal American” who thought that giving information to the Soviet Union was “treason.” But Nolan chooses to cover up the larger truth, that many in the Los Alamos project wanted to share their information with the Soviet Union. They were not “spies” but fighters for human rights and peace and increasingly terrified about what the U.S. would do if it was the sole owner of The Bomb. How could Nolan, who knows this subject so well, not make the U.S. threat to the Soviets a major theme in his film. This is a major historical omission and distortion.

Conclusion: Oppenheimer shows how  the U.S.  U.S. manipulated the scientists and a rabid  imperialist public that it was OK to bait and switch Japan for Germany. At the victory party, Oppenheimer states, “We bombed Japan today. But I wish we had bombed Germany.”

The entire rationale for the Los Alamos bomb was to drop it on Germany which ostensibly had a nuclear bomb in planning. Once Germany surrendered the entire rationale for the bomb exploded. The racist argument that murdering so many Japanese would save “U.S.” lives is the very definition of genocide—using a weapon knowingly to kill massive numbers of civilians The U.S. could have demonstrated the bomb, not without consequences of radioactive fallout, off land to show the Japanese they had the weapon. But even if the Japanese chose to continue to fight, the U.S. had no right to use it.

After the bombing of Japan, Robert Oppenheimer chanted, from the Bhagavat Gita, Now I am death, destroyer of Worlds. His humiliation, trial, and forced exit from the scientific community contributed to his daughter’s suicide, another reflection of the collateral damage of the anti-communists.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer shows good people, brilliant people, and, yes, pro-communist people with genuine patriotism, used up and discarded by a system that sold them a bill of goods that they were fighting fascism.  But the participants were also arrogant, self-important, and when confronted with the reality of inflicting genocide on civilians, still “pushed the button.”  In  The Day After Trinity one colleague described Oppenheimer as strutting around like a scene from the film High Noon. In the end, Oppenheimer’s brilliance as an organizer led him to identify with his project more than the initial anti-fascism of his motivations. He made a deal with the Devil, General Leslie Groves  who gave him power, money, public recognition and fame in return for building a bomb that only a barbarian nation could imagine.  When a colleague left the project in 1943, knowing that the German experiment in building a nuclear bomb had failed, Oppenheimer pushed on. When the German’s surrendered in May 7, 1945, he pushed on. When the atom bomb test was a success, he and his brother Michael’s first reaction was, “Thank God it wasn’t a dud.” And when he saw the demonstration of its horrors, he still delivered the bomb to General Groves and Harry Truman who enthusiastically dropped in on millions of Japanese. Robert Oppenheimer knew too much and at every turn, kept his deal with the devil and pushed the Los Alamos project to its deadly outcome. Portrayed so sympathetically by Nolan and Murphy, in the end Robert Oppenheimer had the blood of hundreds of thousands of people on his hands—and opened the door to a nuclear winter and mass extinction. When he tells Einstein that he has caused a chain reaction of a nuclear arms race that can’t be reversed, he begins to grasp his role in it. To be clear, not one scientist or all the scientists at Los Alamos could have stopped the building of the bomb or stopped its use. They also could have sabotaged the test, delivering a “failure” to Truman that would have cost them their careers and possibly freedom. But they did not resign in protest, did not build a mass movement against its use, did not identify it as a crime against humanity. What they felt and said afterwards cannot erase the conclusion that for the rest of their lives, they had blood on their hands.

Still, the theme of redemption and rebirth in the face of self-hatred and despair is also one that the film, and Robert Oppenheimer demonstrated. He spent the rest of his life challenging the establishment and using himself as the primary example of the murderous policies he now opposed. He could have retreated into self-absorbed guilt, Instead, he took on the system over nuclear weapons, opposed the building of the Hydrogen bomb, testified in front of Congress against all nuclear weapons and called for cooperation not war with the Soviet Union. He had become death but still fought  for life. He became an anti-war crusader.

In the end, Oppenheimer the film brings back the atrocities of the U.S. to a mass audience. The events of that period, and our lives today, are operating at rapid speed, the forces of reaction are even stronger, and the choices before us can lead to despair but require courage and hope. The story of good people doing bad things should lead to a revolutionary opposition to a system, U.S. imperialism, that is evil to its core and eats up even people with good intentions. Today, Joe Biden, the spitting image of the murderous Harry Truman, threatens to unleash a nuclear war against the Peoples Republic of China. The terrifying interaction of climate change and nuclear war puts the whole world’s existence in danger.  U.S. society is a system of death. The main lesson of the film, in my view, is that yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the U.S. maintains its genocidal policies that are structural to the long history of U.S. imperialism. The challenge for all of us is to challenge The Empire and fight for humanity and the planet.

Eric Mann is the co-director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center. He is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers New Directions Movement. He is the host of KPFK/Pacifica’s Voices from the Frontlines. His forthcoming book is I Saw a Revolution with my Own Eyes: History, Strategy, and Organizing for The Revolution We Need today. He welcomes comments at Eric@Voicesfromthefrontlines.com

Eric Mann is the co-director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center. He is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers New Directions Movement. He is the host of KPFK/Pacifica’s Voices from the Frontlines. His forthcoming book is I Saw a Revolution with my Own Eyes: History, Strategy, and Organizing for The Revolution We Need today. He welcomes comments at Eric@Voicesfromthefrontlines.com