I saw Oppenheimer yesterday, and I generally came away very impressed. The production design was outstanding and the major characters were all well cast. The dialogue among highly intelligent people seemed entirely realistic, as it so rarely does in major films. The movie conveyed the incredible mix of excitement and terror involved in major theoretical and practical breakthroughs in physics. I enjoyed the relationship between Oppenheimer (Cilian Murphy) and General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon)--two very different, very strong personalities who knew that they needed one another. I also enjoyed the long segment of the movie dealing with Lewis Strauss, the one-time chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who may have wrecked Oppenheimer's career in public service, and his rejection as Secretary of Commerce by the Senate in 1959, which I remember quite well--even though I have the impression that the film exaggerates the role of the Oppenheimer controversy in that outcome. There was however one thing about the film that I did not like. In addition, I just stumbled upon Peggy Noonan's review of it in the Wall Street Journal, which gives me a chance to expand upon a point I made recently--the way that journalists now see their role in the world.
General Groves was a hot-tempered military man who as a result has been caricatured at least twice on screen, once by Manning Redwood in the excellent PBS miniseries about Oppenheimer from 1980 (starring Sam Waterston) and also by Paul Newman in Fat Man and Little Boy. Matt Damon went in the other direction and played him in a relatively low-key manner, and interviews with Groves in a 1965 documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb--available on youtube--suggest that he got it right. The problem arose, oddly, when Christopher Nolan, the director, turned to famous people--two in particular--President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of War (and one-time Secretary of State) Henry M. Stimson. He and his collaborators, frankly, appear to know very little about either man, and didn't care enough to find out.
Harry Truman still has an image as a man of the people--but that image is only half true. Yes, he was a friendly Midwesterner with a notoriously foul mouth, but he was also extremely intelligent and very well read in American history. When he became Vice President he had spent several critical years chairing the Senate Committee on the Conduct of the War, looking for problems that had to be corrected in the unprecedented war mobilization that the country went through. He took his job extremely seriously and he made a number of critical decisions in both foreign and domestic affairs, beginning, of course, with the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan. He was ahead of his time in two major respects. In late 1945 he proposed a national health insurance system, which, sadly, the United States still does not have, and in 1948 he became the first president to put civil rights as we now understand them on the national agenda. He could not get his civil rights proposals through Congress but he made them part of the Democratic Party platform and started the ball rolling that crossed the goal line in 1964-5.
I do not know why Christopher Nolan decided not to use Truman's actual broadcast announcing the Hiroshima bomb in the film. I have heard it many times and I feel certain that in the movie an actor read the words. Nor did I recognize Truman (or his Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes) in the scene in which they meet with Oppenheimer, in which Truman look and sounds like a fat Rotarian who raises his voice when his interlocutor says something to disturb him. We haven't had a president of Truman's caliber in a very long time, and Nolan might have given us all a better look at the real man.
I am myself more intimately acquainted with Stimson that with Truman since I read all his diary entries over an 18-month period while researching No End Save Victory. He was older and slimmer that the actor who played him in the movie. Walter Huston, the star of Dodsworth and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, could have done a brilliant job of playing him. The film shows Stimson arguing very briefly with General Groves over whether to drop the atomic bomb on the city of Kyoto--and repeats a myth that Stimson was influenced by having visited Kyoto on his honeymoon. (He had visited the city, but only decades after his marriage.) It so happens that General Groves, in his own memoir, described that conversation in great detail, and I read it to War College classes many times. Here is his account of the conversation.
"With these [target] selections in hand, I prepared a plan of operations for General Marshall, recommending his approval. This report was in my office when I went co see Secretary Stimson about another matter. In the course of our conversation, he asked me whether I had selected the targets yet. I told him that I had and that my report was ready for submission co General Marshall. I added that I hoped to see the General the next morning.
"Mr. Stimson was not satisfied with this reply and said he wanted to see my report. I said that I would rather not show it to him without having first discussed it with General Marshall, since this was a military operational matter. He replied, "This is a question I am settling myself. Marshall is not making that decision." Then he told me to have the report brought over. I demurred , on the grounds that it would cake some time. He said that he had all morning and that I should use his phone to get it over right away.
"While we were waiting, he asked me about the targets. When I wen over the list for him, he immediately objected to Kyoto and said he would nor approve it. When I suggested that he might change his mind after he had read the description of Kyoto and our reasons for considering it to be a desirable target, he replied that he was sure that he would no.
"The reason for his objection was that Kyoto was the ancient capital of Japan, a historical city, and one that was of great religious significance to the Japanese. He had visited it when he was Governor General of the Philippines and had been very much impressed by its ancient culture.
"I pointed out chat it had a population of over a million; that any city of that size in Japan must be involved in a tremendous amount of war work even if there were but few large factories; and that the Japanese economy was to a great extent dependent on small shops, which in time of war tured out tremendous quantities of military items .. .. I pointed out also that Kyoto included 26,446,000 square feet of plane area that had been identified and 19,496,000 square feet of plant area as yet unidentified. The city's peacetime industries had all been converted to war purposes and were producing, among other items, machine tools, precision ordnance and aircraft parts, radio fire control and gun direction equipment. The industrial district occupied an area of one by three miles in the total built-up area of two and one-half by four miles.
"Mr. Stimson was not satisfied, and without further ado walked over to the door of General Marshall's office and asked him to come in . Without telling him how he had got the report from me, the Secretary said that he disagreed with my recommendation of Kyoto as a target, and explained why. ...
"After some discussion, during which it was impossible for me discreetly to let General Marshall know how I had been trapped into by-passing him, the Secretary said that he stuck by his decision. In the course of our conversation he gradually developed the view that the decision should be governed by the historical position that the United Stares would occupy after the war. He felt very strongly that anything chat would tend in any way to damage this position would be unfortunate.
"On the other hand, I particularly wanted Kyoto as a target because, as I have said, it was large enough in area for us to gain complete knowledge of the effects of an atomic bomb. Hiroshima was not nearly so satisfactory in this respect. I also felt quite strongly, as had all the members of the Target Committee, that Kyoto was one of the most important military targets in Japan. Consequently, I continued on a number of occasions afterward to urge its inclusion, but Mr. Stimson was adamant. Even after he arrived in Potsdam, Harrison sent him a cable saying that I still felt it should be used as a target. The recurn cable stated that he still disapproved, and the next day he followed it with another which said rhat he had discussed the matter with President Truman, who concurred in his decision. There was no further talk about Kyoto after that."
The film makes one another mistake about the targeting, when Oppenheimer says that the bombs must be dropped twice, the second time simply to make clear that the United States could continue atomic bombing indefinitely. In fact there was no intention to stop after one bomb (and no separate decision to drop the second one, in fact, as some irresponsible historians have speculated), and a third drop had already been scheduled when the Japanese accepted American surrender terms. Once again I feel that an accurate rendering of the Groves-Stimson conversation would have given us all a necessary impression of the kind of leadership that got us through the greatest war in world history.
I turn now to Noonan's review. To begin with, she paints Oppenheimer as a tragic figure because she thought his "driver," and perhaps his primary one, was his desire "to be a great man like his contemporary [sic], the hero of science, Albert Einstein"--and he could only do that by creating the "moral horror" of the atomic bomb. No ambition of Oppenheimer's, however, played any role in the decision to build the bomb. As the movie makes clear, albeit very quickly, the project began with Einstein's 1939 letter to FDR sketching out the possibility of a fission weapon and suggesting that the Germans were probably hard at work on one. That meant that the survival of civilization depended on building one before they did. In bringing the project to fruition Oppenheimer was simply doing his job, a job that many tens of thousands of lives, in the end, depended on. (The movie, by the way, also bows quickly to the idea that the bombs were not necessary to induce the Japanese surrender--a myth decisively refuted by Richard Frank in his book, Downfall.)
Noonan then goes further. "My deeper criticism of the film," she writes," is that I expected more of Oppenheimer’s reaction to what happened after the bomb was dropped. Before Hiroshima was bombed, at 8:15 a.m. local time on Aug. 6, 1945, everything was theory—mathematical formulae, observed blast radius, calculations and estimates. Only afterward would it be known what actually happened. I expected more of Oppenheimer’s absorbing of the facts of his work, more on how his reflections turned and developed." He would have absorbed this information, she says, "indelibly through the work of John Hersey," a journalist and novelist who wrote a famous description of the effect of the bomb on Hiroshima that appeared in the New Yorker in May 1946. That piece, she argued, inevitably affected the thinking of everyone who read it. "I don't know if Robert Oppenheimer was a great man," she writes, "but John Hersey was."
As as matter of fact, it is very hard to argue that Hersey's piece had any short- or medium-term impact on the willingness of the United States to use atomic weapons again. Well before that piece, Stimson (him again) had been instrumental in getting the US government to present a plan at the UN to bring atomic energy and atomic weapons under international control. The Soviets however rejected it, and over the next fifteen years or so, atomic weapons, as I found writing American Tragedy, figured in all American strategic planning for almost any war. Eisenhower and Dulles spoke more than once of having to remove the "taboo" against using them. It was the presidents of the GI generation--most notably Kennedy and Nixon--who resolved to do what they could to try to eliminate the threat of nuclear war.
More striking however, is Noonan's journalistic hubris. Oppenheimer, the physicist who built the bomb, might have been great. Hershey, the man who told the world how horrible it was, indisputably was. And there, in a nutshell, is the perspective of today's commentariat, most consistently displayed over the last few decades by Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, but by many others as well. They do not see their job as explaining to the public how our leaders are trying to do their job, but rather as explaining to our leaders, in public, how they should do their job. Friedman, undeterred by the failure of successive Israeli and Arab governments ever to follow his advice, is once again laying out Middle East peace plans as I write.
I have been writing these weekly pieces--most of them much longer than the normal op-ed--for nearly 20 years now. They usually take me about an hour or two to write and sometimes less. Two or three a week would take less than a full working day. For that amount of work, the regular op-ed writers of the world make several hundred thousands of dollars a year now. Perhaps that is what gives them such a high opinion of themselves and their role. We need to develop more respect for the opinions of the men and women who actually exercise decision-making authority. Perhaps that would allow them, like the Roosevelts and the Stimsons and the Oppenheimers, to design great projects and bring them to fruition once again.