Hollywood Rewards Nuclear Arms Control While Washington Dithers 

March 12, 2024 | 10:14 am
a still from 2023's Oppenheimer movie directed by Christopher NolanUniversal Pictures
Gregory Kulacki
East Asia Project Manager

Read more of UCS’s critical analysis of Oppenheimer and the global security issues it examines here.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a tragedy where the private life of the protagonist is weaponized in a war over public policy.  In the film this was depicted as a conflict between two individuals, Lewis Strauss, a bureaucrat who fought to win the nuclear arms race, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, a scientist who foresaw that was not possible. In real life, the personal quarrel about nuclear weapons depicted in the film was part of a broader and more complex disagreement about national and international security that continues to this day. 

The movie accurately conveys this as a vicious and unfair fight between believers in two irreconcilable conceptions of international relations. The prevailing camp contends our future will always be the same as our past. It defines international relations as an inescapable and unending struggle for national supremacy where the only responsible choice governments can make is to do anything they deem necessary to win. The dissenting camp argues the advent of thermonuclear weapons makes the consequences of unlimited national competition so grave that international cooperation and control is a prerequisite for survival. Humanity, having acquired enough power to destroy itself, must adapt or die. 

Unfortunately, disappointment with globalization and the revival of national competition are reigniting the nuclear arms race. Government efforts to modernize and expand their arsenals are increasing the risk that human civilization could be obliterated in a few hours by a technical glitch, undue suspicion, or malevolence. Nolan’s cinematic triumph is a testament to his vision and the artists who realized it. But the critical and financial success of the film may also be an expression of renewed public concern about the possibility of nuclear war. It is reassuring to know Hollywood found value in revisiting the argument for nuclear arms control, especially when Washington is abandoning it. 

In Oppenheimer’s time, the contest between Americans who sought to win a nuclear arms race and those who argued for international cooperation and control was focused on the problems posed by an international communist movement led by Stalin’s Soviet Union. Today, the attention of US arms racers is fixed on fears of losing a scientific and technological competition with China.  A panel of nuclear policy experts assembled by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recommended an immediate, large, and open-ended investment in the US nuclear weapons infrastructure to support sustained rapid increases in the number of actively deployed US nuclear warheads.  The final report of a bipartisan congressional commission on the US strategic posture issued an unsurprisingly similar set of recommendations. Both argued the proposed US nuclear buildup was urgently needed to respond to the construction of new missile silos in China. 

Contemporary American anxieties about Chinese intentions are often based on highly questionable US interpretations of prejudicially selected excerpts from Chinese speeches and publications. In the period just before the Cold War started, this kind of behavior, combined with excessive secrecy, discouraged dialogue between the US and Soviet governments and prevented cooperation between US and Soviet scientists. Bureaucratic infighting, like the struggle between Strauss and Oppenheimer depicted in the movie, tarnished reputations and destroyed careers, creating a chilling effect on free speech that inhibited rational decision-making. Instead of a collective effort to rebuild a war-torn world and solidify the commitment to common security promised by the United Nations, the world divided into hostile camps that wasted trillions of dollars, and the energies of untold numbers of scientists and engineers, piling up tens of thousands of nuclear weapons both sides knew could never be used. If US-China relations continue to deteriorate, we risk repeating the same costly, foolish, and dangerous mistakes.  

Arms controllers in the Biden administration are doing their best to foster constructive dialogue with their Chinese counterparts, who don’t believe the US government is sincere. For decades, China has been asking the United States to promise, as China did in 1964, that it will never use nuclear weapons first. Eleven US presidents told them no, including President Biden. Meanwhile, arms racers in the Pentagon are preparing to practice putting nuclear warheads currently in storage on existing US launchers that have quite a bit of room to carry more.  

Without binding arms control agreements, like the New START Treaty with Russia, which limits the number of nuclear warheads both countries can deploy until the treaty expires in 2026, we should expect the US military to upload those warheads at the first available opportunity. Without public scrutiny, this will happen, as Strauss reminds us in the movie, “in the shadows” where real power lies. With hope, the celebrity of Nolan’s Oppenheimer will shine a brighter light on how US decisions about these horrible weapons are made.