Read more of UCS’s critical analysis of Oppenheimer and the global security issues it examines here.
The Oppenheimer film comes out July 21st. I have only viewed the trailer, so I am not certain which themes will be central to the film. But I have enough familiarity with the history of the Manhattan Project to do some speculation. I’ll be very interested to see how this particular film, presents the United States’ nuclear weapons origin story. With that in mind, I have some advice for a few things to look for when watching the film, and after the film you may find it useful to do some deeper reflection on the narratives we collectively hold about nuclear weapons, what stories we tell ourselves over and over again, and what purpose they serve for us.
Here are four specific things to look for as you watch the movie:
1. Urgent national security concerns override concerns about harm to people and the environment.
The world’s first nuclear weapons were built against the back-drop of World War II. Nazi Germany was trying to develop nuclear weapons, and for very obvious reasons a nuclear-armed Nazi regime was a terrifying prospect. Fear of that possibility and a race to develop the bomb before the Nazis did enabled a whole host of harms to US residents. We know that people living down wind of the first nuclear test site were exposed to nuclear fallout which later resulted in significant health impacts like cancer. Even after the war, the harm from the US nuclear weapons program propagated. From uranium mining on Navajo land to nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific, the national security ends have justified the means.
I acknowledge it is hard to second-guess the scientists who believed they were in a contest against the Nazis to develop a superweapon. Consider, however, that the war in Europe ended in May of 1945. The Nazis did not make it over the finish line, and the US knew it. Yet, the Manhattan Project continued, and two months later in July of 1945 the United States tested the world’s first atomic weapon. After that test, seventy Manhattan Project scientists signed a petition asking President Truman not to drop the bomb on Japan unless Japan was given another chance to surrender. Amidst the fog of war and a rolling freight train of inevitability, they tried to hit pause.
Ask yourself, “Where do I see national security concerns enabling harm to people and the environment today?”
2. Who is not a part of the story?
This film is titled, “Oppenheimer.” So, it’s a good bet that he’s the central figure in the story. I’m going to guess that the other major characters include scientists involved in the Manhattan Project and some of the military and government figures. It’s probably going to be a heart-pounding, war-time thriller. But, there is a different story that could be told, and the narrative is quite different when it includes the communities that were impacted by the Manhattan Project. In addition to the US downwinders mentioned above, the destructive impact of the Manhattan Project reached all the way across the globe. Most of the uranium used to build the world’s first atomic bombs came from a mine in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). That mine was controlled by a colonial power, and the uranium was pulled out of the ground using what was essentially slave labor.
The truth of the matter is, the story of the scientists and military men is embedded within the story of impacted communities, and we do a great disservice when we don’t tell the complete story. How can we make good judgements and learn from our history when we aren’t exposed to the whole of it?
Ask yourself, “Where else do I see partial histories being told?”
Nuclear weapons were—from Oppenheimer’s day to this day—some of the United States most closely guarded secrets. The movie will probably cover the intense security and secrecy that surrounded the Manhattan Project as well as the fact of Soviet espionage of the program. I’m not going to argue here that keeping the details of nuclear weapons development and construction secret is necessarily a bad thing. I generally think that because the knowledge and resources required to make nuclear weapons are hard to come by, we have fewer nuclear weapons in the world. And fewer nuclear weapons make the world a safer place. But, this secrecy has repercussions. Because nuclear weapons are covered with a cloak of secrecy in the name of national security, we don’t question our government about them much. Nuclear weapons seem like something above our pay grade—something we are not in a position to hold our government accountable for. The secrecy upholds the status quo. But, the truth is, if we want things to change, we have to talk to our elected officials and representatives about our concerns surrounding US nuclear policies. You don’t have to know all the secrets to demand from our leaders that they take seriously their legal obligation under the Nonproliferation Treaty to work towards eliminating nuclear weapons. And, honestly, right now it looks like they are moving in the opposite direction with plans to build new and better nuclear weapons. If we want a world free from the threat of nuclear annihilation, we must be vocal and persistent about it.
Ask yourself, “Where else do I see secrecy enabling the status quo?”
4. Nuclear weapons are weapons of empire.
It’s unclear how much of the post-World War II era the Oppenheimer movie covers. It may be limited, but I still think it might be possible to see echoes of empire in the movie. The development and use of nuclear weapons by the United States was about more than racing the Nazis to a superweapon. It was also about more than the war in the Pacific. US nuclear weapons were also a statement of power, and the continued possession of nuclear weapons today is a way for the US to maintain its position as a superpower. Thinking more broadly than just the US, the possession of nuclear weapons by a few nations creates an unequal power dynamic globally. Even so, countries without nuclear weapons have stood up to nuclear hegemony, and in recent years these countries have pushed through an international treaty that bans nuclear weapons. They’ve also made victim assistance and environmental remediation a key obligation for countries that sign onto the treaty. Of course, the US and other nuclear weapon states have opposed the treaty from the very start, but despite their nuclear weapons, they were not able to stop the Treaty from happening. Empires fade. One day, nuclear weapons will no longer hold value as the currency of power.
Ask yourself, “Have I witnessed challenges to empire in the nuclear weapons narratives I see and hear?”
These are just a few ideas of what to look for when you watch the film. You could also look for other familiar narratives and ask what purpose they serve in our collective memory, what policies do they enable, who carries the burdens, and who is not seen. Enjoy the film. I am sure it will be a dramatic and breathtaking retelling of the birth of nuclear weapons. But, hopefully, the film will also surface a lot of questions for us as viewers—as all powerful films do.