Oppenheimer was no Superhero
Hollywood really does seem to be running out of new ideas. British big-budget director Christopher Nolan had his successes a few years ago with yet another round of Batman movies, but his expensive, visually lavish, films have otherwise not drawn large audiences.
His new release, about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who helped build the first atomic bombs, seems very much just another thin remake of a story long told. It is based on a 17-year-old book, American Prometheus, that was itself started way back in 1980. The late Cold War era featured miniseries, movies, documentaries, and plays all about the gang at Los Alamos., Although we have learned quite a bit more about the real Oppenheimer and the atomic spies, thanks to the opening of Kremlin files with the fall of the Soviet Union, Hollywood and the establishment media won’t go anywhere near any of that.
Instead, they are stuck in a late 1970s redux, where the Manhattan Project is a kind of X-Men comic adventure. Oppenheimer, the wise, sensitive leader, is Professor X, of course. A man learned in advanced physics and the Bhagavad Gita, so he can say cool things like “I am become death, destroyer of worlds” when a plutonium bomb explodes. He leads a band of genius scientists, harnessing forces too powerful for ordinary men to understand, and is beset by reactionary right wingers, who would misuse his discoveries. Especially those who did not understand the atomic bomb was only meant to stop Hitler and must not lead to America becoming too powerful and doing dangerous stuff, like, insisting on democracy for Eastern Europe and Russia after the war. That’s the basic story Hollywood keeps retelling.
The reality was quite different. The guy in charge was Leslie Groves, an Army engineer. He was the one who set up the whole Oak Ridge secret city, that produced the crucial fissile material and made the bomb possible. Something neither the Brits nor the Germans had the resources to ever do and the Russians only later on, when they had enough stolen secrets.
Groves was a bulldozer of a manager, building the Pentagon in record time, and furious that he had to then do the bomb project, instead of getting a combat command. Groves and his “get it done at all costs” attitude created loose security procedures, which would haunt the Manhattan Project ever after.
Later, when Groves sought the top job commanding the Corps of Engineers, Eisenhower turned him down flat, telling him he had made so many enemies and broken so many rules during the war, his career was over. Many of the technicians and scientists Groves brought on board in his hurry to “get it done,” turned out to be high security risks or worse. Even Wikipedia has a full entry on the Soviet spies at Los Alamos. This was at a time when the Soviets had a massive spy operation in our country with the Comintern and the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).
Groves recruited Robert Oppenheimer out of the important Cal Berkely physics department to lead his bomb design team, as he was well liked by his many colleagues, who were already familiar with much of what the bomb design would be. The “uranium gun” bomb, where one chunk of uranium is shot down a tube into another one, used on Hiroshima, in fact, proved so simple, no demonstration test was needed.
Oppenheimer, of course, was even less interested in protecting the secrecy of the atom bomb than Groves and was a high security risk himself -- his brother, mistress, wife, and most of his friends were members of the Communist Party. He was an ardent left-winger, active in dozens of Communist front groups. His wife, Kitty, was a renowned commie wild child, having a passionate affair in Spain with Steve Nelson, the Communist thug who returned to America to direct CPUSA spy activities. Nelson scored at least one spy coup at Los Alamos, and probably more. There is a lot of evidence assembled over the years to support the idea that Oppenheimer was a secret member of the party and maybe even a working Soviet spy.
Oppenheimer came from a wealthy family and grew to enjoy the fame and benefits of his work on the bomb. He also received the most powerful appointments available from America’s Big Science. But it all came crashing down when his security clearance was pulled in 1954. By this time, it was understood how the sloppy security and spy activity had advanced the Soviet atomic weapons program by many years. The Soviets successfully tested their first atom bomb in 1949. It’s likely that if the U.S. had kept its monopoly on such weapons just into the new decade, Stalin would not have had the moxie to greenlight the Korean War in 1950, nor Mao intervene afterward.
Still, this never sat well with many establishment Democrats, who have been trying to clear his name ever since, as part of the effort to prove the long overdue anti-Communist crackdowns of the 1950s were somehow unwarranted. JFK had this in mind when awarding him the Fermi Medal in 1963, and even the Biden administration got in on the act, Jennifer Granholm issuing a legally unfounded retraction of that decision last year. But the correctness of pulling Oppenheimer’s clearance was and is overwhelming.
While the latest Oppenheimer movie is yet another tiresome replay of the same old liberal fairy tales of the Cold War, there is a more interesting story out there, waiting for a real film auteur. Do a full exploration of how a person can be brilliant at the highest level, yet otherwise so foolish and destructive.
That is the true story of the America’s Communists over the last 100 years or so. People of intelligence, education, and artistic or scientific merit somehow decided they were too good for America and free society. Their hubris led them to gladly assist the most monstrous worldwide conspiracy in history.
Many, like Whittaker Chambers, repented and became celebrated figures on the American Right. Others, like the labor leader Jay Lovestone, remained on the political Left but were devout Cold Warriors. In Oppenheimer’s case, it’s quite likely his youthful Communist enthusiasm led him to overlook the spying going on at Los Alamos, thinking helping Stalin was also helping the allies. After the war, he and a lot of other left-wingers were disabused of this notion. But for somebody in Oppenheimer’s position to come clean and make a full confession of what he did risked legal jeopardy, and an unbearable blow to his enormous ego.
Anyway, the real story of America’s 20th Century Communists would make for some great movies, mini-series, or documentaries. They just won’t be coming to a cinema near you anytime soon.
Frank Friday is an attorney in Louisville, KY
Image: Department of Energy