Publication Date

September 14, 2023

Perspectives Section

Perspectives on Culture

Thematic

Military

My fellow historians of World War II likely couldn’t escape Oppenheimer this summer. Released on July 21, the film vastly outperformed box office expectations and has generated early Oscar buzz. Whether it’s the fascinating story, the star-studded cast, Christopher Nolan’s screenplay and direction, or the Barbenheimer phenomenon, J. Robert Oppenheimer’s story seems to have struck a chord with the public.

Billboard with an illustration of two children smiling through a window and a worker on the outside with the words 'Protection for All Don't Talk Silence Means Security'

As this billboard in Hanford, Washington, shows, Manhattan Project participants were prohibited from speaking about their work—making oral histories collected in later decades even more valuable. US Department of Energy/public domain

Oppenheimer follows the life of the titular physicist and director of Project Y, the laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, that designed and built the world’s first nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project during World War II. The film follows Oppenheimer’s life, from his years as a clumsy graduate student in England through the fateful hearing that stripped away his security clearance. Oppenheimer, played by Cillian Murphy, is portrayed in his full, complicated glory: a scientist who learns that true power can be wielded away from the spotlight; an idealist who flirts with communism; a family man who does not always put family first.

As of September 14, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer—the scholarly biography on which the film is based—had spent 11 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. A magisterial book that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, American Prometheus was based on decades of Sherwin’s historical research. He first began recording interviews with Manhattan Project veterans in the 1970s and 1980s. He kept copies of many of his interviews, and in 2016, he generously donated his collection to the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF), where I worked at the time.

A major part of our work at AHF was digitizing, transcribing, and publishing interviews with Manhattan Project veterans and family members recorded by scholars and journalists, in addition to traveling around the country recording interviews with veterans and nuclear experts ourselves. The “Voices of the Manhattan Project” website has 600 interviews, all fully transcribed, and most with the video or audio recordings available to watch or listen. AHF compiled a truly unique collection spanning the Manhattan Project and its legacy, with interviews conducted between the 1960s and 2019. I spent many hours listening to hundreds of these interviews, proofing the transcripts before publishing them online.

The “Voices of the Manhattan Project” website has 600 interviews, all fully transcribed.

With this background, I found watching Oppenheimer to be a surreal experience—a relatable feeling, I’m sure, to other historians whose research subjects have been adapted for film or television. These historical figures, whose voices I had gotten to know intimately over the seven years I spent working on AHF’s vast interview collection, appeared before me on the big screen portrayed by famous actors. As the film unfolded before me, I thought of the interview subjects I had listened to and whose stories are shown in the film (some more accurately than others). Haakon Chevalier described for Sherwin the fateful conversation that contributed to Oppenheimer’s eventual downfall. Oppenheimer told journalist Stephane Groueff in 1965, “I was more worried about the campaign in Africa and the campaign in Russia when I went to New Mexico than I was about the Germans making a bomb. I thought they might very well be winning the war.” General Leslie R. Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, shared with Groueff, “I never had any trouble sleeping. I even went to sleep with the most critical time from my standpoint, which was waiting for news from Hiroshima.” When journalist S. L. Sanger asked Edward Teller whether he had any regrets, Teller spit back, “Will you please excuse me, but this is one of the most idiotic questions. . . . If you had the choice that something simply was in the long term unavoidable should be first done by the United States or by the Nazis or by the Soviets or by someone else, would you have regrets to make sure that we did it first?”

As its title implies, Oppenheimer is a biopic, a three-hour depiction of Oppenheimer’s experiences before, during, and after World War II. Sherwin reflected in 2017, “I don’t think Robert Oppenheimer ever quite was able to sort out the experience and the responsibility for Hiroshima,” and Oppenheimer’s coterminous pride as the “father of the atomic bomb” and shame of having “blood on my hands” centers the film. Yet with the film so tightly focused on a single character, others inevitably receive short shrift or treatments that barely touch on their complicated personalities. Kitty Oppenheimer, Robert’s wife, is mostly shown on-screen as a tearful alcoholic. But “we read things differently over time,” her granddaughter Dorothy Vanderford told Bird in 2015. She emphasized the difficulties of being an intelligent woman with a forceful disposition in the mid-20th century: “It was a generation when women weren’t necessarily outspoken and colorful. It was probably offensive to somebody who wasn’t an innate feminist then.” J. Ernest Wilkins, one of the African American scientists who worked at the Chicago Met Lab, appears only briefly in the film. According to his friend Ronald Mickens, Wilkins refused to leave Chicago to work on the project in Tennessee because Oak Ridge was a segregated town: “He would not go to any place that would put restrictions on where he lived, who he lived with, and the kinds of amenities that he had grown accustomed to in places like Chicago. . . . If you look at most of the other Black scientists of that time, almost all of them were in northern cities.” I was pleased, however, to see chemist Lilli Hornig in the film, who was indeed reassigned from working with plutonium because of concerns over women suffering “reproductive damage.” In a 2011 interview, she recalled, “I tried delicately to point out that [the men] might be more susceptible than I was; that didn’t go over well.” I also had hoped that the film would emphasize the urgency the scientists—many of them refugees from Europe—had felt in the race for the bomb against the Nazis, and the devastating impacts the atomic bombs had on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But with such an emphasis on Oppenheimer’s story, the film mostly left those narratives out.

Unsurprisingly, this narrow focus has drawn criticism. There are countless people and stories that the film does not dramatize, as over 600,000 people worked on the Manhattan Project, in locations ranging from Tinian Island in the Pacific to Washington, DC, to Europe. Those stories can be heard in the interviews with people from the communities surrounding the sites, the workers who did not know they were contributing to a new kind of bomb, and the family members who accompanied their spouses or parents to a secret city. The project built sites in Oak Ridge, where the uranium enrichment plants were constructed, and Hanford, Washington, where the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor operated. Diverse communities both were uprooted by and worked on the project, including the Wanapum in Washington and the Pueblo in New Mexico. Downwinders recount how their communities were affected by living near the Trinity Site (where the first nuclear test occurred), Hanford, and other sites that were exposed to radioactive contamination and whose residents’ health was negatively impacted by the Manhattan Project and its legacy.

These are among the pieces of the story that I hope film viewers will seek out after leaving the theater. I want people to watch Frances Quintana recall losing her family’s farm to the Los Alamos laboratory, and Veronica Taylor describe what the Nez Perce and other local Native American communities lost when the Manhattan Project took over the Hanford area. They should listen to Floy Agnes Lee, a Santa Clara Pueblo woman, relate the racism she experienced at the Los Alamos laboratory and her journey to earning a PhD, and Trisha Pritikin discuss the Hanford downwinders and the impact on her own health from living near this site.

Diverse communities both were uprooted by and worked on the project, including the Wanapum in Washington, the Pueblo in New Mexico, and the downwinders.

The immense human toll of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is also an essential part of this history. I hope people seek out the stories of the hibakusha (those who survived the bombings) and learn about the decades-long suffering they have experienced. I hope they will watch Masao Tomonaga, the honorary director of the Japanese Red Cross Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Hospital and a hibakusha, describe in graphic detail the horrors of the Nagasaki bombing, and Tomihisa Taue, the current mayor of Nagasaki, declare, “I think that it is important to pass on the history, not from the Japanese perspective or from the United States perspective, but as the whole human beings’ perspective. And I think that is the important legacy that we need to pass on.”

The specter of nuclear annihilation is woven throughout the film, and Oppenheimer’s feuds with Lewis Strauss, Edward Teller, and other proponents of developing the hydrogen bomb are front and center in Nolan’s telling. Ethical questions about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons abound in Manhattan Project oral histories. In reflecting on their wartime work, many veterans defended the atomic bombings of Japan as necessary for ending the war. Leona Marshall Libby, a physicist who worked at Chicago and Hanford, stated, “I have no regrets. . . . When you’re in a war to the death, I don’t think you stand around and say, ‘Is it right?’” But others offered more ambiguous reflections. In a conversation with historian Richard Rhodes in 2002, Los Alamos physicist Ted Taylor discussed his transformation into a nuclear abolitionist: “It’s a strictly simple, basic problem of morality. To be prepared and supportive of, under any circumstances, killing millions of people who are absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing is wrong. It’s evil. It’s the work of the devil. We must stop acting as though there are just reasons under which we might be able to do that.”

Mayor Taue’s lesson—that we must share this collective history—should be taken to heart. Understanding the Manhattan Project and its legacy demands listening to the voices and perspectives of hundreds of thousands of people. Oppenheimer’s is but one chapter in the story of the atomic age. Hopefully, the interest sparked by Oppenheimer will kindle further interest in the rest of these human stories.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

Alex Levy
Alexandra F. Levy

American Historical Association