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How the movie “Oppenheimer” was biased and distorted history about the atomic bomb and Hiroshima

… the movie may win Oscars, but is wrong historically

As an incoming freshman at Penn State University, we were required to read some books as part of our orientation. One of them, John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” had a tremendous impact on me. It convinced me that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima — and later Nagasaki — was a dastardly deed.

Morally, I was correct. This was horrible, killing 80,000+ people with one weapon..

Four years later, a distinguished Penn State historian convinced me in a graduate level history class that the dropping of the bomb was a military and political necessity for a number of reasons. This was reinforced by a minutely-documented biography about two decades later.

The rationale for using the bomb

The first argument of these two men is that a conventional attack of Japan would have cost America between 250,000 and a million lives. This would also likely have taken a few more years to end the war. Since the conflict itself resulted in 400,000+ American casualties, doubling that would have been traumatic — so, this was appalling and revealing to me.

Second, Professor Robert K. Murray argued that at that point in 1945, the American people needed the war to end because of war-fatigue. Military and political leaders were fully cognizant of this reality.

Just a little over 20 years later, the author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography “Truman,” David McCullough, reinforced that about 20 years later in a lecture in Ligonier. He went through it and explained why President Truman followed the advice of his military advisors and war cabinet in making the decision to drop the bomb.

However, enter revisionist historians whose views, unfortunately, were used as a basis for the popular movie “Oppenheimer” that was released earlier this summer.

J. Robert Oppenheimer was the creator of the weapon, and he cheered when it was dropped and eventually ended the war with the second bomb.

Later, he had a moral crisis.

The movie may win some awards for its strength in the areas of presentation, but because of its reliance upon “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, its history is not rooted in the reality that American war planners faced in 1945.

A University of Pittsburgh historian lambasted the two writers for a piece that they wrote on the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima — and he is right.

The movie distorted history in a number of areas.

“The Truman Bashers”

The movie was written by British filmmaker Christopher Nolan who followed the book to a T — despite its distortions. As a result, he and others insisted that this was based on “history.”

Well, at least a version of history.

A Professor at the University of Pittsburgh lambasted Bird and Sherwin for their bias after they wrote a syndicated piece in a newspaper in 2005.

Dr. Robert Newman was an emeritus professor of rhetoric and communication who was described in his obituary five years ago as a “towering personality who could cut to the heart of any debate like a hot knife through butter.” While not a historian, his writing after he retired focused on the Cold War and events like the bombing of Hiroshima.

Here is an example of his cutting through the debate that is at the heart of whether or not the bomb should have been dropped on Hiroshima,

Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, two indefatigable Truman bashers, were at work for the 60th anniversary of Japan's surrender. They have a slightly new version of the big myth about this event: the bomb did not trigger surrender, Soviet entry into the war did.

Robert Newman, “What Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin got

wrong about Hiroshima,” History News Network, 2005.

In essence, they argue that the dropping of the atomic bomb did not lead to the surrender of the Japanese. For context, remember that the dropping of the first bomb did not force the surrender. Hirohito continued to wait.

And then, the U.S. dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki a few days later. That led to the surrender, but the Oppenheimer writers have an entirely different view.

Bird and Sherwin, who won a Pulitzer Prize for writing American Prometheus, argue that the American military was wrong in presenting President Harry S. Truman with the numbers of 250,000 to a million. These two insist that once Russia entered the war against the Japanese that somehow, mysteriously, the war would have ended.

Professor’s incisive knife

Dr. Newman demonstrated his incisive knife at the conclusion of this article, writing about these writers relying upon a Japanese ,

I admire the ingenuity these authors display in bringing Osama bin Laden into a diatribe on Truman's decision. I wish they had also brought some genuine evidence, instead of a "scholar" seeking to reinforce the Japanese victimization syndrome. It is the Hasegawas who legitimate the Yasukuni Shrine worship.

Robert Newman, History News Network, 2005.

The Pitt professor explained that these two writers based their belief that Russia would mysteriously end the war on the writings of a Japanese revisionist historian who complains that his country of Kamikaze pilots was really a group of beneficient people. He was Tsuyoshi Hasegawa.

These people believed that the bomb did not end the war. Russia did, except that there is no evidence to that effect, The reality is that the goal of Hirohito in bombing Pearl Harbor and bringing the U.S. into the war was so that he could dominate not just the Pacific — but the world.

Sherwin and Bird do not believe this,

Of course, most Japanese, and some American Japanophiles, believe this. Bird and Sherwin, finding Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. a Japanese with scholarly paraphernalia who will testify that Soviet entry into the war caused surrender, were ecstatic. Couple this with a false account of J.Robert Oppenheimer's position and you've got a slam dunk.

Robert Newman, History News Network, 2005.

So, how did these two distort the history aspect of Oppenheimer? Writing 18 years before the movie, Dr. Newman explained the problem that they had with the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

J. Robert Oppenheimer is not ignored by these authors, they just misrepresent him. He supported the use of these two bombs to shock Japan into surrender. He never repudiated that judgment.

What he did object to -- and I agree with this -- was the decision to build the H-Bomb, and the obscene creation of what became a 32,500 nuclear warhead arsenal. Bird and Sherwin would have you believe that Oppie thought Truman made the wrong decision. Oppenheimer regretted bringing this horrible weapon into the world, but he knew the carnage Japan was creating every day the war went on, and he knew Marshall was hurting for GIs to finish the Pacific part of the war.

Robert Newman, History News Network, 2005.

Historians disagree

The truth is that Sherwin desperately wanted another historian to write “American Prometheus” with him. He could find none, so he settled with Bird, who is a journalist, not a historian.

Conventional historians point to the research that military leaders had in determining the number of potential casualties. No one knew for certain, but Truman, who served as a military leader in World War I and knew about war, relied upon the information being provided by the military.

The casualty projections became a contested point because much of the coverage erroneously implied or assumed that President Truman only had two choices: use the atomic bomb or invade.

According to an article in the Winter 1993 issue of Diplomatic History by Stanford University history professor Barton Bernstein, in the summer of 1945 the Joint Chiefs of Staff "had estimated American fatalities between about 25,000 and about 46,000" if a two-phased invasion was necessary. "Before Hiroshima, those estimates had been translated into about 132,500 to 220,000 casualties (fatalities, wounded and missing)."

The 1 million casualty figure cited by reporters stems from Truman and his secretary of war, Henry Stimson. In a February 1947 Harper's Magazine article, Stimson wrote: "[S]uch operations might be expected to cost over a million casualties to American forces alone."

Tony Capaccio, “How many casualties?” American Journalism Review, July-August 1995.

So, the reality is that the authors of “American Prometheus” were way off base when they claim that these numbers were pulled out of thin air and that the threat of a Russian invasion actually forced the surrender of the Japanese.

That is ludicrous, and what resulted in the movie “Oppenheimer” was more a “Wikipedia memoir,” as one historian wrote in a review, than one of historical fact. In reality, the authors relied upon some salacious details of Oppenheimer’s life to fill three hours instead of using details from history.

Fake scene in the Oval Office

Nolan tried to juxtapose a quotation that President Truman made in a May 1946 letter to Dean Acheson in order to create a dramatic scene that never occurred.

The meeting between Oppenheimer and Truman was indeed somewhat dramatic as the scientist said that he felt that he had “blood on his hands.”

However, Truman’s reply in the movie, that Oppenheimer was just being a cry-baby scientist, occurred not then but a year later.

The context is missing too. Truman criticized the scientists who created the weapon, knowing full well of its devastating potential, but the want the U.S. to decline to use it.

Can you imagine if the American people learned that the U.S. had the bomb but declined to use it to end the war?

Truman made the right decision from a military, political, and historical perspective. Nuclear weapons are immoral, which is true.

But those two authors did not condemn the U.S. for continuing to build a nuclear arsenal for six decades after dropping the bomb.

That movie may win some Oscars — fiction often does, but the Pulitzer Prize given to these two men may have also been something that was more fiction than fact.

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