‘Oppenheimer,’ Nuclear Amnesia, and the US Pacific Legacy

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‘Oppenheimer,’ Nuclear Amnesia, and the US Pacific Legacy

At the very time the Marshall Islands COFA negotiations began to falter over the U.S. atomic legacy, “Oppenheimer” appeared in cinemas.

‘Oppenheimer,’ Nuclear Amnesia, and the US Pacific Legacy
Credit: United States Department of Energy

Since the release of the blockbuster film, “Oppenheimer,” in July 2023, global audiences have been confronting history about U.S. atomic weapons development and the individuals involved.

The recording-breaking film, “Oppenheimer,” shadows the present in ominous ways. The latest news about the Russian test of a “next-gen nuclear missile” is a chilling reminder of the ongoing legacies of the United States’ scientific quest in the 1940s to develop nuclear-grade weaponry. This Russian news coincided with other reports about former President Donald Trump divulging secrets about the nuclear-missile capabilities of U.S. submarines to an Australian billionaire. 

“Oppenheimer” tracks the atom bomb’s development, known as the Manhattan Project, including its first test, the Trinity Test at Los Alamos, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, and then its use against the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima on August 6 and 7, 1945. All of these events are treated as narrative detail embellishing the film’s central purpose of celebrating J. Robert Oppenheimer, his career, and his struggles with political foes once his conscience was haunted by the forces he helped unleash on humanity.

Oppenheimer” was met with howls of protest in Japan for failing “to fully grapple with the destructive reality of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and its celebration” of Oppenheimer, who is known as the “father of the atomic bomb.” “Oppenheimer” has not had a theatrical release in Japan.

The film’s avoidance of the bomb’s human toll (200,000 people were killed in Japan in August 1945) in favor of the impact of events on the life and career of one man is vastly out of step. Have we not moved on from colonial framings where colossal histories are refracted through the life and times of notable White men? 

Similarly, the Navajo have also objected to the film “glossing over” the plight of atomic contamination. Navajo lands were used as a bomb testing site and then as uranium mines with all the devastating consequences to human health and well-being that have resulted and will likely continue to manifest in generations to come.

“Oppenheimer” made oblique, and very brief, references to the impacts of atomic testing on the Navajo and the Japanese people. Even though the film covers historical events that took place long after the war’s end involving the scientist’s persecution, the film stops mentioning populations impacted by the atomic bomb after the bombing of Japan. Thus one population devastated by U.S. atomic weapons testing is completely omitted from the film: the Marshallese.

Marshall Islands’ history collided with that of Oppenheimer and the atomic weapons testing program he led not long after the war ended. The Marshall Islands, 29 atolls spread over 357,000 square miles of ocean in the northwestern Pacific, were captured by the U.S. from Japan in 1944. The islands became a U.N. Trust Territory administered by the United States in 1947, after atomic testing was well underway.

The atoll of Bikini was selected as the first testing site because of “its complete geographic isolation” from main population centers and because of the anchorage it afforded. Later, another northern atoll, Enewetak, was chosen for testing. Between 1946 and 1958, 67 tests were carried out by the U.S., 23 on Bikini and 44 on Enewetak. The power of these bombs exceeded those detonated in Japan or New Mexico in 1945 by a vast degree, being equivalent to “1.7 Hiroshima bombs dropped every day for 12 years.” The radioactive fallout impacted all the Marshall Islands. but the inhabited islands of Rongelap, Utrok, and Ailinginae suffered the most.

What was J. Robert Oppenheimer’s connection to this history? Following the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, Oppenheimer began to regret the destructive forces he helped unleash. In October 1945, Oppenheimer came to see President Harry S. Truman, who recalled the scientist “spent most of his time wringing his hands and telling me they had blood on them because of the discovery of the atomic energy.” Oppenheimer developed the bomb to end the war but now feared an arms race that would cause untold harm. Truman was unmoved by Oppenheimer’s argument and pressed rapidly forward with more atomic weapons development.

The showpiece of American power and scientific attainment was being planned for mid-1946. Although Oppenheimer was distancing himself from what was unfolding, on March 5, Truman conferred the Medal of Merit on him for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service’’ as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory and for development of the atomic bomb.

Two days later, and over 7,000 miles away, 167 Bikinians supposedly “sacrificed their ancient heritage, their proud traditions and even their sacred burial grounds to the march of science.” The population of Bikini, described in the documentary,Bikini: The Atom Island” made by MGM Studio at the time, as “simple and unselfish human beings” boarded a naval landing ship and evacuated Bikini atoll. Every March 7, this event is marked with reenactments and commemorations by Marshallese and particularly, descendants of the original 167 people removed from Bikini Atoll. After Bikinians left their ancestral home in March 1946, U.S. military and scientific personnel moved in and prepared Bikini Atoll for the spectacular start of the U.S. atomic weapons-testing program in the Marshall Islands, Operation Crossroads, that began on July 1, 1946.

Oppenheimer had strong views about the tests being planned for Bikini. He had hoped they would be “postponed or canceled” but when plans continued to proceed at a pace, Oppenheimer wrote to Truman to lay out his concerns on May 3, 1946, in terms that give insight into this man and his misgivings. Were his trepidations shaped by sympathies for the people whose homeland was about to become ground zero? No. He did not mention them at all. Rather, his lengthy objections to the Bikini tests were about “the soundness of the tests” to enhance military understandings about the “effectiveness of atomic weapons in naval warfare.”

Oppenheimer was also concerned about the costs involved (he understood the planned tests were “estimated at more than one hundred million dollars”) and suggested to Truman that more “useful information could be obtained by model tests and by calculations” for “less than one percent” of this figure. He advised Truman that the bombs being used might be a “dud” which will not give “an effective explosion” (the awe-inspiring mushroom cloud) that will in turn “effect American and foreign opinion.” Oppenheimer also questioned why there was a “purely military test of atomic weapons” at a time “when our plans for effectively eliminating them from national armaments are in their earliest stages.” Instead, this objective was being abandoned.

Truman was deeply unimpressed with Oppenheimer’s entreaties made less than two months before Operations Crossroads was launched in a blaze of international publicity. Truman sent Oppenheimer’s letter to acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson and described Oppenheimer as “a cry baby scientist.”  This quote was used in the film to denote the moment when relations between the “father of the atom bomb” and the president who used the bomb in war, and wanted to keep using it in peace time, began to fray. “Oppenheimer,” however, failed to connect Truman’s “cry baby scientist” description with the Bikini tests.

Also, the film infers that Oppenheimer’s objections were about the impact on humanity, but based on his own writing Oppenheimer did not spare a thought for the welfare of Bikini’s inhabitants or those of the surrounding islands. Many U.S. servicemen were also irreparably harmed by radioactive fallout from the tests.

Oppenheimer withdrew from the weapons development program after his May 1946 letter. So he was not one of the scores of scientists who traveled to the Marshall Islands to partake in a mass scientific experiment on the effects of atomic fallout on everything from fish, plants, invertebrate sea creatures, and people (whether this was intentional or not remains hotly contested). Yet Oppenheimer remains embedded in this history, nonetheless.

Fast forward to 2023 and 13 presidents since Truman, when the United States is still grappling with what was started on Bikini Atoll in July 1946.

The Marshall Islands atomic testing program was a Cold War product, intended to assert U.S. dominance and caution its adversaries, namely the Soviet Union, against challenging that power. Seventy-seven years later, the U.S. adversary is again Russia, and in the Pacific, it is also China. Mapped on to this tense geostrategic context are the fractious negotiations about renewing the Compact of Free Association (COFA) between the U.S. and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). The impediment to consensus is the nuclear legacy issue.

When RMI President David Kabua was in Washington for the U.S.-Pacific Islands Forum Summit on September 25, he made an impassioned appeal for the U.S. to take additional steps to address the ongoing impacts of the 67 tests carried out in his homeland and the leaking Runit Dome radioactive waste dump built into Enewetak Atoll in the 1970s. In response, U.S. President Joe Biden urged a financial settlement, though Department of State legal teams are reportedly putting obstacles in the way of this being carried out.

At the very time the RMI COFA negotiations began to falter in the summer of 2023 over the U.S. atomic legacy, “Oppenheimer” appeared in U.S. cinemas. Here was an opportunity to advance American literacy about its atomic legacies, which profoundly impacts the Marshall Islands and its diaspora communities throughout the U.S. to this day and for generations to come, as well as one of the United States’ most strategically important agreements. Instead, the film opted to erase this history.

Perhaps the actualities of what Oppenheimer unleashed were deemed unbearably grim for American audiences. Yet it is a reality that the Navajo, Japanese, and Marshallese people have been living with, every day, for nearly 80 years.