Why I Will See “Oppenheimer” Before “Barbie”

Why I Will See “Oppenheimer” Before “Barbie”

Why I Will See Oppenheimer Before Barbie

How my father’s life working to end the nuclear threat influences me.


One of my proudest moments was when my father and I shared the front page of a local newspaper, on August 9, 1981. The subject was yet another anniversary of the decision that changed the world. His article proposed a freeze on all things nuclear. My side of the page was a series of interviews with scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project. Regrets? They had a few. Robert Bacher, for example, recalled sitting with his boss and friend “Oppy” as the latter read the Hiroshima results on a Teletype. “I couldn’t believe looking at some of my colleagues who were partying.”

My dad—Harold Willens—was then running a California initiative campaign to ban nuclear weapons. It won, and he and active supporter Patti Davis delivered it to the White House for the signature of her father, the president. So, while everyone else in the country will be joyfully watching Barbie and Ken on the large screen, I will be sitting in a movie theater watching something I didn’t live through, but I did live with.

My father had been a Japanese interpreter for the Marines, and was in that country to see the after-effects of what a “Little Boy” could inflict. He made the decision then to finish school, make enough money in business to retire early, and spend the rest of his life speaking out about, and raising money for, all things anti-nuclear. These included, besides the California campaign, creating (with Paul Newman) the Center for Defense Information in Washington, serving as a special delegate (again with the actor) to the United Nations Session on Disarmament, founding the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, and organizing (one more time, with Newman) and chairing the Circle of 100 to get The Nation out of a troubled time. When I once introduced him at a large benefit in his honor, I complained that I had been deprived of the opportunity to rebel against my parents. When my friends asked if I was going to the march in Washington, I had to admit, “Of course. My dad is paying for it.”

His memories were visceral and personal. Others arrive in different ways at different times. I just reviewed Tom Brokaw’s latest book, in which he recalls that during World War II, his family landed in a place called Igloo, officially titled the Black Hills Ordnance Depot. “It was initially a pop-up base with no luxuries,” writes Brokaw, who goes on to describe the great sacrifices and service he witnessed. He was 4 at the time, but it is clear that the experience had an impact on even such a young boy—one who would, many decades later, coin the term that personified all those who left families and jobs to fight for the right cause.

No one has forgotten the “good” war—though some have bravely questioned that description—but its living participants are few. Fortunately, we have museums, documentaries, and now a major motion picture by one of our great directors. Regarding the latter, many questions emerge: Will special effects overwhelm the actual effects of this form of power? Has nuclear war moved way down the list of genuine concerns our children live with? Will we forgive FDR for secretly approving the project without telling his own vice president (who would ultimately have to say, “Drop it”)? Will the pink world of Barbie blot out the clouds of darkness that destroyed so many lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Likely, the reviews will be mixed. Which is perhaps appropriate, considering the emotions of those who were involved in the real, as opposed to reel, experience. One I spoke with, all those years ago, was Dr. Marvin Goldberger, then the president of Cal Tech in Los Angeles. “How did I feel when the first bomb was dropped?” he responded to my question. “A certain amount of exhilaration that something we’d worked so hard on had worked. It was only later that the pain sunk in. It has affected my life profoundly.”

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