Oppenheimer’s Inopportune Opportunism
On this episode of The Time of Monsters, Doug Bell joins the show to discuss Oppenheimer, McCarthyism, and the great scientist’s compromises with witch-hunters.
Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news.Start Making Sense hosted by Jon Wiener, Edge of Sports hosted by Dave Zirin, The Time of Monsters hosted by Jeet Heer.
Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is the rarest of things: a summer blockbuster that is super-smart and repays close analysis. Two weeks ago, this podcast teamed up with Jewish Currents writers and editors Mari Cohen, David Klion, and Raphael Magarik to talk about the way the film portrays the 20th century left.
But there is more to be said about the movie. Frequent Time of Monsters contributor, Doug Bell had some bones to pick with the the film. In particular, he feels it slighted the way Oppenheimer compromised with the anti-communist witch-hunters who tried to destroy his career. Was Oppenheimer a martyr or an opportunist? To take up the movie and the longer history of anti-communist repression in the United States, Jeet Heer talks with Doug Bell about the movie and the reality it sometimes fails to do justice.
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Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is the rarest of things: a summer blockbuster that is super-smart and repays close analysis. Two weeks ago, this podcast teamed up with Jewish Currents writers and editors Mari Cohen, David Klion, and Raphael Magarik to talk about the way the film portrays the 20th-century left.
But there is more to be said about the movie. Frequent Time of Monsters contributor, Doug Bell had some bones to pick with the the film. In particular, he feels it slighted the way Oppenheimer compromised with the anti-Communist witch-hunters who tried to destroy his career. Was Oppenheimer a martyr or an opportunist? To take up the movie and the longer history of anti-Communist repression in the United States, I talked with Doug about the movie and the reality to which it sometimes fails to do justice.
Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news.Start Making Sense hosted by Jon Wiener, Edge of Sports hosted by Dave Zirin, The Time of Monsters hosted by Jeet Heer.
Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963) and one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), was a hero of feminism, but a complicated and difficult hero. Her book and activism were pivotal for igniting second-wave feminism in the 1960s. But as head of NOW, her leadership was irascible and nettlesome, marred especially by her homophobic hostility towards lesbian activism.
In a recent review for The New Yorker looking at books about NOW and Friedan, Moira Donegan lays bare the contradictions of Friedan’s legacy, her world-changing importance but also the way she sabotaged both herself and the movement she did so much to create. On this episode of The Time of Monsters, we talk about the lessons of Friedan’s life and how they remain urgent in current feminist struggles. Moira is a frequent guest of the podcast. She’s a columnist for The Guardian and also cohosts a podcast called In Bed With the Right.
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This transcript was computer-generated and may contain errors.
Jeet Heer: The old world is dying. The new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters. With those words, I welcome you to the Time of Monsters podcast.
Uh, this, uh, episode we’re returning to, um, a topic that, uh, we had discussed, um, uh, two weeks ago, um, in a shared podcast with Jewish currents. Uh, the new film, uh, Oppenheimer, uh, um, which I think is a very significant, uh, film. It’s, uh, shockingly, um, uh, Uh, it made more in excess of $700 million, uh, and is a, you know, like, um, outperforming Mission Impossible, uh, which is the latest Mission Impossible movie.
Uh, and then that’s great, uh, to hear ’cause it’s a very serious movie that grapples with, um, uh, real history. Um, but I think there’s a lot more to say about the movie beyond the previous podcast. And, and to do so, I’m, um, Very happy to have on, uh, uh, frequent, uh, uh, um, uh, co-host and colleague of this podcast, uh, Doug Bell, um, who has, uh, a lot of, uh, sort of, uh, inside scoops on this.
Um, Uh, uh, in part because, uh, he was there at the Institute for Advanced Studies where Oppenheimer was such a big, uh, uh, figure. Um, uh, uh, Doug was there, uh, to witness the movie being filmed. Uh, and you know, the famous scenes of, um, Oppenheimer. And, uh, uh, Einstein, uh, by the pond. Uh, well, well, Doug Bell has thrown, uh, rocks into that pond and, and caused his own ripples.
Uh, so, so, uh, Doug, uh, the, the, uh, I’m glad to have you here as always.
Doug Bell: Well, as always, uh, gee, it’s, it’s a, it’s, it’s a pleasure to be here and I, I will say that I, I. Was, um, there, and, and, but, you know, as a consequence of the good offices of my wife, who’s a, a math, uh, started in mathematics and had a, a posting there for a bit and, um, you know, and I was, I, look, I mean, I, I, I, I played obviously no role in the movie other than to just sort of skull around on the edges of it and, and, and, and, and watch it being filmed.
No, I, I, that went on for, uh, it, it affected the life of the institute for a couple of weeks. And, um, it, it was an extraordinary thing to, to witness. I mean, the, the, the level of, uh, detail, uh, in terms of, uh, uh, turning, uh, the Institute for Advanced Study in, uh, in Princeton, at Princeton, whatever the terminology is, metaphysical relationship between Princeton University and, and the Institute for Advanced Study.
Um, uh, that, that they turned it into a, uh, an entire, uh, uh, sat. Uh, that, that, that, that passed for 1947, which included the cars, the clothes, they actually changed the office plates. They put the original names on Herman Vile Einstein, all the rest of it. Um, and it was, it was quite something to watch. And, and I mean, just to the side, I mean, you, you could see.
Even looking at it from a distance, the extent to which Nolan makes himself absolutely central to everything that goes on. So I mean, to the point that. Uh, he would in the evenings, take the same walk, uh, up, up towards the director’s office completely alone. And I just happened to see this, uh, from a slide from a window, and he, he sort of, Processed up, turned and looked back at the building, uh, with this kind of drama and flare.
And then of course, all his crew and so forth rushed to him as he indicated that that things could move forward from that. Um, so that there, there was a sense, uh, of drama even in, you know, watching it being made.
Jeet Heer: Okay. Very, very. No, that, that, that’s good to hear. I mean, it, uh, certainly the movie that one sees on the screen clearly a lot of care, um, for, uh, at least visual, historical accuracy is there.
Uh, but I mean, Oppenheimer lived a very big and sort of complicated life, uh, and by necessity, the movie. It has to be selective and compressed, uh uh, um, and perhaps make, um, uh, editorial decisions that one could contest. But, but, but before we get into that, I mean like, what’s your overall impression of the movie?
Doug Bell: it’s a great movie. I mean, let’s, let’s, let’s state it, uh, uh, uh, absolutely plainly, uh, I’ve seen it twice. I saw it on, on Saturday, uh, again, and was struck the second time even more so by I. Ah, the dramaturgy, the quality of the, of the dialogue and then, I mean, the technical aspects of it, right? I mean, they, they, the, um, cinematography this use of sound.
I mean, it’s, it’s absolutely incredible how he creates tension. In a story where we all know what the, what the result is, more or less, right? We know what’s going to happen. And yet much as he did with Dunkirk, he also, uh, uh, a similarly, uh, uh, tense movie. We sort of already know what the story is, uh, he creates through this tapestry of sound and, and, and cinematography, uh, kind of an amazing cinematic experience.
Um, now, I do have quibbles.
Jeet Heer: Well, there’s no podcasting without quibbles, so let’s hear that. No qui
Doug Bell: quibbles. Well, I, I, if I may, I’m just gonna, I, I’m just gonna tell you a joke, uh, to give you a sense of what my, of, of the, the, the extent of the cabell, the quibble, uh, it’s from, from Stuart Lee, the great, uh, British, uh, uh, standup who’s talking about, um, Of all things, you know, that, that maybe, uh, he’s gotten misgivings about the fact that everybody seems to have agreed, uh, in much the same way that everyone’s agreed that Oppenheimer’s a terrific movie that, uh, the Lochness monster doesn’t exist.
And he says, I, I, I don’t know anything about zoology, biology, geology, crypto zoology, evolutionary biology, meteorology, but I think. So in the same way I’m going to, I’m gonna stand in some to, in some degree, against the consensus, uh, with regards to this movie because I do think that there’s, uh, a pretty big sinkhole near the center of it, irrespective of the fact that it, that overall it’s a great movie and what it, it, what it turns on.
Um, and I’m gonna start. Sort of at the, I’m I, I’m gonna turn the thing on its head and start at the end with my, with my first. Mm-hmm. Uh, uh, misgiving, and then work back from that. Um, it’s the, actually, the last shot in the picture, uh, is, uh, and I, I hope I, I guess this is a spoiler, but at this point, my God, the thing’s made 700 million bucks.
I’m not, I mean, we can’t possibly, yeah. Can’t do,
Jeet Heer: can’t
Doug Bell: do. So, so the thing is, towards the end of the movie, well, right at the end, uh, Einstein and uh, Oppenheimer are standing beside the pond at the Institute for Advanced Study, a kind of calm. Uh, place to go and, and contemplate things. Two of them are staying together and there’s in, in a sense, kind of summing up certain aspects of the drama.
One of which is that, uh, uh, Oppenheimer claims, although it’s not actually true, it’s a bit of dramatic license that he’d given. Um, uh, Uh, Einstein some calculations, uh, to, uh, run through which, which he was hoping to prove that the bomb itself would not, in essence, destroy the world. Uh, that, that there was this possibility that the bond itself if let off, and this is true, I mean, there was some concern that if they let it off, that it would ignite the, the atmosphere and it had create a change reaction that could not be controlled.
Right, right, right. Which was actually near zero, like 0.001. And there’s a joke in the movie about it. It’d be better if off it was, if it was actually zero. Of
Jeet Heer: course.
Doug Bell: Makes that, that joke in the movie. Um, But, uh, he, he reminds Einstein of this last shot, and Einstein, Einstein kind of in a distracted way, says, well, what of it, uh, what of it being destroying the world?
And there’s then an immediate closeup on, uh, on, um, uh, Sian Murphy, uh, Oppenheimer, uh, where, and the immediate closeup is then, Uh, sort of punctuated with various shots of kind of nightmarish scenes that we’ve, that are really a product of Oppenheimer’s imagination and of, uh, the how horrifying and horrible the possibility of the world is now that the nuclear genie’s been letter to the bottle.
And he says last night of the movie, uh, what of it, quote, I believe we did, unquote, which is to say, I believe we destroyed the world.
Yeah, no, I’ll just say that those, um, metaphorically, metaphorically as an analogy. No, no. There’s
Jeet Heer: couple. I’ll say, um, those visions that Oppenheimer has, uh, they’re one of several points in the movie where there’s a kind of visual illusion to, uh, Stanley Kubrick’s great, um, satire of nuclear war, Dr.
Strangelove. Um, those are kind of like doctor strange love scenes of, you know, the missiles going up and exploding in the atmosphere and the kind of doomsday device being. Uh, um, unleashed. Uh, so, so I do think that like, yeah, there is this, this sense, um, that the movie ends on the, you know, same note as Dr.
Strangelove, that, you know, like, um, you know, it’s been nice knowing you. Yeah. Yeah.
Doug Bell: We’ll meet again. Don’t know where. I don’t know when. Um,
Jeet Heer: so, uh, uh, the, um, uh, yeah, no know. And what’s your doubt about that? We’ll, my.
Doug Bell: That’s a very powerful ending. And who am I to gain, say, as I, as I suggested, but it does look, the shot itself is clearly mindful.
Uh, the shot, the closeup of, of, of, um, of, um, Oppenheimer is clearly mindful of a kind of, uh, of the Eken Harvey, a medieval martyr. A very, you know, the kind of thing of Christ on the cross looking completely dejected and sad and, and mortified. At the, at the, at the, at the, uh, you know, the, the chaos of man, I mean, there’s probably a better way of putting it that’s led to, to his demise.
Mm-hmm. Um, and so of which he is part right. And so he’s looking at like a martyr. And then of course the, the absolute last shot is back after all the allusions to Kubrick, A good deal, less comic I might add. Um, uh, uh, he closes his eyes. Mm-hmm. And, and that’s then we go to black. Right now that the impression that one is left with, and I’m sure that, that, that, you know, there are critics that will.
Suggest otherwise, and that this will be a matter of controversy, but I I, I, my view of it is, is that that leaves us with the general impression that, uh, Robert Oppenheimer is a martyr to non-proliferation, that he’s a martyr for, for rational science, and that he’s been martyred by the, uh,
Jeet Heer: you know, military industrial complex.
Exactly, exactly. The American political
Doug Bell: state. And, and, and all the rest of it. Yeah. Well, I mean, that is
Jeet Heer: one interpretation of the movie, that the movie is about how this, uh, very smart guy, um, kind of made a deal with the devil. He wanted to defeat the Nazis. He allied himself with, you know, a government that he really had no reason to trust, but he thought, you know, he could, uh, because they needed his expertise, he’d be in a position to, um, Um, uh, use his, uh, intelligence the way he wanted to, and that he was ultimately undone by a kind of hubris or that the, um, uh, once the military industrial complex had the bomb, they didn’t need Robert Opera Oppenheimer anywhere, right?
They played with the guys who could make other bombs. And so, so, so they went out. They systematically destroyed this guy, uh, because, uh, he was no longer necessary.
Doug Bell: No, no, and and the, the, the difficulty I have with it is that the idea of him being, and look, it’s not, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s a completely comprehensible case that you’ve just made and, and, and a strong one.
But I do am left with the, I was left with the vague, sort, uneasy feeling that this would somehow forgive everything that had happened before. And, uh, some of which is onscreen, some of which is not. And particularly as regards and, and, and this all I I, I, I will say I do think Robert Heimer is a martyr in a sense, but not a martyr for the reason that the movie wants to make out and not a martyr in the sense that he, he was, you know, sin, you know, uh, uh, uh, Thomas Moore, right?
I mean, he’s a martyr in the sense that that. Anti-communism is the great self-inflicted wound, the own goal of all time, right? Uh, in, in the American experience. And, uh, he’s done, he’s done low by it because Strauss, his, uh, uh, this guy on the, uh, atomic Energy Commission, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, goes after him because of his, uh, uh, quote unquote communist leanings prior to, um, Uh, prior to Los Alamos and, and, uh, uh, you know, from the crazy kind of McCarthy view, right through Los Alamos, right up until the, the day he loses his, his security clearance.
Uh, but the thing is Oppenheimer himself traded in that stuff. This is not made clear in my view. It’s not made clear enough in the movie. The degree to which he does trade in, in, in precisely that thing, which brought him low, which is to say anti-communism. And that first example of it I’m gonna raise is a guy called, uh, uh, I, I want to get the name right ’cause I always get all these names wrong.
Rossi. Litz. Mm-hmm. And Rossi Litz is in the movie. And, uh, he’s, he was, uh, a. Uh, he is one of the graduate, he is one of the graduate students aligned with, with, with, with Oppenheimer. He subsequently hired onto the Manhattan Project. Now, what then happens to him, which is sort of alluded to in the movie, uh, uh, at, at one stage what happens to him is that he is, uh, subpoenaed by the, uh, by huac.
American Activities Committee as is uh, uh, Oppenheimer, but Oppenheimer, uh, uh, in his testimony before huac in 19, I think it’s 49 mm-hmm. Basically throws Rosie Ross Luminates Luminate under the bus and says, yeah, he was a communist and I had grave misgivings about this right at the time. Mm-hmm. Um, now, He volunteered that information to, to the House on American Activities Committee in front of Richard Nixon, right?
Mm-hmm. Nixon was sitting there on the committee at the time, so that makes it a, a pretty conclusively important historical event right now, you know, again, you can sort of say, well, was Oppenheimer completely conscious of, uh, the ramifications, the implications of what he was to do of, of, of. Of, uh, volunteering laminate’s name and his affiliations.
And you could argue that maybe he didn’t have as complete an understanding of it as he might’ve. I, I find that hard to believe. I, I, I just do. I mean, I, I think that the general tenor of what had been going on at that point was, was pretty clear. Sure. So now
Jeet Heer: the movie does have him volunteering certain information in a very qualified way.
Uh, and, uh, doing so in a way to maybe defend his friends. Like he does kind of, um, um, volunteer the name of, um, uh, his friend, um, Valier, uh, Haku, the wonderfully named, uh, right, right. Norwegian Frenchman, uh, Haku Chevalier, um, uh, who’s also a distinguished, uh, literary critic. Uh, now, uh, But he’s, it’s sewn as like, you know, the wolves are at the door.
Uh, they, they wanna, uh, uh, sacrifice oppenheimer’s trying to shield certain people, and he kind of, you know, um, um, um, throws, uh, uh, some information out that, uh, maybe he, um, uh, uh, shouldn’t have. Uh, and it’s a kind of like a shown as a strategic miscalculation, but,
Complicity with, um,
Doug Bell: McCarthyism? No, no, absolutely. And it’s more invidious. I mean, the thing is, is that Hacken Valier was a, was a tenured prof. Right. He suffered a little bit as a consequence of, but he was well established in his career. Mm-hmm. Plus everybody knew that he was, he was, he was, he was Oppenheimer’s best friend.
Mm-hmm. I mean, they were, they were very close and, and now again, whether the. It, it, it gets dicey. I mean, the, the, the, the complication here, one of the complications is, and it’s shocking when you read the book, uh, the, the book by, um, uh, uh, Berg and, and, and Sherwin. Yeah. Uh, the, the degree to which, uh, uh, Oppenheimer was under surveillance.
Mm-hmm. I mean, the guy didn’t. Excuse. It’s a, it’s a rude thing to say he didn’t take a dump or a pee without the f b I having. Yeah. Jager Hoover.
Jeet Heer: Ger Hoover. Yeah. Yeah. Holding the toilet paper. Holding
Doug Bell: the toilet paper. Exactly. Exactly. Um, and, and it’s a crude way of putting it, but it’s the truth. Yeah. Yeah.
And the thing is, what’s what’s intriguing to me is the ambiguity there is that, uh, at one level, And, and to a degree the way the, the movie tells it, it’s like, oh my God, the f b I was all over him. What a shocking thing, which it is. But I think the pro, the, the difficulty is, is that, is that Oppenheimer, when you read the book, he had a pretty good sense of that.
Mm-hmm. I mean, he knew, uh, particularly once he’d gotten onto the Manhattan Project, that the, that the National Security State was being, uh, was being, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, sort of. Geared up to deal with the security issues around not just, uh, uh, Robert Oppenheimer, but anybody who worked on the project, right.
That they were gonna be subject to surveillance and all the rest of it. And the, the, the thing, sorry, I’m just gonna go back to Ros ro Lams, and not just him, there were several others. Mm-hmm. Uh, Peters, David Bowman, there’s a bunch of them. And the, the thing is, these were guys who, first of all, There wouldn’t have been, certainly prior to the war, uh, prior to their being hired onto the Manhattan Project, there wouldn’t have been the anything, like the degree of surveillance that that existed.
Because look, I mean, sorry, I, I know I’m jumping around here a bit, but, but the thing is, for God’s sakes, uh, Oppenheimer was subject to Hoover’s interests even prior to the war.
Jeet Heer: Of course. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I mean, the, the American anti-communism goes back, you know, at least the first red scare of the first World War, if not earlier.
And definitely in the 1920s and thirties, you already have a security apparatus of red hunters that are monitoring, uh, you know, anyone who signs a petition or is in the, you know, uh, anywhere near the orbit of the Communist Party, even if they’re. Pluto to the, the, the, the son of the Communist party. Uh, they might be as that distant, but if they’re in that orbit, they’re under surveillance.
Doug Bell: they’re, they’re being, they’re subject to it, but at least the possibility of surveillance. Yeah. The point is, sorry, just to get back to the real point, the point is, is that, is that Oppenheimer went in front of a HUAC committee in 49 and then announces that, uh, these guys were all communists.
Mm-hmm. Uh, essentially and. Creates real problems for these people. I mean, Laitz couldn’t get a job, I mean, could not get a job. He was a, he was a, he was a, a first class world class. I mean, I know that’s a cliche, uh, a physicist who after having been identified as communists, primarily on the basis of, uh, or to a degree on the basis of, of, to a considerable degree on the basis of, of Oppenheimer’s say, so he gets.
Fired from his job at Fisk. He can’t get work anywhere. Uh, he’s, he’s so completely, um, uh, at sixes and sevens that the only work he can end up getting is working for a dollar 35 an hour repairing railroad tracks somewhere in the United States. This is after he’d been outed as a communist. That’s the effect.
Now, you know, personally, I worked on a railway gang. And it’s funny, I read that section and I immediately thought, I’m not a world-class physicist. I probably deserve to work on a railway gang. Yeah.
Jeet Heer: You know, the other way to look at it’s that they made you work on the rail gang, you know, despite not being a communist No, no, no.
Doug Bell: Despite exactly, despite that myself, my, my not being a congress. And so this idea that, that, that, anyway, that really stayed with me. And there are other instances of it. There, there, there, there’s a guy named, uh, Peters. Who, uh, is, doesn’t suffer quite as badly Islamist, but, but suffers pretty badly as a result of, of, uh, Oppenheimer’s testimony.
And, um, you know, this was a guy who, who was at daca, right? Mm-hmm. And, and, and as the consequences of him having been a German communist, right? Mm-hmm. And, uh, Heimer volunteers that information, and then after the fact, his colleagues write a letter to him saying, what on earth are you doing? Mm-hmm. This is not someone who should be pilled for having ended up as a German communist.
He was standing against precisely what it is that you were building the bomb to defeat in the first place. Mm-hmm. Uh, which was always the idea was that it, was it that the bomb was, it was was GE was being built to defeat fascism. Nazis and this idea that he would then go in front of the committee after the fact and essentially say, oh, well, you know, I had misgivings with the guy ’cause he was a German communist.
I mean, that, that I, now I have to say, I, I simply don’t know enough about the, the, the, the nature of the relationship between that guy Peters and his institutional context and, uh, Oppenheimer. To say definitively that it’s horrible, but it’s pretty horrible.
Jeet Heer: Yeah. No, no, no, no. That’s, uh, no, it’s, it’s bad. I mean, like today, you know, any sort of complicity with McCarthyism, uh, uh, is bad and one could, you know, uh, yeah, I, I I think it’s pretty, uh, compelling that, uh, point to make that, uh, the film does not.
Um, yeah. Uh, fully or honestly, uh, or accurately convey that like, uh, well, in the case of Oppenheimer, yeah,
Doug Bell: yeah, yeah. And I have to say, Bo both in the book and in the film, you know, you’re, you’re left with this impression of Oppenheimer as being, uh, you know, uh, uh, the flaw in his genius is, uh, that he has a nervous disposition.
Right. And that he’s given to, uh, uh, you know, an otherwise super rational, super intelligent person is given to sort of, uh, uh, s succumbing to his baser or animal or feral instincts. Gene Tatlock, he’s having sex with her, reading the BHA Vita, right? Uh, uh, he actually uses the line while they’re having sex in the movie.
About I am become. And he’s reading it in the original Sanskrit, I mean, incredible, right? Mm-hmm. And, and I, I doubt that happened. But the point is, it’s a nice dramatic touch that reinforces the idea that he, that he, you know, periodically gives into, uh, his, his, his, um, uh, venal. To, to his venal flaws, right?
Mm-hmm. Well, honestly, I gotta say, I mean, particularly when I looked at the, into the, into the issue of laminate. So as I say, it is actually portrayed in the movie, and there is actually a, a shot of him working on the rail gang. But the, but the implication that the film gives you is that, uh, he suffers, uh, uh, precisely because, uh, uh, of, of, uh, Lewis
Jeet Heer: STRs Lewis Straw.
Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. As a consequence of straws. He him of the same system that goes after Oppenheimer.
Doug Bell: Exactly, exactly.
Jeet Heer: Yeah. No, no. In the scene where he’s shown working on the real gang, it is STRs who’s narrating, and he is saying like, you know, we got rid of, um, uh, like, uh, Oppenheimer’s brother, you know, he wast able to work again.
Uh, and uh, and uh, uh, limits is made to work on the rail gang. And you know, like Oppenheimer. Is part of this. So, so it is kind of shown that the, the system that, um, victimized Oppenheimer is also, um, um, Victimizing limits. And then I, I think what you’re suggesting is that, uh, Oppenheimer himself is, uh, you know, like guilty of this and then that.
Yeah. I, I
Doug Bell: think that’s, and, and not just that there, there’s also port of convenience. I mean, the thing is, is that it’s convenient at that moment in 49 for him to look like he understands what the concerns are of a committee. Like, like huac, the executive committee at huac, right? Mm-hmm. Um, but he’s, but he’s doing that for reasons that really have to do with Jay Robert Oppenheim.
Well, well, I, I really,
Jeet Heer: another way, case with, to we formulate this though, is, I mean, your critique of the movie is that I, it’s sort of showing him to be this idealist who was brought down by, you know, like a corrupt system and
Doug Bell: or showing venal sins.
Jeet Heer: Yeah, yeah. Or, or, yeah. Or venal sins that led him, um, become complicit in a, in a, in a terrible military industrial complex.
But that you would insist that Oppenheimer himself was an operator. He was a player. He was like knowingly, willingly going into, uh, doing this and that. He himself was engaged in the task of sort of self-promotion. He wanted to be the father of the abom, he wanted to be this world historical figure and that there’s no, um, uh, loss of innocence
Doug Bell: here.
Well, no, and this is, this is part of it. It’s more in the book than in the movie, but there’s always this sort of sense that when he falls to, you know, riding out his friends or acting, uh, uh, irrationally, it, it, there’s always a, a sense that, well, he’s kind of a naive. That he’s a genius, naive, and that, again, this idea that he was at all naive mm-hmm.
Really strikes me as being, uh, completely, uh, uh, the, the, the, the, the re the record gain says it, gain, gain, says it, and earlier in the book, Uh, and it’s, he’s not portrayed in the movie is the, is the experience of a guy called, um, uh, Robert Wilson. Uh, and this really stayed with me, that Wilson was a guy who was a Quaker and he was a central figure as much as Ernest, Lawrence, or any of the.
B, bigger names that are portrayed in the movie. Mm-hmm. Uh, as a, as a, both a, you know, a, a a kind of engineer, uh, he was a top ranked theoretical physicist, but also had, uh, uh, abilities as a, as a, uh, uh, uh, on the engineering side. Mm-hmm. And he had misgiving. Now, listen, the, the other thing about all this is that they all adore him.
Right. Laminates adored him. And even at the end of his life, laminates could not bring himself to say, uh, uh, Oppenheimer was the son of a bitch. Mm-hmm. I mean, he, he basically said, oh, you know, I was saddened by his, by, by, by the manner in which he conducted himself. With regards to my, my, my, my set of circumstances, Wilson similarly never really loses his temper about what happens.
And what happens is this, here’s a guy, he’s a Quaker. Adores, uh, uh, absolutely adores, uh, uh, uh, Oppenheimer. After the Nazis are outta the war, Wilson strikes a series of kind of ad hoc committees at Los Alamos, where he is a central player. Mm-hmm. Which are, which are, which are struck essentially among, you know, the various minds and brains and, you know, physicists and engineering people and so forth.
And there are voluntary meetings where lots of people come to discuss whether the, what effect this change in the mandate has because the Germans are outta the war, right? Mm-hmm. I mean, how are we gonna, how, how are we gonna deal with this thing now that, now, now that the. What, what was ostensibly the purpose of building this thing doesn’t exist, right?
Mm-hmm. Journeys outta the war, but they’re still in it against Japan. Mm-hmm. What’s intriguing is that at the end of that cycle, and listen, Oppenheimer is smart. He goes to a couple of the meetings. He doesn’t say much again, none of this is portrayed in the movie or, yeah, no. Actually the, no. There’s one scene.
Jeet Heer: you’re right, you’re right, you’re right. Yeah. There’s one scene where he is shown to go to such a meeting and he basically gives, um, uh, a justification for using the bomb against Japan, which is that we’ve created this terrible weapon. Humanity will never understand it unless it’s used and, right.
Right. You know, once. Then people will realize how horrible it is, and then we have a chance that it’ll never be used again. Right.
Doug Bell: Accept that which works in the movie. Make no mistake, and you’re absolutely right. And, and, and, and the record as described in the book, which again, is not definitive. I know somebody, the, at the, in the, in part one of this thing was saying there’s too much reliance on transcripts and all the rest of it to even get to, to even give the book total credibility.
Hmm. But th this particular section, I’ve, I’ve seen it reinforced both in an, a documentary called, uh, the Day After Trinity, which I commend done in 1980. Um, uh, where Wilson does. Play a central role. Wilson basically says that he had gone, uh, uh, been in contact during and after those meetings to discuss the am the, the, the ambivalence or ambiguity or misgivings that these physicists had about the use of the bombing as Japan.
Heimer left him with the very, very strong, uh, uh, impression that there was gonna be a demonstration explosion for the Japanese. Hmm. They were going to be brought to a, to somewhere, see the thing, see the bomb go off and be given the opportunity to realize that the hopelessness of their position without dropping it on her, at which, you know, had they realized it, no need to drop it on.
Uh uh, uh, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Right. And then as we know, uh, uh, and to a degree what’s portrayed in the film, is that precisely for the reasons that you suggest, which is this might be the thing that ends all war, right? Uh, Heimer is. Intimately involved in the planning and selection of the cities and the engineering of how the thing was gonna drop and where, where it was to be dropped, how it was to be dropped.
So it would, uh, eviscerate Hiroshima after it was dropped. Wilson is mortified. He knows nothing of it. He then says directly, uh, again, not portrayed in the, in the, in the film. That he felt betrayed and he uses those exact words he felt betrayed by, by Oppenheimer. Now, the thing is, that’s not, look, people can feel betrayed on the margins of an enormous engineering program for a variety of reasons.
Robert Wilson was at the dead center of this thing, and Oppenheimer knew perfectly well that he needed to sideline this guy because he was organizing people around a, an alternate view of the use of the bomb, had Oppenheimer. Been, and I’m just gonna say it true to his word. In other words, the impression he’d left with Wilson.
He would’ve taken himself, likely, he would’ve taken himself out of this. The, uh, out of the, the, the central position as, uh, a player in, in, uh, the, uh, uh, uh, uh, prosecution to the war, uh, against Japan. And subsequently, right. The military would’ve said, oh, he is a flake. We, we can’t deal with him. Right, but the simple fact for remains that that, that a guy like Wilson, who’s a serious character, it seems to me with a strong moral sense, is left to feel utterly betrayed by Oppenheimer.
And why? Because Oppenheimer knows, as you suggested earlier, what size bread is buttered on. He knows that what, what’s best for j Robert Heimer. All of which is, is fine. It’s, it’s a grownup world. I understand. But boy, oh boy. When you see that in the context of that last shot in the movie where the world is left with the impression that this poor guy, you know, was, was, was utterly, uh, was himself betrayed by the military industrial complex, I find that a little hard to take.
I mean, Not, it does, as I say, not to gain, say the excellence of the movie. It’s a great movie, but there’s a, as I say, there’s a sinkhole somewhere near the middle of it. Sure,
Jeet Heer: sure. You know, I, I think that’s, uh, uh, I, these are all, uh, very compelling points and, uh, uh, well-made, I mean, uh, to, uh, some degree, uh, as in the earlier discussion, um, Um, uh, with my friends at Jewish Currents, uh, I mean, the movie as presented is a story of the, sort of the tragedy of the popular front left, the um, uh, and it, it is interesting for, you know, uh, uh, those of us on this podcast, uh, and at the nation because it’s a movie, you know, about the left, which one does cs, you know, very rarely.
Um, but, um, Where one situates Oppenheimer in that tragedy, whether he’s the sort of be portrayed innocent or he is in fact the, you know, operator who, uh, fully, you know, with eyes open, you know, participates in, in a system that also ultimately ends up, uh, doing him great damage. I, I mean, I think that’s an open question and, um, I think that the, uh, the movie definitely skews in one direction.
No, no, and, and
Doug Bell: listen, the, the point you make about, about, about anti-communism and, and, and sort of
heim’s willingness to truck and trade in that when it’s convenient for him, in a way, it’s more tragic. It’s, it’s, it, I, I mean, again, I’m not, you know, I’ve written a screenplay. It’s really hard to do, uh, you know, anybody who can do it with, with the excellence of Christopher Nolan as my undying devotion.
And it’s a great screenplay. But one wonders what might have happened if he’d engaged in the idea that, uh, Oppenheimer was both. Perpetrator and a victim simultaneously of precisely the, the anti-communism that ostensibly brought him down, right? The straws, uh, picking up on McCarthyism, and of course straws.
A completely, really, an extraordinary performance. By, by, by, uh, Downey. Yeah. Right. Robert Downey Jr. Yes. Robert Downey Jr. ’cause he catches the sophistication of a guy who realizes that he can engage directly with McCarthy and in fact, Put McCarthy off when Roy Cohn comes calling and saying, we’d like to put him in front of our committee.
Right. And, uh, Strauss says, no, no, no, no. Because that would be, and I think he says it in the movie, he says, we don’t wanna be dealing with those, those, those, those, those Philistines. Right. We need to do this more subtly and, and, and, and I, you know. Sure. Uh, but the thing is, at the end of the day, the anti-communism is portrayed in the movie, the anti-communism that.
That Oppenheimer himself, uh, as I say, has truck and trade with in, in the course of, if not the film itself, although I guess that could be argued. Um, but certainly in, in terms of the record, in terms of the biography, he certainly does truck and trade with that kind of any anti-communism. That is a, there’s a straight line from that stuff to, to Trump.
To Trump, mm-hmm. And to what we’re seeing now. This kind of insane populous lunacy that’s taken hold, that’s destroyed. Uh, even the possibility of that kind of subtle malevolence demonstrated by Louis STRs, Lewis STRs would be, would’ve been left behind the sands of history by some of these characters that we see now.
Jeet Heer: sure. I mean, it is the sort of, um, what you’re outlining this alternative narrative. I mean, it’s the tragedy, you know, um, uh, of liberal anti-communism, right? Of the sort of, uh, which is what I think Oppenheimer became like, um, uh, uh, by the forties perhaps after the, uh, uh, um, the, um, uh, Soviet, um, uh, uh, German Pact, um, the.
Uh, but I mean, the problem with liberal anti-communism is that it, uh, ultimately ends up empowering the forces that end destroyed liberalism itself. Uh, and that’s something I don’t think that has widely understood, um, except among historians. There’s excellent historians we’re about this. Uh, but it once sees that, uh, uh, Oppenheimer’s story as.
Um, uh, liberal anti-communism, giving a sword to, you know, um, um, its own enemies, uh, to be disempowered, uh, you know, by the people that it empowers that, that’s a pretty compelling story. And, and as I mentioned in the previous podcast, um, that there’s also ways in which this complicates the figure of, uh, Lewis straws himself.
Um, you know, who’s coming out of a sort of, um, Um, conservative Jewish community that wants, uh, you know, like after the anti-Semitism of the 20th century, wants to be reconciled to the American elite and, uh, uses the scapegoating of Oppenheimer as a instrument in that way. So what we’re seeing is like, you know, anti-communism allows for multiple betrayals.
Uh, the betrayal of straws of Oppenheim Oppenheimer, uh, Oppenheimer’s. Betrayal of Lumette. Um, yeah, I, yeah, I, I, I, I think there’s definitely an argument that, uh, that narrative does not come through in the film. I.
Doug Bell: No. No. And it’s interesting, you know, I, I, I have to say, and, and, and by the way, the book is excellent.
I totally commend it. It’s a great piece of scholarship. I,
Jeet Heer: I should add, uh, you know, just so we’re all upfront here, uh, ward, uh, is very much a friend of the Nation Magazine, and, uh, has a, uh, a position I believe, either on the. Board or as an advisor to the magazine. Uh, so, so, so we’re all very happy that, uh, uh, the book is, uh, doing well and he’s collecting, uh, royalties, uh, uh, from, from, from the, uh, all the sales of the book.
And, and it is, and he is also, uh, I say this like with less irony, uh, is, uh, uh, uh, genuinely, uh, important American historian.
Doug Bell: No, no, no. And, and, and there’s no, I, I watched a, a interview between him and David Nuremberg, who’s the new director of the Institute for Advanced Study. He is a completely compelling guy, and, and he’s interesting now in the book.
He does really come down hard on this idea that the, what suffers most as a consequence. And it’s not, it’s, it’s, it’s true that, that the sort of the, the, the, the American liberal idealism. Suffers terribly in the course of this, uh, uh, in, in the course of, of, of all of the conduct around McCarthy and all the rest of it.
There’s not a lot of discussion in the book about who get the baby that gets thrown out with the bathwater, which is, which is, uh, the, the, uh, American socialism. Um, and which, you know, hasn’t been doing too badly lately. I mean, it’s, it’s, it seems to be holding its own right. Sure, sure.
Jeet Heer: But I mean, that’s after, you know, the 70 years of repression, right?
Doug Bell: Right. But the under, I, I guess my point is, and I, God, God knows I have no political theorist, but, but my underlying point is, is that the, uh, that the, that, and you’ve hinted at it that, that there’s an underlying dynamic about capital. And I think somebody in the last, uh, uh, Uh, podcast made mention of this more explicitly that there’s something about the nature of the relationship between capital and labor, that that gets, that gets tied up with the development of the bomb, and that ends up destroying, uh, well put it this way, takes, takes the decisions about how the bomb is gonna be used outta the hands of anyone that has any kind of moral sense.
And I, I, and I will say to to, to his credit, Nolan catches this exactly when he has the, has the meeting between Oppenheimer and, and, and, and, uh, Truman. Mm-hmm. Where he traces Truman for precisely what he was, which is a reactionary, uh, big Ed, uh, uh, and has, um, uh, Oppenheimer saying, look, I feel as if I have blood on my hands.
Right. Which may not have been know. And again, that leads to me to say, I don’t wanna see that cry baby again. Right, but the, but the point being that, that, that, that, the part of Oppenheimer that suggests that I have blood on my hands is the part of Oppenheimer that really was interested intellectually in, uh, the Communist ideal and in, and why he got engaged with people like Steve Nelson and why it mattered to him that he be on the margin of those groups, which, which got him into all kinds of shit water later on, right?
Mm-hmm. Shit, water that he knew he was getting into, and then distance himself from. Yeah.
Jeet Heer: No, no, no, no. It, it’s a, uh, a fascinating story, uh, uh, at Oppenheimer himself, the historical man remains like, uh, just, uh, like, uh, uh, a real foun of, uh, um, historical interest because he brings so many important currents together in one life.
Doug Bell: Sorry, just one last thing, just, just just to say that you know, everything in a way, what I’m saying is an appendix to what David Cleon was saying last week about what’s great about the movie, which is that we’re even having a, a conversation like this, right? That, that, that, that all kinds of people are going to see in the movie and suddenly thinking about what is the place of the left in American life in a way that they haven’t thought about.
And again, I’m, I’m. This is all an appendix to Cleon, uh, uh, in a, in a way they haven’t thought about since Reds, right? Since Warren Beatty’s version of Reds in, you know, 30 or 40 years ago. Um, so in that sense, it’s, it’s all positive and, and many of the complications and ambiguities and ambivalences that are evident in Oppenheimer in the film or what lead people to talk about,
Jeet Heer: Sure, sure.
No, I think that’s right. I think that’s it. Although I, I, I will add, um, just as a, since we’re, uh, all about equivalent on this podcast,
Doug Bell: um, uh,
Jeet Heer: uh, I mean, Cleon said, you know, like Reds was the last major movie that dealt with this. And so certainly like in terms of budget and, you know, I mean, reds was a.
Astonishingly, um, enjoyed, uh, a screening at the White House and not just the White House. The White House of Ronald Reagan, uh, which is like, uh, like almost unimaginable today. But, but I do think that there have been other movies that have, you know, touched on the history of the left. Uh, I’ll mention Cradle Rock, um, the Tim Robbins film.
Um, yeah, about, uh, Diego Rivera and, um, the Rockefeller family. Uh, I’ll mention I think the larger. Of the, uh, Cohen Brothers, which, um, uh, I think one of the major themes of their work is the defeat of the American left and the, um, the consequences, uh, that defeat leads, uh, uh, most visible in, uh, I think their, uh, movie Hill Caesar, which offers a kind of satirical take on, um, the blacklist and, uh, anti-communism.
But, but in any case, uh, but quibbles aside, I mean, uh, unlike those movies, this one, um, is enjoying a, a vast. It’s a global audience. Uh, and I think, I think that that does signify something new. There’s a, there’s something in this movie that people are responding to, and I think that’s worth recording. No,
Doug Bell: no.
And, and look, and, and it’s a massive, massive blockbuster. I mean, it’s, it’s interesting that you, you, you, you mentioned Cradle Little Rock, which I weirdly, I reviewed that mm-hmm. Uh, in the midst of time. And, uh, that movie was, was vilified. Yes. Um, PR precisely because there was some perception that this was a movie because it was dealing with um, uh, you know, really.
Just, just, I mean, the bare minimum of, uh, socialist ideals that were, that were evident in the New Deal, right? It was kind of vilified as as, as a kind of ungainly ro uh, and, and, and naively romantic film. I. Uh, where in fact there was a lot in that movie that, that, that, that, I’ll say it, that, that Nolan could have drawn from particularly Bill Murray’s performance, uh, in, in, in that movie, which I don’t remember the character that he put, but he, he sings the International at one point, or does he have a Oh, I can’t remember.
Anyway, the thing is, is that there’s a lot in that film and I do commend it. I do commend it. Yeah.
Jeet Heer: And in the movie, uh, bill Marie plays, uh, Tommy Rickshaw. Right,
Doug Bell: right, right, right, right, right. But then it’s,
Jeet Heer: but in any case, uh, yeah, no. Although that, that is a very good movie and, uh, worse, um, uh, revisiting, yeah, VA and vast,
Doug Bell: vastly underrated.
Jeet Heer: Vast, yeah. Yeah. In fact, I mean, I think. Maybe we’ll do a few feature podcasts on some movies about the left. I think that would be, uh, something that our audience would enjoy. But, uh, but, uh, on that note, I wanna thank, uh, Doug, uh, once again for being here and for this, uh, very illuminating discussion of, uh, Oppenheimer.
Doug Bell: And as always, uh, Jeet, I learned a lot more through the course of it than I did at the beginning. Thank you very, very much.