What Oppenheimer Left Out

What Oppenheimer Left Out

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer portrays complex events as clear, coherent, and gripping. Its framing, however, guarantees a relatively narrow view of many issues covered.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a cinematic tour-de-force—superbly acted, visually stunning, and dramatically compelling. Adapted from Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s acclaimed biography, the film’s portrait of the leader of the Manhattan Project is generally accurate and intellectually serious, tracing the route from the development of modern physics to the dawn of the nuclear era. And by focusing throughout on a single, intense character, the movie makes complex events clear, coherent, and gripping. That very framing, however, guarantees a relatively narrow view of many issues covered, leaving the larger strategic and political context surrounding the nuclear scientists’ efforts largely unaddressed and giving a misleading impression about the role of nuclear weapons during the end of World War II and after. 

When the movie addresses the use of the bomb, for example, one hears an occasional reference to a possible invasion of Japan, the likelihood of surrender, and U.S.-Soviet relations, but less time is spent on all of them together than on Oppenheimer in bed. Following a war from only one country, moreover, inevitably distorts understanding of what was, by definition, a multiplayer game. And the later parts of the movie, about Oppenheimer’s security clearances, say little about the ongoing influence of the bomb on American warmaking.

Clint Eastwood made two movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima, one from the American perspective and one from the Japanese. It would be great if Nolan would do the same, portraying the end of the Pacific War as it looked from Tokyo and Hiroshima as well as Washington and Los Alamos. As for which Japanese character could play the Oppenheimer role, providing a focus for dramatic unity, a good choice would be General Korechika Anami, the Japanese army minister—a hardline militarist whose death hours before his country’s surrender epitomized the passions and paradoxes of one of the most tumultuous months in history.

What Was Happening in Japan

Imperial Japan’s political system featured a semi-divine emperor presiding over an authoritarian government dominated by relatively autonomous military bureaucracies. During the summer of 1945, decisionmaking power was held collectively by a six-man committee including four representatives of the armed forces. And Anami, the most powerful of them, held a veto over all national policy. 

A smart, serious professional who had taken his post that spring when a string of Japanese defeats led to a cabinet reshuffle, Anami knew the war was going badly. But he remained confident his forces could still inflict powerful blows on the enemy and possibly disrupt any invasion of the Japanese home islands. That might buy enough time and space to arrange a compromise peace, he thought, and if it didn’t, well, then at the least the army would go down fighting. As his colleague General Yoshijiro Umezu, the army chief of staff, noted,

The word “surrender” is not in the Japanese military lexicon. In our military education, if you lose your weapons, you fight with your bare hands. When your hands will no longer help, you fight with your feet. When you can no longer use your hands and feet, you bite with your teeth. Finally, when you can no longer fight, you bite off your tongue and commit suicide. That’s what I teach.

The hardline faction in the government was balanced by a more moderate faction, however, led by civilians in the Foreign Ministry and Imperial Court. They increasingly recognized the scale of the impending military catastrophe and hoped to head it off through a negotiated settlement that would preserve the imperial system from foreign reform or domestic revolution. The hardliners controlled the cabinet, however, and the war ground on.

This was the situation confronting Allied policymakers as the Manhattan Project finally started to bear fruit. Despite Germany’s capitulation, regardless of its own losses, Japan refused to concede and continued to put up a furious resistance. The Truman administration threw everything it could at the problem, from bombing to blockade to a planned invasion of the home islands set to start in November, with estimates of American casualties ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands. The White House begged Russia to enter the war in the Pacific, just as Russia had earlier begged the United States and the United Kingdom to open a second front in Europe. And a few in the know hoped the special secret weapons being developed by Oppenheimer and his colleagues might prove to be a game changer. 

In addition to military escalation, some favored trying diplomatic gambits to end the war as well, such as clarifying the kinds of treatment Japan could expect following occupation and allowing it to retain its monarchy. One of those was British premier Winston Churchill, who made the case to Truman in July. As he described the conversation in his memoirs,

I dwelt upon the tremendous cost in American and to a smaller extent in British life if we enforced “unconditional surrender” upon the Japanese. It was for him to consider whether this might not be expressed in some other way, so that we got all the essentials for future peace and security yet left them some show of saving their military honour and some assurance of their national existence, after they had complied with all safeguards necessary for the conqueror. The President replied bluntly that he did not think the Japanese had any military honour after Pearl Harbor. I contented myself with saying that at any rate they had something for which they were ready to face certain death in very large numbers, and this might not be so important to us as it was to them.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin, more cynical than his partners, couldn’t see the problem. Truman should make whatever promises necessary to get the Japanese to stand down, he told special emissary Harry Hopkins, but not feel bound to live up to them afterward. Hopkins summarized Stalin’s advice for the president as, “agree to milder peace terms but once we get into Japan to give them the works.”

In the end, Truman decided to give the Japanese one last chance to concede before either using atomic weapons or invading the home islands, but chose to keep both promises and threats relatively vague. The July 27 Potsdam Declaration thus reiterated calls for Japan’s unconditional surrender while specifying several examples of moderate treatment Japan could expect to receive afterward, including maintaining a government “established in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.” The declaration closed with a threat of “prompt and utter destruction” but did not mention two new elements in the war: the impending Soviet entry and the atomic weapons proven useful in the successful Trinity test at Los Alamos eleven days earlier. When the Japanese government made no response, on August 6 the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

The Road to Surrender

In Oppenheimer, the dropping of the bomb seems to lead directly to the end of the war. In real life, things were more complicated and contingent. The Japanese government was stunned by the attack on Hiroshima but had difficulty assimilating what had actually happened and made no move to concede. On August 8, the Soviets announced they were entering the fray, slicing through Manchuria and dashing any lingering Japanese hopes that Moscow might mediate a compromise settlement. And on August 9, another atomic bomb destroyed Nagasaki. 

As reports of these three distinct but near-simultaneous events filtered in, Japan’s leaders realized something big had changed and met to consider their next steps. But despite everything, the cabinet’s Big Six remained deadlocked. The prime minister, the foreign minister, and the navy minister wanted to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration subject to an explicit acknowledgment that the imperial institution would be preserved. But Anami and the army and navy chiefs of staff favored continuing to fight until the Allies accepted three additional conditions to boot: that Japan would be allowed to disarm itself, that there would be no occupation of the home islands, and that there would be no war crimes trials. 

The exasperated, desperate moderates implored the emperor to break the tie, and finally, he agreed. On the evening of August 9, for practically the first time in modern Japanese history, the heretofore ceremonial monarch strongly advocated a particular course of action on national policy, personally asking the cabinet to stop the war. Shocked but reverent, the hardliners bowed to the imperial will, and the Japanese government sent a note to the Americans, through the Swiss, accepting the Potsdam Declaration “with the understanding that the said declaration does not compromise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.”

This note was welcomed in Washington, but it created a quandary for American officials because it challenged the notion of unconditional surrender and reopened the internal debate over whether to preserve the emperor’s status. Truman instructed Secretary of State James Byrnes to come up with a reply, and after much discussion the U.S. response, transmitted back through the Swiss on August 11, fudged the issue, saying, “From the moment of surrender the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers who will take such steps as he deems proper to effectuate the surrender terms.”