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Oppenheimer – Other Reactions


It’s early days, and we will continue to see reactions to “Oppenheimer.” My interest in the response whether any of it is likely to have a political effect on nuclear weapons.

Even before the film was released, some organizations provided lists of “what to look for” in the film. Those lists usually tilted toward the organizations’ agendas.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative provided reading that was less obviously tilted, and in 2020 Alex Wellerstein provided some useful basics.

A month or two ago, I asked my Twitter followers and commenters here why they planned to see “Oppenheimer.” The most frequent answer was that they didn’t know that history and wanted to learn. Many had great admiration for Christopher Nolan. At that time, Twitter was decaying, but it was better than it is now. My finding is consistent with a poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, in which six in ten Americans say they are at least somewhat interested in learning more about US nuclear weapon policy, especially basic information about how nuclear weapons work and their effects.

Quite a few responses have focused on a particular point, perhaps to distinguish their article from others, or for particular audiences. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” are both about the world’s entry into the Anthropocene Era. American Communism in the 1930s is treated more fairly than usual. How good a physicist was Oppenheimer? And, of course, the AI proponents who see themselves as modern-day Oppenheimers. I will not link to their self-important delusions. Charles Oppenheimer, grandson of J. Robert, thought the film was pretty good. For the Oppenheimer haters, a screed. An interview with Richard Rhodes, author of the encyclopedic “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” The musical score for the film. Reactions from members of Congress.

A broader issue that has to do with nuclear policy has gained more visibility with the film. For almost two decades, people whose families lived in Tularosa, New Mexico, have said that the Trinity test of the first nuclear device, sixty miles north of their city, caused fallout that has sickened generations. Washington Post has an overview, and Tina Cordova, who has led the campaign, has an op-ed in the New York Times. More from the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed to compensate uranium miners, downwinders from the Nevada Test Site, and others who may have been injured by nuclear weapons development in the United States. People in Tularosa were not included, but the act is now being renewed, and it looks like they will be.

None of this is likely to lead to a new conversation about the future of nuclear weapons. The Tularosa narrative contains issues of colonialism and potential harm by a continuing nuclear weapons industry, but it’s been around for a while, the industry has moved to clean up its practices, and these issues haven’t taken off as a general concern.

The little commentary I’ve seen from the arms control community, mostly on social media, has been predictably in line with their previous arguments, which have not taken off in a way to engage the general public.

The nuclear horror movies “Threads” and “The Day After” coincided with a burst of nuclear activism during the 1980s. President Ronald Reagan was felt to be extremely aggressive in his foreign policy, willing to risk nuclear war. Did the resistance result from the movies? From international situation? A combination?

The story of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project is an origin story. Origin stories are intriguing – how did Superman become Superman? – but they are definitionally fixed in time, speaking of great potential but not much to address life in process. The baby who becomes Clark Kent and Superman benefits from two loving sets of parents, and we learn that his one weakness is kryptonite. This is the basis from which the Superman stories spring, but it has little broader meaning.

Similarly, the Manhattan Project story often ends at Trinity or the dropping of the two bombs on Japan. Nolan chose to do otherwise. His choice extends the story and its ramifications beyond the usual limits. The extension has to do with the personal fortunes of Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss, however, and thus misses a broader message.

Previous posts are here and here.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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