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How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Bomb

The U.S. Military and the Truman Administration Censored a 1946 Film Meant to Warn America About the Dangers of Nuclear War.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Emin Ozkan

The following is an excerpt fromHollywood Bomb: Harry S. Truman and the Unmaking of ‘The Most Important’ Movie Ever Made (Sinclair Books).

In September 1945, just weeks after the U.S. atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the leading Hollywood movie studio, MGM, was already moving forward with an epic about the creation, and use, of The Bomb. Studio head Louis B. Mayer would call the movie, to be titled The Beginning or the End, “the most important story” he would ever film (and later compare the film to Birth of a Nation and his own Gone with the Wind).

It seemed, for a time, that the big-budget film would serve as a warning to mankind about the dangers of going too far down the nuclear path, with the potential to rally public opinion against The Bomb before it was too late to halt an arms race that would eventually bring 50,000 nuclear warheads into the world.

But that was before the making, and unmaking, of The Beginning or the End ended that chance, thanks in large part to intervention by the U.S. military and President Harry S. Truman. Also intimately involved was a colorful cast of supporting players, including Ayn Rand, Archbishop Francis Spellman, Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, producer Hal Wallis, and actors Donna Reed, Hume Cronyn and Brian Donlevy, among others.

The inspiration for the movie came from atomic scientists, who wanted to warn Americans against a race to build more and better nuclear weapons.  Early scripts reflected that--and even raised doubts about the use of the bomb against Japan.  But the Pentagon and the White House, unlike the scientists, had gained script approval and the film soon became nothing less than an ode to The Bomb.

But what of its treatment of Truman?

In October 1946, The Beginning or the End was screened for a select group in Washington, members of Truman’s staff.  Truman’s approval rating in the Gallup Poll, which stood at 82% at the close of the war, had plunged to little more than half of that.

The heavily revised film now underscored the official narrative in scene after scene.  But trouble brewed. President Truman felt uncomfortable about one key sequence, and famed columnist Walter Lippman found the same scene "shocking."

Charles Ross, the president’s secretary, informed MGM on October 29 that everyone "enjoyed very much" the screening. "This is a thrilling picture," he added. "The story is beautifully worked out, and the acting is fine." The only problem was: "something needs to be done about the sequence in which President Truman appears."  He had apparently discussed this with longtime MGM screenwriter James K. McGuinness at the screening.  Ross had already written “rejected” across the top of those two pages of the script that he had been given.

The scene pictured General Leslie Groves and Pentagon chief Henry L. Stimson informing Truman at the White House about the bomb after Roosevelt's death in April 1945.   The segment was larded with outrageous untruths, such as Groves telling Truman that “there is reason to believe” that the Japanese would “be meeting our invasion ships and troops with atomic weapons.” Groves then projects U.S. troop losses in any invasion of Japan at “half a million men,” at a “minimum.”

But that isn't what displeased Truman, Ross and Lippmann. They objected to the celluloid President announcing to his visitors, without much reflection that the U.S. would certainly use the weapon against Japan, because "I think more of our American boys than I do of all our enemies…We will tell Japan to surrender or face destruction. If they refuse you will take it to the Mariannas and use it."  

Lippmann, hoping to get that scene changed or cut, privately told John J. McCloy — Stimson’s top assistant — that it was an "outright fabrication," a "libel" that would "disgrace" Truman and America. It reduced the role of the President "to extreme triviality in a great matter," Lippmann wrote a friend. "Serious people abroad are bound to say that if that is the way we made that kind of decision, we are not to be trusted with such a powerful weapon.”  McCloy agreed.

After receiving the note from Ross, McGuiness (best known for writing the story for the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera) tossed out the offending scene and wrote a new one—within two days. He informed Ross in the November 1 cover letter that he had incorporated “all the matters we talked about” and not only that—he was “eager” to “incorporate anything else you deem advisable.”

McGuinness informed Lippmann about the change, claiming to be "deeply impressed by your feeling that we were showing our country's Chief Executive deciding a monumental matter in what was a much too-hasty fashion." Lippmann felt the crisis had passed, observing whimsically that "sufficiently drastic criticism does have it effect upon the producers." 

The new scene placed Truman in Germany, talking to Charles Ross across a desk just after his secretary had handed out copies of the Potsdam Declaration — which called for Japan’s unconditional surrender — to the press in July 1945.  The script directions declared, “it must be emphasized that the President is a man of upright and military bearing; that he is physically trim, alive and alert, and that his actions are brisk and certain.”

Filmed from the rear (as the President had demanded earlier) in a darkened room, Truman's faceless authority seems almost God-like.   Truman finally reveals to Ross the “top secret” shocker: “Our country, with the help of scientists from nearly all the United Nations, has developed the most fearful weapon ever forged by man — an atomic bomb…It has been tested and it works.”  Its destructive power was almost beyond imagining, but in peace “it will provide such power as will eventually lift most of mankind’s  burden.” 

Ross responds by exclaiming that if the Japanese had it, "they’d use it on us.”

"That's a persuasive argument, Charlie--but not a decisive one," Truman calmly replies. The President explains that in consultations “every day for weeks now” with top military leaders, Winston Churchill and “our greatest scientists,” the "consensus of opinion is that the bomb will shorten the war by approximately a year." (In reality, few imagined that surrounded, starving, Japan would hold out anywhere close to that length of time, and might even surrender quickly after the Soviets, as planned, attacked them in August 1945.)

Ross wonders if anyone disagreed. The President answers: "Nobody, actually.  Some scientists who worked on the project think we should drop it on an uninhabited area as a warning. But the staff is sure the Japanese militarists would never let their people learn about it."

Ross sympathizes with Truman about the difficulty of his decision. “You must have spent many sleepless nights over it,” Ross says.  Truman replies:  “Yes, it has cost me some sleep.  I have had to make a tremendous decision.”

The scene in this script concludes:

The President: "The army has selected certain Japanese cities which are prime military targets — because of war industries, military installations, troop concentrations or fortifications. We will shower them for ten days with leaflets telling the populations to leave — telling them what is coming. We hope the warnings will save lives."

Ross: "They should save plenty of American lives, too."

The President: "A year less of war will mean life for untold numbers of Russians, of Chinese — of Japanese — and from three hundred thousand to half a million of America's finest youth. That was the decisive consideration in my consent."

Ross: "As President of the United States, sir, you could make no other decision."

The President: "As President, I could not.”

As drama this sequence succeeds but one can fault it on many factual grounds, beyond the Japanese surrender scenario frame already mentioned.  No warning leaflets warning of an attack with a massive new weapon were dropped before the bombings;  military considerations were not paramount in the targeting decision more — and it vastly inflated the number of likely American lives saved.  

On November 8, Ross told McGuinness that it was "a pleasure to work with you," but requested further changes on November 8.  “Enclosed is the revised script,” Ross wrote.  “You will notice that I did not make very many changes.  It was a pleasure to work with you and I trust that everything will turn out satisfactorily.”

In the final draft, besides some minor changes in wording, the already-inflated length of time the bomb would shorten the war increased from "approximately a year" to "at least a year." The reference to scientists calling for a demonstration shot was deleted. 

Another revealing revision:  In a cagey move — likely ordered by the White House — the president no longer responds to Ross suggesting that he must have spent many a sleepless night wrestling with the decision.  Now Truman simply does not reply.  So the sleepless nights idea is introduced but Truman will be free to deny it later in real life (as he would, more than once).

On November 18, McGuinness thanked Ross for his latest corrections, and assured him that "it will be done exactly as it has been revised unless we find that either of the actors has difficulty reading a word here or there."   A month later, an old friend of Truman aide Matt Connelly viewed a final cut of the film in Hollywood. He informed Connelly that the White House no longer had anything to fear. "I am told that the State Department is opposed to it," he commented, "but I'm damned if I can see why they should be against a glorification of the greatest American project in all history."

Copyright © 2013 by Greg Mitchell. Reprinted with permission.

Greg Mitchell has written more than a dozen books, including “Atomic Cover-up” and, with Robert Jay Lifton, “Hiroshima in America.”  He writes daily for The Nation.