How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Bomb
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Emin Ozkan
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The following is an excerpt from Hollywood 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."