'5 generations of cancers': What 'Oppenheimer' movie fails to tell us about the Manhattan Project

'5 generations of cancers': What 'Oppenheimer' movie fails to tell us about the Manhattan Project
Image via Creative Commons.

Hiroshima, Japan is where, on August 6, 1945, the United States, under President Harry Truman, detonated a nuclear bomb (a nuclear attack on Nagasaki was carried out three days later). But it was in New Mexico that a nuclear weapon was first tested as part of the Manhattan Project — one that had lingering effects in the area.

Seventy-eight years later, director Christopher Nolan's movie "Oppenheimer" chronicles the life of Manhattan Project physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

In an op-ed/guest essay published by the New York Times on July 31, New Mexico-based activist Tina Cordova looks back on the nuclear testing that took place in her state less than a month before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. And she lays out some ways in which she believes the film falls short.

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"July is a hard month for a lot of us here in New Mexico, where thousands of people's lives were upended by the test of the world's first nuclear bomb," Cordova explains. "The events of July 16, 1945, weigh heavily on us. And why wouldn't they? They changed everything. The people of New Mexico were the first human test subjects of the world's most powerful weapon."

The release of "Oppenheimer," she adds, has made her area of New Mexico "more tense than usual."

"The three-hour movie tells only part of the story of the Manhattan Project, which developed the bomb, and conducted the test code-named Trinity that day in July," Cordova argues. "It does not explore in any depth the costs of deciding to test the bomb in a place where my family and many others had lived for generations."

Cordova goes on to observe that "Oppenheimer's" release is a "missed opportunity" to convey the health problems New Mexico residents suffered following the Manhattan Project — including "four or five generations of cancers."

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"My own family is typical: I am the fourth generation in my family to have had cancer since 1945," Cordova notes. "My 23-year-old niece has just been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She is a college student studying art. Now her life, too, has been upended…. While the families in my community continue their wait for some wider recognition of what they endured — including coverage by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act — we are left with a film that declines to bear witness to our truth. This, too, is the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the government he worked for."

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Find Tina Cordova's full New York Times editorial at this link (subscription required).

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