Discover more from Oppenheimer and the Legacy of His Bomb
When Oppie Misled the Media on Trinity 'Junket'
And radiation, for the utter hell of it.
Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including “Hiroshima in America,” “Atomic Cover-up,” and the recent award-winning“The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” He has directed three documentary films since 2021, including two for PBS (plus award-winning “Atomic Cover-up”). He has written widely about the atomic bomb and atomic bombings, and their aftermath, for over forty years.
Above: Catchy gospel tune, “Atomic Telephone,” from 1951, as the U.S. developed its H-bomb. I guess they could have called it “Atomic Teller-phone.”
In the latest box office report, Barbie continues to top Oppie by 2-to-1 but Variety observes: “Christopher Nolan’s dark historical drama also had a stellar sophomore outing, taking in a mighty $46.6 million over the weekend. According to Universal, it became the first R-rated film to gross more than $10 million for seven days in a row on Friday — that streak extended to 10 days through the weekend.”
Fans of the physicist and/or the Nolan film may be in for a hassle if they flock to the Trinity site for one of its two annual “open house” days this fall. Many face long waits and the possibility you may not get in. As an option I might propose the beautiful old Dutch city of Nagasaki and the bustling energy of modern day Hiroshima, and their peace museums.
Partly thanks to some kinds words and link from Charles P. Pierce over at Esquire, this free newsletter got a flood of new subscribers over the weekend, so to new readers: welcome. There’s also been a surge in sales of my Atomic Cover-up e-book and paperback, and you can still find it at a special price ($4.79 and $11.95). It explores the U.S. suppression of the most important footage shot in the atomic cities after the bomb, plus my own lengthy, life-changing trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the making of my recent film of the same title.
Thrilled to read that Cillian Murphy (we’ve been fans going back to The Wind That Shakes the Barley and 28 Days Later) has already filmed Small Things Like These, a movie based on one of my favorite novels of recent years by Claire Keegan (she also wrote the book that became the fine movie The Quiet Girl).
Yes, you can still subscribe to this newsletter, it remains free, thank you.
Speaking of Trinity, and missing from the Nolan movie: J. Robert Oppenheimer played a key role in continuing to suppress the full truth of radiation dangers (which he had come to know well), when he took part in a press promo tour in September 1945. The photo above, one of the most popular of the man, is rarely identified as coming from that promo trip, capturing him right at ground zero of that blast with General Leslie Groves.
Also playing an important part that day, and not portrayed in the new movie: the man known as “Atomic Bill.”
William L. Laurence earned the nickname several times over. He was a Pulitzer-winning New York Times science reporter who became embedded with the Manhattan Project and followed its creation of the first atomic bombs at several sites around the United States. As the first use of the new weapon against Japan neared, seventy-eight summers ago, he wrote several lengthy articles glorifying the Bomb and the men who made it, which were published, with overwhelming impact, by his newspaper (and others across the country) starting on August 7, 1945.
Then, on August 9, he observed the atomic bombing of Nagasaki from one of the support planes, another unique experience. Later he wrote about that for the Times. It expressed wonderment and pride in the death-dealing device, without concern for the tens of thousands of civilians who died below or its startling radiation dangers.
Less well-known: Laurence continued his role as chief bomb cheerleader weeks after the Nagasaki bomb exploded.
To that point, U.S. officials had downplayed Japanese casualties in the two atomic cities and largely pooh-poohed Japanese "propaganda" claims on the lingering effects of radiation exposure and accounts of thousands perishing from horrid some new "disease." But Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett had snuck into Hiroshima to write the first article exposing what he called an “atomic plague.” It sound a lot like the result of now-banned chemical warfare. A U.S. general, Thomas Farrell, had toured the ruins in Hiroshima and wrongly claimed that only a handful died due to radiation effects. Groves privately called the Japanese reports “propaganda” and a “hoax,” and believed that he’d heard that perishing from radiation disease was “a rather pleasant way to die.”
On September 9, 1945, Laurence toured the Trinity test site, in New Mexico, where the United States had tested its first atomic weapon almost two months earlier, with Groves and Oppenheimer. The top-secret area finally had been opened to journalists. With Oppie, below:
Two weeks earlier, President Truman’s secretary, Charles G. Ross, had sent a memo to the War Department urging the military to recruit a group of reporters to explore the test site. "This might be a good thing to do in view of continuing propaganda from Japan," Ross wrote. Oppenheimer agreed to play a prominent role in the junket.
Laurence’s account of this visit (delayed three days until September 12 due to a censorship review) disclosed quite frankly why he and thirty other journalists had been invited: to expressly, almost under orders, to "give lie to" Japanese “propaganda” that “radiations were responsible for deaths even after" the Hiroshima attack, as he wrote. He quoted General Groves calling any deaths by radiation in Japan as “very small.” (In truth, the total was probably 20,000 or more in the two bombed cities.)
General Groves had expressly asked the reporters to assist him in this effort, and they did not disappoint him. Geiger counters showed that surface radiation, after nearly two months, had "dwindled to a minute quantity, safe for continuous human habitation," Laurence asserted. He did introduce one bit of contrary information: the reporters had been advised to wear canvas overshoes to protect against radiation burns.
But Laurence was keeping a lot to himself. Embedded with the Manhattan Project for months, he was the only reporter who knew about the fallout scare surrounding the Trinity test: scientists in jeeps chasing a radioactive cloud, Geiger counters clicking off the scale, a mule that became paralyzed. Here was the nation’s leading science reporter, severely compromised—with the aid of Groves and Oppenheimer—not only unable but disinclined to reveal all he knew about the potential hazards of the most important scientific discovery of his time. In his report he repeatedly used the word “propaganda” to describe Japan’s claims.
The press tour, in fact, had "an oddly reassuring effect," the New York Times observed in an editorial. W.L. Laurence would win another Pulitzer for his Bomb-related reporting in 1945.
Another photo of Oppenheimer from the day of the tour.
I’ve been on the Trinity radiation issue and Nolan’s failure on this for more than two weeks now, but an op-ed yesterday by Tina Cordova, co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, in The New York Times hits hard.
The area of southern New Mexico where the Trinity test occurred was not, contrary to the popular account, an uninhabited, desolate expanse of land. There were more than 13,000 New Mexicans living within a 50-mile radius. Many of those children, women, and men were not warned before or after the test. Eyewitnesses have told me they believed they were experiencing the end of the world. They didn’t reflect on the Bhagavad Gita, as Oppenheimer said he did. Many simply dropped to their knees and recited the Hail Mary in Spanish…..
“Oppenheimer” leaves out other stories, too. The Manhattan Project and the nuclear weapons industry used the promise of a better life to entice thousands of people in the Southwest into the uranium mines that supplied the Manhattan Project. The miners went to work each day without adequate safety gear, while supervisors wore it from head to toe. Miners seldom left the mines during their shifts, even to eat lunch. They drank the contaminated water inside the mines when they were allowed to take breaks.
Many of the farmers of the Pajarito Plateau in northern New Mexico, after being displaced through eminent domain so that the Los Alamos laboratory could be built, were bused up the mountain to the lab site to do the dirtiest jobs, including building the roads, the bridges, the facilities. When those were complete, many were given new jobs at the lab, including janitorial work. Their wives and other Hispanic and Native American women were enlisted as domestic workers who cleaned the houses, cooked the meals, filled the baby bottles, and changed the diapers in the remote compound while the bomb was being developed.
On this date in 1945:
—The assembly of Little Boy is completed. It is ready for use the next day. But a typhoon approaching Japan will likely prevent launching an attack. Several days might be required for weather to clear.
--Secretary of War Stimson sends semi-final draft of statement for Truman to read when first bomb used and he has to explain its use, and the entire bomb project, to the U.S. and the world. The statement would later be amended to include the name of the first city destroyed—and add that it was not a city but a "military base.
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