The 1989 movie, Fat Man and Little Boy, provides useful insights into the real-life workings of bureaucracies.
In it, the brilliant and ambitious physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Dwight Schultz) comes–too late–to realize he’s made a deal with the devil.
The same proved true for the J. Robert Oppenhiemer of history.
Paul Newman as General Leslie Groves and Dwight Schultz as J. Robert Oppenheimer
Hired by Army General Leslie Groves (played by Paul Newman) to ramrod construction of an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer has no qualms about using it against Nazi Germany.
It’s believed, after all, that German scientists are furiously pursuing work on such a weapon.
The full horror of the extermination camps has not yet been revealed. But “Oppie” and many other Jewish scientists working on the Manhattan Project can easily imagine the fate of Jews trapped within the borders of the Third Reich.
Then something unforeseen happens. On May 8, 1945, the Third Reich collapses and signs unconditional surrender terms.
Almost at the same time, the U.S. military learns that although German physicists had tried to make an atomic bomb, they never even got close to producing one.
So Oppenheimer finds himself still working to build the most devastating weapon in history–but now lacking the enemy he had originally signed on to destroy.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Government has invested nearly $2 billion in the Manhattan Project–at a time when $2 billion truly meant the equivalent of $1 trillion today. Is all that money to go for nothing?
What to do?
Oppenheimer doesn’t have to make that decision. It’s made for him—by Groves, by Groves’ superiors in the Army, and ultimately by the new President, Harry S. Truman.
The bomb will be used, after all. It will just be turned against the Japanese, who are even more hated by most Americans than the Germans. It doesn’t matter that:
- The Japanese lack the technological skill of the Germans to produce an atomic bomb.
- They are rapidly being pushed across the Pacific to their home islands.
- American bombers are incinerating Japanese cities at wil.
- The Japanese are desperately trying to find a way to surrender without losing face.
What matters is that Pearl Harbor is still fresh in the minds of Americans generally and of the American military in particular.
And that now that the Japanese are being pushed back into their home islands, they are fighting ever more fanatically to hold off certain defeat.
General Douglas MacArthur, who is scheduled to command the invasion of Japan, has estimated a million American casualties if this goes forward.
Oppenheimer, who has taught physics at the University of California at Berkeley, now finds himself being taught a lesson: That, once set in motion, bureaucracies–like objects–continue to move forward unless something intervenes to stop them.
And, in this case, there is no one willing to say: Stop.
So, on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb in history is detonated at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Atomic bomb test at Los Alamos: July 16, 1945
Then, on August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber drops “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. An estimated 80,000 people die instantly.
By the end of the year, injury and radiation bring total casualties to 90,000-140,000.
On August 9, it’s the turn of Nagasaki. Casualty estimates for the dropping of “Fat Man” range from 40,000 to 73,884, with another 74,909 injured, and another several hundred thousand diseased and dying due to fallout and other illness caused by radiation.
For Oppenheimer, the three years he has devoted to creating an atomic bomb will prove the pivotal event of his life. He will be praised and damned as an “American Prometheus,” who brought atomic fire to man.
Countless Americans–especially those who would have been ordered to invade Japan–will revere him as the man who brought the war to a quick end.
And countless Americans–and non-Americans–will condemn him as a man whose arrogance and ambition led him to arm mankind with the means of its own destruction.
Witnessing the first successful atomic explosion, Oppenheimer had been stunned by the sheer magnitude of destructiveness he had helped unleash.
Quoting the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad Gita, he murmured: “Now I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.”
Faced with the massive toll of lives taken by the device he had created, Oppenheimer became convinced that the only hope for humanity lay in abolishing nuclear weapons.
He vigorously opposed the creation of a “super” hydrogen bomb. His advice was overruled, however, and construction of this went forward at the same pace that Oppenheimer had once driven others to create the atomic bomb.
The first test of this even more terrifying weapon occurred on November 1, 1952.
By 1953, just as Oppenheimer had predicted, the Soviet Union had launched its own H-bomb test.
In a famous meeting with President Truman, Oppenheimer reportedly said, “Mr. President, I have blood on my hands.”
Truman later claimed that he had offered Oppenheimer a handkerchief, saying, “Here, this will wash it off.”
During the hysteria of the Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts, Oppenheimer found himself accused of being a Communist traitor. In 1954, he was stripped of his government security clearance.
Unable to prevent the military bureaucracy from moving relentlessly to use the atomic bomb, he could not halt the political bureaucracy from its own rush into cowardice and the wrecking of others’ lives.