Filmmaker Greg Mitchell on the Government's Suppression of Scientists' Film about A-BombsHistorians in the News
tags: censorship, atomic bomb, documentary
Better late than never, right? In July of 2020 The New Press published Greg Mitchell’s The Beginning or the End, which was about a 1947 Hollywood docudrama that portrayed the development of the world’s first atomic bomb. A little more than a year later, this week provides a stellar opportunity to talk with Mitchell about his book. That’s because August 6 is the anniversary of the day when the United States detonated the world’s first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, a Japanese city with a population of aboutpeople. Three days later on August 9, 1945, an even more powerful bomb was detonated over the city of Nagasaki, which had a population of about . As acknowledged by the United States government, the number of civilian deaths in Hiroshima (immediate event + radiation sickness) was about . About died in Nagasaki. Appalled nuclear scientists reached out to Hollywood for help informing Americans about the needless deaths their atomic bombs had caused. The movie that Hollywood produced merely fanned patriotic flames and elevated nuclear madness.
The Manhattan Project was the name of the effort sited in Los Alamos, New Mexico, through which atomic bomb technology was developed. Well before the bombs were dropped, seventy scientists from the Project had become aghast at creation. They signed a petition asking asked President Truman not to drop atomic bombs on Japan. Ultimately, of course, Truman disregarded their plea.
In 1945, shorty after the end of the war, some of those same scientists reached out to Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s Louis B. Mayer in hopes that we would make a movie that depicted the horrors that their weaponry had produced and that warned the world about the dangers of a nuclear arms race. They offered to serve as advisors to the movie.
Mayer thrilled at the idea. He imagined a potential blockbuster. The scientists were overjoyed.
Then they weren’t.
Because the scientists who would advise the movie had top-secret information, Mayer gave Truman and General Leslie R. Groves (who led the Manhattan Project for the Army) script approval rights. Unfortunately, Groves’ and Truman’s vanity took over. They didn’t just edit sensitive information out of the script. They used the opportunity of concern about national security to put the script through meat grinders designed to make them sound good and look handsome. Meanwhile, MGM scriptwriters added romances and subplots. What eventually emerged was a hackneyed, over-hyped docudrama that glorified the president and the military and that created astonishing myths about why the use of the bombs had been the right choice for the United States of America and the world.
Author Greg Mitchell is a journalist who knows military history and United States politics well. He is the author of The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill; Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady (a New York Times Notable Book); The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and The Birth of Media Politics (winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize). He also co-authored with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America. Mitchell is the former editor of Nuclear Times magazine and the writer/director of the 2021 documentary,.
For Forbes.com, I talked to Mitchell about his nonfiction examination of the scientists’ motivations in reaching out to Hollywood and about Hollywood’s distortion of their intentions and message. Mitchell’s book is called The Beginning or The End — and that, by the way, is also the title of the MGM movie that so sorely disappointed the scientists involved. I have edited the conversation for length and clarity