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Susan Green

Atomic Bomb and the Hollywood Mind

(9 June 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 23, 9 June 1947, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

MGM’s film The Beginning or the End, Hollywood’s version of the development of the atomic bomb through to its murderous use at Hiroshima, is not offered only to us here and now. It is meant for posterity too. A copy of the film has been buried in the redwood forest along with a more official record, if I recall; all to be unearthed again in 2447, five hundred years hence.

The assumption is that posterity, fifteen generations removed from us, will be carrying on as we are, that there will be theaters, projection machines to throw film on screens, audiences to look at them. Perhaps so. But lots of water flows under the bridge in five hundred years. If atom war occurs, the water will be flowing backward, so to speak. For a while at least, there won’t be many bridges left for water to flow under. Who knows what kind of a comeback the survivors of atom war will make? Who knows what say 490 AAW will look like? (AAW stands for “After Atom War” and 490 arbitrarily allows ten years for same to break out.)

If the film should be shown in 2447, one thing is certain. The movie audiences won’t be bothered, as I was, by the fact that movie stars take the parts of scientists, army men’ and government officials, including President Roosevelt. Brian Donlevy and the other Hollywood actors, not known in 2447 as actors and not associated by our progeny five hundred years hence with all kinds of silly pictures, will undoubtedly be accepted as real physicists, generals and officials of the 1940s. To me, however, the presence of well-known Hollywood actors in what is supposed to be a record of actual life, put a fictional face on the whole.

The Hollywood Twist

For an audience today, I should say the film is not too impressive. After all, the newsreel has horrified us aplenty with its pictorial records of the New Mexico test of the atom bomb and of the annihilation of Hiroshima, as well as of the sequel in Nagasaki and of the more recent navy test in the Pacific. Furthermore, the story of Oak Ridge has been publicized so widely that everyone is pretty well informed about the facts. MGM’s film adds very little, except perhaps a “human interest” touch in playing up Dr. Cochrane. Dr. Cochrane is presented as the physicist who, though beset by doubts as to the morality of creating the monster of destruction, did not join the scientists Who walked out on the venture. He remained to die of radioactivity, leaving a very young wife with child. This is a bit of fiction, of course, given a Hollywood twist.

How may the audiences in 2447, if such there be, react to the film? If an atom war destroys civilization and reduces the world to ashes, the descendents of the survivors of such a cataclysm will be the ones viewing the film. Therefore, the film may reasonably bring loathing to audiences of 2447, loathing for those who in the 1940s laid the beginning for “the end” that the world suffered. On the other hand, if the peoples who inhabit the world today should succeed in preventing their governments from waging another war, 2447 will be quite different. It will mean that before the end of the twentieth century, the imperialist rulers will have been deposed; that peoples’ governments will have been established. By 2447 we could well have a fully developed socialist world. In that case atom energy will have been turned to creative uses, and audiences viewing MGM’s film would look with astonishment at this unearthed relic of a barbaric age.

All this is of course conjecture. What is not conjecture is the ideas the film embodies – for audiences today. First of all MGM seeks to justify the prostitution of science to the needs of capitalist imperialism. German scientists were working on the atom bomb for Hitler; therefore, American scientists could salve their consciences in creating the bomb for allied imperialism. In the film these men are heroes. At best they are really miserable puppets directed by the strings in the master hands of the imperialists. In the trail of imperialist competition and war, science inevitably follows in the race to create more and more deadly weapons – and not merely as a threat but for actual use. For Hiroshima and Nagasaki shall forever give the lie to the claim that the weapons for wholesale murder can be held merely as a threat. The repeated protestations, in the film that the population of Hiroshima was warned, by leaflets dropped from American planes, does not absolve from guilt either American capitalism or the scientists who serve it, which is the impression the film works hard to create.

Sweet Businessmen!

Again, the way the corporations that took part in the gigantic project are pictured in the film, brings a wry smile to the lips. These corporations all but sprout wings. Such self-sacrificing capitalists you never saw. They did not want any profits out of the development of tjie atom bomb, and they made the condition – in the film – that the scientific discoveries become public property. However, the project did cost two billion dollars; there must have been just a tiny bit of profit somewhere for private business. As to the discovery of atom energy becoming public property, that’s a laugh. The corporations that were in on the ground floor are moving heaven and earth, to remain there. What was the fight over Lilienthal about if not the behind-the-scene struggle of big corporations to control atom energy? These big-hearted corporations!

What the film truthfully portrays, however, is the nothing-can-stop-us nature of the project. With two billion dollars, a million people and three years’ time, the secret was had and the bomb built. A modern city was erected. The word “cannot” was not recognized. If copper was not available, millions of tons of silver Were obtained as a good substitute. If a certain type of steel not in manufacture was required, a new mill was put up-to make it. If more land was needed, thousands of people were evacuated. All this to bring forth a scourge on the human race. Contrast this with the dalliance on human needs. Help for worldwide famine remains in abeyance while politics rule – and mountains of potatoes are burned; people are homeless while real estate lobbies haggle over profits; cancer take? its enormous toll while funds to discover its cure lag behind public charity. If audiences viewing the film today will see this contrast, then it will not have been a total loss.

The film is called The Beginning or the End. The end is certainly forecast in the film, and rightly so. As international affairs are going, the world may indeed be reduced to ashes. The beginning, the beginning of a new era, is nowhere in sight in the film. Only at the conclusion, in a real Hollywood wind-up, is the “hopeful” note sounded. The farewell letter of the dead Dr. Cochrane to his young wife is read aloud at the foot of the Lincoln memorial. The setting and the hope of the dead man that soon the energy in a cup of water will be heating a home, etc., etc., are supposed to convey the feeling that a new era of abundance has started – as convincing as the happy endings tacked, op to most Hollywood “problem” films.

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