The stories that ‘Oppenheimer’ didn’t tell

The attack on Oppenheimer loomed as a warning to scientists that their participation in the political process was conditional on not rocking the boat too hard. ... Even in recent years, experts have been forced out of government jobs for supporting the scientific consensus on climate change.



March 21, 2024 - 3:06 PM

Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in the film “Oppenheimer.” The award-winning movie, however, failed to address the “Downwinders,” those harmed by the hundreds of nuclear tests conducted by the U.S. government as well as the government’s character assassination of Oppenheimer for advocating for nuclear disarmament. (Universal Pictures/TNS)

Last summer, the film “Oppenheimer” swept the box office and helped reignite public discourse about nuclear weapons and the ever-present threat of their use. 

It’s perhaps inevitable that the movie, which dramatizes the United States’ development of the atomic bomb, still provides only a partial understanding of the complex reality of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life and legacy. With the movie dominating the awards season, the audience deserves to know about two crucial stories that the movie left out.

A central storyline of the film is Oppenheimer’s loss of his security clearance and eventual excommunication from the halls of power — a result of the Red Scare and his advocacy of nuclear disarmament policies that people in power did not want to hear. 

In the movie, that storyline ends with a flash-forward to Oppenheimer receiving a presidential award in old age. But, even at that time, Oppenheimer was still officially regarded as having been blameworthy. The decision by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) that cost him his security clearance was still on the books.

To some, this was merely an unfortunate historical footnote, one of many wrongs committed during that era. But for a persistent few of us, led by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the attack on Oppenheimer’s character to silence him mattered. We saw that the decision loomed as a warning to scientists that their participation in the political process was conditional on not rocking the boat too hard. 

It was not an abstract concept either, as even in recent years, experts have been forced out of government jobs for supporting the scientific consensus on climate change.

So, we joined with others and urged administration after administration to overturn the AEC’s decision. Finally, in December 2022, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and the Department of Energy vacated the decision against Oppenheimer, righting a historical wrong.

It would have been a welcome addition to see this mentioned at the end of the movie. It would remind viewers that it is never too late to address historical injustices. That lesson is important now in so many sectors of our society, including the history of the Manhattan Project. If Oppenheimer’s security clearance story was not fully told in the film, the harrowing story of another group of nuclear victims was completely left out. They are still awaiting justice today.

“Oppenheimer” makes a centerpiece of the Trinity test, the world’s first nuclear explosion. But the viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the scientists in the film were its only witnesses. Just off screen, there were many other witnesses.

Communities surrounding the Trinity testing site were rural, low-income and largely Hispanic and Indigenous. Like the scientists, some saw a flash and heard the explosion, others saw the mushroom cloud, and many remembered black rain in the following days as radioactive dust and debris that had been carried up into the atmosphere by the explosion fell back down. Under the cloud of wartime secrecy, it would be years before anyone knew that they had unwittingly received the first doses of weapons-grade atomic radiation, amplified by the water they drank and the food they ate long after the test was over. In the years to come, that distinction would manifest in abnormally high rates of cancer, birth defects and other medical conditions — many of these passed from generation to generation.

This community would be called “Downwinders” for living “downwind” of Trinity, and they would later be joined by other Downwinders across many states harmed by hundreds of nuclear tests carried out at the Nevada test site. Their search for justice is also a story of persistence. It was not until 1990 that these groups were recognized by the federal government and given limited compensation for what they suffered without their knowledge or consent. But even that was only a first step, with many heavily affected groups left out — including victims of the New Mexico Trinity test.

The need to right these historical wrongs carries its own importance today. It would be a powerful reminder that the government should not harm its own citizens under the banner of national security or shroud its mistakes in secrecy. As important, compensation would make an immediate difference. Downwinders and their families are still suffering from the health effects of nuclear testing, and this assistance would be a lifeline. Congress must act urgently now to expand and extend the program before it expires this July.

The persistent battle to compensate the Downwinders and the long battle over Oppenheimer’s security clearance are examples of the ongoing search for justice in our nuclear history that continues to demand answers today.

“Oppenheimer” is the latest welcome step in recounting that history. There are still wrongs that can and should be righted and lessons to be learned. And as we enter a new era of nuclear danger, those are stories worth telling, and those are injustices worth addressing.

About the authors: Rachel Bronson is president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Tim Rieser was a senior aide to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy. The fight over J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance was among the policy initiatives Rieser handled on the senator’s behalf.