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Oppenheimer and the birth of the nuclear-industrial complex

The new film leaves out one of the most important reasons for the continued existence of nukes.

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few months, you’re undoubtedly aware that award-winning director Christopher Nolan has released a new film about Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb” for leading the group of scientists who created that deadly weapon as part of America’s World War II-era Manhattan Project. The film has earned widespread attention, with large numbers of people participating in what’s already become known as “Barbieheimer” by seeing Greta Gerwig’s hit film Barbie and Nolan’s three-hour-long Oppenheimer on the same day.

Nolan’s film is a distinctive pop cultural phenomenon because it deals with the American use of nuclear weapons, a genuine rarity since ABC’s 1983 airing of The Day After about the consequences of nuclear war. (An earlier exception was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, his satirical portrayal of the insanity of the Cold War nuclear arms race.)

The film is based on American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 biography of Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Nolan made it in part to break through the shield of antiseptic rhetoric, bloodless philosophizing, and public complacency that has allowed such world-ending weaponry to persist so long after Trinity, the first nuclear bomb test, was conducted in the New Mexico desert 78 years ago this month.

Nolan’s impetus was rooted in his early exposure to the nuclear disarmament movement in Europe. As he said recently:

“It’s something that’s been on my radar for a number of years. I was a teenager in the ‘80s, the early ‘80s in England. It was the peak of CND, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Greenham Common [protest]; the threat of nuclear war was when I was 12, 13, 14 — it was the biggest fear we all had. I think I first encountered Oppenheimer in… Sting’s song about the Russians that came out then and talks about Oppenheimer’s ‘deadly toys.’”

A feature film on the genesis of nuclear weapons may not strike you as an obvious candidate for box-office blockbuster status. As Nolan’s teenage son said when his father told him he was thinking about making such a film, “Well, nobody really worries about nuclear weapons anymore. Are people going to be interested in that?” Nolan responded that, given what’s at stake, he worries about complacency and even denial when it comes to the global risks posed by the nuclear arsenals on this planet. “You’re normalizing killing tens of thousands of people. You’re creating moral equivalences, false equivalences with other types of conflict… [and so] accepting, normalizing… the danger.”

These days, unfortunately, you’re talking about anything but just tens of thousands of people dying in a nuclear face-off. A 2022 report by Ira Helfand and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War estimated that a “limited” nuclear war between India and Pakistan that used roughly 3% of the world’s 12,000-plus nuclear warheads would kill “hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions” of us. A full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia, the study suggests, could kill up to five (yes, five!) billion people within two years, essentially ending life as we know it on this planet in a “nuclear winter.”

Obviously, all too many of us don’t grasp the stakes involved in a nuclear conflict, thanks in part to “psychic numbing,” a concept regularly invoked by Robert Jay Lifton, author of Hiroshima in America: A History of Denial (co-authored with Greg Mitchell), among many other books. Lifton describes psychic numbing as “a diminished capacity or inclination to feel” prompted by “the completely unprecedented dimension of this revolution in technological destructiveness.”

Given the Nolan film’s focus on Oppenheimer’s story, some crucial issues related to the world’s nuclear dilemma are either dealt with only briefly or omitted altogether.

The staggering devastation caused by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is suggested only indirectly without any striking visual evidence of the devastating human consequences of the use of those two weapons. Also largely ignored are the critical voices who then argued that there was no need to drop a bomb, no less two of them, on a Japan most of whose cities had already been devastated by U.S. fire-bombing to end the war. General (and later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote that when he was told by Secretary of War Henry Stimson of the plan to drop atomic bombs on populated areas in Japan, “I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary.”

The film also fails to address the health impacts of the research, testing, and production of such weaponry, which to this day is still causing disease and death, even without another nuclear weapon ever being used in war. Victims of nuclear weapons development include people who were impacted by the fallout from U.S. nuclear testing in the Western United States and the Marshall Islands in the Western Pacific, uranium miners on Navajo lands, and many others. Speaking of the first nuclear test in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Tina Cordova of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, which represents that state’s residents who suffered widespread cancers and high rates of infant mortality caused by radiation from that explosion, said “It’s an inconvenient truth… People just don’t want to reflect on the fact that American citizens were bombed at Trinity.”

Another crucially important issue has received almost no attention. Neither the film nor the discussion sparked by it has explored one of the most important reasons for the continued existence of nuclear weapons — the profits it yields the participants in America’s massive nuclear-industrial complex.

Once Oppenheimer and other concerned scientists and policymakers failed to convince the Truman administration to simply close Los Alamos and place nuclear weapons and the materials needed to develop them under international control — the only way, as they saw it, to head off a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union — the drive to expand the nuclear weapons complex was on. Research and production of nuclear warheads and nuclear-armed bombers, missiles, and submarines quickly became a big business, whose beneficiaries have worked doggedly to limit any efforts at the reduction or elimination of nuclear arms.

The Manhattan Project and the Birth of the Nuclear-Industrial Complex

The Manhattan Project Oppenheimer directed was one of the largest public works efforts ever undertaken in American history. Though the Oppenheimer film focuses on Los Alamos, it quickly came to include far-flung facilities across the United States. At its peak, the project would employ 130,000 workers — as many as in the entire U.S. auto industry at the time.

According to nuclear expert Stephen Schwartz, author of Atomic Audit, the seminal work on the financing of U.S. nuclear weapons programs, through the end of 1945 the Manhattan Project cost nearly $38 billion in today’s dollars, while helping spawn an enterprise that has since cost taxpayers an almost unimaginable $12 trillion for nuclear weapons and related programs. And the costs never end. The Nobel prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) reports that the U.S. spent $43.7 billion on nuclear weapons last year alone, and a new Congressional Budget Office report suggests that another $756 billion will go into those deadly armaments in the next decade.

Private contractors now run the nuclear warhead complex and build nuclear delivery vehicles. They range from Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Lockheed Martin to lesser-known firms like BWX Technologies and Jacobs Engineering, all of which split billions of dollars in contracts from the Pentagon (for the production of nuclear delivery vehicles) and the Department of Energy (for nuclear warheads). To keep the gravy train running — ideally, in perpetuity — those contractors also spend millions lobbying decision-makers. Even universities have gotten into the act. Both the University of California and Texas A&M are part of the consortium that runs the Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory.

The American warhead complex is a vast enterprise with major facilities in California, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. And nuclear-armed submarinesbombers, and missiles are produced or based in California, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, North Dakota, Montana, Virginia, Washington state, and Wyoming. Add in nuclear subcontractors and most states host at least some nuclear-weapons-related activities.

And such beneficiaries of the nuclear weapons industry are far from silent when it comes to debating the future of nuclear spending and policy-making.

Profiteers of Armageddon: The Nuclear Weapons Lobby

The institutions and companies that build nuclear bombs, missiles, aircraft, and submarines, along with their allies in Congress, have played a disproportionate role in shaping U.S. nuclear policy and spending. They have typically opposed the U.S. ratification of a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty; put strict limits on the ability of Congress to reduce either funding for or the deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); and pushed for weaponry like a proposed nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile that even the Pentagon hasn’t requested, while funding think tanks that promote an ever more robust nuclear weapons force.

A case in point is the Senate ICBM Coalition (dubbed part of the “Dr. Strangelove Caucus” by Arms Control Association Director Daryl Kimball and other critics of nuclear arms). The ICBM Coalition consists of senators from states with major ICBM bases or ICBM research, maintenance, and production sites: Montana, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The sole Democrat in the group, Jon Tester (D-MT), is the chair of the powerful appropriations subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he can keep an eye on ICBM spending and advocate for it as needed.

The Senate ICBM Coalition is responsible for numerous measures aimed at protecting both the funding and deployment of such deadly missiles. According to former Secretary of Defense William Perry, they are among “the most dangerous weapons we have” because a president, if warned of a possible nuclear attack on this country, would have just minutes to decide to launch them, risking a nuclear conflict based on a false alarm. That Coalition’s efforts are supplemented by persistent lobbying from a series of local coalitions of business and political leaders in those ICBM states. Most of them work closely with Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the new ICBM, dubbed the Sentinel and expected to cost at least $264 billion to develop, build, and maintain over its life span that is expected to exceed 60 years.

Of course, Northrop Grumman and its 12 major ICBM subcontractors have been busy pushing the Sentinel as well. They spend tens of millions of dollars on campaign contributions and lobbying annually, while employing former members of the government’s nuclear establishment to make their case to Congress and the executive branch. And those are hardly the only organizations or networks devoted to sustaining the nuclear arms race. You would have to include the Air Force Association and the obscurely named Submarine Industrial Base Council, among others.

The biggest point of leverage the nuclear weapons industry and the arms sector more broadly have over Congress is jobs. How strange then that the arms industry has generated diminishing job returns since the end of the Cold War. According to the National Defense Industrial Association, direct employment in the weapons industry has dropped from 3.2 million in the mid-1980s to about 1.1 million today.

Even a relatively small slice of the Pentagon and Department of Energy nuclear budgets could create many more jobs if invested in green energy, sustainable infrastructure, education, or public health – anywhere from 9% to 250% more jobs, depending on the amount spent. Given that the climate crisis is already well underway, such a shift would not only make this country more prosperous but the world safer by slowing the pace of climate-driven catastrophes and offering at least some protection against its worst manifestations.

A New Nuclear Reckoning?

Count on one thing: by itself, a movie focused on the origin of nuclear weapons, no matter how powerful, won’t force a new reckoning with the costs and consequences of America’s continued addiction to them. But a wide variety of peace, arms-control, health, and public-policy-focused groups are already building on the attention garnered by the film to engage in a public education campaign aimed at reviving a movement to control and eventually eliminate the nuclear danger.

Past experience — from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament that helped persuade Christopher Nolan to make Oppenheimer to the “Ban the Bomb” and Nuclear Freeze campaigns that stopped above-ground nuclear testing and helped turn President Ronald Reagan around on the nuclear issue — suggests that, given concerted public pressure, progress can be made on reining in the nuclear threat. The public education effort surrounding the Oppenheimer film is being taken up by groups like The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Council for a Livable World that were founded, at least in part, by Manhattan Project scientists who devoted their lives to trying to roll back the nuclear arms race; professional groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Physicians for Social Responsibility; anti-war groups like Peace Action and Win Without War; the Nobel Peace prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons; nuclear policy groups like Global Zero and the Arms Control Association; advocates for Marshall Islanders, “downwinders,” and other victims of the nuclear complex; and faith-based groups like the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The Native Americanled organization Tewa Women United has even created a website, “Oppenheimer — and the Other Side of the Story,” that focuses on “the Indigenous and land-based peoples who were displaced from our homelands, the poisoning and contamination of sacred lands and waters that continues to this day, and the ongoing devastating impact of nuclear colonization on our lives and livelihoods.”

On the global level, the 2021 entry into force of a nuclear ban treaty — officially known as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — is a sign of hope, even if the nuclear weapons states have yet to join. The very existence of such a treaty does at least help delegitimize nuclear weaponry. It has even prompted dozens of major financial institutions to stop investing in the nuclear weapons industry, under pressure from campaigns like Don’t Bank on the Bomb.

In truth, the situation couldn’t be simpler: we need to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us. Hopefully, Oppenheimer will help prepare the ground for progress in that all too essential undertaking, beginning with a frank discussion of what’s now at stake.

This piece has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.

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