The following is an exclusive excerpt from Greg Mitchell’s book The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, published this week.
In a historic coup, the MGM studio fixer in Washington, Carter Barron, managed to secure a November 19, 1945, meeting for producer Sam Marx and talent agent Tony Owen with President Harry S. Truman at the White House, on a strictly off-the-record basis. Their goal was to secure the president’s approval for the first movie drama on the creation and use of the atomic bomb, MGM’s The Beginning or the End. It was little more than two months after Truman had ordered the new weapon deployed against two Japanese cities. The MGM movie was inspired by urgent warnings from the atomic scientists against building more powerful weapons, but Hollywood was now in the process of turning over creative control to Washington–to the White House and to the Pentagon.
Dr. Edward Tompkins, whose letter to actress Donna Reed led to the MGM project, had left Marx and Owen to return to the Manhattan Project site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This surely did not bother the president. Truman’s recent confrontation in the Oval Office with one of the most prominent atomic scientists had left him with nothing but bitterness.
Three weeks earlier he had met the eminent Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had steered creation of the new weapon at Los Alamos, for the first time. After the usual pleasantries between the former haberdasher and the world famous physicist, Truman asked Oppenheimer to guess when the Soviets would develop their own bomb. Oppenheimer, who privately felt it would not take long, claimed he did not know. Truman knew better, predicting: “Never!” Truman also seemed to confirm Oppenheimer’s worst fear, that the U.S. intended to bully the Soviets with their new weapon instead of working for detente and arms control.
The usually confident Oppenheimer, far out of his element, grew nervous, reflective, finally muttering, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” The president, according to his own story, replied, “The blood is on my hands—I ordered using the damn thing—let me worry about that.” Other accounts would vary with some claiming the president mocked his visitor by offering him a handkerchief. (In Oppenheimer’s version, Truman simply advised him that any blood could easily be washed off.) Truman would later instruct Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again. He didn’t set that bomb off, I did. This kind of sniveling makes me sick.” At another point Truman referred to Oppenheimer as that “cry-baby scientist.”
Marx and Owen were no doubt a bit on edge themselves, striding into the White House, but the casual Truman soon allayed their fears. The sit-down was supposed to last fifteen minutes; it stretched to fifty. Marx was impressed with Truman’s affability, calmness, and intelligence, as he filled holes in the atomic narrative the MGM producer had pieced together from others. Truman’s manner reminded him of an unheralded tennis player who finally gets his big chance at Wimbledon and then plays way over his head. Truman’s only failing was insisting on telling bad jokes.
Some of Truman’s bomb-related anecdotes appeared tailor-made for a movie, however. There was that time, or example, when he was a U.S. Senator on a committee investigating mysterious government expenditures. This took him to the gates of Oak Ridge where millions of federal dollars were being poured into some kind of mysterious war project. When he was barred from entering the gates, he called President Roosevelt himself and demanded an answer. Roosevelt advised him to forget about this “very special place” for now. When Truman became his vice president, FDR still did not inform him about the bomb project, and died in April 1945 before scheduling that talk.
Marx had already started formulating a scenario for his movie, which he had not yet shared with the scientists but was happy to sketch for the president. It would cover every phase of the bomb’s conception and development and eventual use against Japan. Truman responded enthusiastically, going so far as to verbally grant permission for the studio to proceed. As they were exiting, Truman stopped them at the door and asked if they had titled their movie yet, and was told no. “Make your film, gentlemen,” he urged, “and tell the world that in handling the atomic bomb we are either at the beginning or the end.”
“Mr. President,” Marx replied, “you have just chosen the title of our film.”
Two days later, MGM’s Barron wrote Truman that before Marx and Owen returned to L.A. they wanted him to know that his “gracious” chat at the White House “was the supreme inspirational climax of the widespread research activities they have been involved in.” After ticking off all the key people they had met, with special attention to General Groves and Archbishop Francis Spellman (who had blessed the flight crew before they dropped the bomb over Hiroshima), Barron declared, “We are happy to advise you that they all believed the motion picture industry could do a great service to civilization at large if the right kind of film could be made….although always within the bounds of government approval,” thereby granting nearly unprecedented (in peacetime) official control.
But Barron had to make sure that Truman would continue to give his blessing to the film–and also allow the studio to portray him making some of his key decisions. To this end he stressed that their movie would not only perform “a great service” but potentially reach a very wide audience. “We are, of course, anxious to put entertainment into this film, rather than concentrate on its document phases, for it is our belief that only for solid entertainment does the world sit in theaters and listen. They go to school for education and to churches for sermons. We want them to come into theatres and to be entertained.”
Yet MGM would always picture the president “with dignity,” even in scenes of “drama and excitement.”
In his reply, Truman confirmed that it was “a pleasure to discuss the Atomic energy program” with his visitors. Anxious to exploit Truman’s endorsement, Barron wrote the Pentagon publicity chief to inform him that the studio had now titled the movie The Beginning or the End and that it had been “suggested by the President during our conversation with him.”
And that lively anecdote offered by Truman to his visitors about getting turned away at the gates of a secret Manhattan Project site? He would later order it excised from the movie, no doubt fearing that many viewers would consider him a “snoop” who might have exposed the secret project to the world. This wouldn’t be the only change Truman later demanded and got, including a costly re-take of the key scene in the movie—and the firing of the actor playing him.