The Beginning of the End
The Beginning or the End may have been the beginning of the end.
If you imagine humanity existing a century from now in a society that includes history classes, you can expect, barring major changes, that U.S. text books will describe this as a time of peace, perhaps noting Trump’s failure to assist the Venezuelans with greater humanitarian force, and certainly devoting a few sentences to Trump’s enslavement to Vladimir Putin.
There will have been researchers and professors, who will have gathered up every scrap of information, every document, video clip, deathbed confession, and secret surveillance. They will have established beyond a shadow of a doubt that Donald J. Trump was a greedy fascistic imbecile guilty of an extravaganza of crimes and abuses who was never remotely in the service of Putin, who in fact routinely enraged Putin with sanctions, economic competition, the shredding of treaties and agreements, the expulsion of personnel, the bombing of Russian troops, and endless aggressive militarism and NATO expansion. And that knowledge simply will not matter.
This is how U.S. history works. In the absence of popular movements strong enough to rip down marble idols and generate public shame, U.S. history lessons omit everything they can and carefully mold anything so large that it cannot be avoided. A classic example of the latter is the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The latter city is largely avoided by focusing on the former, which cannot be avoided, so is lied about.
Why do U.S. history teachers in U.S. elementary schools today — in 2020! — tell children that nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan to save lives — or rather “the bomb” (singular) to avoid mentioning Nagasaki? Shortly after the events, the U.S. government set up a formal commission to study the question which concluded just the opposite, agreeing with the U.S. ambassador to Japan at the time, many of the scientists behind the bombs who had tried to prevent their use, and many of the top officials in the U.S. military at the time, who all believed that the war was already over, that Japan would have already surrendered if allowed to keep its emperor and would have soon surrendered even unconditionally with no nukes, and even with no U.S. invasion and no Soviet invasion. The Soviet invasion was planned prior to the bombs, not decided by them. The U.S. had no plans to invade for months, and no plans on the scale to risk the numbers of lives that teachers will tell you were saved. Lives, by the way, are not the unique property of U.S. soldiers. Japanese people also had lives.
Researchers and professors have poured over the evidence for 75 years. They know that Truman knew that the war was over, that Japan wanted to surrender, that the Soviet Union was about to invade. They know the bombing of Nagasaki was moved up from August 11th to August 9th out of fear that Japan might surrender before it happened. They’ve documented all the resistance to the bombing within the U.S. military and government and scientific community, as well as the motivation to test bombs that so much work and expense had gone into, as well as the motivation to intimidate the world and in particular the Soviets, as well as the open and shameless placing of zero value on Japanese lives.
But did they have to document all of this? Was any such work needed? Didn’t Truman tell the public immediately after the crime that the motivation was revenge against Japan? Didn’t he say that same thing until he died? Didn’t he openly admit to a vicious, racist, hatred for the Japanese that was common cultural currency? Didn’t people know very quickly that his claim to have bombed a military base rather than a city was a bold-faced lie? Didn’t people read John Hersey’s account of Hiroshima survivors and realize that there wasn’t anything worse than the bombings that the bombings could have even theoretically prevented? Wasn’t the accurate conclusion available immediately, rather than requiring decades of research? But wasn’t it simply unacceptable, unwanted, out-of-step with the groupthink — just like pointing out that the odious Donald Trump doesn’t work for Russia?
But how was the groupthink generated? Who helped people into the desirable myths? Well, here, noted author Greg Mitchell has just done us a huge favor with the story of how a grand Hollywood production was produced. The Beginning or the End was released by MGM in 1947 and heavily promoted as the next big blockbuster. It bombed. It lost money. The ideal for a member of the U.S. public was clearly not to watch a really bad and boring pseudo-documentary with actors playing the scientists and warmongers who had produced a new form of mass-murder. The ideal action was to avoid any thought of the matter. But those who couldn’t avoid it were handed a glossy big-screen myth. You can watch it online for free, and as Mark Twain would have said, it’s worth every penny.
The film opens with what Mitchell describes as giving credit to the UK and Canada for their roles in producing the death machine — supposedly a cynical if falsified means of appealing to a larger market for the movie. But it really appears to be more blaming than crediting. This is an effort to spread the guilt. The film jumps quickly to blaming Germany for an imminent threat of nuking the world if the United States didn’t nuke it first. (You can actually have difficulty today getting young people to believe that Germany had surrendered prior to Hiroshima.) Then an actor doing a bad Einstein impression blames a long list of scientists from all over the world. Then some other personage suggests that the good guys are losing the war and had better hurry up and invent new bombs if they want to win it.
Over and over we’re told that bigger bombs will bring peace and end war. An FDR impersonator even puts on a Woodrow Wilson act, claiming the atom bomb might end all war (something a surprising number of people actually believe it did, even in the face of the past 75 years of wars). We’re told and shown completely fabricated nonsense, such as that the U.S. dropped leaflets on Hiroshima to warn people (and for 10 days — “That’s 10 days more warning than they gave us at Pearl Harbor,” a character pronounces) and that the Japanese fired at the plane as it approached its target. In reality, the U.S. never dropped a single leaflet on Hiroshima but did — in good SNAFU fashion — drop tons of leaflets on Nagasaki the day after Nagasaki was bombed. Also, the hero of the movie dies from an accident while fiddling with the bomb to get it ready for use — a brave sacrifice for humanity on behalf of the war’s real victims — the members of the U.S. military. The film also claims that the people bombed “will never know what hit them,” despite the film makers knowing of the agonizing suffering of those who died slowly.
One communication from the movie makers to their consultant and editor, General Leslie Groves, included these words: “Any implication tending to make the Army look foolish will be eliminated.” Wow, that must have been a lot of clips littering the floor!
The main reason the movie is deadly boring, I think, is not that movies have sped up their action sequences every year for 75 years, added color, and devised all kinds of shock devices, but simply that the reason anybody should think the bomb that the characters all talk about for the entire length of the film is a big deal is left out. We don’t see what it does, not from the ground, only from the sky.
Mitchell’s book, also called The Beginning or the End, is a bit like watching sausage made, but also a bit like reading the transcripts from a committee that cobbled together some section of the Bible. This is an origin myth of the Global Policeman in the making. And it’s ugly. It’s even tragic. The very idea for the film came from a scientist who wanted people to understand the danger, not glorify the destruction. This scientist wrote to Donna Reed, that nice lady who gets married to Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, and she got the ball rolling. Then it rolled around an oozing wound for 15 months and voila, a cinematic turd emerged.
There was never any question of telling the truth. It’s a movie. You make stuff up. And you make it all up in one direction. The script for this movie contained at times all sorts of nonsense that didn’t last, such as the Nazis giving the Japanese the atomic bomb — and the Japanese setting up a laboratory for Nazi scientists, exactly as back in the real world at this very time the U.S. military was setting up laboratories for Nazi scientists (not to mention making use of Japanese scientists). None of this is more ludicrous than The Man in the High Castle, to take a recent example of 75 years of this stuff, but this was early, this was seminal. The movie makers gave final editing control to the U.S. military and the White House, and not to the scientists who had qualms. Many good bits were temporarily in the script, but excised for the sake of proper propaganda.
If it’s any consolation, it could have been worse. Paramount was in a nuclear arms film race with MGM and employed Ayn Rand to draft the hyper-patriotic-capitalist script. Her closing line was “Man can harness the universe — but nobody can harness man.” Fortunately for all of us, it didn’t work out. Unfortunately, despite Hersey’s A Bell for Adano being a better movie than The Beginning or the End, his best-selling book on Hiroshima didn’t appeal to any studios as a good story for movie production. Unfortunately, Dr. Strangelove would not appear until 1964, by which point many were ready to question future use of “the bomb” but not past use, making all questioning of future use rather weak. This relationship to nuclear weapons parallels that to wars in general. The U.S. public can question all future wars, and even those wars it’s heard of from the past 75 years, but not World War II, rendering all questioning of future wars weak. In fact, recent polling finds horrific willingness to support future nuclear war by the U.S. public.
At the time The Beginning or the End was being scripted and filmed, the U.S. government was seizing and hiding away every scrap it could find of actual photographic or filmed documentation of the bomb sites. Henry Stimson was having his Colin Powell moment, being pushed forward to publicly make the case in writing for having dropped the bombs. More bombs were rapidly being built and developed, and whole populations evicted from their island homes, lied to, and used as props for newsreels in which they are depicted as happy participants in their destruction.
Mitchell writes that one reason Hollywood deferred to the military was in order to use its airplanes, etc., in the production, as well as in order to use the real names of characters in the story. I find it very hard to believe these factors were terribly important. With the unlimited budget it was dumping into this thing — including paying the people it was giving veto power to — MGM could have created its own quite unimpressive props and its own mushroom cloud. It’s fun to fantasize that someday those who oppose mass murder could take over something like the unique building of the U.S. Institute of “Peace” and require that Hollywood meet peace movement standards in order to film there. But of course the peace movement has no money, Hollywood has no interest, and any building can be simulated elsewhere. Hiroshima could have been simulated elsewhere, and in the movie wasn’t shown at all. The main problem here was ideology and habits of subservience.
There were reasons to fear the government. The FBI was spying on people involved, including wishy-washy scientists like Oppenheimer who kept consulting on the film, lamenting its awfulness, but never daring to oppose it. A new Red Scare was just kicking in. The powerful were exercising their power through the usual variety of means.
As the production of The Beginning or the End winds toward completion, it builds the same momentum the bomb did. After so many scripts and bills and revisions and work and ass-kissings, there was no way the studio wouldn’t release it. When it finally came out, the audiences were small and the reviews mixed. The New York daily PM found the film “reassuring,” which I think was the basic point. Mission accomplished.
Mitchell’s conclusion is that the bomb was a “first strike,” and that the United States should abolish its first-strike policy. But of course it was no such thing. It was an only strike, a first-and-last strike. There were no other nuclear bombs that would come flying back as a “second strike.” Now, today, the danger is of accidental as much as intentional use, whether first, second, or third, and the need is to at long last join the bulk of the world’s governments that are seeking to abolish nuclear weapons all together.