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The Roundtable

Remembering Hiroshima 75 Years Later - "The Beginning Or The End" By Greg Mitchell

Book cover for "The Beginning or the End"

MGM Studio Chief Louis B. Mayer called it the most important story he would ever film. ‘The Beginning or the End’ was a big budget dramatization of the Manhattan Project and the invention and use of the revolutionary new weapon.

Now published, as the world marks the 75th anniversary of the bombings, "The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood?and America?Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" is a book from award winning author Greg Mitchell, which chronicles the never before told story behind Hollywood's historic flop and the secret campaign to silence the scientists who tried to warn the world about a nuclear arms race. 

Again, the name of the book is "The Beginning or The End", and we welcome Greg Mitchell to The Roundtable this morning. Greg, thank you very much for being with us.

Happy to be here.

So what brought you to this particular subject?

Well, I've been writing about the atomic bomb and the atomic bombings since the 1980's. I was, I became editor of a magazine called "Nuclear Times" then and it kind of led me, although I've written a dozen books, I've now written three on this overall subject. So I first heard about this MGM movie, oh gee, maybe 30 years ago, and I was at the Truman library, and came across a big file there of correspondence between the White House and MGM demanding changes in the script and retake of the key scene in the movie coming directly from Truman and the White House, which was quite shocking to me, unprecedented. And so it kind of made me look at the entire production of this 1947 movie and how it started out as a warning from the scientists about the future of developing nuclear weapons and nuclear arms race, bigger and worse weapons, hydrogen bomb and so forth. And it was transformed over the course of a year, thanks to pressure from the White House and the military into a movie that eventually became very pro-bomb and very endorsing the, the attacks on Japan and so forth. So it was a interesting subject sort of untold story. And, you know, I then, kept, you know, kept researching it and over the years and finally got a chance to do a full, full book about it.

This is something that they wanted to be a big budget movie, taking a look at the Manhattan Project and dramatizing what happened. So 75 years later, we look at this film and by all accounts, it turned out to be a flop right? I mean, it was, it was bad.

Yeah. Well, it got mixed reviews actually. I think it's a little too, little too easy to say it was a complete bomb, so to speak. But yeah, it got mixed reviews. And, you know, modest box office.

So I'm interested in what the mindset was of wanting to do a film, really so close to when the event occurred.

Well, you know, it's, I mean, you- People who, maybe younger people, or people don't know the era that well, this was, was seen, I think, rightly, at the time, the invention of the atomic bomb and then using it in the war, as, as the most important event of the entire century. And people were happy that the war ended, for whatever reason. And, but terrified of the future, under, you know, a nuclear umbrella. And certainly fears about now that the US could eventually be attacked, could be the end of the world, and so on and so forth. So you can't underestimate the importance of that story. And in fact, MGM wanted to bring the story, or the movie out quicker, which would have helped at the box office. But because of these countless revisions that were ordered by the Pentagon and the White House, the movie was delayed and it was delayed. It didn't come out until more than a year and a half after the atomic bombing. So by then people were trying to turn the page more.

Let's talk a little bit about as you're doing the book about the creative team behind the movie. This is quite a gallery of people, isn't it?

Well, it was. It was ordered by Louis B. Mayer, the famed studio chief at MGM. He called it, "would be the most important movie ever made." It was a doc- It was one of the original docu-dramas, which is you know, now a longtime genre, where we have some elements of, of nonfiction but also fiction. And um, so they set out to make this movie and you know, they hired screenwriter Frank Wead, who was a well-known screenwriter, and Bob Considine, who was a well-known Hearst columnist, came up with the real story. And, interestingly, which was kind of amazing for most people to hear this, but Paramount developed a competing film. In fact, the New York Times and others loved to chronicle what they called this 'race first race for the atomic bomb movie'. And Paramount hired Ayn Rand to write their screenplay, and most people are surprised to even know she did such things. But she had written, written a couple previous screenplays, and so she was hired to write this screenplay. So I, in my research, I trace for the first time all over her outlines and her correspondence and her early scripts and so forth. And so that was a competing project and then ultimately, because uh, her, I think, because her script was kind of so wacky. Paramount gave up and sold out to MGM. So there was just the one movie that was developed but it was quite a, quite a saga and quite, you know, covered very closely in the press.

One of the things that is also fascinating here is, well you start off really with this- Talk about Donna Reed's involvement?

Yes, well, again, I don't know many people today remember Donna Reed but she first had the famous TV show in the 60s. But before that she won an Oscar for "From Here to Eternity", and before that she was in, she was Jimmy Stewart's wife in, in the most famous Christmas movie these days. But she, she was you know, a young actress then and she had happened, her high school chemistry teacher happened to send her a letter revealing that he had disappeared because he was working on the Top Secret Manhattan Project in Tennessee and he wrote a letter to her saying "the Atomic Scientists were just scared, terrified about the future development of more and bigger bombs and warning of the nuclear arms race and the begged her to get a big budget Hollywood movie made that would warn the world about the dangers of going down this path." Her husband was a Hollywood agent, he was able to sit down with MGM and that's how the whole ball got rolling. But it came about because of Donna Reed's former chemistry teacher from high school.

‘The Beginning or the End’, starred Brian Donlevy, Robert Walker, Tom Drake, Beverly Tyler, Audrey Totter and Hume Cronyn So, the, the cast came in at what point? Was, was it quickly cast?

No, they, you know, it's, it's not 100% sure what happened, because originally they were, they were suggesting in the press they might get Spencer Tracy or and, or Clark Gable. And it became lesser known actors. Now, it's possible that they, their claim was that they "didn't want to capsize the sort of documentary aspect by having these matinee idol stars." It's also possible they spent so much on special effects that they didn't have much of a budget left. So it's a little unclear. But, you know, they, you know, Hume Cronyn played Oppenheimer. And there's a there's some funny episodes in the in the book. Oppenheimer, of course is known as the father of the atomic bomb and famous for being conflicted about helping to make the bomb and, and so forth. And he was very conflicted about this movie. And, you know, one of the main subplots of the book really is this desperate attempt by MGM to get famous people they wanted to be portrayed, to sign releases, to allow that, and so some people went along easily but the especially the scientists were, you know, didn't really want to do it. They didn't want to be portrayed on the screen and they then when they started to see the script, they had problems with it, they could see what direction it was going. And you know, Oppenheimer's is one of the main characters in the book as they keep trying to get him to sign and they meet with him and he's mocking the movie and but at the same time, because he's Oppenheimer, he, he likes the attention, he likes feeding the ego. He, so ultimately, he agrees to be portrayed while continuing to mock the movie. Hume Cronyn, who played him wrote it wrote a letter to him and Hume Cronyn himself was mocking the script. So it was pretty bad and, and the other thing that was going on, again, as subplot, I guess you'd say was at the same time, all this was going on with the movie, the FBI was surveilling Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard and Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, they even tapped his phone, and I have some excerpts from transcripts, FBI transcripts, where Oppenheimer is mocking the movie in these FBI phone taps. So, so that's all going on at the same time, the scientists were suspected of being you know, pro-Communist or at least too, too far-left wing anyway. And so J. Edgar Hoover was, you know, was trying to get the goods on them. So, there's a lot going on. I mean, the book is, is, I mean, it's partly about the making of this movie and all this, the changes. It's also partly about the time and, and things like, you know, like the coming of the Cold War. And, and then of course, the decision to drop the bomb, you know, the, the movie. All the revisions are in the direction of endorsing Truman's decision and so, in the course of the book, we get the, you know, the reasoning for his decision and why it was controversial or why they felt they needed to you know, revise or put, put the narrative out there, and so in the course of the book you do get the, the heated debate, I guess you'd say over the actual use of the bomb and the aftermath and, and so forth. So I, it's, it's pretty well, well-rounded, I think.

The President, Harry Truman, played a large role in this. He, he was, you talk about- I can think of no better word than I guess, than interference. But he really got involved. He wanted there to be revisions. He wanted there to be retakes. He even wanted to say on who played him.

Yes, they, they managed to get the actor fired. Who was uh, who played him. I mean, they, I mean- Basically what happened was after, even after all these revisions, they had the first screening of the movie in Washington. And the, Truman's Press Secretary attended and was just outraged by the key scene in the movie, which leads up to Truman making his decision to use the bomb. And so the White House ordered a retake, which was very costly and very late. And they were- A script was written, and the White House went over the script, edited the script, and it was filmed by MGM word for word. So it was sort of an unprecedented, I don't know if you can call it suppression or censorship or whatever, but- So that was carried out and, and basically again, the, the point of it all was to show Truman making the decision in a very, you know, calm, protracted, you know, way and explaining all the things that we now see, and the what we call the 'Hiroshima Narrative', which was the only thing that could be done to end the war. It was- In fact, it ended the war. It saved a million American lives. The Japanese were, you know- There's no mention of, you know, Russia entering the war at the same time, there's no mention of Japan's attempts to surrender, you know, feelers that were sent out and so forth. So it boils it down to what the, what, what is the, still the Hiroshima Narrative today and, and it was important that, at least it was seen by the White House as important, to get that down, get that out to this movie audience and not allow any kind of doubts to seep in with any other evidence or facts or questions that were raised.

The final chapter of the book is called Aftermath 1947 - 2020. So what do you believe happened as a result of this film, and as the subtitle would, would suggest, that, that "how Hollywood and America learned to stop worrying and love the bomb"?

Well, it's I think it's revealing that in 75 years now there's only been three Hollywood movies on the subject. Now, yes, there's been plenty of what you might call nuclear movies, from 'Dr. Strangelove', and 'Failsafe', and 'On the Beach', and on and on. But actually taking up the making and the use of the bomb, there's only been three in 75 years and only one in the last, you know, 70 years, really. So, I mean, there's got to be a reason for that. And, you know, the book argues that the reason is that the use of the bomb against Hiroshima, although it's still endorsed by a majority, or, you know, close to a majority of Americans does strike us, it's sort of a raw nerve, I would call it it's, it's something about it bothers us, as you know, rightly, it should. You know, we killed 200,000 people, 90% of them civilians. At the same time with the media and officials continue to endorse that, and, and this is, I guess what has driven my interest in this, over many decades now, is that it, you know, it's not, you know, it's not over and done with, the US today still has 5000 nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert. We still have what's known as a first use policy, which means we, any president has the right to use nuclear weapons first, in any conflict, even if in a conventional attack, or even the threat. And even polls show that, again, close to a majority of Americans claim they would endorse a first strike on let's say, Iran or Korea, killing, you know, hundreds of thousands of people or millions even, if the US feels threatened, not, not that we've already been attacked, it's not retaliation. So now whatever you think of that policy, or whatever you even think of the use of the bomb against Japan. That is a dangerous situation, and now it is. Some people think President Trump is particularly dangerous. That's, that, that could be, that could be true also. But any president has that right. And so the exceptions to the, you know, we sort of have a saying, sort of a, "We must never use nuclear weapons," you know. But yet, you know, we did use them twice and most in the media, and a large number of the public, or in the public continue to endorse that. And so we have this exception, we have this precedent. And any president could, you know, cite that in the future, that the, you know, well, you know, "Look what happened, we, you know, we had to drop the bomb in 1945. And, you know, ended the war and, you know, maybe we have to, you know, we could use it again." So, that's why it's, to me, it's a topical issue. It's not, "Oh, here's an old movie, who cares?" "Well, we dropped the bomb in 1945. And what can we do about that now?" And so forth. To me, it's, it's an everyday topical relevant subject.

The name the book is "The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood?and America?Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb". The book is published by the New Press. Greg Mitchell, thank you very much for being with us. A great pleasure to have you on the program.

Thank you. I'm very happy to do this. Thank you very much.

Again, the name of the book, "The Beginning or the End," published by The New Press. You're listening to The Roundtable on WAMC.

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