Oppenheimer is a great movie about the wrong guy

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The fact that Robert Oppenheimer suffered because of his role in creating the atomic bomb is not interesting. Was he supposed to blow the whistle for action? Harry Truman, wielding the “tool,” is the most dramatic figure, precisely because he made what may be the most game-changing executive decision in history since Pontius Pilate without much outside concern.

Christopher Nolan’s biopic of Oppenheimer for the 33rd President of the United States offers just one scene, in which he rambles around as a provincial buffoon who can’t say Nagasaki properly. Aside from its over-reliance on dialogue for the sake of exposition, and its gullibility about the chances of complete Axis capitulation, this novel about NATO’s father is the most controversial thing in a good movie that rarely runs three hours.

Since the past decade, when Donald Trump won the presidency, Vladimir Putin took Crimea and Xi Jinping set China on a more assertive course, liberals have tried to put a name on what we stand for from these revisionist leaders. The best effort, “The Rules-Based International Order,” is appalling. So he named it The Truman Show.

It was Truman who made the foundational decisions for our world: to keep the United States in Europe after 1945, to protect vulnerable places even further afield, to reduce industrial tariffs. In ending American isolation, his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had the “merit” of World War I. Truman set himself a more difficult task: to maintain an American advantage during times of peace. The result, an empire in all but name, had costs. But the past eighteen months have been a fine education in its uses. Imagine Ukraine now without a committed United States. In another 18, depending on how Americans vote, you may not have to.

The lesson of this decade so far is that liberalism is untenable without hard power. Nor was there enough expense to neglect those who ruled before. I’m not advocating mock trials, exactly, though it does raise eyebrows what gets checked and what doesn’t. In the UK there is an investigation into the covid pandemic, but not the decline in the defense budget since the 1980s. There were several of them about the Iraq war but not on responding (far from war) to Russian incursions into Georgia and Crimea. Could it be more assertive? How far has the Kremlin encouraged?

The problem with the investigation, which is not confined to Britain virus, is its focus on acts of execution, not omission. In retrospect, Barack Obama has taken his quiet detachment a bit too far, at least in foreign policy. Few administrations anywhere in the West have been worse dated than the one Angela Merkel was content with. In polite society, however, each of these names still carries far less stigma than George W. Bush or Tony Blair. active Iraq war disaster. This moral account may be correct, but it has not been vetted.

Truman’s reputation tarnished for decades. His intervention in Korea was a horror and something of a failure. But what would have happened if the West had not shown that it would produce a counter force to almost any communist advance anywhere?

If he’s neglected (how many Westerners can picture him?) it’s for two reasons. First, it reminds us of what liberalism has done to survive so far. The film treats the nuclear bombing of Japan as a unique moral compromise, and it just might be. But “conventional” weapons reduced much of Tokyo to ashes over the course of one night. Allied bombing of German civilians. As for America’s past, the Union did not overcome the Confederacy by brave duel.

Nowhere was the liberal blend of high conscience and its antithesis so much as in the person of Truman. Ended the colonization of the Philippines. He advocated civilian control of the government against would-be warrior king General Douglas MacArthur. At the same time, this producer of rum municipal politics called the bomb a “blessing” long after he used it and was an accomplice of Red Scare at home. Oppenheimer’s polite manners and Vedic learning do not make him the most morally complex man.

It is for this other reason that Truman is withheld. snobbery. It is hard for some liberals to accept the fact that we owe our world to a failed haberdashery man from Missouri: the son of a mule trader, a figure of gentle irony who, in his sixties, has become perhaps the most powerful human being of all. (Neither his predecessor nor his successor had a monopoly on nuclear power.) He left behind no treatise and few short texts, let alone a Sanskrit translation. But he knew that the liberal must learn to walk with the brute, if not the devil.


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