‘Oppenheimer’ is a great film about the wrong man

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The fact that J. Robert Oppenheimer agonised over his part in the creation of the atomic bomb is not interesting. Was he meant to whistle to work? Harry Truman, to whom it fell to use the “gadget”, is the more dramatic figure, precisely because he made what might be the most history-altering executive decision since Pontius Pilate without much in the way of outward qualms.

Christopher Nolan’s biopic of Oppenheimer gives the 33rd US president just one scene, in which he shambles around as a provincial buffoon who can’t say Nagasaki right. Apart from its over-reliance on dialogue for exposition, and its naivete about the chances of total Axis surrender, this account of the father of Nato is the most jarring thing in a fine film whose three hours seldom drag.

Since the last decade, when Donald Trump won the presidency, Vladimir Putin took Crimea and Xi Jinping set China on a more assertive path, liberals have tried to put a name to what we are defending from these revisionist leaders. The best effort, the “rules-based international order”, is terrible. So call it the Truman Show.

It is Truman who made the foundational decisions of our world: to keep the US in Europe after 1945, to garrison vulnerable places even farther afield, to reduce industrial tariffs. In ending American isolation, his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt had the “advantage” of a world war. Truman set himself a harder task: to maintain a forward US posture during peace time. The result, an empire in all but name, has had costs. But the past 18 months have been a sublime education in its uses. Imagine Ukraine right now without a committed US. In another 18, depending how Americans vote, you might not have to.

The lesson of this decade so far is that liberalism isn’t tenable without hard power. And there hasn’t been enough of a reckoning with the dereliction of those who governed before. I am not calling for show trials, quite, though it is striking what gets scrutinised and what doesn’t. In the UK, there is an inquiry into the Covid pandemic, but not the decline of the defence budget since the 1980s. There were several on the Iraq war but not on the (far from warlike) response to Russia’s incursions into Georgia and Crimea. Could it have been firmer? How much did it embolden the Kremlin?

The trouble with inquiry-itis, a virus not confined to Britain, is its focus on acts of commission, not omission. In retrospect, Barack Obama took his serene detachment too far, at least in foreign policy. Few administrations anywhere in the west have dated worse than Angela Merkel’s complacent one. Yet, in polite society, each of those names still carries far less stigma than George W Bush or Tony Blair do for the active debacle of the Iraq war. That moral calculation might be correct, but it isn’t examined.

Truman’s reputation languished for decades. His intervention in Korea was a horror, and something of a failure. But what might have happened had the west not shown it would produce counterforce to almost any communist advance anywhere?

If he is neglected (how many westerners can picture him?) it is for two reasons. First, he reminds us what liberalism has done to survive this far. The film treats the nuclear bombing of Japan as a unique moral compromise, and it might be. But “conventional” weapons turned much of Tokyo to a cinder over the course of one night. The allies bombed German civilians. As for America’s own past, the Union didn’t beat the Confederacy with chivalric jousting.

Liberalism’s blend of high conscience and its opposite existed nowhere so much as in the person of Truman. He decolonised the Philippines. He stood up for civilian control of government against the would-be warrior-king General Douglas MacArthur. At the same time, this product of seriously rum municipal politics called the bomb a “blessing” long after he used it and was complicit in the Red Scare at home. Oppenheimer’s urbane manners and Vedic learning don’t make him the more morally complex man.

And so to the other reason Truman is obscured. Snobbery. It is hard for some liberals to accept that we owe our world to a failed haberdasher from Missouri: a mule-trader’s son, a figure of suave derision until, in his sixties, he became perhaps the most powerful human being who will ever live. (Neither his predecessor nor his successor had the nuclear monopoly.) He leaves behind no treatise and few epigrams, much less in translated Sanskrit. But he knew a liberal must learn to walk with, if not the devil, then the brute.


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