Oppenheimer is filled with nuanced moments, filled with insinuation, as people talk carefully about life and death. But one blunt talker is President Harry S. Truman, played by Gary Oldman, who mocks Cillian Murphy’s J Robert Oppenheimer as a “cry baby.”
Is the scene a rare case of Christopher Nolan being too on the nose with his phenomenal script? No. The “cry baby” insult was real, though Truman didn’t deploy it exactly as he does in Oppenheimer.
The film — spoiler, we guess, though this is based on real historic events — includes a scene after the United States has dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing untold numbers of Japanese civilians. Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, goes to the White House to meet Truman, who ordered the bombings, for what the president assumes will be a celebratory meeting.
Instead, Oppenheimer laments: “I feel I have blood on my hands.”
This really did happen, according to Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 book upon which Oppenheimer is based. And Truman’s dismissive reaction is fairly accurate, as well, though it is condensed and commandingly dramatized.
Why Did Truman Get Mad at Oppenheimer?
World War II ended with Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945. American Prometheus says that on October 25, 1945, at 10:30 a.m., Oppenheimer joined the president in the Oval Office, where the president was “naturally curious to meet the celebrated physicist.”
As the film portrays, the president and scientist discussed when the Soviet Union might develop an atomic bomb of its own. Truman’s answer — “Never” — suggested to Oppenheimer that the president was out of his depth, and didn’t understand the very real, imminent threat of nuclear proliferation.
At that point, Oppenheimer made what the book calls one of “those regrettable remarks that he characteristically made under pressure” — the remark, spoken by Murphy in the film, about blood on his hands.
American Prometheus notes that the president, over the years, offered several accounts of what happened next in the real-life meeting. It says the president told David Lilienthal, head of the Tennessee Valley Authority and later the Atomic Energy Commission, that he told Oppenheimer “the blood was on my hands — to let me worry about that.”
(Truman is known for claiming ownership over all of his decisions: His famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign was added to his desk 13 days before his meeting with Oppenheimer.)
Another version holds that the president said the blood would wash off. And American Prometheus notes that “in yet another version” of the story, the president pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and offered it to Oppenheimer, as a way to symbolically wipe away the blood.
The movie combines accounts, showing Oldman-as-Truman claiming responsibility for the bombing decision while giving Oppenheimer the handkerchief.
According to the book, the meeting ended after the “blood on my hands” exchange. But onscreen, the scene continues — in a great example of a film effectively condensing truthful events that happened over several months into a single, dramatic sequence. It may not be a documentary style recreation, but it captures fundamental truths.
As Oppenheimer exits the Oval Office in the film, he overhears Truman gripe that he doesn’t want to see him again, and refer to him as a “cry baby.”
Did Did Truman Say About Oppenheimer, Besides Calling Him a Cry Baby?
In the book’s version, Truman doesn’t seem to have said these things within earshot of Oppenheimer at the October 25 meeting. But he did express the sentiments that Gary Oldman dramatizes in the film.
American Prometheus says that after the meeting, the president told Dean Acheson, the Under Secretary of State who later became Secretary of State, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-b—- in this office ever again.”
The book also reports that Truman called Oppenheimer a “cry baby scientist” in a letter to Acheson in May 1946, months after the meeting.
The rest is grim history. The president pushed ahead with his nuclear ambitions, Oppenheimer argued against further use of them, and we now live in a world with more than 12,000 of them.
A footnote: After the meeting with Oppenheimer about the atomic bomb and the future fate of mankind, the president’s next meeting was with the postmaster of Joplin, Missouri, his home state. You can follow his daily appointments here.
Oppenheimer is now in theaters.
Main image: Gary Oldman as Harry S. Truman — with handkerchief — in a character poster for Oppenheimer.