“If our sin as scientists was to make and use the atomic bomb,” Leo Szilard, famed physicist would admit, “then our punishment was to watch The Beginning or the End.” Szilard’s exposure to the 1947 MGM movie, however, went far beyond merely enduring a viewing of the first Hollywood drama about the creation and use of the bomb. The previous year he had traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles to offer his input on key scenes, then signed a contract agreeing to be portrayed in the movie – and after much cajoling, convinced Albert Einstein to sign his own approval.
Szilard would not be the only atomic scientist to express disappointment in the big-budget film, which drew mixed reviews from movie critics and modest box office receipts. The project, after all, had shifted 180 degrees from its inception, when it was inspired by the scientists as a warning against building new and bigger bombs. Now it was little more than error-ridden, pro-bomb propaganda.
It had started with an urgent letter from a worried scientist at Oak Ridge to his former high school chemistry student, actress Donna Reed. Now it concluded with a scene at the Lincoln Memorial, with the one voice of conscience remaining in the script, a young scientist named Matt Cochran, addressing his wife – as a ghostly figure. Despite having just perished in an accident while arming the Hiroshima bomb (which would then slaughter 125,000 others), he assures his widow, in cloudy, apparitional form, “God has not shown us a new way to destroy ourselves. Atomic energy is the hand he has extended to lift us from the ruins of war and lighten the burdens of peace…. We have found a path so filled with promise, that when we walk down it we will know that everything that went before the discovery of atomic energy was the Dark Ages.”
How and why did that transpire? The full story is told for the first time in my book, published this week, The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood – and America – Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.