Aug. 6, 1945 marks the day that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing thousands of civilians instantly and devastating the lives of tens of thousands more. Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki. More than 200,000 people died from both events.
According to Professor of History Dr. Naoko Wake, none of this was depicted in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the blockbuster movie about the bomb’s creation. Wake was recently quoted in a L.A. Times article regarding her thoughts on Oppenheimer.
Wake is a historian of gender, sexuality, disability, and illness in the twentieth-century United States and the Pacific region She also works with graduate students on U.S. modern history, the history of gender and sexuality, Asian American history, the history of medicine, and the history of nuclear weaponry.
Wake said that Oppenheimer completely left out the perspective of survivors of the first nuclear attacks against civilians in history. She said it was difficult to watch the movie, but she thought it was necessary to view it, for her own professional interests.
“I knew I had to watch it just because given what I study, some people might come to me and ask me what I thought,” Wake said. “I had been procrastinating because first of all, it was very long and I knew, second of all, that it wouldn’t be particularly entertaining to me, and I think that’s one thing that the L.A. Times article really nicely highlighted, that when you think of this kind of blockbuster movie, you have to think about diverse audiences who can have different kinds of responses because of the different histories they have and where they came from.
Wake’s book, American Survivors: : Trans-Pacific Memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki explores the little-known history of Asian American survivors that connects, as much as separates, people across time and national boundaries. She said historical inaccuracies in movies only perpetuate that separation.
“I was just struck by the huge gap that exists between the story of wonderful scientists who were personally, morally, and politically tormented as you see depicted in Oppenheimer on the one hand, and on the other hand, there are people on the receiving end of his creation on the ground. And that was a disappointing experience for me as the movie missed many opportunities that were there. It was pointing towards the recognition of moral and ethical dilemmas and that was one of the main messages of the movie and yet it still misses an opportunity to go further.”
Wake said it is detrimental to history when Hollywood releases movies that misleadingly depict how historical events transpired.
“Hollywood has a pattern of glorifying these historical events while completely leaving out the perspective of survivors. Sure, no single movie can be perfect but there should be more balance when it comes to depicting historical events.
“It is kind of sad for me that I won’t be able to invite the people I know who would have strong opinions about this movie because we are coming to an era where we are losing the first-hand voices of survivors. Watching the movie helped remind me of that aspect of history as well.”
Wake said it is up to students and scholars to challenge pop culture narratives and raise awareness, so history is not forgotten or misremembered.
“Scholars can help people better understand the public view of science and scientists and the politics around that,” Wake said.
“Scholars can also help with how knowledge gets created and they can help scientists realize what kind of responsibility they have.”