The Beginning or the End

How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

The shocking and significant story of how the White House and Pentagon scuttled an epic Hollywood production.

“Greg Mitchell is the best kind of historian, a true storyteller.”
—Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

One of Vanity Fair’s 21 Best Books of 2020

Soon after atomic bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, MGM set out to make a movie studio chief Louis B. Mayer called “the most important story” he would ever film: a big budget dramatization of the Manhattan Project and the invention and use of the revolutionary new weapon.

Over at Paramount, Hal B. Wallis was ramping up his own film version. His screenwriter: the novelist Ayn Rand, who saw in physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer the model for a character she was sketching for Atlas Shrugged.

Greg Mitchell’s The Beginning or the End chronicles the first efforts of American media and culture to process the Atomic Age. A movie that began as a cautionary tale inspired by atomic scientists aiming to warn the world against a nuclear arms race would be drained of all impact due to revisions and retakes ordered by President Truman and the military—for reasons of propaganda, politics, and petty human vanity (this was Hollywood).

Mitchell has found his way into the lofty rooms, from Washington to California, where it happened, unearthing hundreds of letters and dozens of scripts that show how wise intentions were compromised in favor of defending the use of the bomb and the imperatives of postwar politics. As in his acclaimed Cold War true-life thriller The Tunnels, he exposes how our implacable American myth-making mechanisms distort our history.

Praise

“Greg Mitchell’s The Beginning or the End is an engrossing, wry, and always lively look behind the scenes of a historic Hollywood flop. But it’s also much more than that: a deeply serious, meticulously researched account of how the movie industry—and the American public in general—embraced a comforting myth to justify one of the most controversial decisions in history. This is a first-rate piece of work by one of our most accomplished nonfiction storytellers.”
—Gary Krist, author of Empire of Sin and The Mirage Factory
“A fascinating and brilliantly researched account of how Hollywood and Washington grappled with how to portray and profit from the new nuclear age. Another great read and exposé from Mitchell.”
—Alex Kershaw, bestselling author of The Liberator and Avenue of Spies
“From the nation’s top secret to the silver screen: Mitchell tells an unforgettable tale about a forgotten film and the tug-of-war between scientists, the White House, and the Pentagon over the Hollywood version of the bombing of Hiroshima.”
—Peter Biskind, bestselling author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
“[Greg Mitchell] uses his sharp investigative reporting skills to unearth this detailed, behind-the-scenes story about Hollywood’s first movie on the atomic bomb. . . . Excellent research and rich dialogue give Mitchell’s book a novelistic flair as he recounts the battles between MGM and the military over actor choices, deletions, revisions, and retakes concerning fact vs. fiction.”
Kirkus Reviews
“This is an obvious ‘must buy’—especially if you are interested in WW2, cinema, or modern American history.”
—Rod Lurie, director of The Outpost
“This captivating look at the making of a 1947 docudrama about the U.S. decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan shows how far Hollywood would go to get the public waving the American flag.”
Shelf Awareness
“Seriously, this is a great book.”
—Kurt Eichenwald, author of The Informant and Conspiracy of Fools
“A great new book that you’re going to want to read. The book conjures up a compelling cast of characters who got caught in the Cold War propaganda machine.”
—Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer
“A story of dishy Hollywood doings but with atomic bombs and a screenplay by Ayn Rand—what more could a reader ask for?”
—Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award
“A fascinating, sharp-eyed study of Hiroshima’s cinematic aftershocks. Mitchell expertly chronicles the gradual transformation of a gigantic, and still-radiating, moral catastrophe.”
—Nicholson Baker, author of Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, and Double Fold, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
“MGM’s little-seen 1947 docudrama about the creation of the atomic bomb, The Beginning or the End, provides the unlikely but fascinating subject for this rich look at the early nuclear age. . . . While the film bombed at the box office, Mitchell’s rich account of its making and larger implications should draw both history buffs and those concerned with the continuing issues around nuclear weapons.”
Publishers Weekly
“This intriguing, behind-the-scenes look at a disjointed creative partnership is sure to be of interest to readers of history and cinema.”
Library Journal
“It can safely be said that when it comes to collisions between art and politics, art usually gets maimed and as Greg Mitchell’s quietly amusing book shows, [this film] was no exception.”
The Wall Street Journal
“It is a deceptively breezy book that reveals its depths and its profound questions only slowly in the reader’s mind, and one of these is how easily the powerful can sell the country a narrative. . . . A vivid examination of where we are now.”
—Charles P. Pierce, Esquire
“Fascinating but also, weirdly, enjoyable to read.”
—Harry Shearer
“Mitchell has done a genuine service by using the rueful history of a subpar MGM production to highlight issues of towering moral and ethical concern.”
—David Sterritt, Quarterly Review of Film and Video

News and Reviews

Author Event

Watch a wide-ranging conversation with author Greg Mitchell and filmmaker Rod Lurie about The Beginning or the End, WWII, the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb, and more.

Vanity Fair

Greg Mitchell’s The Beginning or the End was selected as aa staff pick for Vanity Fair’s “21 Best Books of 2020”

Book Excerpt

Read an excerpt from Greg Mitchell's The Beginning or the end, the shocking behind-the-scenes story of how the White House and Pentagon scuttled Hollywood's first a-bomb epic.

Publishers Weekly

Read a review of The Beginning or the End in Publishers Weekly.