On Native Ground
RECOVERING THE TRUE STORY OF THE ATOMIC BOMB
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Lying and warfare go together like peanut butter and jelly.
If people saw what really happens in war, there would never be another war. That's why we rarely see, read or hear anything but the most sanitized parts of warfare in our media.
We pay a high cost for that lack of truth telling in the form of more wars and more death. Each generation has to learn the horror for itself.
Sixty years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans have never been told and have never seen the true extent of the effects of the atom bomb on humans.
"I always had the sense that people in the Atomic Energy Commission were sorry we dropped the bomb. The Air Force - it was also sorry. I was told by people in the Pentagon that they didn't want those [film] images out because they showed effects on man, woman and child. ... They didn't want the general public to know what their weapons had done - at a time when they were planning on more bomb tests. We didn't want the material out because ... we were sorry for our sins."
Those are the words of Lt. Col. (ret.) Daniel McGovern, who directed U.S. military filmmakers in Japan in 1945 and 1946. He told the newspaper trade magazine Editor & Publisher last week that Americans should have seen seen the footage immediately after it was shot but that "the main reason it was classified was ... because of the horror, the devastation."
That was a deliberate decision by the United States immediately after the attacks. The military extensively documented on film the aftermath of the bombings. They then locked up the footage for decades afterward.
Even accounting for the hatred the American people felt for the Japanese during the war, if Americans had seen the devastation while it was still fresh, there may have never been a nuclear arms race.
The Japanese also documented the devastation on film immediately after the bombings, but their black and white footage was eventually confiscated by the U.S. occupation force. Fortunately for history, a duplicate print was hidden away and some of the footage eventually made an appearance on American public television in 1970.
But McGovern's crew shot the devastation in color. They had 90,000 feet of film and most of it was locked up and classified until the 1980s. Bits of it have appeared in documentaries since then, but never in the raw and horrific form that McGovern intended - not until the release of the documentary "Original Child Bomb," which premiered last weekend on the Sundance cable channel.
Print dispatches were scarce too. While John Hersey's "Hiroshima," first published in The New Yorker in August 1946, caused a sensation, it was limited in its scope. Only two reporters in early September 1945 - Australian war correspondent Wilfred Burchett and George Weller of the Chicago Daily News - tried to tell the real story.
Burchett was the first Western journalist into Hiroshima and the only one whose story about the immediate aftermath cleared U.S. censorship. It appeared in the London Daily Express and turned out to be the only real-time account that emerged from the city.
Enraged by Burchett's story, Gen. Douglas MacArthur's censorship office made sure no similar stories would appear, especially in American newspapers.
Weller was first to Nagasaki, but his dispatches were spiked by MacArthur's censorship office and disappeared for nearly 60 years - until Weller's son found the carbons after his father's death in 2002. They were finally published in June by the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun. They remain an important piece of recovered history.
What became the official account of the atomic bombings came from William Laurence of The New York Times. He was the "embedded" reporter with the Manhattan Project and was selected by Gen. Leslie Groves, the military director of the effort to build the atomic bomb, to shape and control the narrative.
Groves wrote that he knew once the secret of the bomb was out, "the project will be subject to harassing investigation, official inquiries ... and all the miscellany of crackpots, columnists, commentators, political aspirants, would-be authors and worldsavers."
That's why Laurence, the Times' science reporter, was selected for the job. And Laurence didn't just write for the Times. He also wrote the War Department's official press releases on the atom bomb.
The overwhelmingly positive, almost celebratory tone, of Laurence's work - which earned him a Pulitzer Prize - framed the way the atomic bomb would be viewed by America in the years to come. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be buried.
What course would the postwar world have taken if it had known, in 1945 rather than decades later, about radiation sickness and the slow, painful deaths of the survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the weeks after the bombings? Or if they had seen how different this weapon was from anything ever used in warfare?
The nuclear shadow still hangs over humanity six decades later. Non-proliferation efforts are at a standstill. More countries have the bomb and even more countries want it. The United States is preparing to test new "tactical" weapons and is actively lowering its inhibitions on using nuclear bombs.
This dismal picture can be blamed on decisions made in 1945 to shield Americans from the horror this nation unleashed on two cities in Japan. To justify war's worst, nations lie. And we, the people, ultimately pay the price for those lies.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.