The United States government went to extraordinary lengths to hide the horrific effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the victims and survivors. Seventy-five years later, it continues to turn a blind eye to the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.
The first official sentence about the bombing of Hiroshima was a lie. President Truman’s statement began by describing a city with approximately 300,000 people living in it as “an important Japanese Army base.” The archives show destroying the military potential of Hiroshima was more of a fig leaf than the primary objective. Truman’s description purposefully obscured an inconvenient truth. Everyone involved in the decision knew the bomb would obliterate the city and kill or maim as many as 100,000 non-combatant men, women and children.
US General Leslie Groves, who micro-managed the development and use of the atomic bomb, placed a gag order on the attacks. He wanted to control the reporting to prevent “ruinous” comments from “would-be world-savers.” Groves had already selected William Laurence of the New York Times to serve as what he called “a suitable newspaperman.” Laurence, who talked about the bomb like a religious devotee, was granted exclusive access to the Manhattan Project and a seat on the plane that bombed Nagasaki. In return, he let Groves edit his articles before releasing them to the press.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson warned Truman there was “a growing feeling of apprehension and misgiving as to the effect of the atomic bomb even in our own country.” As Japanese reports of the grotesque effects of radiation began to appear in US press accounts, Stimson organized a public relations campaign to forestall the possibility the United States might “get the reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities.”
Truman lifted wartime controls on the US press after Japan surrendered. But General Douglas MacArthur, who assumed control of occupied Japan, imposed his own restrictions, including a ban on travel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. George Weller of the Chicago Daily News snuck into Nagasaki. He intentionally “eschewed all the horror angles” but MacArthur’s censors still refused to release his articles.
Wilfred Burchett, the only other reporter to skirt the travel ban, by-passed the censors and published his first-hand account of what he called the “atomic plague” irradiating Hiroshima. MacArthur confiscated his camera and kicked him out of Japan. He also ordered other reporters to move to Yokohama where he could better control their activities.
Burchett’s article was picked up by newspapers all over the world. Groves’ second in command, General Thomas Farrell, held a press conference in Tokyo to refute Burchett’s claims about radiation. Truman sent written requests to US editors and broadcasters asking them not to publish reports on the atomic bomb without clearing them with War Department.
Akira Iwasaki, a Japanese filmmaker, directed a post-war project to document what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The US military arrested his cameraman and confiscated his film. MacArthur then banned all filming in the two cities and ordered all film shot prior to the ban be turned over to the occupation government.
The US Strategic Bombing Survey initiated its own film project led by Lieutenant Daniel McGovern. He took possession of Iwasaki’s film and hired Iwasaki and his crew. The documentary they created was classified and disappeared for more than 20 years. McGovern later claimed US authorities buried the film because it “showed the effects on man, woman and child.”
US government suppression of the humanitarian consequences of the bombings suffered a major setback when John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” appeared in the New Yorker in August 1946. The incredible success of Hersey’s essay, which was reprinted all over the world, changed the prevailing US narrative. What had been a story about government-led scientists creating a super weapon to win the war became a story about the cruel and inhuman effects of that weapon. The backstory of how Hersey was able to write Hiroshima is the subject of an upcoming book by author Lesley M.M. Blume.
James B. Conant, who helped build the bomb and select the targets, believed Hersey had “distorted history.” He urged the Truman administration to respond. Henry Stimson agreed to let the administration’s response go out under his byline despite concerns it appeared “cold-hearted and cruel.”
“The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” was published in Harper’s Magazine in January 1947 and was promoted as an authoritative, behind-the-scenes account. It succeeded in stemming the rising tide of moral doubt generated by Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” It argued the bombings were unavoidable steps taken to shorten the war and save both US and Japanese lives.
Subsequent efforts to challenge that narrative could not repeat Hersey’s success. For example, the Smithsonian Museum tried to incorporate new and less flattering scholarly assessments in a 50th anniversary exhibit. The Air Force Association complained the curators “intended to defame” the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as a “war crime.” Criticism from Congress and the press forced the museum to remove commentary on “the devastation caused by the atomic bombs and on differing interpretations surrounding President Truman’s decision to drop them.” American screenwriter, director, producer, and playwright Aaron Sorkin vicariously endorsed the Smithsonian’s retreat in a 2001 episode of The West Wing.
US unwillingness to confront moral questions about the use of nuclear weapons remains entrenched. The Obama administration vigorously opposed a successful global effort to craft a treaty to ban nuclear weapons on humanitarian grounds. 122 nations signed the Treaty on the Prevention of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which is now just 10 ratifications shy of becoming international law. President Obama was willing to visit Hiroshima to “mourn the dead” but he would not give the survivors what they wanted; his personal support for the treaty.
You, however, can show your support for the survivors by signing their 75th anniversary appeal. If enough people are willing to take this simple step, perhaps the next US president will be more receptive to growing international demands to begin negotiating in good faith to eliminate nuclear weapons.
- Sign the Hibakusha appeal
- Watch the short film, “The Pain and Politics of Hiroshima”
- Watch George Takei talk about his personal connection to the 75th anniversary of bombing on Hiroshima & Nagasaki
- Read about how Congress plans to spend billions in 2021 on dangerous, unnecessary nuclear weapons in 2021
- Learn more about a national virtual event commemorating the 75th anniversary happening on August 6th and 9th
Header image: The toro nagashi ceremoy in which paper lanterns are floated down a river honors the souls of the dead in Japan. Anthony Eyring/UCS