Yesterday, I explored the decades-long suppression of film footage of the the full effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 64 years ago this week. But that censorship and cover-up of the full impact, and ramifications, of the new weapons began within hours of the first use.
On Aug. 6, 1945, President Harry S. Truman faced the task of telling the press, and the world, that America's crusade against fascism had culminated in exploding a revolutionary new weapon of extraordinary destructive power over a Japanese city.
It was vital that this event be understood as a reflection of dominant military power and at the same time consistent with American decency and concern for human life. Everyone involved in preparing the presidential statement sensed that the stakes were high, for this marked the unveiling of both the atomic bomb and the official narrative of Hiroshima.
When the astonishing news emerged that morning, exactly 64 years ago, it took the form of a routine press release, a little more than a thousand words long. President Truman was at sea a thousand miles away, returning from the Potsdam conference. Shortly before eleven o'clock, an information officer from the War Department arrived at the White House bearing bundles of press releases. A few minutes later, assistant press secretary Eben Ayers began reading the president's announcement to about a dozen members of the Washington press corps.
The atmosphere was so casual, and the statement so momentous, that the reporters had difficulty grasping it. "The thing didn't penetrate with most of them," Ayers later remarked. Finally, they rushed to call their editors, and at least one reporter found a disbeliever at the other end of the line. The first few sentences of the statement set the tone:
"Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. ...The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. ...It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe."
Although details were modified at the last moment, Truman's four-page statement had been crafted with considerable care over many months. If use of the atomic bomb was inherent in its invention, an announcement of this sort was inevitable. Only the timing was in doubt.
From its very first words, however, the official narrative was built on a half-truth. Hiroshima did contain an important military base, used as a staging area for Southeast Asia. But the bomb had been aimed at the very center of a city of 350,000, a continuation of the American policy of bombing civilian populations in Japan to undermine the morale of the enemy.
There was something else missing: Because the president in his statement failed to mention radiation effects, which officials knew were horrendous, the imagery of just a bigger bomb would prevail in the press. Truman described the new weapon as "revolutionary" but only in regard to the destruction it could cause, failing to mention its most lethal new feature: radiation.
Many Americans first heard the news from the radio, which broadcast the text of Truman's statement shortly after its release. The afternoon papers quickly arrived with banner headlines: "Atom Bomb, World's Greatest, Hits Japs!" and "Japan City Blasted by Atomic Bomb." The Pentagon had released no pictures, so most of the newspapers relied on maps of Japan with Hiroshima circled.
By that evening, radio commentators were weighing in with observations that often transcended Truman's announcement, suggesting that the public imagination was outrunning the official story. Contrasting emotions of gratification and anxiety had already emerged. H.V. Kaltenhorn warned, "We must assume that with the passage of only a little time, an improved form of the new weapon we use today can be turned against us."
It wasn't until the following morning, Aug. 7, that the government's press offensive appeared, with the first detailed account of the making of the atomic bomb, and the Hiroshima mission. Nearly every U.S. newspaper carried all or parts of 14 separate press releases distributed by the Pentagon several hours after the president's announcement. They carried headlines such as: "Atom Bombs Made in 3 Hidden Cities" and "New Age Ushered."
Many of them written by one man: W.L. Laurence, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, "embedded" with the atomic project. General Leslie Groves, military director of the Manhattan Project, would later reflect, with satisfaction, that "most newspapers published our releases in their entirety. This is one of the few times since government releases have become so common that this has been done."
The Truman announcement of the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, and the flood of material from the War Department, firmly established the nuclear narrative. It would not take long, however, for breaks in the official story to appear.
At first, journalists had to follow where the Pentagon led. Wartime censorship remained in effect, and there was no way any reporter could reach Hiroshima for a look around. One of the few early stories that did not come directly from the military was a wire service report filed by a journalist traveling with the president on the Atlantic, returning from Europe. Approved by military censors, it went beyond, but not far beyond, the measured tone of the president's official statement. It depicted Truman, his voice "tense with excitement," personally informing his shipmates about the atomic attack. "The experiment," he announced, "has been an overwhelming success."
The sailors were said to be "uproarious" over the news. "I guess I'll get home sooner now," was a typical response. Nowhere in the story, however, was there a strong sense of Truman's reaction. Missing from this account was his exultant remark when the news of the bombing first reached the ship: "This is the greatest thing in history!"
On Aug. 7, military officials confirmed that Hiroshima had been devastated: at least 60% of the city wiped off the map. They offered no casualty estimates, emphasizing instead that the obliterated area housed major industrial targets. The Air Force provided the newspapers with an aerial photograph of Hiroshima. Significant targets were identified by name. For anyone paying close attention there was something troubling about this picture. Of the 30 targets, only four were specifically military in nature. "Industrial" sites consisted of three textile mills. (Indeed, a U.S. survey of the damage, not released to the press, found that residential areas bore the brunt of the bomb, with less than 10% of the city's manufacturing, transportation, and storage facilities damaged.)
On Guam, weaponeer William S. Parsons and Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets calmly answered reporters' questions, limiting their remarks to what they had observed after the bomb exploded. Asked how he felt about the people down below at the time of detonation, Parsons said that he experienced only relief that the bomb had worked and might be "worth so much in terms of shortening the war."
Almost without exception newspaper editorials endorsed the use of the bomb against Japan. Many of them sounded the theme of revenge first raised in the Truman announcement. Most of them emphasized that using the bomb was merely the logical culmination of war. "However much we deplore the necessity," the Washington Post observed, "a struggle to the death commits all combatants to inflicting a maximum amount of destruction on the enemy within the shortest span of time." The Post added that it was "unreservedly glad that science put this new weapon at our disposal before the end of the war."
Referring to American leaders, the Chicago Tribune commented: "Being merciless, they were merciful." A drawing in the same newspaper pictured a dove of peace flying over Japan, an atomic bomb in its beak.
Greg Mitchell is co-author, with Robert Jay Lifton, of "Hiroshima in America." His latest book is "Why Obama Won." He is editor of Editor & Publisher and has written about the atomic bombings since 1982.