American Media Coverage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped over the city of Hiroshima in Japan, to be followed by a second bomb over the city of Nagasaki, three days later, by the American military. The fatal consequences of the dropping the world’s first atomic bombs (with power equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT explosives) over these cities, the mass destruction and loss of life, both short term as well as long term was magnanimous.
The reportage of this event, especially in the American media, thus is a reflection of the sensibilities of the press at that time, specifically in times of war. The understanding of the positions that the press took, however, must be made in context of the information that was provided by the government and individual stands of various papers with respect to the bombings as a means to end the war. The bomb that was dropped on the city of Hiroshima on 6 august was the first atomic bomb in the world. Not only did this bomb signify mass scale destruction, but it also ushered in an era of nuclear warfare.
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Thus this in itself was a historic event for the entire world, more so for the United States. Given however, the sensitive nature of the debates closely associated with the use of nuclear weapons, as well as their effects on human life, it was imperative that the event be reported in as less controversial a manner as possible. As Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor and Publisher magazine writes in his article, “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. ” The news was revealed by the President’s address, and later in the form of a press release. On August 7, almost every newspaper carried the 14 – part press offensive that was distributed hours after the announcement, detailing the Hiroshima mission and the atomic bomb. It was with this, argues Monica Braw, that the U. S. overnment began its battle to control narratives about the bombings, indulging in censorship and propaganda efforts to ensure that all newspapers stuck to the governmental view of the incident. One of the main reasons for this censorship, she says, was to ensure that the reports blame the Japanese for the initiation, and horrors of the war. The press release itself set the tone for the forthcoming reports on the bombings. An important omission, which is observed in the release, is the absolute exclusion of radiation as a side effect of nuclear weaponry.
The long term effects that this radiation would have on the human population are completely overshadowed by the hailing of the atomic bomb as the “greatest, most revolutionary” weapon that the world has seen. Mitchell writes in this regard, that “The government (and the military in particular) also attempted to squelch or refute reports about the effects of the atomic bombs on humans, especially the devastating and lingering impact of radiation.
Instead, the government attempted to focus media attention on descriptions of the initial blasts and the effects of the atomic bombs on inanimate objects”. Thus the extremely crucial difference between any other bomb that was ever used in the war and the atomic bomb seemed to be sidelined by the masses, which saw it only as a larger version of the same. As far as radiation effects were concerned, the U. S. government ensured that they were summarily dismissed as “Japanese propaganda”.
Uday Mohan recounts in his book, how, one month after the bombings, an Australian journalist, Wilfred Burchett had attempted to bring this issue to light, stating that “30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly???people who were uninjured in the cataclysm???from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague” (New York Times). However, as soon as this occurred, Burchett’s camera “mysteriously disappeared” and his stand changed “almost overnight”.
The coverage of radiation was thus reported in the news after this ??? The Washington Post uncritically noted that the atomic mission staff had been “unable to find any Japanese person suffering from radiation sickness”, a banner headline in the New York Times stated “U. S. Atom Bomb Site Belies Tokyo Tales; Tests on New Mexico Range Confirm That Blast, and Not Radiation, Took Toll,” and magazines like Life magazine concluded after the escorted tour in New Mexico (where the bomb had first been tested two months earlier) that no Japanese person could have died as a result of lingering radiation.
The next concerted effort being made was to avoid any generation of sympathy towards the human suffering in Japan by reducing visual evidence. No images of humans were printed in the media. The first photograph of Japanese victims appeared in Life magazine about two months after the end of the war. But the magazine used a caption to undercut the power of the photos. The caption stated that the photographer “reported that [the] injuries looked like those he had seen when he photographed men burned at Pearl Harbour. The main focus remained the “industrial” and “military” damage of buildings and other inanimate objects like bridges and war-related infrastructure, thus ensuring that the general public did not ever realize the extent of the damage that was a direct consequence of the bombings. Patrick Sharp claims in his articles, that whenever bodies were discussed, the tone of the language was objective and medical, with aerial shots of the city being the most prominent, and if any injuries of victims were shown, they were those of burns at most.
This again made it seem that the nuclear bombs were at par with any other bomb used in the war, and the effects were primarily the same. The after effects of radiation and genetic mutation that were visible within a few days of the blasts were neglected wholly. The main photographs of the human cost of the bombings did not appear in print media or otherwise till the 1950s, by which time they did not have an effect on the nuclear policy of the government.
In the immediate aftermath, writes Mohan, “Media focus on righteous vengeance, supposed necessity of the bombings, and the technological accomplishment of American and Allied science pushed the dead and dying out of the spotlight. ” Government censorship aided hugely in this marginalization process, especially through censorship about radiation and of visual evidence. Amongst the other important features of the reportage following the incident, is the stand of the U. S. government on why the bombings had to take place, the war effort, which was widely published in the media. Immediately after the event, it was important that the U.
S. government narrative becomes the sole accepted version of the events. Thus all efforts were made to ensure that there is no questioning of the U. S. motives to bomb the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With this came a systematic effort to make these bombings seem as the U. S. revenge for Pearl harbour and the “Death march” on Bataan. Lifton and Mitchell claim that in the “official narrative” of the atomic bomb, the US government did everything it could to promote the “revenge” aspect of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, thus making the public in general in favour of them.
The reports were also targeted to make these two cities seem like any other military base, making them no different from other bombings, except in scale, reducing any pity or sympathy for the sufferers. On this point Uday Mohan relates how the continuous rhetoric about Hiroshima having an army base was repeated everywhere,but the narratives failed to mention that the aiming point for the bomb had been the centre of a city of more than 300,000 civilians. Thus in effect, it wasn’t the military aspect of Hiroshima that was a target, rather the heart of a city in Japan, with maximum number of affected people being civilians.
The conclusion was thus, that “Necessity in this case had three aspects: vengeance, war-driven inevitability (which was sometimes regrettable), and absence of other reasonable means for ending the war (claiming that Truman did not really have another choice). ” A carefully planned strategy in the coverage of these events was the inclusion of William Laurence, a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer as the official journalist for the Manhattan Project (the code name of the dual operation). As Patrick B. harp argues, this was done to increase the credibility of the writings and reports about the incident. Laurence was allowed to witness the July 16 Trinity test, and the Nagasaki raid and to write and release all other articles on the bomb on behalf of the government. Uday Mohan commented on the same, saying, “Laurence, perhaps the first fully embedded journalist in history, helped shape how we Americans came to think about nuclear weapons and energy. He and other members of the media helped put in place a narrative that legitimized the use of nuclear weapons and absorbed the bomb into American life. William Laurence became a reporter for the New York Times, and had exactly the effect that the U. S. government had hoped to achieve. Most of Laurence’s stories were published by other papers with “occasional or no changes”, says Mitchell. He then goes on to observe how, “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. Some of the headlines and comments that the papers carried then were as follows-“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. ” Laurence was successful in creating an atmosphere of moral high ground for what the U. S. ad done, despite it being a human rights violation at the largest scale. The U. S. had thus done what it “ought to have, under these circumstances”. 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. The symbolism both in the pictures and text represented the exact opinion of the general public that had begun to see the bombings as a necessary evil, which was in the larger interest of both American and Japanese civilians.
It was assumed that if the bombings had not stopped the war, it would have gone on for a few more years and would have ultimately resulted in a greater loss of life than at present. In a response to reporters’ questions on how they felt detonating the bomb, Enola gay pilots Parsons commented, that he experienced only “relief that the bomb had worked” and “might be worth so much in terms of shortening the war”. The next feature that was consistent in every report that came about the bombs was the description of the actual bombing process.
Worth noting here, is how the American media converted this explosion into something on the lines of a “man-made miracle”, and subsequent descriptions in the media of how the bombings took place had an eeringly similar outline. Laurence was essentially responsible for this glorification process, claims Mohan. He points out how, the eye witness accounts of the bombing were most vigilant and enthusiastic in their tone. The bomb was heralded in “poetic, at times biblical” terms.
And with his descriptions, says Mohan, the predominant image of the a-bomb and of the atomic era was set???”an enormous, powerful mushroom cloud that held viewers in awe???an image that photography and film cemented through repetition”. In Laurence’s atomic portraits, the victims simply didn’t merit attention, but the mushroom cloud did. In his eyewitness account of the Nagasaki bombing, for example, he described the explosion in terms of wonder and incredulity, using phrases like “….
The mushroom top was even more alive than the pillar, seething and boiling in a white fury of creamy foam”, thereby making the bomb sound as a wonderful sight to behold. The calculated reduction in the photographs of victims of the blasts was already an important characteristic in every newspaper of the time. The focus always remained on a factual description of the bombs, and as nuclear radiation effects could not be seen immediately after the blast, they received very little attention in the papers carrying the first reports of the incident.
The next most important feature of reportage post the Hiroshima Nagasaki bombings is the legitimisation of nuclear weaponry, which paved the way later for the arms race with the Soviet Union without any real criticism by the general public. Uday Mohan writes in his article, how Laurence and other members of the media “helped put in place a narrative that legitimized the use of nuclear weapons and absorbed the bomb into American life”. This was done as a slow process, during which the full force of what atomic weaponry meant for the world was never brought to light.
According to Mitchell, Laurence and his team indulged in this process “by accepting government control of information about atomic power, downplaying the dangers of radiation and marginalizing the civilian victims, obscuring the fact that President Truman could have avoided the bomb in forcing Japan’s surrender, and, in other ways, normalizing the existence of nuclear weapons. ” Another aspect in this normalisation process was glorification of the “atomic era”. Most newspapers and magazines also reported keeping this viewpoint in mind.
A “cleansing process” of all the ills associated with nuclear weapons began. Mohan writes, “As the media helped to cleanse the new weapon of criticism, it also exalted the benefits of nuclearism to American life. ” A few months after the bombing, Atlantic magazine commented that “Through medical advances alone, atomic energy has already saved more lives than were snuffed out at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ” Life magazine regularly featured picture spreads and stories about the beauty and splendour of tomic energy and the glory of atomic miracles such as a Million Volt Cancer Treatment. The magazine did this hand in hand with the government. Most photographs were supplied by the Army and Atomic Energy Commission, and “residual fears” about nuclear weapons were put to rest. Thus the dual nature of the media reporting, writes Mohan, not only limited criticism over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also made nuclearism appear benevolent, making it a part and parcel of American life.
The Arms race that followed immediately after these attacks, and the Soviet Union declaring itself a nuclear state by 1949 was just the beginning. It had been established beyond doubt during this time how important it was for the United States to maintain supremacy in the atomic sector, and later theories of deterrence simply helped in taking the case of atomic weapons further.
The twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were an assault on the human rights of citizens of these countries, after effects of which were seen by the entire world by now simply became a reference point to prove how bad the situation could get if a nuclear war happened. However, the censorship carried out by the U. S government immediately after the attacks prevented any real protests at a large scale. By the time the people realised what the sufferings of the Japanese had been, it was too late to react.