75 years after atomic bombs fell on Japan, these authors say there’s more to the story – Daily News



Seventy-five years ago, the United States ended World War II by dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, wreaking havoc and destruction like nothing ever before seen. The bombs killed perhaps 200,000 civilians and radiation sickness harmed thousands more, ushering in the Atomic Age and hastening the start of the Cold War.

The anniversary has already brought new books that recount the events or re-frame the narrative:

“The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War,” by Fred Kaplan; “Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the 116 Days That Changed the World,” by Chris Wallace and Mitch Weiss; “140 Days to Hiroshima: The Story of Japan’s Last Chance to Avert Armageddon,” by David Dean Barrett; “On The Horizon,” a children’s book by Lois Lowry.

Greg Mitchell, author of “The Beginning Or the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (Courtesy of The New Press)

Now two books take unique angles to go behind the scenes in exploring what happened — from the impact of Russia’s planned invasion of Japan to the Japanese government’s actual readiness to surrender — and how and why the United States government worked so hard to cover up the truth.

What follows are two interviews with authors who have written new books about these events: Lesley M.M. Blume’s “Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed it to the World” and Greg Mitchell’s “The Beginning or The End.” Each spoke about their books and the events of 1945 are still timely today; the interviews have been edited for space and clarity.

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Lesley M.M. Blume had written the book “Everybody Behaves Badly” about Ernest Hemingway and was looking for a newsroom story — her father was a TV journalist and she started her career at ABC News.

“I have been enormously disturbed for the last four or five years by the unprecedented assault on our free press and the designation of journalists as ‘enemies of the people,’” she said.

She was searching for a historical narrative tied to World War II when her husband suggested she look into how Hiroshima and Nagasaki were covered in the immediate aftermath. That idea bloomed into “Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed it to the World,” a behind-the-scenes look at what it took for John Hersey, author of “Hiroshima,” and his editors at the New Yorker to tell the true story of what really happened when America dropped its atomic bombs.

Were you surprised by the extent of the government’s effort to keep journalists away and cover up the devastation caused by the bombs and by the radiation afterward?

I was stunned by the extent of it. By covering the journalists, I saw the suppression, corralling, bullying and the expulsion of journalists. I saw the mechanisms of the cover-up and how all the minutiae was controlled because of how the U.S. wanted to keep a lid on this atrocity story.

Did your research change your views on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? 

There’s still a predominant narrative in America that the bombs were a lifesaving mechanism, but after you have spent the amount of time I have on the entreaties to the Soviets the Japanese were already making about surrendering before the bombs were detonated, and about the aftermath of the bombs, it’s hard to conclude they were necessary.

While there are arguments that can be made to defend the bombing of Hiroshima, the bombing just three days later of the civilians of Nagasaki has increasingly come to be seen by some as a war crime. Do you think that’s fair?

That’s what Hersey felt. When he heard about Hiroshima, he had very mixed feelings about it — he had covered the Pacific theater and had written about “the tenacity of the Japanese soldier” so there was a measure of relief. But when he heard about Nagasaki, he really felt that was a criminal action.

Hersey’s early war coverage was pro-American but also contained racist and demeaning descriptions of the Japanese. How did that influence his writing of Hiroshima?

It’s really rare that anyone changes their mind because to do so you have to admit you were wrong or ill-informed in the first place. Hersey had the character to say, ‘I was wrong,’ and admitted to being ashamed about his initial attitudes. A big part of writing “Hiroshima” was about how the racial dehumanization allowed the use of the bomb in the first place. He felt strongly that the only hope humankind had for survival in the atomic age was to see each other in human terms.

The government felt compelled to respond to Hersey’s article by pushing back with an article by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson. What impact did that have?

It was a very glossy response. It tried to out-Hersey Hersey by seeming to give a dispassionate review of facts, but it never mentioned the radioactive qualities of the bomb and the agonies it inflicted on this largely civilian population. And it never addressed the US government covering up the aftermath and the nature of the aftermath.

Yet it was still partly successful. The predominant feeling today is that the bomb saved lives and ended the war. 

While that’s fairly widely accepted, now people are starting to look more at the human cost of how the war was won — people were not as willing to do that when they had a personal connection to the event or to the era.

Could the Truman Administration have been honest about how devastating the bombs were but said it was necessary to punish the Japanese and send a message to the Soviet Union?

America was sensitive to its global reputation. The war was a hard-earned physical and moral victory, and after the firebombing of Tokyo we were already concerned — as Stimson had said, we didn’t want to ‘get a reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities.’ The government had used experimental mega-weapons without understanding what they would do but it also wanted an unqualified moral victory.

It’s ironic that a government concerned about an unqualified moral victory felt the solution was to lie to the American people.

It didn’t exactly portend well for an honest narrative with the American people going forward when it came to global military affairs.

Hersey thought the bombings themselves and his story prevented further nuclear war. Do you agree?

His writing is one of the pillars of deterrents. But some experts think the dropping of the bomb set off the Cold War and the nuclear arms race that exists to this day and maybe heading into its most dangerous phase yet.

Can this kind of cover-up happen now, or in today’s politics is it all about controlling the narrative?

My book documents a cover-up of a deadly existential threat, and right now we’re looking at a government that is trying to corral CDC statistics to make sure that death toll statistics go to a private company instead of straight to the CDC. It has all the hallmarks of another cover-up.

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“The Beginning or The End” author Greg Mitchell became editor of “The Nuclear Times” in 1982 and, like many in the anti-nukes movement of the 1970s and ’80s, he was initially focused only on stopping the arms race.

But a journalism grant for a monthlong trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where he met with experts and survivors, opened his eyes and re-shaped his career, leading to three books: “Hiroshima in America: A Half-Century of Denial” (with Robert Jay Lifton) and “Atomic Cover-Up” (which he has now made into a documentary), and now “The Beginning or The End,” which recounts Hollywood’s attempt to tell the story of the Manhattan Project, the dropping of the bomb and how the government and military interfered with the film (also called “The Beginning or The End”).

What would “The Beginning or the End” have been like without interference from the White House and General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the development and dropping of the bomb?

MGM originally played it down the middle: We’ll have the military point of view and the scientists’ point of view. The early scripts had a scene with generals touring Hiroshima seeing dead bodies and dead babies and having moral reflections. There was a scene where [atomic scientist] Robert Oppenheimer testified before Congress, warning them about the path we were on.

But once they basically gave script approval to Groves and Truman, they totally lost control. Groves was so involved in every little detail, forcing dozens and dozens of revisions, some of them very minor. They had to re-shoot one whole scene after Truman or his aide saw it, with the actor playing Truman being fired.

Why did the government interfere?

Public opinion really supported the use of the bomb because it seemed like we were facing a drawn-out war and then it ended suddenly, so people said, “Thank god for the atomic bomb.’

But the narrative about Hiroshima and the whole future of nuclear weapons was really still up for grabs. People were very nervous about atomic energy. So there was fear in the government that people could turn against U.S. plans for building more and being the big boss in the postwar world.

There was concern about controlling the narrative. 

People said, “How can you question the military,” but General Eisenhower had been against using the bomb and the government’s Strategic Bombing Survey said it wasn’t necessary. Then Hersey’s article came out and it did pose a threat.

In forcing the script revisions the White House and Groves revealed how defensive they were — there were falsifications, justifications and gilding the lily. They deleted any mention of Nagasaki in the movie — let’s pretend it didn’t happen. It shows either residual guilt or concern that eventually the full story was going to come out about the 200,000 civilians who died, and if we were not right to do it there were going to be massive questions.

What might have happened — to Truman’s presidency, to the atomic age, to the Cold War– if the more honest movie had come out right in the aftermath of Hersey’s article?

You wouldn’t want to put too much on a Hollywood movie, but all those revisions caused delays and it didn’t come out until 1947. It’s possible that coming out in September right after Hersey’s article would have made a big difference. But what makes this story interesting are the steps taking to undermine the movie and how it succeeded.

They won, they set the narrative in stone. It has been chipped away at but it has endured to this day: The majority American opinion is still that the bomb was necessary and the only thing that could have ended World War II.

People don’t know that Truman begged the Russians to enter the war against Japan and they agreed; he had two separate journal entries that indicate that Russian entry alone would end the war soon, absent the bomb. That’s pretty tough evidence. But the media coverage has not changed: Chris Wallace’s book makes the same old tired arguments but it got positive reviews and coverage and hardly anyone in the mainstream media pointed that out.

Does the lack of nuclear attacks since 1945 justify, to any extent, bombing Hiroshima, even if Nagasaki can’t be excused?

That’s mainly rationalizing. We could have released footage of the Trinity test or dropped a bomb in demonstration off the coast of Japan, which is what most of the scientists wanted. And we kept the footage of the aftermath under wraps for decades so it wasn’t like the US was showing these images as a warning. We were trying to cover it up.

The bombs were dropped 75 years ago. Why does it matter now?

The US still has a first-strike policy, which very few people know about. Any president has the okay to use the weapons first, not just in retaliation, but even just because of a threat. So we could attack Iran or North Korea.

Recent polls show 40 to 50 percent of Americans would endorse an attack, which you don’t see elsewhere in the world. The reason is the continued endorsement of the bombings in 1945. People say, ‘We must never use them again’ but justify those because ‘we were trying to end the war and save American lives’ but that will be in play today. Those bombings set a precedent that has not been refuted.

Its an old issue, but that’s only true until we have one nuclear crisis or launch — then its the most important issue ever. We’ll go from, ‘I don’t want to think about it’ to ‘Oh my God, we’re all going to die,’ and that can happen in a heartbeat. So I think it’s worth looking back to move ahead.