Nuclearism and the Legacy of U.S. Media Coverage of Hiroshima

By |2013-02-13T23:03:50-07:00April 21, 2007|

Presented at the “Think Outside the Bomb” National Youth Conference on Nuclear Issues, Washington DC, April 21, 2007

On August 6, 1945, the bomb that we are trying to think outside of here today was used as a weapon of mass destruction for the first time in history. The United States, engaged in a fierce war with Japan, dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, destroying it almost entirely. The blast, heat, and radiation killed more than 140,000 people. The White House delivered the dramatic news about the dawn of the atomic age through a press release of a presidential statement. The press release set the tone for much of the media coverage to come in the final days of the war and the months after. It emphasized vengeance as a motive for bombing Hiroshima. It focused on the technological achievement in producing the bomb. At the same time it omitted any mention of radiation, a key feature of the new weapon. The White House also implied that Hiroshima had been targeted because it had an army base, but failed to mention that the aiming point for the bomb had been the center of a city of more than 300,000 civilians. [1]

After the White House statement, came 14 press releases from the War Department. [2] This concerted government media campaign anticipated the possibility of public controversy. As General Leslie Groves, head of the secret project to build the bomb, put it, “it may be necessary to control the situation by the issuance of carefully written press releases.” [3]

Controlling the situation was exactly what General Groves did. A few months earlier he had hired the New York Times science reporter, William Laurence, to become the bomb’s publicist in waiting. Groves’s investment paid off handsomely. Laurence crafted press releases and stories, many of them rhapsodic, about the exciting dawn of a new scientific age, about the heroic effort to produce and use the bomb, and about the positive aspects of atomic energy. 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. They did this 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.

There has always been a tension between national security and press freedom [4]—one can see this, for example, in how the Bush administration in its early years enjoyed limited critical scrutiny from the press, mostly because of 911 and the threat of terrorism. The limited scrutiny made it easier for the administration to go to war, despite a case for war that was as weak then as it is now. The same tension between security and freedom held true in World War II. The project to build the atomic bomb was understandably never discussed openly. But the Truman administration kept the existence of the bomb a secret until its combat use.

The administration could have chosen a different path. For example, many scientists recommended that the administration disclose the existence of the bomb and at least attempt to force Japanese surrender through a nonlethal demonstration of the bomb’s power. But despite the efforts of some scientists and the misgivings of some Truman administration and military officials, the US dropped the bomb on an unsuspecting enemy. Once they used it, the administration had to justify its use and this is where the American media came in.

Much of the coverage of the first few days after the Hiroshima bombing bore the stamp of William Laurence’s work. [5] Either directly through his New York Times byline or through newspaper stories based on material handed to journalists that Laurence had crafted, the media reflected to a large degree an uncritical pro-bomb viewpoint. News reports noted, for example, that the bomb had obliterated an army base, that science had now harnessed the power of the universe, and that revenge had finally been visited on the Japanese. Initial editorial opinion was almost uniformly supportive of the use of the bomb. [6]

As the Washington Post commented, reflecting a widespread view, “However much we deplore the necessity, a struggle to the death commits all combatants to inflicting a maximum amount of destruction on the enemy…” [7] It wasn’t until eight years later that the Post appeared to take back these words: On the day of his retirement in 1953, Washington Post editor Herb Elliston told a reporter that he had many regrets as he looked back over his tenure. “One thing I regret is our editorial support of the A-bombing of Japan. It didn’t jibe with our expressed feeling [before the bomb was dropped] that Japan was already beaten.” [8]

All in all, the initial coverage of the atomic attack was remarkably faithful to the official, pro-bomb viewpoint. [9] As General Groves commented, “most newspapers published our releases in their entirety.” [10] Perhaps not surprisingly (and reflecting the uncritical wartime mood), the Washington Press Club, soon after the Hiroshima bombing, responded to the news by offering its members a new drink, an Atomic Cocktail. [11]

But Laurence represented a-bomb championing at its most vigilant and enthusiastic. He heralded the bomb in poetic, at times biblical terms. And with his descriptions he helped set the predominant image of the a-bomb and of the atomic era—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:

“Awe-struck, we watched [the pillar of purple fire] shoot upward … becoming ever more alive as it climbed skyward through the clouds…. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes…. [J]ust when it appeared as though the thing has settled down … there came shooting out of the top a giant mushroom…. The mushroom top was even more alive than the pillar, seething and boiling in a white fury of creamy foam… As the first mushroom floated off into the blue it changed its shape into a flowerlike form, its giant petal curving downward, creamy white outside, rose-colored inside.” [12]

In his long New York Times article, which included eight paragraphs on individual crew members and others on the mission, [13] Laurence said virtually nothing about the victims. When he did, it was just to dismiss them:

“Does one feel any pity or compassion for the poor devils about to die? Not when one thinks about Pearl Harbor and the Death March on Bataan.”

Laurence’s dismissal of the victims of the first use of nuclear weapons was not uncommon. 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. [14] Government censorship aided in this marginalization, especially through censorship about radiation and of visual evidence.

The first photograph of Japanese victims appeared in Life magazine about two months after the end of the war. [15] 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 Harbor.” [16] For the most part, photographs of the human cost of the atomic bombings seldom appeared in the American media until the 1950s, [17] by which time they would have had little influence on nuclear policy, which had fully absorbed nuclear arms and power into American military planning and civilian life.

The early media neglect of Japanese victims was reinforced by the lack of emphasis on radiation In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, due partly to censorship. The first serious attempt at explaining what had happened in Japan came from an Australian journalist, Wilfred Burchett. Almost a month after Hiroshima had been bombed, Burchett arrived there and understood the horror of the bomb for the first time. Initially supportive of the bomb’s use, Burchett ultimately rejected nuclear weapons because of what he had seen in Hiroshima. Reporting from the scene of the devastation, his account differed dramatically from that of other journalists:

“In Hiroshima, 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.

“Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller has passed over it and squashed it out of existence. I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world.” [18]

A war correspondent who had reported from many battlefronts, Burchett compared Hiroshima with what he had witnessed elsewhere: “In this first testing ground of the atomic bomb I have seen the most terrible and frightening desolation in four years of war…. When you arrive in Hiroshima you can look around for twenty-five and perhaps thirty square miles. You can see hardly a building. It gives you an empty feeling in the stomach to see such man-made destruction.” [19]

Burchett’s reference to the atomic plague immediately moved the War Department into action. At first they ordered Burchett to leave Japan. Then the camera he had used in Hiroshima mysteriously disappeared. The US occupation authorities claimed that Burchett had been taken in by Japanese propaganda about radiation. [20] They decided to let him stay in Japan and opted instead to deal with his charges about atomic sickness by simply denying that radiation had caused any problems. As a result, a New York Times reporter who had a week earlier reported witnessing sickness and death due to the lingering effects of the atomic bomb simply reversed the truth. He now reported that according to the head of the US atomic mission to Japan the bomb had not produced any “dangerous, lingering radioactivity.” [21] The Washington Post uncritically noted that the atomic mission staff had been unable to find any Japanese person suffering from radiation sickness. [22]

To drive home the point that radiation was not a problem, General Groves invited thirty reporters out to the New Mexico site where the bomb had first been tested two months earlier. This effort paid off with a banner headline in the New York Times: “U.S. Atom Bomb Site Belies Tokyo Tales; Tests on New Mexico Range Confirm That Blast, and Not Radiation, Took Toll,” [23] Life magazine concluded after the escorted tour in New Mexico that no Japanese person could have died as a result of lingering radiation. [24]

In fact, radiation killed thousands of Japanese in the months after the bomb was dropped. The 1960 population census in Japan estimated that the leukemia mortality rate for persons entering Hiroshima within three days of the bombing was three times higher than it was in all of Japan. [25]

The ease with which many reporters went along with official tales about the bomb is evident as well in their acceptance of the bomb’s necessity for ending the war. 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. The last aspect has survived most tenaciously up to the present. According to this view, Truman simply didn’t have any choice except to use the bomb; if he had not, somewhere between half and one million American casualties would have resulted from an invasion of the Japanese homeland. I won’t address this issue here, except to say that historians have picked apart this myth over the years, so much so that even the former chief historian of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls the bomb vs invasion view of history a myth. [26]

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.” [27] Life magazine regularly featured picture spreads and stories about the beauty and splendor of atomic energy and the glory of atomic miracles such as a Million Volt Cancer Treatment. [28] The magazine did this hand in hand with the government. For several years after the war, the photos of atomic images that Life published came mostly from the Army or the Atomic Energy Commission, rather than from its own photographers. [29] In the imagery and narrative that unfolded over time, the magazine implicitly urged its readers to set aside residual fears of atomic weapons—just as the arms race was heating up—and instead focus on the benefits and benevolence of the nuclear establishment. [30] Thus the dual nature of most media coverage—limiting the negative view of Hiroshima and Nagasaki while playing up the positive aspects of nuclearism—not only eased the bomb into American life, but it also eased the way for an all out arms race with the Soviet Union.

As the bomb got absorbed into American life and military planning, the media largely continued to toe the administration’s line about nuclear issues. Nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands and in the American heartland—in places like Nevada—produced little scrutiny. As the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been marginalized, so were the radiation victims in the Marshall Islands and the downwinders at home.

To be sure, the mass media did pose some challenges to the official narrative—John Hersey’s Hiroshima is the premier example. News outlets did publish contrary opinion and information occasionally. [31] But there was no concerted effort to investigate government claims and challenge the view of nuclear weapons that settled into place after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

* * * * * * * *

Having laid out this rather bleak story, I do want to end with a quote from Wilfred Burchett, who along with Hersey and a few others, showed what the media was capable of doing when it sided with humanity rather than with official narratives and nuclear glory: As Burchett put it,

“In visiting Hiroshima, I felt that I was seeing in the last days of [World War 2] what would be the fate of hundreds of cities in a [World War 3]. If that does not make a journalist want to shape history in the right direction, what does?” [32]

Uday Mohan is the Director of Research for American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute.


[1] Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial (New York: Grossett/Putnam, 1995), 5.

[2] Ibid., 10. Compare Lifton and Mitchell’s account with the Department of Energy’s account of the Manhattan Project’s public relations campaign (

[3] Quoted in ibid., 12.

[4 See, especially, Jeffery A. Smith. War and Press Freedom: The Problem of Prerogative Power (New York: Oxford University Press,1999).

[5] For Laurence’s impact, see ibid.; Beverly D. Keever, News Zero: The New York Times and the Bomb (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2004); and Spencer Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[6] Lifton and Mitchell, Hiroshima in America, 24.

[7] Quoted in ibid., 24.

[8] “Elliston Reviews Post’s Role in Tackling Public Problems,” Washington Post, April 20, 1953, 7. For more on journalistic dissent, see Uday Mohan and Leo Maley III, “Orthodoxy and Dissent: The American News Media and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb Against Japan, 1945-1995,” in Cultural Difference, Media Memories: Anglo-American Images of Japan, ed. Phil Hammond (London: Cassell, 1997), and Uday Mohan and Leo Maley III, “Journalists and the Bomb,” op-ed distributed by the History News Service (HNS) in 2000 and published in several US newspapers, including the Atlanta Constitution (published as “Blasting the A-Bomb,” 8/7/00, A11). HNS version available at

[9] An important issue not addressed here is the sense of dread the atomic bomb introduced into American life. News coverage and commentary reflected this sense of dread, but a public conversation about nuclear weapons never developed, partly because the media helped justify the atomic bombing of Japan and legitimize the existence of nuclear weapons.

[10] Lifton and Mitchell, Hiroshima in America, 10.

[11] Allan M. Winkler, Life Under a Cloud: American Anxiety about the Atom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 27.

[12] William L. Laurence, “Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki Told By Flight Member,” New York Times, September 9, 1945, 1 and 35.

[13] Keever, News Zero, 70-71.

[14] This media emphasis was perhaps understandable given the wartime mood, hatred of the Japanese, and government censorship. But at the same time, there were dissenters who suggested that a different perspective was possible regarding the use of the bomb. See references in endnote 8 and Leo Maley III and Uday Mohan, “Time to Confront the Ethics of Hiroshima,” op-ed for History News Service ( published in 2005 in various U.S. newspapers; Uday Mohan and Leo Maley III, “Hiroshima: Military Voices of Dissent,” op-ed for History News Service ( published in 2001 in various U.S. newspapers; and Leo Maley III and Uday Mohan, “Second-Guessing Hiroshima,” op-ed for History News Service ( published in 1998 in various U.S. newspapers.

[15] George H. Roeder Jr., “Making Things Visible: Learning from the Censors,” in Laura Hein and Mark Selden, eds., Living with the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts in the Nuclear Age (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 93.

[16] Quoted in ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Quoted in Richard Tanter, “Voice and Silence in the First Nuclear War: Wilfred Burchett and Hiroshima,” in Ben Kiernan, ed., Burchett Reporting the Other Side of the World, 1939-1983 (London: Quartet, 1986), 18.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Amy Goodman with David Goodman, “Hiroshima Cover-Up: How the War Department’s Timesman Won a Pulitzer,” in Goodman with Goodman, The Exceptions to the Rulers (New York: Hyperion, 1994), 295.

[21] Lawrence’s September 5, 1945 article quoted and described in Goodman with Goodman, “Hiroshima Cover-Up,” 299-300. However, Lawrence does note in his later article that the atomic mission chief confirmed that some Japanese had died because of low counts of white corpuscles, rather than from blast- or burn-related wounds: William H. Lawrence, “No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Ruin; What Our Superfortresses Did to a Japanese Plane Production Center,” New York Times, September 13, 1945. 4. Three days earlier, Lawrence had largely dismissed Japanese claims of the lingering dangers from the atomic attack, but did note that a Dutch medical officer had confirmed that “some persons” (presumably referring to Allied POWs) had died from a “mysterious relapse” and that four Dutch soldiers had died both of their wounds and uranium after-effects: Lawrence, “Atom Bomb Killed Nagasaki Captives; 8 Allied Prisoners Victims– Survivor Doubts After-Effect,” New York Times, September 10, 1945, 1.

[22] “Radioactivity at Hiroshima Discounted,” Washington Post, September 13, 1945, 2.

[23] William L. Laurence, “U.S. Atom Bomb Site Belies Tokyo Tales; Tests on New Mexico Range Confirm That Blast, and Not Radiation, Took Toll,” New York Times, September 12, 1945. 1 and 4.

[24] Lifton and Mitchell, Hiroshima in America, 52.

[25] Tanter, “Voice and Silence in the First Nuclear War,” 26.

[26] See J. Samuel Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 5-6. For detailed accounts of the decision to use the bomb, see Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (New York: Knopf, 1995) and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).

[27] Quoted in Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon), 123.

[28] Peter Bacon Hales, “The Mass Aesthetic of Holocaust: American Media Construct the Atomic Bomb,” Tokyo Daigaku Amerika Kenkyu Shiryo Senta Ninpo 17 (March 1996): 10.

[29] Ibid., 10.

[30 Ibid., 11.

[31] A few U.S. officials and leaders responded to these challenges with an article intended to silence the critics. Henry Stimson, who had been secretary of war under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, responded with a seemingly authoritative essay (written with the assistance of General Groves, Harvard University President James Conant, and others): “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” published in the February 1947 issue of Harper’s. For background on the intent behind and drafting of this article, see Barton J. Bernstein, “Seizing the Contested Terrain of Early Nuclear History: Stimson, Conant, and Their Allies Explain the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” Diplomatic History 17 (Winter 1993), 35-72; James Hershberg, James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (New York: Knopf, 1993), 279-304; and Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, 445-492.

[32] Quoted in Tanter, “Voice and Silence in the First Nuclear War,” 37.