When Truman opened the nuclear era — with a lie

Greg Mitchell writes:

On August 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 sixty-six 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 lie. Hiroshima was not an “army base” but a city of 350,000. It did contain one important military base, but the bomb had been aimed at the very center of a city (and far from its industrial area). This was a continuation of the American policy of bombing civilian populations in Japan to undermine the morale of the enemy. It was also to take advantage of what those who picked the targed called the special “focusing effect” provided by the hills which surrounded the city on three sides. This would allow the blast to bounce back on the city, destroying more of it, and its citizens.

The vast majority of the dead in Hiroshima would not be military personnel and defense workers but women and children.

There was something else missing in Truman’s announcement: 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, August 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 US newspaper carried all or parts of fourteen 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.”

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2 thoughts on “When Truman opened the nuclear era — with a lie

  1. Ian Arbuckle

    Every year at this time I refer people who have not read it, to John Pilger’s short article in 2008 :
    “The lies of Hiroshima are the lies of today”

    The lies never end. Some people still believe 64 year old lies while being served new ones every day. Yet few mentions that what Japan was really feared and hated for was their unshakable belief in their emperor, their belief in their national superiority, and their solidarity to the point of providing school age sons to Kamikaze naval squadrons to voluntarily give their lives to their country and Emperor in suicide missions.

    When considering, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and every other field of US or NATO engagement, it is good to remember that all wars are based on lies and propaganda.

    NHK World TV , available on satellite and cable services around the world is presently running an excellent 13 part series called the “August Chronicles” which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in a factual perspective of the history of the Pacific War also based on newly available documents.

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

  2. BillVZ

    “People go crazy in wars, wanting to kill the enemy. If Japan had owned an A-bomb we might have used it. Arguing about the past is nonsense. Now we have to co-operate to abolish all nukes.”Keijiro Matsushima- Hiroshima resident and survivor.

    All of us are residents in the present world nuclear age. Members of the nuclear club have more than enough WMD’s to destroy civilization. North Korea and the United States both have preemptive-first strike policies. Both counties suffer dire economic straits and both have a lack of leadership in its foreign policies. Israel, Pakistan and India sit on nuclear arsenals. Iran and Saudi allegedly are wannabes. Any war could unexpectedly blossom in to nuclear confrontation.
    Obviously, as you remind, it is in our (we the people) best interest to view War by remembering the lies and propaganda all WAR (s) are based on. Remembering is a given but real confrontation through mass dissent with the war mongers and their governments is another level not yet reached.

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