CARACAS The atomic bomb that was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima 60 years ago, on Aug. 6, 1945, may have been the most crucial event of the 20th century. But it was not the top news story.
That was because censorship and the manipulative media treatment of the tragic event, managed by Washington and Tokyo, greatly muffled the impact of the catastrophe and made the press an accomplice in the war.
These conclusions are reached by a book written by Venezuelan journalist Silvia González, a researcher at the College of Mexico. Hiroshima, la noticia que nunca fue (roughly “Hiroshima, the News Report That Never Was”) focuses on the bombing and its aftermath to demonstrate how news is censored and manipulated in times of conflict.
Six decades later, “manipulative practices are still repeated, at the direction of those in power, and the media disseminates inaccurate, hasty, exaggerated or biased reports, or just plain rumours, that can affect public perception even in the long term,” said González in an interview with IPS.
At 8:12 AM on Aug. 6, 1945, as World War II was coming to an end, the U.S. B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped the uranium bomb nicknamed Little Boy, which detonated around 300 metres over Hiroshima in order to make it even more lethal producing an explosion that was the equivalent of 12,000 tons of dynamite.
More than 80,000 of Hiroshima’s 250,000 people are estimated to have been killed that day, and at least 60,000 died in the following weeks, as they fell victim to burns from the radiation and the fires caused by the bomb.
Three days later, the United States dropped a second nuclear explosive a plutonium bomb nicknamed “Fat Man” on the southern Japanese port city of Nagasaki, claiming another 80,000 lives and forcing Japan to an unconditional surrender.
On Aug. 7, 1945, newspapers in Japan merely printed short articles reporting that B-29 planes had dropped incendiary bombs on Hiroshima, causing some damage.
In the United States, by contrast, there was intense coverage. “The New York Times alone, the day after the bomb was dropped, used the words atom and atomic 209 times,” according to González’s study.
The United States had already lived through an initial phase of officially imposed silence, since the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb got underway in 1942.
On Jun. 28, 1943, the U.S. government’s Office of Censorship circulated a confidential document to editors and broadcasters around the nation, forbidding dissemination of any information regarding war experiments involving “atom smashing, atomic energy, atomic fission, atomic splitting, or any of their equivalents.”
But after Aug. 6, 1945 there was a shift in policy, in order for the media to back up the effort to secure a Japanese surrender.
According to González, restrictions on the dissemination of information prior to the atomic bomb attacks and U.S. laws that provided for the strictest penalties for anyone who published reports, photos or other information that could harm U.S. interests allowed Washington to keep a tight lid on certain developments, like a Jun. 11, 1945 proposal addressed by a group of scientists to President Harry S. Truman.
The “Franck Report,” produced by a panel of seven scientists chaired by James Franck (1925 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics), recommended that the bomb’s overwhelming destructive power be demonstrated “before the eyes of representatives of all United Nations, on the desert or a barren island,” in order to scare Japan into surrendering.
“The success which we have achieved in the development of nuclear power is fraught with infinitely greater dangers than were all the inventions of the past,” the report warned.
But González pointed out that “neither Congress nor the media, society, or even political circles close to those in power had access to the report,” and Truman gave the order for the Enola Gay to drop the bomb, “reaching his decision without taking into account the principle of participation, which is supposed to be a fundamental value in any democracy.”
In Japan, meanwhile, the country’s leading nuclear physicist Yoshio Nishina quickly reported that the explosion in Hiroshima was a nuclear attack. The Japanese military command, however, ordered the media not to use that term, but to simply state that the destruction was caused by “a new kind of bomb.”
In the wake of Tokyo’s Aug. 15 surrender, when Japan was occupied by U.S. troops, all press reports referring to atomic energy, nuclear bombs or their effects on the civilian population were strictly censored.
By the summer of 1946, the censorship office in Japan had grown to the extent that it employed 6,000 people, who pored over and listened in on all kinds of communication, from letters and telephone conversations to movies and billboards. The press was censored both prior to and after publication.
Not only were journalists unable to exercise their right to obtain information in this specific case, on the atomic bombs and their effects but freedom of speech was also curtailed as they were not allowed to print what information they did come across.
“Reporters were unable to live up to the public’s right to be informed; they were both victims and accomplices,” said González.
For her book, González sent a survey to 400 journalists, including 180 from the United States, 180 from Japan, and 40 from other countries. From a list of 15 key 20th century developments, 78 percent of the reporters selected the bombing of Hiroshima as the most crucial event.
Similar results were found in earlier surveys by Newseum, an interactive news museum in Washington, D.C., and the AP news agency, which reported that the tragedy in Hiroshima may have been the top news story of the 20th century.
But the problem, González noted, is that it wasn’t. “There are so many stories that were never told, personal accounts that were never written, and which even today remain buried with the victims. The news of what had happened was covered up for days, months, and finally years, until it was completely silenced.”
In her view, journalists must “investigate in order to know, know in order to report, and report in order to create awareness.”