Nagasaki, which lost over 70,000 civilians (and just a few military personnel) to a new weapon just over sixty-six years ago, has always been the Forgotten A-Bomb City. No one ever wrote a bestselling book called Nagasaki, or made a film titled Nagasaki, Mon Amour. Yet in some ways, Nagasaki is the modern A-bomb city. For one thing, when the plutonium bomb exploded above Nagasaki it made the uranium-type bomb dropped on Hiroshima obsolete. In fact, if it had not exploded off-target the death toll in the city would have easily topped the Hiroshima total.
But Nagasaki was “forgotten” from the very start, thanks to a blatant act of press censorship.
One of the great mysteries of the nuclear age was solved just six years ago: What was in the censored, and then lost to the ages, newspaper articles filed by the first reporter to reach Nagasaki following the atomic attack on that city on August 9, 1945.
The reporter was George Weller, the distinguished correspondent for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News. His startling dispatches from Nagasaki, which could have affected public opinion on the future of the bomb, never emerged from General Douglas MacArthur’s censorship office in Tokyo. It was part of a decades-long suppression program that I focus on in my new book Atomic Cover-Up.
Carbon copiesof the stories were found in 2003 when his son discovered them after the reporter’s death. Four of them were published in 2005 for the first time by the Tokyo daily Mainichi Shimbun, which purchased them from the son, Anthony Weller. I was first to report on this in the United States.
The articles published in Japan (and later included in a book assembled by Anthony Weller, First Into Nagasaki) revealed a remarkable and wrenching turn in Weller’s view of the aftermath of the bombing, which anticipates the profound unease in our nuclear experience ever since. “It was remarkable to see that shifting perspective,” Anthony Weller told me.
An early article that George Weller filed, on September 8, 1945—two days after he reached the city, before any other journalist—hailed the “effectiveness of the bomb as a military device,” as his son describes it, and made no mention of the bomb’s special, radiation-producing properties.
But later that day, after visiting two hospitals and shaken by what he saw, he described a mysterious “Disease X” that was killing people who had seemed to survive the bombing in relatively good shape. A month after the atomic inferno, they were passing away pitifully, some with legs and arms “speckled with tiny red spots in patches.”
The following day he again described the atomic bomb’s “peculiar disease” and reported that the leading local X-ray specialist was convinced that “these people are simply suffering” from the bomb’s unknown radiation effects.
Anthony Weller, a novelist, told me that it was one of great disappointments of his father’s life that these stories, “a real coup,” were killed by MacArthur who, George Weller felt, “wanted all the credit for winning the war, not some scientists back in New Mexico.”
Others have suggested that the real reason for the censorship was the United States did not want the world to learn about the morally troubling radiation effects for two reasons: It aimed to avoid questions raised about the use of the weapon in 1945, or its wide scale development in the coming years. In fact, an official “coverup” of much of this information—involving print accounts, photographs and film footage—continued for years, even, in some cases, decades.