Those who defend the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki often claim their case is clear, obvious, airtight. One has to ask, then: If true, why did so much effort for so many years—from the government, the military, the media and even from the movie industry—go into keeping certain key facts and images about the bombings from the American people?
In articles here for the past week, to mark the sixty-fifth anniversary of the atomic attacks, I have explored elements of the wide-ranging "coverup" as it emerged from the White House, the military censors in Tokyo and in Hollywood. Now here’s one of the most far-ranging, and significant, elements in the entire shaping of the "Hiroshima narrative."
In the weeks following the atomic attacks on Japan, and then for decades afterward, the United States engaged in airtight suppression of all film shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings. This included rare color footage shot by US military crews and Japanese newsreel teams.
The general public did not see any of the newsreel footage for twenty-five years, and the US military film remained hidden for nearly four decades. I first probed the coverup back in 1983, and developed it further in later articles and in my 1995 book with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America and in a 2005 documentary Original Child Bomb.
As editor of Nuclear Times in the early 1980s, I met Herbert Sussan, one of the members of the US military film crew. The color US military footage would remain hidden until the early 1980s, and has never been fully aired. It rests today at the National Archives in College Park, Md., in the form of 90,000 feet of raw footage labeled #342 USAF. I have a VHS copy of most of it today.
When that footage finally emerged, I spoke with and corresponded with the man at the center of this drama: Lt. Col. Daniel A. McGovern, who directed the US military film-makers in 1945-1946, managed the Japanese footage, and then kept watch on all of the top-secret material for decades.
"I always had the sense," McGovern (left) told me, "that people in the Atomic Energy Commission were sorry we had dropped the bomb. The Air Force—it was also sorry. I was told by people in the Pentagon that they didn’t want those [film] images out because they showed effects on man, woman and child.… They didn’t want the general public to know what their weapons had done—at a time they were planning on more bomb tests. We didn’t want the material out because…we were sorry for our sins."
Sussan, meanwhile, struggled for years to get some of the American footage aired on national TV, taking his request as high as President Truman, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward R. Murrow, to no avail.
More recently, McGovern declared that Americans should have seen the damage wrought by the bomb. "The main reason it was classified was…because of the horror, the devastation," he said. Because the footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was hidden for so long, the atomic bombings quickly sank, unconfronted and unresolved, into the deeper recesses of American awareness, as a costly nuclear arms race, and nuclear proliferation, accelerated.