In a piece here earlier this week I mentioned the decades-long "coverup" of facts and options related to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima 65 years ago today, including the Truman White House editing the first Hollywood movie about the event. But that censorship of the full impact, and ramifications, of the new weapons began within hours of the first use.
On Aug. 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 64 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 half-truth. Hiroshima did contain an important military base, used as a staging area for Southeast Asia. But the bomb had been aimed at the very center of a city of 350,000, a continuation of the American policy of bombing civilian populations in Japan to undermine the morale of the enemy.
There was something else missing: 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.