William L. Laurence earned the nickname “Atomic Bill” several times over. As I’ve explored here in the past, he was Pulitizer-winning New York Times science reporter who became embedded with the Manhattan Project and followed its creation of the first atomic bombs at several sites around the United States. As the first use of the new weapon against Japan neared, he wrote several lengthy articles glorifying the Bomb and the men who made it, which were published, with overwheming impact, by his paper (and others) starting on August 7, 1945.
Then, on August 9, he observed the atomic bombing of Nagasaki from one of the support planes. Sixty-six years ago this week, he wrote about that for the Times—again, an account that expressed wonderment and pride in the death-dealing device. As always, Laurence provided colorful depictions of the bomb’s blast and visual effects with little focus on its startling radiation dangers.
Less well-known is another Laurence project, which also took place sixty-six years ago this week.
To that point, US officials had downplayed Japanese casualties in the two atomic cities and largely pooh-poohed Japanese “propaganda” claims on the lingering effects of radiation exposure and accounts of thousands perishing from some new “plague.” It was the beginning of the decades-long suppression of key evidence, including all film footage shot in the two cities (as I probe in my new book, Atomic Cover-up).
A confluence of events on September 9, 1945, suggests that American officials, right up to the White House, had indeed initiated a public-relations campaign to counter the first rumors from Hiroshima. The War Department, after weeks of delay, finally allowed the New York Times to publish the exultant first-person account of the Nagasaki bombing mission by W.L. Laurence.
The same day, Laurence happened to be touring the Trinity test site, where the United States tested its first atomic weapon on July 16, with General Leslie Groves and physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (left, on that day, in the crater). The top-secret area finally had been opened to journalists.
Two weeks earlier, President Truman’s secretary, Charles G. Ross, had sent a memo to the War Department urging the military to recruit a group of reporters to explore the test site. “This might be a good thing to do in view of continuing propaganda from Japan,” Ross wrote.
Now General Groves was personally escorting some of the newsmen near ground zero. His driver, a young soldier named Patrick Stout, spent several minutes in the crater of the blast and was photographed, smiling.
Laurence’s account of this visit (delayed three days due to a censorship review) disclosed quite frankly why he and thirty other journalists had been invited: to “give lie to” Japanese propaganda “that radiations were responsible for deaths even after” the Hiroshima attack, as he wrote.
General Groves had expressly asked the reporters to assist him in this effort, and they did not disappoint him. Geiger counters showed that surface radiation, after nearly two months, had “dwindled to a minute quantity, safe for continuous human habitation,” Laurence asserted. He did introduce one bit of contrary information: the reporters had been advised to wear canvas overshoes to protect against radiation burns.
But Laurence was keeping a lot to himself. Embedded with the Manhattan Project for months, he was the only reporter who knew about the fallout scare surrounding the Trinity test: scientists in jeeps chasing a radioactive cloud, Geiger counters clicking off the scale, a mule that became paralyzed. Here was the nation’s leading science reporter, severely compromised, not only unable but disinclined to reveal all he knew about the potential hazards of the most important scientific discovery of his time.
The press tour, in fact, had “an oddly reassuring effect,” the New York Times observed in an editorial. Later, a scientist informed the young soldier, Patrick Stout, who stood in the crater during the press tour, that he had been exposed to dangerous levels of radioactivity. Twenty-two years later Stout became ill and was diagnosed with leukemia. The military, apparently acknowledging radiation as the cause, granted him “service-connected” disability compensation. Stout died in 1969.
W.L. Laurence would win another Pulitzer for his Bomb-related reporting in 1945.
Greg Mitchell’s latest book and e-book is Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki and the Greatest Movie Never Made.
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