Journalists and the Bomb

Every August, the American news media note the anniversary of one of the most important events of the twentieth century–the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities. Most reporters and commentators who write about Hiroshima and Nagasaki uncritically support the popular assumption that the use of atomic bombs was absolutely necessary to end the war and save American lives. Many journalists also proclaim the widely-held but mistaken notion that only untrustworthy "revisionists" or members of the irresponsible 1960s generation have criticized the atomic bombings.

If the news media's uncritical acceptance of mass violence wasn't disturbing enough, its fondness for name-calling and half-baked historical theorizing threatens to prematurely close the debate on a deeply disturbing moment in American history.

American news analysts once knew better. In fact, many influential journalists concluded in 1945 and soon after that the use of the atomic bomb was both immoral and unnecessary. Even those with close ties to military and political leaders didn't hesitate to go public with their critical views. Consider the following:

David Lawrence, the conservative editor of U.S. News & World Report, wrote within days of the Hiroshima bombing that Japanese surrender had appeared inevitable for weeks. The claim of "military necessity," he argued, rang hollow. Official justifications would "never erase from our minds the simple truth that we . . . did not hesitate to employ the most destructive weapon of all times indiscriminately against men, women and children."

A few months later, one of the most popular radio commentators during the war years, Raymond Swing, declared in an ABC broadcast that the Japanese had been "looking for an opportunity to surrender, and the testimony of various Japanese leaders indicates that some other excuses would have been found at an early date even if the atomic bomb had not been dropped."

Henry Luce, the owner of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, raised critical questions about the atomic bombings in the late 1940s. In a 1948 speech Luce stated: "If, instead of our doctrine of 'unconditional surrender,' we had all along made our conditions clear, I have little doubt that the war with Japan would have ended soon without the bomb explosion which so jarred the Christian conscience."

Hanson Baldwin, military editor of The New York Times, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a staunch cold warrior, argued in a 1950 Atlantic Monthly article that ". . . the Japanese would have surrendered even if the bomb had not been dropped, had the [Allied declaration at Potsdam] included our promise to continue the Emperor upon his throne."

On the day of his retirement in 1953, Washington Post editor Herb Elliston was asked by his newspaper, "Any regrets, now that you're out from under the daily deadline pressure?" Elliston replied, "Oh yes, plenty. One thing I regret is our editorial support of the A-bombing of Japan. It didn't jibe with our expressed feeling [before the bomb was dropped] that Japan was already beaten."

In 1960 Walter Lippmann, perhaps the most respected and influential newspaper commentator of all time, added his voice to the list of prominent media dissenters when he remarked on a CBS television program, "Japan was ready for surrender before we dropped the bombs. And in my view, we should have negotiated a surrender before we dropped them. One of the things I look back on with the greatest regret, as an American, is that we were the ones that first dropped atomic bombs."

In his 1991 memoir another New York Times journalist, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Pulitzer Prize winner James Reston, explained that "the diplomatic course was inadequately explored before the military strategy was accepted."

These are but some of the prominent media voices that were once critical of America's use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They appear in stark contrast to the now common media stereotype that opposition to the atomic bombings emerged only in the 1960s, or that critics must, necessarily, be pacifists, "revisionists," or disgruntled members of the Sixties generation.

Renewed notice of the mostly forgotten comments of such influential news analysts of an earlier generation should prompt today's journalists to rethink their uncritical acceptance of the conventional wisdom they so often dish out to the public on Hiroshima anniversaries. Only in this way will Americans be able to honestly and critically confront one of the most disturbing episodes in our nation's past.

Uday Hohan, a writer for the History News Service, is a graduate student at American University who is researching and writing about Hiroshima and American culture. 

Leo Maley III, a writer for the History News Service, is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he is researching and writing about Hiroshima and American culture.