Connecting History

Connecting History logo


Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

Journalists and the Bomb

by Uday Hohan and Leo Maley III on Aug 1, 2000


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.