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SPECIAL REPORT: Atomic Film Coverup -- Key Footage from Hiroshima Buried for Decades
- Categorized in: Hiroshima
The Nation / Greg Mitchell 12 August 2010
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 65th 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 U.S. military crews and Japanese newsreel teams.
The general public did not see any of the newsreel footage for 25 years, and the U.S. 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 U.S. military film crew. The color U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
In 2005, articles written by famed Chicago Daily News war correspondent George Weller about the effects of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki were finally published, in Japan, almost six decades after they had been spiked by U.S. officials. (I wrote about that here a few days ago.) But suppressing film footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was even more significant, as this country rushed into the nuclear age with its citizens having neither a true understanding of the effects of the bomb on human beings, nor why the atomic attacks drew condemnation around the world. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower himself later said it was not necessary to hit Japan "with that awful thing."
The atomic cover-up also reveals what can happen in any country that carries out deadly attacks on civilians in any war (such as Japan's policy in China in World War II) and then keeps images of what occurred from its own people.
The Japanese Newsreel Footage
On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb over the center of Hiroshima, killing at least 70,000 civilians instantly and probably 50,000 more in the days and months to follow. Three days later, it exploded another atomic bomb over Nagasaki, slightly off target, killing 40,000 immediately and dooming tens of thousands of others. Within days, Japan had surrendered, and the U.S. readied plans for occupying the defeated country -- and documenting the first atomic catastrophe.
But the Japanese also wanted to study it. Within days of the second atomic attack, officials at the Tokyo-based newsreel company Nippon Eigasha discussed shooting film in the two stricken cities. In early September, just after the Japanese surrender, and as the American occupation began, director Sueo Ito set off for Nagasaki. There his crew filmed the utter destruction near ground zero and scenes in hospitals of the badly burned and those suffering from the lingering effects of radiation.
On Sept. 15, another crew headed for Hiroshima. When the first rushes came back to Toyko, Akira Iwasaki, the chief producer, felt "every frame burned into my brain," he later said.
At this point, the American public knew little about conditions in the atomic cities beyond Japanese assertions that a mysterious affliction was attacking many of those who survived the initial blasts (claims that were largely taken to be propaganda). Newspaper photographs of victims were non-existent, or censored. Life magazine would later observe that for years "the world...knew only the physical facts of atomic destruction."
Tens of thousands of American GIs occupied the two cities. Because of the alleged absence of residual radiation, no one was urged to take precautions. This remains perhaps the last little-told story of World War II.
Then, on October 24, 1945, a Japanese cameraman in Nagasaki was ordered to stop shooting by an American military policeman. His film, and then the rest of the 26,000 feet of Nippon Eisasha footage, was confiscated by the U.S. General Headquarters (GHQ). An order soon arrived banning all further filming. It was at this point that Lt. Daniel McGovern took charge.
Read full text with photos including:
Shooting the U.S. Military Footage...
The Suppression Begins...
The Japanese Footage Emerges...
The American Footage Comes Out...
Greg Mitchell writes the popular Media Fix blog for The Nation. . He is co-author of Hiroshima in America. His latest book is "Why Obama Won." His Twitter feed is @GregMitch. His email is: email@example.com