In the months after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. government tried to cover up what it had done.

By Susan Southard

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Aerial view of Nagasaki, 1946, eleven months after the dropping of the bomb. Library of Congress.

By the end of 1945, the American military occupation of Japan, under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur, had demobilized the Japanese military, removed pro-military ultranationalists from positions in the Japanese government, abolished Shinto as the state religion and vehicle for nationalistic propaganda, and established a massive American oversight structure to monitor all operations of the Japanese government. In what was perhaps MacArthur’s most controversial occupation policy, Emperor Hirohito was retained as the head of state, contradicting the Allied nations’ “unconditional surrender” terms and countering many U.S. and Allied leaders’ calls for the emperor’s prosecution as a war criminal. MacArthur believed that removing the emperor from his position as the symbol of Japan’s culture and history would destabilize social order, trigger rebellion, and hinder the goals of the occupation; his insistence on preserving the emperor prevailed. Over the next few years, Hirohito had no choice but to allow occupation leaders to transform his relationship to the Japanese people—from that of adulated deity who had inspired passionate loyalty during Japan’s holy war, to pacifist human figurehead who represented “the symbol of the State and unity of the People.”

Hirohito was also compelled to allow MacArthur and his team to practice secretive and oppressive policies that contradicted the democratic values they claimed to promote. An early example was Japan’s new constitution, which MacArthur presented to the Japanese public in March 1946 as a document brought forth by the will and desire of the Japanese people. In reality, however, members of the occupation’s Government Section had secretly drafted the new constitution over the course of a single week; neither the will—nor the knowledge of the Japanese people played a part in the nation’s adoption of its new parliamentary democracy, and Japanese government leaders provided only minor revisions to the document after the fact. In an odd paradox, the new constitution established many human rights for the Japanese people, but the social and economic reforms, individual freedoms, and the establishment of democracy itself were, in effect, forced on Japan by an occupying nation.

Contradicting the new constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression, and its explicit wording that “no censorship shall be maintained,” the occupation’s Civil Censorship Detachment (CCD) carried out broad media restrictions. Staffed by more than 8,700 American and Japanese personnel in Tokyo (as well as in regional offices in northern and southern Japan), the CCD monitored radio and television broadcasts, films, personal mail, and telephone and telegraph communications. From 1945 to 1949—when it suspended its operations—the CCD examined an estimated 15 million pages of print media from 16,500 newspapers, 13,000 periodicals and bulletins, and 45,000 books and pamphlets, plus innumerable photographs, political advertisements, and other documents. Banned subject matter included not only the more obvious topics, such as emperor worship and militaristic fervor, but also any direct or perceived criticism of the United States, its allies, or the occupation government, including the physical damages, death tolls, and injuries caused by U.S. firebombings of Japanese cities.

Across the country, movie theaters could only show films approved after stringent review by the CCD; among other criteria, any challenges to the terms of Japanese surrender, the provisions of the Potsdam Declaration, or the official objectives of the Allied occupation were forbidden. Documentaries about historical events were required to be “truthful,” as defined by occupation authorities. Other subjects barred from media coverage included “overplaying” starvation across the country; black market activities; the differences in living standards between occupation forces and Japanese citizens; and fraternization between U.S. servicemen and Japanese women, including the biracial children born from these encounters. References to U.S. atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific were highly restricted. The Japanese people were prohibited from traveling overseas or communicating with anyone beyond Japan’s borders, limiting their knowledge of world affairs to occupation-approved reports from U.S. or Allied media sources. No reports about (or even allusions to) censorship policies were tolerated, so most Japanese knew nothing of those policies’ existence.

No specific censorship rules referred directly to the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic bombings, but the CCD nonetheless eliminated most statements about the nuclear attacks in print and broadcast journalism, literature, films, and textbooks. Public comments that either justified the United States’ use of the bombs or argued for their inevitability were sometimes permitted, but subjects that continued to be censored included the extent of physical destruction in the two cities; technical details about the bombs’ blasts, heat, and radiation; death and casualty counts; personal testimonies from atomic bomb survivors; and any reportage, photographs, or film footage of survivors suffering from atomic bomb injuries or radiation effects. Even phrases such as “Many innocent people were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki” were banned. Nagasaki named its annual commemoration of the bombing “The Memorial Day for the Restoration of Peace,” calling it a “culture festival” to appease U.S. officials—officials who believed such services to be propaganda tools that indirectly called for U.S. atonement and hindered Allied efforts to promote Japanese war guilt.

Some writings by hibakusha (atomic bomb–affected people) slipped by occupation staff, and were published locally in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; but numerous books written by survivors were blocked from publication, including a small book by fourteen-year-old Ishida Masako, Masako taorezu (Masako Did Not Die), which describes the girl’s memories of the Nagasaki bombing in vivid detail. The CCD felt the book was historically significant, but banned it over concern that it would “tear open war scars and rekindle animosity” toward the United States by tacitly branding the Nagasaki atomic bombing as a crime against humanity.

Also banned was Dr. Nagai’s 1947 Nagasaki no kane (The Bells of Nagasaki), a personal account of the days and months immediately following the bombing, in which Nagai offers the unique perspective of a Catholic physician himself afflicted with radiation disease—including his belief that Nagasaki had been chosen “to expiate the sins committed by humanity in the Second World War.” Although his message reinforced the concepts of Japanese war guilt and repentance—actively promoted by occupation officials—The Bells of Nagasaki was not permitted to be published, for reasons similar to those that led to the banning of Ishida Masako’s book. After numerous appeals, Nagai’s book was finally approved for publication two years later, with the stipulation that it include an extended appendix, written by U.S. military officials, which provided a graphic written and photographic account of Japanese soldiers’ complete destruction of Manila in 1945—including the torture, mutilation, rape, starvation, and burning of innocent women and children. Ironically, the inclusion of this appendix resulted in the inadvertent juxtaposition of the U.S. atomic bombings with Japanese atrocities in the Philippines, which could have been easily construed as a statement of their moral equivalence.

CCD policies also impeded the efforts of hundreds of Japanese scientists and physicians who were racing both to comprehend the nature of survivors’ numerous radiation-related conditions and to develop effective treatment methods. Scientists were already required to obtain permission to conduct studies on the effects of the atomic bombings. Furthermore, on the basis of maintaining “public tranquility” in Japan—and protecting the United States’ exclusive knowledge about the bombs—all Japanese research findings had to be translated into English and submitted to censorship offices, where they were evaluated for clearance or shipped to the United States for additional review, with little hope of being returned. In either case, permission to publish was rarely granted.


In the United States, while the terrifying truth of Japan’s nuclear cataclysm continued to be obscured from American citizens, top U.S. military and government leaders conducted a new, hard-hitting media campaign to justify the use of the bombs and promote public support for further nuclear weapons development. In what social activist A. J. Muste called “a demonstration of . . . the logic of atrocity,” the campaign’s message was delivered through a new round of official denials concerning the impact of large-dose radiation exposure on hibakusha, combined with decisive statements that the bombs were an absolute military necessity that saved innumerable American lives and ended the war. Officials also deflected opposition to the bombs’ use by making repeated statements that fueled U.S. wartime hatred and racism against Japan, and laid the foundation for justifying the bombings as righteous acts against a savage enemy. It is a matter of conjecture whether these efforts were needed to influence American sentiment; in the immediate postwar years, most Americans—even those who felt disquieted by the enormity of harm the bombs had caused—supported the use of the bombs for reasons that included hatred of Japan’s brutality during the war, pervasive anti-Japanese racism, and universal relief that the war was over.

Even so, in order to subvert potential questions about the necessity and morality of the bombs, and to abate disapproval of the nation’s burgeoning nuclear weapons program, U.S. officials continued to limit American media access to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. With few exceptions, news stories out of the decimated areas were abstract and impersonal, focusing on the rebuilding of the cities, rebirth from the atomic ashes, and the potential reconciliation with the United States that—according to American journalists—many atomic bomb victims desired. Reporters typically referenced the atomic bombings in the context of government calls for heightened civil defense policies, appeals for international control of atomic energy, or praise of U.S. scientific ingenuity and achievement. Photographs of the mushroom clouds became the iconic images of the atomic bombings—with no representation of the hundreds of thousands who died and suffered beneath them.

Mainstream journalists rarely challenged the government’s perspective. In early 1946, however, a small number of articles in the national press criticized the nuclear weapons program and examined the ethical dilemmas of the United States’ decision to use the bombs. These articles sparked a heated national debate. No formal opposition movement came together, but later that summer, editorials and commentaries disapproving the bombs’ use on Japan—combined with an increased number of articles and books that explored the hibakusha experience—fostered new dialogue about the ethics of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Public engagement with the hibakusha experience swelled in August, when, in a single issue, the New Yorker published John Hersey’s new work, Hiroshima—a sixty-eight-page account of the Hiroshima atomic bombing through the eyes of six survivors. Hersey, a former war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize–winning fiction writer who had spent three weeks in Hiroshima in the spring of 1946, wrote a vivid nonfiction narrative that captured readers’ imaginations, helping them to see Hiroshima as a real place and empathize with hibakusha as real people with families, homes, and jobs. Hiroshima’s graphic descriptions of instantaneous death, human anguish, and the mysterious symptoms of radiation exposure evoked powerful emotional responses across the United States. The New Yorker issue sold out at shops and newsstands, requests for reprints multiplied, and approximately fifty American newspapers republished the story in serial form. Albert Einstein ordered a thousand copies. The Book-of-the-Month Club distributed hundreds of thousands of copies free to its subscribers because, in the words of club president Harry Scherman: “We find it hard to conceive of anything being written that could be of more importance at this moment to the human race.” ABC Radio broadcast the entire text of Hiroshima in half-hour segments over four weeks. Letters, telegraphs, and postcards—most of which expressed approval of the story—poured into the New Yorker offices. In October, Alfred A. Knopf published Hiroshima in book form; within six months, over a million copies had been sold around the world. In Japan, however, the book was prohibited from publication for another three years over concern that Hersey’s depictions might invite the perception that the bombs were “unduly cruel.”

Apologists for the atomic bombings fought back. Nervous that negative views of their decision to use the bombs might intensify the public sentiment that the atomic attacks were immoral or even criminal, concerned that such sentiments would damage postwar international relations and threaten U.S. nuclear development, and eager to defend the genuine belief that the bombs were necessary, government and military officials hurriedly strategized ways to prevent what they considered “a distortion of history.”

Their efforts worked. In late 1946 and early 1947, two articles by prominent government officials—the first by Karl T. Compton, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a respected physicist who had helped develop the atomic bombs; the second by former secretary of war Henry L. Stimson—offered intelligent and persuasive “behind-the-scenes” perspectives on the decision to use the bombs, which effectively directed focus away from personal stories of people who had actually experienced them, and thereby quelled civic dissent. Referring to atomic bomb dissenters, McGeorge Bundy—a contributor to Stimson’s article, and coauthor of Stimson’s autobiography—remarked, “I think we deserve some sort of medal for reducing these particular chatterers to silence.”


Excerpted from Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House.