August 09, 2010

Hiroshima Spin

On the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing we were once again bombarded by those commentators that feel that the bombing was a mistake. But what if those in power at the time didn't know what they were unleashing? What if Truman who was kept in the dark about the Manhattan Project until after the death of Roosevelt wasn't fully informed about the effects of the bomb? What if General Groves who was in charge of the project was  under the impression that the bomb was merely a larger version of a conventional explosive device?
George Washington University has the archives of the Manhattan Project and several years ago I had the opportunity to wade through some of this material and what I discovered tends to support the proposition that those at the top just didn't know about the radiological after effects and as a results were forced to spin the grizzly realities of the bomb into a narrative that the public could more easily digest.

General Leslie Groves’ Hiroshima Spin

Only three weeks after the first atomic bombs devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945, disturbing reports were making their way into the press, describing a mysterious illness and the death of survivors of the bombings. People that were apparently uninjured by the bomb were still dying by the hundreds. Radio Tokyo described Hiroshima as “…a city of death. Ninety percent of its houses in which 250,000 had lived were instantly crushed. Now it is peopled by the ghost parade, the living doomed to die of radioactivity burns” (NSA Doc. 76).

By August 25th the news had reached the office of General Leslie Groves. These reports were of particular concern to the man that had overseen the project to bring the atomic bomb to fruition. Being unable to reach Dr. Ferry of the Human Radiation Experiment Program, Groves made an urgent call to his old friend and personal physician Lt. Colonel Charles Rea at the Oak Ridge Tennessee Hospital. He was desperately searching for answers to counter the reports coming out of Japan. Both men were convinced that what was being reported was “propaganda” and they were sure that the injuries being reported were just a case of “good thermal burns” (NSA Doc. 76).

Lt. Colonel Rea in a second call to General Groves that day admitted,” We do know what some of the effects are”, and concluded: “I think you ought to get the anti-propagandists out” (quoted. in Lifton 46). The bomb's secret was gradually becoming evident.

The appearance that the General was surprised by the reports of radiation deaths at the bombing sites raises questions of the government’s knowledge of the effects of radiation. Perhaps more importantly, was the knowledge simply ignored or suppressed for the sake of the project?

For four years Groves had been in control of the largest and costliest government project ever devised. Compartmentalized and spread out over dozens of installations and universities throughout the country, it was concealed from the public and run with the utmost secrecy. Most of those involved had no idea that what they were working on was for an atomic bomb. It is possible that the shroud of secrecy that had enveloped the project had, in effect, isolated Groves from the radiation information.

Radiation was not a new phenomenon in the world of 1945, as early as 1905 radium was being taunted as a cure for cancer. It was widely reported that doctors that were using radium were developing skin cancers as they handled the new found substance with little or no protection. In a well-publicized case in the 1920s, lawsuits were brought against the US Radium Company, a defense contractor, by a group that came to known as the “Radium Girls”. As employees of US Radium, the girl’s jobs were to paint luminescent radium paint onto the dials of watches. For fun, the Radium Girls painted their nails, teeth and faces with the deadly paint produced at the factory. Many of the women later began to suffer from anemia, bone fractures and necrosis of the jaw (Wikipedia).

New York Times Reporter Waldemar Kaempffert reported in 1946 that the government began studying the effects of neutron radiation, the type of radiation associated with the atomic bomb in 1938 at the Biomedical Research Foundation. Radiation testing on animals had been going on for some time and as Kaempffert stated; “The foundation was in a position to know what was likely to happen physiologically in Japan” (Kaempffert). Even more insidious are indications that there were also human radiation experiments being directed by the scientist of the Manhattan Project itself:

…six subjects drank a solution of water, hydrochloric acid, and plutonium at the University of Chicago. Patients at three university hospitals in the U.S. were injected with plutonium. It is alleged that the patients were part of a secret research project sponsored by the Manhattan Engineer District (MED), the government agency responsible for the production of atomic weapons (Advisory Committee).
We have to conclude that radiological effects were well known in 1945 and there is evidence that in May of that year J.R. Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Projects Scientific Research Team, sent a memo to General Groves’ assistant, General Ferrell, describing in detail the effects of the radiation that would be released upon detonation (NSA Doc. 5). However, there is no indication that Groves received the memo.

General Groves had worked closely with Openhiemer and he was there for the detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb at the “Trinity Test” in New Mexico. In his own report of “Trinity” to the Military Chiefs of Staff, he goes so far as to suggest, “No damaging effects are anticipated on the ground from radioactive materials” (NSA Doc 45). If Groves knew of the radiation effects, his actions before and immediately after the bombs were dropped certainly didn’t reflect that knowledge.

Just as he had controlled all aspects of the bomb project Groves would work to control the public's impression of the bomb. Groves immediately dispatched General Ferrell to Japan to take a first hand look at the situation and the first dispatch was not encouraging. On 10 September 1945 Ferrell reported, “Summaries of Japanese reports previously sent are essentially correct as to clinical effects of single gamma radiation dose” (NSA Doc. 77-a).

After Japans surrender, General MacArthur Supreme Allied Commander in the pacific theatre instituted a news blackout in Japan and all news going out of the country had to pass through military censors. Australian reporter Wilfred Burchette, not satisfied with the military tour of selected sites and looking for a scoop, set out on his own to get the rest of the story. He secretly made his way by train to Hiroshima. He found his way to one of the hospitals and what he discovered would shock him. Burchete, sitting in the ruble of Hiroshima near ground zero, penned a story that would awaken the world to the horrors of the bomb. Miraculously his article would somehow make it past the military censors and onto the front page of the London Daily Express:

In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying mysteriously and horribly- people who were uninjured in the cataclysm-from an unknown something, which I can only describe as the atomic plague… I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world….( Lifton 48)
Groves had hired New York Times science writer William L.Laurence several months before the bombing. He had been given extraordinary access to the project and was aboard the plane that delivered the second bomb to Nagasaki. A respected Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Laurence turned out to be an enthusiastic public relations man for the bomb. Initially the job of controlling the press and public opinion was simple. Lawrence anonymously wrote the governments press releases and since they were the only information available most papers ran whatever information the government issued. Laurence’s talents would be called upon again.

In early September Groves arranged to open the Trinity test site in New Mexico to the media. Journalists were given a tour of the site, and in a New York Times article published September 9th 1945, with the byline of William L. Laurence, the government solidified its story of the bomb. Laurence reported that even though radiation was still present, the site was safe for habitation just as in Hiroshima. Even though radiation killed some people, the amount was small compared to the number that died as a result of the blast and fireball. Contrary to the Ferrell reports, Groves agreed that although Japanese accounts were basically accurate; our scientist refuted them as exaggerations and propaganda. General Groves’ quote in that article would become the official mantra of the government:

While many people were killed many lives were saved, particularly American lives. It ended the war sooner. It was the final punch that knocked them out. Otherwise they might have kept on fighting for a longer period (Laurence).
President Truman, who would carry the biggest moral burden for the decision to drop the bomb, would quickly adopt Groves’ mantra. Although his quoted number of lives saved would increase over the years, Truman would faithfully recite the line throughout the rest of his life. He staunchly defended his decision and whenever he was asked about a new theory questioning the need for using the bomb he would dismiss them as Monday morning quarterbacking (Lifton 175).

The American military men in the pacific, relieved that their lives were spared in a fight for the Japanese homeland were grateful for the bomb and were willing to embrace it as their Savior. If it saved one American life it was worth whatever the cost. In 1946, historian Allan Nevins reflected that attitude. The Army was ready in the Pacific, but happily it never had to meet it’s most fearful test -a death grapple with the still unbeaten two million Japanese warriors mustered in the home islands, and the million on the Asiatic continent. Navy, air power and the atomic bomb saved us from that bloody ordeal (Boyer 185).

A war weary American public filtered whatever moral dilemma they felt about the bomb through the official dogma and justified it as payback for the loss of a loved one or the viciousness of the enemy. William L Laurence summed up the feelings of many when he wrote about his experiences on the plane to Nagasaki, “Does one feel any pity or compassion for the poor devils about to die? Not when one thinks about Pearl Harbor or the Death March on Bataan” (Boyer 195).

Some scientists on the Manhattan Project appealed to the President for a world demonstration of the bomb. But by 1946 most scientists remained silent on the subject and felt is was “Water over the dam” (Boyer 193). The Wilfred Burchett piece was one of the few to speak out against the bomb. There were also peace activists of the day, most notably Dwight MacDonald, that realized the moral significance of the bomb and spoke out against it from the start, but their voices were in a minority.

Groves’ story reflected the attitude of the American people at that time. In hindsight it would be easy to second-guess the myriad of decisions that were made after Albert Einstein first proposed the bomb to Roosevelt. We could judge the participants in the Manhattan Project as not much better than the enemy they were trying to vanquish. General Groves’ biographer, William Lawrence argued, “Most books on the subject [of the bomb]-especially the most recent ones-make the mistake of ascribing today’s moral reservations about the bomb to the time when those reservations were all but subsumed by the a fierce national desire to put a fast end to a devastating war” (Lawrence XI).

General Groves never wavered from his official line and we would have to surmise that he truly was ignorant of what to expect from the radiation discharged from the bomb. As a soldier he did what he thought was best for the nation. Today we would probalby recognize it as putting the best spin on a horrific moment in history.

Works Cited:

  • Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. Report of the UCSF Ad Hoc Fact Finding Commitee on World War II Human Radiation Experiments Feb. 1995.The George Washington University. 24 Oct. 2005.
  • Boyer, Paul. By the Bombs Early Light: American Thought And Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. 1985. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
  • Kaempffert, Waldemar, “Continuing Studies of Atomic Radiation Shows Its Effects on Living Creatures”. New York Times. Mar 17,1946. E9.
  • Laurence, William L. “U.S. Atom Bomb Site Belies Tokyo Tales". New York Times 12 Sept. 1945. A1.
  • Lawrence,William. The General and the Bomb: A Biography of General Leslie R. Groves, Director of the Manhattan Project. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1988.
  • Lifton, Robert Jay and Greg Mitchell. Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial. New York: Putnam, 1995.
  • National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 162. Burr, William ed. Doc. 5: Memorandum from J. R. Oppenheimer to Brigadier General Farrell, May 11, 1945, The George Washington University. 24 Oct. 2005
---, Doc. 45: Memorandum from Major General L. R. Groves to Chief of Staff, July 30, 1945, The George Washington University. 24 Oct. 2005

---, Doc. 76: Memorandum of Telephone Conversation Between General Groves and Lt. Col. Rea, Oak Ridge Hospital, 9:00 a.m., August 28, 1945, The George Washington University. 24 Oct. 2005

---, Doc. 77a: General Farrell Surveys the Destruction. The George Washington University. 24 Oct. 2005

  • "Radium Girls." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 12 Oct 2005, 00:28 UTC. 25 Oct 2005. .

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