On August 6th, 1945, the United States dropped a nuclear bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima, instantly killing more than 70,000 people — the overwhelming majority civilians. Three days later, the nuclear bomb “Fat Man” was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing at least another 70,000 civilians. The anniversary of the bombings serves not only as a reminder of the of the indiscriminate destruction wrought by nuclear weapons — particularly relevant in light of recent political disputes — but also of the complicity of some media outlets in spreading and perpetuating U.S war propaganda. As Amy and David Goodman discuss in this article from 2005, “The Hiroshima Cover-Up,” the U.S. government desperately wanted to block any information regarding the devastating consequences of the nuclear attacks on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “More than 200,000 people died in the atomic bombings of the cities,” write the Goodmans, but because of an embargo placed on the media by General MacArthur, “no Western journalist witnessed the aftermath and told the story. Instead, the world’s media obediently crowded onto the battleship USS Missouri off the coast of Japan to cover the Japanese surrender.”
Yet as the article notes, there were a few intrepid reporters willing to break the U.S. military’s blockade. One was William Burchett, whose account of the devastation was published in the September 5, 1945 issue 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.” He continued: “Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller has passed over it and squashed it out of existence. I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world.”
Naturally, U.S. military authorities were displeased with his account, and attempted to smear Burchett as a purveyor of Japanese propaganda. To counter his article, the military turned to one of their own: William Laurence, lead science reporter for the New York Times — and a paid employee of the U.S. War Department.
Here’s how the Goodmans describe the relationship: “For four months, while still reporting for the Times, Mr. Laurence had been writing press releases for the military explaining the atomic weapons program; he also wrote statements for President Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. He was rewarded by being given a seat on the plane that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, an experience that he described in the Times with religious awe.”
Just days after the damning account of “the atomic plague” was published in the London Daily Express, Laurence wrote a front-page story in the New York Times “debunking” the article. “The Japanese are still continuing their propaganda aimed at creating the impression that we won the war unfairly,” wrote Laurence, “and thus attempting to create sympathy for themselves and milder terms. … Thus, at the beginning, the Japanese described ‘symptoms’ that did not ring true.”
While Laurence’s atomic reporting for the Times won him a Pulitzer Prize, it since has become yet another black mark on “the paper of record.” From Walter Duranty — another Pulitzer winner — shilling for Stalin in the 1930s, to Judith Miller’s breathless, alarmist reporting on nonexistent Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” the Times is a case-study in what happens when journalists allow themselves to become uncritical conduits for government misinformation and propaganda.