June 29, 2006

The Culture of the Lie, II: The Loathsome Lies in the Service of the Horrors of War

[Yesterday, I republished the first part of this series: If Only There Hadn't Been Any "Mess." Here is the second part, which was first posted on May 9, 2005. Even though we might desperately wish otherwise, in light of the horrors that continue to unfold every day, this retains its timeliness -- as I am certain it will for the rest of our lives. As before, I've made a few minor editorial revisions, primarily for clarity given the passage of time, but 99% of this essay appears as it was originally published.

With regard to the second part of this essay -- the propaganda campaign on behalf the glories of our nuclear program, and to justify the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and to minimize their horrors, which stupendously and unbelievably claimed that almost no one died of atomic radiation -- I emphasize that the pattern of attacking the messenger that we have just seen again is a very old one. Then and now, there are those in the press, those who are nominally "reporters," who relay government lies, and who do so proudly. In this case, William L. Laurence was paid by The New York Times -- and by the War Department at the same time. Laurence, of course, won a Pulitzer for his "reporting." As I remarked at the conclusion of a piece the other day: "For the most part, [the press] will congratulate themselves on their bravery and valiant service. After all, it takes great courage to make oneself a slave voluntarily, and eagerly to enter into bondage. They've been doing it for years. Why, they deserve a medal. In the brave new world that is now so near, they'll probably get one."]


While pursuing various links around the internet, I came across the following story once again. Since it unfortunately retains all of its relevance today and also parallels almost precisely similar lies being told now, I think it is worth taking a few minutes to note the infernal lies of war, including a few of the more notable ones from the United States' own lengthy history of such lies.

I know it is a terrible thing to strip people of their apparently necessary delusions. Nonetheless, in the same spirit that children who have been misled into believing in Santa Claus must someday let go of that fantasy if they are to grow up, here we go. Start with this one: the lie that the atomic bombs unleashed on Japan were "necessary" to bring an earlier end to World War II and save many American lives. This fable, recited by schoolchildren everywhere and also by many adults who endlessly apologize for the horrors of war, is nothing but a series of lies, one on top of another:
Although hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives were lost in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bombings are often explained away as a "life-saving" measure-American lives. Exactly how many lives saved is, however, up for grabs. (We do know of a few U.S. soldiers who fell between the cracks. About a dozen or more American POWs were killed in Hiroshima, a truth that remained hidden for some 30 years.) In defense of the U.S. action, it is usually claimed that the bombs saved lives. The hypothetical body count ranges from 20,000 to "millions." In an August 9, 1945 statement to "the men and women of the Manhattan Project," President Truman declared the hope that "this new weapon will result in saving thousands of American lives."

"The president's initial formulation of 'thousands,' however, was clearly not his final statement on the matter to say the least," remarks historian Gar Alperovitz. In his book, "The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth," Alperovitz documents but a few of Truman's public estimates throughout the years:

*December 15, 1945: "It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities . . ."

*Late 1946: "A year less of war will mean life for three hundred thousand-maybe half a million-of America's finest youth."

*October 1948: "In the long run we could save a quarter of a million young Americans from being killed, and would save an equal number of Japanese young men from being killed."

*April 6, 1949: "I thought 200,000 of our young men would be saved."

*November 1949: Truman quotes Army Chief of Staff George S. Marshall as estimating the cost of an Allied invasion of Japan to be "half a million casualties."

*January 12, 1953: Still quoting Marshall, Truman raises the estimate to "a minimum one quarter of a million" and maybe "as much as a million, on the American side alone, with an equal number of the enemy."

*Finally, on April 28, 1959, Truman concluded: "the dropping of the bombs . . . saved millions of lives."

Fortunately, we are not operating without the benefit of official estimates.

In June 1945, Truman ordered the U.S. military to calculate the cost in American lives for a planned assault on Japan. Consequently, the Joint War Plans Committee prepared a report for the Chiefs of Staff, dated June 15, 1945, thus providing the closest thing anyone has to "accurate": 40,000 U.S. soldiers killed, 150,000 wounded, and 3,500 missing.

While the actual casualty count remains unknowable, it was widely known at the time that Japan had been trying to surrender for months prior to the atomic bombing. A May 5, 1945 cable, intercepted and decoded by the U.S., "dispelled any possible doubt that the Japanese were eager to sue for peace." In fact, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey reported shortly after the war, that Japan "in all probability" would have surrendered before the much-discussed November 1, 1945 Allied invasion of the homeland.

Truman himself eloquently noted in his diary that Stalin would "be in the Jap War on August 15th. Fini (sic) Japs when that comes about."
So we didn't need to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan to surrender...so why did we? Here's the reason -- which must represent one of the most profoundly immoral and sickening acts in mankind's recent history:
As far back as May 1945, a Venezuelan diplomat was reporting how Assistant Secretary of State Nelson Rockefeller "communicated to us the anxiety of the United States government about the Russian attitude." U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes seemed to agree when he turned the anxiety up a notch by explaining how "our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable in the East . . . The demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia with America's military might."

General Leslie Groves was less cryptic: "There was never, from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this Project, any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis."

During the same time period, President Truman noted that Secretary of War Henry Stimson was "at least as much concerned with the role of the atomic bomb in the shaping of history as in its capacity to shorten the war." What sort of shaping Stimson had in mind might be discerned from his Sept. 11, 1945 comment to the president: "I consider the problem of our satisfactory relations with Russia as not merely connected but as virtually dominated by the problem of the atomic bomb."

Stimson called the bomb a "diplomatic weapon," and duly explained: "American statesmen were eager for their country to browbeat the Russians with the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip."

"The psychological effect [of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] on Stalin was twofold," proposes historian Charles L. Mee, Jr. "The Americans had not only used a doomsday machine; they had used it when, as Stalin knew, it was not militarily necessary. It was this last chilling fact that doubtless made the greatest impression on the Russians."

It also made an impression on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director at Los Alamos. After learning of the carnage wrought upon Japan, he began to harbor second thoughts and he resigned in October 1945.

In March of the following year, Oppenheimer told Truman:

"Mr. President, I have blood on my hands."

Truman's reply: "It'll come out in the wash."

Later, the president told an aide, "Don't bring that fellow around again."
Have you got that? We murdered hundreds of thousands of citizens of a nation that would have surrendered very shortly in any case -- and we did it to "send a message" to another country. No wonder Truman never wanted to see Oppenheimer again. I'm surprised Truman was ever able to sleep another night in his life.

Unfortunately, this is hardly the end of this particular loathsome trail of lies. No: we still need to note the propaganda campaign launched by the press, most notably by that stellar exponent of the establishment and carrier of the lies told and retold for the benefit of the United States government, then and now -- The New York Times.

Here's part of the tale:
At the dawn of the nuclear age, an independent Australian journalist named Wilfred Burchett traveled to Japan to cover the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The only problem was that General Douglas MacArthur had declared southern Japan off-limits, barring the press. Over 200,000 people died in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but no Western journalist witnessed the aftermath and told the story. The world's media obediently crowded onto the USS Missouri off the coast of Japan to cover the surrender of the Japanese.

Wilfred Burchett decided to strike out on his own. He was determined to see for himself what this nuclear bomb had done, to understand what this vaunted new weapon was all about. So he boarded a train and traveled for thirty hours to the city of Hiroshima in defiance of General MacArthur's orders.

Burchett emerged from the train into a nightmare world. The devastation that confronted him was unlike any he had ever seen during the war. The city of Hiroshima, with a population of 350,000, had been razed. Multistory buildings were reduced to charred posts. He saw people's shadows seared into walls and sidewalks. He met people with their skin melting off. In the hospital, he saw patients with purple skin hemorrhages, gangrene, fever, and rapid hair loss. Burchett was among the first to witness and describe radiation sickness.

Burchett sat down on a chunk of rubble with his Baby Hermes typewriter. His dispatch began: "In Hiroshima, thirty 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, tapping out the words that still haunt to this day: "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."

Burchett's article, headlined THE ATOMIC PLAGUE, was published on September 5, 1945, in the London Daily Express. The story caused a worldwide sensation. Burchett's candid reaction to the horror shocked readers. ...

Burchett's searing independent reportage was a public relations fiasco for the U.S. military. General MacArthur had gone to pains to restrict journalists' access to the bombed cities, and his military censors were sanitizing and even killing dispatches that described the horror. The official narrative of the atomic bombings downplayed civilian casualties and categorically dismissed reports of the deadly lingering effects of radiation. Reporters whose dispatches conflicted with this version of events found themselves silenced. ...

U.S. authorities responded in time-honored fashion to Burchett's revelations: They attacked the messenger.

Four days after Burchett's story splashed across front pages around the world, Major General Leslie R. Groves, director of the atomic bomb project, invited a select group of thirty reporters to New Mexico. Foremost among this group was William L. Laurence, the Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter for The New York Times. Groves took the reporters to the site of the first atomic test. His intent was to demonstrate that no atomic radiation lingered at the site. Groves trusted Laurence to convey the military's line; the general was not disappointed.

Laurence's front-page story, U.S. ATOM BOMB SITE BELIES TOKYO TALES: TESTS ON NEW MEXICO RANGE CONFIRM THAT BLAST, AND NOT RADIATION, TOOK TOLL, ran on September 12, 1945, following a three-day delay to clear military censors. "This historic ground in New Mexico, scene of the first atomic explosion on earth and cradle of a new era in civilization, gave the most effective answer today to Japanese propaganda that radiations [sic] were responsible for deaths even after the day of the explosion, Aug. 6, and that persons entering Hiroshima had contracted mysterious maladies due to persistent radioactivity," the article began.3 Laurence said unapologetically that the Army tour was intended "to give the lie to these claims."

Laurence quoted General Groves: "The Japanese claim that people died from radiation. If this is true, the number was very small."

William L. Laurence went on to write a series of ten articles for the Times that served as a glowing tribute to the ingenuity and technical achievements of the nuclear program. Throughout these and other reports, he downplayed and denied the human impact of the bombing. Laurence won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.

It turns out that William L. Laurence was not only receiving a salary from The New York Times. He was also on the payroll of the War Department. In March 1945, General Leslie Groves had held a secret meeting at The New York Times with Laurence to offer him a job writing press releases for the Manhattan Project, the U.S. program to develop atomic weapons. The intent, according to the Times, was "to explain the intricacies of the atomic bomb's operating principles in laymen's language." Laurence also helped write statements on the bomb for President Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson.


"Mine has been the honor, unique in the history of journalism, of preparing the War Department's official press release for worldwide distribution," boasted Laurence in his memoirs, Dawn Over Zero. "No greater honor could have come to any newspaperman, or anyone else for that matter."
So you see that there is truly nothing new under the sun. "Journalists" have always been used to peddle government propaganda, to sanitize the bloody horror of war, and to help people continue to nurse the delusions which allow them to believe that their nation fought nobly in a glorious cause. And there are always some "journalists" who will do it proudly-- and still tell themselves that what they are doing is "reporting." None of it is new -- and if the scale of destruction were not so horrifying, it would merely be pathetic.

In the next installment, we will look at today's version of these same lies -- and consider why people are so willing to accept them. In one sense, that is not surprising: people are not generally willing to view themselves as vicious and cruel murderers, killers who did not need to murder on the scale and in the manner they did. To avoid that harsh and devastating truth, they must tell themselves fables and myths. And their lies are always enthusiastically embraced by a public which must delude itself in the same way, always without exception.

Always. Just as the same kind of lies are trumpeted to all of us again today, and far too many of us desperately and unquestioningly accept them. The alternative is too awful to contemplate, and people will do anything to avoid it -- including the attempt to destroy all evidence of their wrongdoing, even if that evidence constitutes an entire country. We've done it before, in Vietnam -- and we are now doing it again, in Iraq.