Part 1: Atomic Devastation Hidden For Decades

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The first in a three-part series.

“A Hole in American History”

Dozens of hours of film footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the fall and winter of 1945-1946 by an elite U.S. military unit was hidden for decades and almost no one could see it.  The raw footage, in striking color, languished in obscurity. As the writer Mary McCarthy observed, the atomic bombing of Japan nearly fell into “a hole in human history.”

As our nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union escalated, all that most Americans saw of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the same black-and-white images: a mushroom cloud, a panorama of emptiness, a battered building topped with the skeleton of a dome—mainly devoid of people.

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Once top secret, the shocking images now carry an “unrestricted” label. You have, quite possibly, seen a few seconds of clips on television or in film documentaries. If so, those images may be burned into your mind. Yet no one was allowed to view them when the horror they captured might have prevented more horror by slowing down or even halting the nuclear arms race.

Compounding the cover-up, the American military seized all of the black-and-white footage of the cities shot by the Japanese in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. They hid the film away for many years. It was known in Japan as the maboroshi, or “phantom,” film. It, too, rests in the National Archives today.

“Never again.” At least not with outmoded bombs.

To find out how and why all of this historic footage was suppressed for so long, I tracked down the man who oversaw the handling of both the Japanese and American film. His name is Lt. Col. (Ret.) Daniel A. McGovern. He told me that high officials in the Pentagon “didn’t want those 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.”

Not incidentally, those planned tests were designed to help the U.S. military build bigger and better nuclear bombs.

McGovern also said, “We didn’t want the material out because…we were sorry for our sins.”

***

The secret color footage (see some of the footage below) was finally shown to the public, however limited, on June 2, 1982. The New York City  screening coincided with the high point of the antinuclear movement.

In response to an escalating arms race stoked by a new president, Ronald Reagan, who said a nuclear war with the Soviets was “winnable”—a “nuclear freeze” campaign had been organized in hundreds of cities and towns. It captured the imagination of the media and a massive anti-nuclear march in Manhattan was set for June 12.

Despite this campaign, few in America challenged the view that dropping the bomb had been necessary. When Hiroshima and Nagasaki were invoked, even within the antinuclear movement, it was usually not to condemn, but merely to declare: never again.

No matter what one thought of Truman’s decision in 1945, this much was clear: endorsing the bombings and saying “never again” did not fit together comfortably. Washington, after all, maintained its “first-use” nuclear option, and still embraces it today.

According to this policy, under certain circumstances the United States can strike first with nuclear weapons—and ask questions later. In other words, there is no real taboo against using the bomb.

Ten days before the June 12 march, a few dozen Americans first saw some of the historic color footage shot by the American military—but not in an American film.

It was the Japanese who put together the film, and only because of a chance meeting in New York between Herbert Sussan—who, as a young soldier, helped shoot some of the 1946 footage—and a Japanese activist.  When the activist learned of the secret film from Sussan, he lead a mass movement in Japan to raise enough money to copy 90,000 feet of it. (They also purchased a copy of the suppressed, black-and-white film shot by the Japanese newsreel team.) The film was shown at the Japan Society in Manhattan.  It was called “Prophecy.”

Herbert Sussan

Herbert Sussan

At the Japan Society, the now elderly Sussan, who had become a pioneering TV director at CBS, told the audience,

“I have waited so long for this moment. For years, all of my own efforts to obtain this unique footage to show the American people have been frustrated. This film has been locked in vaults, declared classified and held away from the public. I am pleased that the world will finally see a small bit of what the true reality of the nuclear age really is…

“I felt that if we did not capture this horror on film, no one would ever really understand the dimensions of what had happened.”

Then they rolled the film. The footage revealed miles of devastation dotted by rubble and twisted girders, close-ups of artifacts—blackened statues, a collapsed church or school—and victims displaying their inflamed scars. Doctors in shattered hospitals bandaged horrendous-looking wounds.

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The distinctive, rubbery keloid scars left by burns on faces and arms looked all the more painful in blazing color.

Patients, most of them women and children, exposed to the camera their scarred faces and seared trunks. They acted stoic, dignified, yet their intense gaze suggested deep wells of bitterness at the U.S. for dropping the bomb—or perhaps at Sussan for subjecting them to this further humiliation. Or was it both?

A Film That Flopped?

Despite a good turnout that day, there was very little, if any, coverage about “Prophecy” or Herbert Sussan in the days that followed, despite its announcement in The New York Times’ “Going Out Guide” the day it was to be shown, along with other Japanese films on the bombing.

Weeks passed. The nuclear freeze campaign continued to grow, and that October, I was named editor of the leading antinuclear magazine in the country, Nuclear Times. When I took over, the first major story I assigned was a profile of Herbert Sussan.

When I reached Sussan by telephone, he sounded edgy, maybe a little scared. He had recently retired and was ill, he said, with a form of lymphoma “they are finding in soldiers exposed to radiation.”

Greg Mitchell is the author of more than a dozen books, including “Atomic Cover-up.” He is the former editor of Nuclear Times and Editor & Publisher and writes a daily column at The Nation.

Next:  Part II—How both the U.S. and Japanese footage was suppressed for so long and why it finally started to emerge.

Next:  Part 2: How They Hid The Worst Horrors of Hiroshima

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22 responses to “Part 1: Atomic Devastation Hidden For Decades”

  1. i.t disposal says:

    Title

    […]usually posts some very intriguing stuff like this. If you are new to this site[…]

  2. William JOSEPH says:

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two civilian targets right? So how can one justify bombing civilian targets in response to the barbaric deeds of the Japanese military? For all we know, the people who were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki must have been mostly the aged, women and children. The Japanese military who were, without doubt, barbaric in their ways seem to have got away
    “Pretty Clean”. I think President Truman was an unjust, brutal and heartless man. God Have Mercy On His Soul.

  3. Wonderingsoul says:

    Hundreds and thousands of lives of American soldiers vs millions of lives of Japanese civilians…

  4. Suze O says:

    I grew up in Los Alamos, although long after the end of the war. I know there are many lies used to justify the bombing of these two cities, one of them being the necessity to get the Japanese to surrender, otherwise US forces would have had to invade – a potentially bloody and difficult (for us) tactic. The truth is that there NEVER WAS a planned invasion. In fact, the Japanese were very close to surrendering, one reason being that the Russians had entered Manchuria, making a two front war for the Japanese which they knew would be their downfall.
    The US was actually afraid that Japan would surrender too soon, before the bombs could be dropped. This was a case of making a new weapon with the INTENTION that it WOULD be used; a rationale would be to end the war, whereas the bombs being used afterward would have no “purpose”. In short, they were an experiment that needed testing. The first bomb, dropped on Hiroshima, was a uranium bomb, which they knew would work as intended. Because there was a limited domestic supply of uranium, though, the second bomb was plutonium, and its efficacy was in still in question.
    The REAL tactical purpose of the bombing was to demonstrate not only that the US had this power, but that it’s use would signal to the Russians that WE won the war with this superior weapon. Although Russia was our ally in the war, the objective was to “keep it in its place” – intimidating that unsavory ideology and government into knowing who was boss in the new world order. So the Japanese were USED as pawns – an even more damning reason for bombing them. Of course, among the scientists at Los Alamos who were building the bombs was Klaus Fuchs, who later leaked the technological know-how to the Russians. Very soon, Russia itself proved that it, too, possessed the Bomb. And so the arms race began.
    Somewhere there is an audio interview of some the living scientists who worked on the bomb, with some interesting details. I have it somewhere in my computer files somewhere and will try to find this if I can, Russ, if you are interested. If you have it already, let me know. There is a mention that the scientists were aware of the horrors the weapons would unleash and there was a plan to have meetings to discuss this aspect. The overseer General Leslie Groves, however, quashed this, saying those discussions “would not be helpful”.
    Truman arrogantly used the threat of nuclear attack on other occasions to get other nations to behave as we wanted. He despised Oppenheimer when he had second thoughts and tried to control the use of the bomb and stop proliferation and an arms race. Oppenheimer had changed his mind at the first test of the bomb, and knew the horrors it would unleash. Truman called him a coward for this, but Oppenheimer was merely doing what all scientists are obliged to do – change their minds when new information require the old idea to be revised or replaced.

  5. shivabeach says:

    Simply horrifying. Anyone who thinks any nuclear war is winnable is quite insane.

  6. donbo44 says:

    The complete story of the leadup to WW2 and Truman’s use of the bombs ca be read in a new book by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick entitled “The Untold History of the United States.” An eye opener to many things and an excellent read overall.

  7. Okasis says:

    In 1961, my oldest son whas in Kindergarten. His best friend’s father, a Veteran of WW2, was diagnosed with Lymphoma. He had been stationed on a US Navy Vessel anchored in Hiroshima Bay right after the war ended. I never met him, just his son and his wife. She told me that he was being treated by the VA. Shortly afterwards, the son dropped out of school, and we lost touch. I heard later that he had died and she had moved closer to her family.

    I have never forgotten them, nor doubted the dangers of Nuclear Disaster. Nor do I believe that there are SAFE levels of exposure to Radiation – It all adds up. I was very active in the anti-Nuclear Campaign in the ’80s, and continue to be disturbed by our Government’s reaction to disasters like Fukushima. Instead of being open and truthful, the NRA [Interesting initials for a ‘regulatory’ agency] just raises the ‘Safe’ levels of Radiation Exposure and quits monitoring radiation from Fukushima.

    We will be paying the costs of this deliberate malfeasance forever,

  8. Snead Hearn says:

    Similar horrid wounds (minus the torture of radiation damage) were caused by US napalm and phosphorus in Vietrnam, Laos & Cambodia, and in Iraq.

  9. Eldo says:

    America didn’t even need to drop the nukes they had already firebombed all of japans major cities(they were mainly constructed of bamboo and went up like a box of matches) and destroyed any weapons manufacturing capabilities that they had, Japan was in no position to launch any sort of counter attack, all America had to do was besiege them. America didn’t just use the nukes to make them surrender it was a bold statement to the world of look what happens when you attack the U.S. (pearl harbour) and look what we have got now, now bow down before us. I still believe the greatest war crime in world war 2 was the use of nuclear weapons on a civilian population.

    • Bridges Hague says:

      Wrong. The invasion of Japan could have cost hundreds of thousands of American lives. Truman did the right thing. It was the Japanese whose barbarism brought this upon themselves.

    • Wonderingsoul says:

      Hundreds and thousands of lives of American soldiers vs millions of lives of Japanese civilians…

  10. Huh-hell says:

    All clips are edited. Hundreds of feet of film has been destroyed by mysterious library fires. Most bomb film you have seen before was on loan when fires occurred. You were expecting the Hulk or Godzilla? Sorry, those are fairy tales. Test sites had shoot to kill orders to reduce liability when did you expect that attitude to stop? I’d like to know what Japanese film might still be available. I saw a still of people running with mushroom cloud expanding in the background once.
    Thank you for your service to our country.

  11. level ground says:

    Look like burn victims to me, nukes are bullshit fear mongering courtesy of our ruling elite. how about researching this stuff instead of sucking up the propaganda like good sheep! 1st) find one nuke clip that’s unedited, good luck!

  12. Ezra says:

    The film’s title is “Prophecy” : a statement that something will happen in the future. http://www.atomicbombmuseum.org/1_overview.shtml

  13. August West says:

    Can the US, as the only nation to use atomic weapons in war, ever truly make amends?

    • akagaga says:

      Before one can make amends, one needs to acknowledge guilt. Nothing in Washington suggests a change of heart.

    • dave john says:

      Stopping deploying, testing and manufacturing new weapons would be a good start. And working to get rid of the rest of the global stockpile would be a great way to build a better future for everyone and everything.

  14. Greg Mitchell says:

    There’s no fighting allowed here…this is the War Room.

  15. Bruce says:

    And, these are only the relatively minor atomic blasts’ flash effects, not depicting full body deformation, agonizing radiation sickness, cancers or sheer psychological devastation our depravity produced. Wir Haben SCHULD.