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Is it your imagination, or has the Bomb suddenly become more cuddly, more thinkable, the very shock those fanatical Japs needed back in 1945 to come to their senses?
You’ve learned the decision to drop was a no-brainer. Either we fry more than 100,000 people—mostly old men, women and children—in Hiroshima and Nagasaki or sustain as many as one million American casualties in an invasion of the Japanese mainland. President Truman had no other choice. Case closed.
You probably gleaned this unassailable perspective from an impeccable source: the Washington Post. The paper’s coverage of the Smithsonian Enola Gay exhibit flap, along with its massive overview of the Bomb’s Aug. 6 anniversary, offered an unstinting defense of the A-bomb as a lifesaver. But a closer look reveals that ideology rather than history drove their conclusions. As a practical matter, newspapers write the first draft of history, but in this case, the Post tried to write the last. The Bomb squad at the Post—the writers and opinionists who generated hundreds of inches on the issue—decided to make nice with the nuclear age. Girded by a collective belief that it was “our boys or the Bomb,” they shunned eminent historians who have spent years trying to unravel the story. If historians showed up at all in the Post‘s coverage, they were roundly trashed, ridiculed as lefty flakes riven by correctness.
As you might expect, A-bomb historians are not pleased.
“The Post seems to be unwilling to become engaged in the historical debate,” says William Lanoette, a noted historian who has written extensively about the decision to drop the Bomb. He discerns a trend in the rightward arc of the paper’s coverage. “There seems to be some sort of a line at the Post.”
Stanley Goldberg, an Enola Gay exhibit adviser and author says, “the Post is terribly biased on this.” The historian submitted a measured Op-Ed critiquing the paper’s view of the exhibit controversy, but the paper couldn’t find space to print it.
So why all the dogma at a paper that has long been viewed as an epicenter of liberal thought? Kai Bird, one of only two “revisionist” historians who managed to get an Op-Ed published in the paper, is dumbfounded.
“I think it’s rare with a very controversial issue like this that a newspaper’s entire reporting and all the editorials would have such a uniform, cohesive tone,” he says. “I’m not conspiratorial. I don’t think the press works this way. But for some reason the Post has a line. Why? It’s a mystery to me.”
In his Op-Ed, Bird described the orthodoxy the Post subscribed to as “patriotic correctness.” Perhaps the paper has tired of its image as a hotbed of liberalism that only mentions veterans in order to disrespect them.
Jefferson Morley, an editor for the Post‘s Outlook section, suggests there is no incentive in the newsroom to take a contrary view. In an unusual move, Morley penned a letter to the editor of his own paper that chastised Post columnist Jonathan Yardley and the “custodians of the conventional wisdom.” The letter, which appeared in last Saturday’s “Free For All” page, attacked Yardley’s contention that Bomb critics are a “ragtag band of academics and left-wing ideologues.” In his letter, he noted that the revisionist position is neither liberal nor a product of the ’60s. Morley recalled that his grandfather, Felix Morley—founder of the conservative journal Human Events and editor of the Post in the 1930s—vehemently denounced the Bomb just a few weeks after it was dropped.
“If you’re a revisionist, there’s a political price to be paid.” Morley explains in an interview. “Defending the revisionist line was the equivalent of saying, “Hey, I’m a liberal journalist who doesn’t care about veterans!’ You can’t do that here and win. There may be a revisionist view here, but no one will stick their neck out.”
The Post‘s editors might run a piece by a staff writer with divergent views, Morley says, “but the conservative climate in Washington discourages that kind of stand. Who wants to criticize vets? Who wants to be politically correct? Who wants to be on the same side as the pointyheads?”
The institutional consensus was hard to miss. From the spring of 1994 through last weekend, the paper featured nearly 30 different bylines on at least 50 stories, columns, and Op-Eds; it also ran at least five unsigned editorials. Only five Op-Eds presented contrary views, including an incredibly weak dissent from token liberal Colman McCarthy.
Meanwhile, so-called revisionists were gleefully eviscerated—not just in the paper’s opinion pages, but in its news pages as well. It was difficult to distinguish between columns by Charles Krauthammer, Edwin Yoder Jr., or Jonathan Yardley, and news features by Ken Ringle or Eugene Meyer, which were laden with value-inflected writing and heavily skewed against anyone questioning the conventional thinking about the decision to drop the bomb.
In its effort to demonstrate fealty to the men and women who died in World War II, the Post frequently found itself in league with the rabidly conservative Washington Times. From the beginning of the debate, the Post evinced an agenda, a campaign to make the dropping of two nuclear weapons on Japan seem eminently defensible.
The controversy began in the spring of 1994, with the first draft of the script for the Air and Space Museum exhibit about the Bomb. The script included passages that explored alternatives to the Bomb and examined U.S. motivations. Veterans—and the Washington Post—complained that it was short on details of Japanese wartime brutality and therefore made the Japanese look like innocent victims. A free-for-all ensued, in which the museum was mau-maued by pundits, veterans groups and members of Congress. The Smithsonian eventually surrendered unconditionally and delivered a sanitized, pared-down homage to hardware, specifically the restored 60-foot fuselage of the Enola Gay. One historian who served as a museum adviser called the exhibit, which opened June 28, “a beer can with a label.”
The Post‘s coverage of the Smithsonian flap was largely written by Eugene Meyer, a metro reporter covering Prince George’s County, which is where the Enola Gay was restored. A review of the clips suggests he consistently misrepresented what was in the original exhibit draft. The most powerful example of Meyer’s spin was his paraphrase of a quote from the original script. “For most Americans…it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.” Meyer alluded to it in his first story, which ran on July 21, 1994—a month after the quote was killed in a script revision. Critics, Meyer wrote, “charge that the exhibit as planned will portray the Japanese largely as suffering, even noble victims and the Americans as racist and ruthless fighters hellbent on revenge for Pearl Harbor.” He would use versions of the statement, with no attribution or elaboration, in at least eight more Post articles stretching into May of this year. Absent context, the passage was invoked countless times by pundits and politicians and ultimately nuked the original exhibit plans.
But when the quote is read in its original incarnation, it takes on far more complicated dimensions. “Japanese expansionism was marked by naked aggression and extreme brutality. The slaughter of tens of thousands of Chinese in Nanking in 1937 shocked the world. Atrocities by Japanese troops included brutal mistreatment of civilians, forced laborers and prisoners of war, and biological experiments on human victims.
“In December 1941, Japan attacked U.S. bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and launched other surprise assaults against allied territories in the Pacific. Thus began a wider conflict marked by extreme bitterness. For most Americans, this war was fundamentally different than the one waged against Germany and Italy—it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.”
It’s obvious that Meyer twisted the quote far out of proportion, and he was quickly followed by columnists Krauthammer, Yardley, and George Will. The Post wasn’t alone. An investigation of the coverage across the country is in the current issue of American Journalism Review. The authors, Tony Capaccio, editor of Defense Week, and Uday Mohan, a graduate student at American University’s history department, found that most print coverage mirrored that of the Post. I edited the AJR story, so I was familiar with the industrywide tendency to settle for easy answers, but of all the spinners of Bomb-nice, the Post was clearly the most dedicated.
The spinning continued apace once the Post turned its attention to the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Veteran Post investigative reporter Walter Pincus wrote the paper’s definitive history of the Bomb in mid-July, after spending three months researching a lengthy two-part series. He acknowledged the historical debate in passing, but shrugged off its implications: “While historians with benefit of hindsight long will ponder what else besides the Bomb might have forced Japan’s surrender, the evidence is abundant that Truman used the weapon at the time because his paramount goal was to win World War II as quickly as possible on U.S. terms.”
While Meyer and Pincus snubbed the A-bomb historians, others at the Post savaged them, usually as a nameless collective. Columnists and reporters used the term “revisionist” as an epithet—synonymous with anti-American—even though history by its very nature is revisionist.
Yardley, the Post‘s resident neo-McCarthyite, was one of the harshest. In a column last October he referred to “the zealots of academe who prowl the liberal arts departments muttering against “American imperialism’….” More recently, on Aug. 7, he gave the elbow to historians as a “ragtag collection of academics and left-wing ideologues.”
The Post‘s groupthink even extended to Joel Achenbach, one of the paper’s prominent wiseguys. He took some swipes in a Feb. 1 Style section piece, “Exhibit A: The Pablum Museum.” “For some reason academics have a natural lefty bent,” he wrote. “They’re intellectual southpaws: They throw left, catch left, think left. What is considered left by most people is considered orthodox in many academic fields. Gar Alperovitz, a historian who argues that it was unnecessary to drop the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, contended yesterday that his view is mainstream in academia.” He quoted Alperovitz and then added, “Regular people don’t want to see America trashed at the Air and Space Museum.”
The same day as Achenbach’s send-up, the Post ran an editorial that attacked unnamed “revisionists” in describing what happened at the Air and Space Museum’s Enola Gay exhibit: “Narrow-minded representatives of a special-interest and revisionist point of view attempted to use their inside track to appropriate and hollow out a historical event that large numbers of Americans alive at that time and engaged in the war had witnessed and understood in a very different—and authentic—way.”
Three days later, on Feb. 4, the Post actually ran an Op-Ed by Alperovitz, whose 1965 book Atomic Diplomacy was the first to suggest the Bomb was a warning shot to the Soviets. But just to make sure readers didn’t think the Post was endorsing a pinko like Alperovitz, his piece was printed next to a column on the “Hiroshima Cult” by Yoder, who attacked Alperovitz’s premise about the Soviets without mentioning him by name.
While Walter Pincus played the role as the Post historian, and Meyer covered the blow-by-blow of the exhibit negotiations, reporter Ken Ringle functioned as the paper’s mass psychologist.
Ringle’s major treatise, a front-page story on Sept. 26 titled “At Ground Zero: 2 Views of History Collide Over Smithsonian A-Bomb Exhibit,” is littered with questionable assertions and his own personal biases cloaked as objective fact. But far more troubling was his assertion that the revisionist view of the Bomb decision stems from generational and ideological splits over the Vietnam War.
Ringle’s view sounds suspiciously like one espoused by “historian” Newt Gingrich. “What’s taking place,” Ringle wrote, “is a tug of war for the perceptions of future generations between those whose political sensibilities remain anchored in the anti-government, anti-war sentiments of the Vietnam era and those whose perspective includes allowances for other times and circumstances.”
Ringle doesn’t know his history. In fact, the critique of Truman’s decision predates the Vietnam War by two decades, and many of those questioning the Bomb were conservatives and top military officers. Pre-Vietnam War-era critics of Hiroshima included Gen. Dwight Eisenhower; Adm. William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff; Gen. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Force; Time magazine founder Henry Luce; David Lawrence, the archconservative editor of what was to become U.S. News & World Report; and William F. Buckley’s National Review.
Ringle, like Pincus and Yoder, also placed a premium on the value of experience over academic research. For Smithsonian curators, Ringle said “World War II is old history, a scholarly abstraction composed of archival records, argumentative books and the fading, flickering images on black-and-white film.” He contrasted them with a 74-year-old Annandale man who survived the Bataan death march and several years in Japanese prison camps. The former POW told Ringle he reveres the Enola Gay for ending the war without the need for an invasion of Japan.
In an interview with AJR‘s Mohan in February, Ringle elaborated on his theory. “My generation always assumed that experience meant authority,” he said. “History is not an abstraction for people who lived through it. Revisionism was a Freudian effort to undercut the authority of experience.” He then put an entire generation on the couch, asserting that because the Vietnam-era generation couldn’t match the accomplishments of the World War II veterans, “they try to belittle them.”
“You have that tension between the historian who stands outside the experience of an event and those who have experienced the event in some way. In my case as a six-year-old boy,” Ringle told Mohan.
Is he serious? Does Ringle really put more stock in his recollections in knee-pants than in massive archival research done by professional historians? He relies heavily on the memories of veterans, even though vets on the ground were not privy to high-level debate in the Truman administration over the Bomb. They didn’t even know about it. That’s not to say veterans’ experiences are in any way inauthentic, but his decision to deify them as authorities on Truman’s decision to drop the Bomb is absurd.
For Ringle and the rest of the Post, it’s not a simple question of historians poking around and finding evidence that the Bomb was unnecessary. The very existence of a debate over the Bomb defiles their memories of “the last good war.” They simply don’t want anyone pissing on their parade. It was unambiguous, the United States was on the side of truth and justice, and, as Krauthammer wrote, the Japanese got what they deserved. How can anyone question that?
But as William Lanoette pointed out, it’s not an ideological issue. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Historians are merely reconstructing what went on in the higher reaches of the Truman administration based on archival evidence, some of which was not available until fairly recently. And undoubtedly perceptions will change and history will be revised again and again as more of the 40 million pages of still-classified material from World War I and World War II are eventually made public.
In the meantime, we will have to contend with the rightward drifting of the Washington Post. Its reporting and analysis of the exhibit imbroglio and the anniversary of Hiroshima was atomic public relations, not journalism. By hewing to a comfy, sanitized version of history, the Post managed to stifle debate instead of advancing understanding about one of this century’s most important lessons.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michael Reidy.