THE WORLD WAR II ANNIversaries are almost history and already would-be historians are providing instant analysis of the commemorative period. Analysis with a point of view. There is not a little disingenuousness in this because the analysts invariably disavow any agenda or bias and assert it is only those they criticize who have one.
What brings this to mind is the piece by Elliott Negin, a senior editor at the American Journalism Review (“How the Bomb Was Spun,” 8/18). These folks are a little like the Unabomber. If you don’t report and print everything that supports their conclusions—preferably unchallenged by others or by other facts that point to a contrary conclusion—they will, so to speak, nuke you.
I wish they would just come right out and say it: They believe the atomic bombings were indefensible, a war crime comparable to the Holocaust, for which the Truman administration deserved not praise but prosecution. They believe the Japanese dead were the first victims of the Cold War, cynically sacrificed to impress the Soviets with the bomb. They believe the military-industrial complex foisted this $2-billion project as a fait accompli on a new president pathetically in over his head. They believe the real heroes of this narrative are the few officials who raised questions, the minority of scientists who had second thoughts, and, of course, the revisionist historians who’ve toiled in the archives to unearth the evidence and bring to light these truths.
In this scenario, the peace faction in the Japanese cabinet needed only an assurance that the emperor could retain his throne to overcome the dominant warlords. In this version, an invasion of the home islands would never have been necessary. Or, if it were, casualties would have been far fewer than those incurred in the two atomic attacks, thereby compounding their immorality. In this scenario, seasoned reporters said to be lined up on the side of the bomb are accused of snubbing historians, misrepresenting documents, misleading readers. And columns that are supportive of the revisionist view but insufficiently so are subject to criticism for lacking sufficient zeal, or something.
I bring this all up as one of three Washington Post reporters singled out for special opprobrium by Negin, who edited another critical but less strident piece in the August issue of American Journalism Review. What motivates me to write especially is Negin’s misreading of a key contextual paragraph that appeared in my first story of July 21, and in various forms in subsequent stories. It is the sentence that characterizes (not endorses) objections to the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit. I wrote that critics “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.” The essential criticism didn’t change much despite script revisions. The problem with the script, as critics saw it, was not a single sentence or paragraph, but the overall tone and what they regarded as a pervasive lack of balance.
But Negin takes my little contextual sentence not for what it was but for what it wasn’t: a paraphrase of a disputed portion of the earliest script that attempts to show what the war meant to most Americans (“a war of vengeance”) and Japanese (“a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism”). Negin then goes on at great length to defend the disputed Smithsonian passage—which I never once quoted in any story.
I don’t mind legitimate media criticism, but I wish the critics would hold themselves to the same standards of truth, fairness, and accuracy they demand of journalists.
The Washington Post, Downtown