The Power of the Written Word

Pressure is building on the White House to devise an exit strategy for Iraq, and new polls show that public support for the administration’s handling of the war has dropped dramatically.

In large part, Americans’ perceptions of the successes or failures of the current military engagement have been shaped by words and photographs dispatched from the front.

Today, Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun published an account of another war and its consequences that, until now, were secret. The stories are the eyewitness reports of journalist George Weller, the first foreign reporter to enter Nagasaki, 30 days after the U.S. atomic attack on the city on August 9, 1945.

Weller, a correspondent with the Chicago Daily News who had already won a Pulitzer Prize for his war reporting, sneaked into the devastated city and filed his first dispatch on September 8. As Greg Mitchell writes today in Editor & Publisher, Weller chafed at the strict censorship imposed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In the end, however, MacArthur triumphed. Weller’s dispatches, forwarded to censors at the U.S. command in Tokyo, never saw the light of day.

Until now.

Weller’s son, Anthony, found carbon copies of the stories in the papers of his father, who died in 2002. According to the younger Weller, his father believed MacArthur “wanted all the credit for winning the war, not some scientists back in New Mexico.” E&P’s Mitchell offers another theory for the censorship: “Others have suggested that the real reason for the censorship was the United States did not want the world to learn about the morally troubling radiation effects for two reasons: It did not want questions raised about the use of the weapon in 1945, or its wide-scale development in the coming years.”

What is perhaps most revealing in the four dispatches published today is Weller’s own transformation as he comprehends the horrors of the nuclear blast. His first story opened with this:

The atomic bomb may be classified as a weapon capable of being used indiscriminately, but its use in Nagasaki was selective and proper and as merciful as such a gigantic force could be expected to be.

Later that same day, after having toured the city and observed the survivors — many of whom were suffering from what Weller called only “Disease X,” but which was radiation poisoning — Weller seemed to have second thoughts:

Showing them to you, as the first American outsider to reach Nagasaki since the surrender, your propaganda-conscious official guide looks meaningfully in your face and wants to knew [sic]: “What do you think?”

What this question means is: Do you intend saying that America did something inhuman in loosing this weapon against Japan? That is what we want you to write.

Weller reported that men, women and children “with no outward marks of injury are dying daily in hospitals, some after having walked around three or four weeks thinking they have escaped.” He described people wasting away with “blackish” mouths, and small children who “have lost some hair.” In Weller’s fourth dispatch, he concluded:

Twenty-five Americans are due to arrive Sept. 11 to study the Nagasaki bombsite. Japanese hope that they will bring a solution for Disease X.

No one knows for sure how many people died at Nagasaki, but the official estimate is more than 70,000. Of his father’s stories, Anthony Weller says:

“Clearly, they would have supplied an eyewitness account at a moment when the American people badly needed one.”

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.