Voices of the Nation
Nuclear Weapons And Media Fog
By Norman Solomon
We Forget, a burn victim of Hiroshima after the world's first atomic
bombing of civilians.
Photographer not known
American media outlets roused themselves from outright denial early this month, spurred
by belated warnings from top U.S. officials that a nuclear war between India and
Pakistan would kill millions of people. The tone of news coverage shifted toward
alarm. Meanwhile, atomic history remained largely sanitized.
"Even one military move by either of these nuclear-armed neighbors," USA
Today's front page reported in big type, "could set off an unstoppable chain
reaction that could lead to the holocaust the world has feared since the atomic bomb
was developed." The June 10 edition of Newsweek includes a George Will column
with a chilling present-day reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis: "The world
may be closer to a nuclear war than it was at any time during the Cold War -- even
Yet when it comes to nuclear weapons, the mainstream American press has scant emotional
range or professional zeal to scrutinize the progression of atomic perils. From the
start of the nuclear era, each man in the Oval Office has carefully attended to public
relations, with major media rarely questioning the proclaimed humanitarian goals.
Making an announcement on Aug. 6, 1945, President Harry Truman did his best to engage
in deception. "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on
Hiroshima, a military base," he said. "That was because we wished in this
first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians."
But civilians populated the city of Hiroshima -- as well as Nagasaki, where an A-bomb
struck three days later. Hundreds of thousands died as a result of the atomic bombings.
American military strategists were eager "to use the bomb first where its effects
would be not only politically effective but technically measurable," Manhattan
Project physicist David H. Frisch recalled.
For U.S. media, the atomic bombings of the two Japanese cities have been pretty much
sacrosanct. So, in 1994, a national uproar broke out when the Smithsonian Institution
made plans for an exhibit marking the 50th anniversary.
Much of the punditocracy was fit to be tied. "In the context of the time ...
the bombing made a great deal of sense," Cokie Roberts said on network television
-- and, she added, raising critical questions a half-century later "makes no
sense at all." On the same ABC telecast, George Will sputtered: "It's just
ghastly when an institution such as the Smithsonian casts doubt on the great leadership
we were blessed with in the Second World War."
Columnist Charles Krauthammer, denouncing "the forces of political correctness,"
wrote that the factual display on the museum's drawing board "promises to be
an embarrassing amalgam of revisionist hand-wringing and guilt."
Such intense media salvos caused the Smithsonian to cave in rather than proceed with
a forthright historical exhibition. Even five decades later, a clear look at the
atomic bombings was unacceptable.
This summer, as the leaders of Pakistan and India ponder the nuclear-weapons option,
they could echo the punditry. After all, "in the context of the time,"
they might conclude, an atomic bombing makes "a great deal of sense," without
need to question their "great leadership" or engage in "hand-wringing
Back in 1983, a statement by U.S. Catholic Bishops perceptively called for a "climate
of opinion which will make it possible for our country to express profound sorrow
over the atomic bombing in 1945. Without that sorrow, there is no possibility of
finding a way to repudiate future use of nuclear weapons."
But American officials and leading journalists continue to be highly selective with
their repudiations. In medialand, a red-white-and-blue nuclear warhead is not really
a "weapon of mass destruction."
Three months ago, the U.S. government's new Nuclear Posture Review caused a nearly
incredulous response from Pervez Hoodbhoy, a peace advocate who is a professor of
physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad: "Why should every country of
the world not develop nuclear weapons now that America may nuke anyone at any time?
The Bush administration has announced that it views nuclear weapons as instruments
for fighting wars, not merely as the weapons of last resort. Resurgent American militarism
is destroying every arms control measure everywhere. Those of us in Pakistan and
India who have long fought against nuclearization of the subcontinent have been temporarily
What goes around has a tendency to come around. Washington's policymakers keep fortifying
the U.S. nuclear arsenal with abandon while brandishing it against many other countries
-- declaring, in effect, "do as we say, not as we do." But sooner or later,
such declarations are not very convincing.
Norman Solomon is co-author of "Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America's Experience
with Atomic Radiation" (Delacorte Press, 1982). The entire book is posted online