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Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Brothers Four

Movie I am perhaps looking forward to most is One Night in Miami, coming around Xmas, as directing debut by Regina King.   I've read the play and it is a story of an evening I've been fascinated by for decades, given my fandom, going back to early '60s, of the four "all-time greats"  at the center:  Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown.   

Yes, the meeting actually happened, after Ali won the title in Miami with Malcolm in attendance, Jim adding color on the closed-circuit, and Sam climbing into the ring at the end at Ali's demand.  (Earlier that week, Ali had met the Beatles, in town for one of their fabled Ed Sullivan shows.) And then: the after-party, with the four giants, which was not so much of a party thanks to Malcolm.  Ali was about to become a Muslim, Sam was about to record "A Change Is Gonna Come" and Jim was not far from becoming a movie star after being the greatest pro football player ever.   But that late-night was dominated more by politics than anything else.  Here's a vid on Jim Brown returning to the scene, a segregated hotel.  Trailer:

Thursday, November 12, 2020

"Mank" and Me

"You see, if you just give people what they need to know, and in an emotional way, you can expect they'll do the right thing."   --Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM studio and chairman of California Republican Party, 1934

"I think what you mean is, 'If you keep telling people something untrue, long and loud enough, they're apt to believe it.'"  --Herman Mankiewicz, screenwriter

Imagine my surprise not long ago to learn that the new David Fincher film Mank (with dialogue relevant for today quoted above), which opened in a few theaters on November 13 but coming mainly on Netflix in early December--and already touted as a certain "Best Picture" nominee at next year's Oscars--pivots around a key story line in one of my own books, The Campaign of the Century.  Since The New York Times has assigned me to write about this, I shouldn't say much here, but here's the general picture, so to speak.

My book was recently picked by the Wall St. Journal as one of the five greatest books ever on a U.S. campaign (hello Teddy White and Richard Ben Cramer!).  It explores the 1934 race for governor of California by famed leftwing muckraker Upton Sinclair on a grassroots End Poverty platform.  Amazingly, he swept the Democratic primary, in this FDR era, and seemed headed for victory when Republicans, moderate Democrats, and big business cats from around the USA rallied to defeat him, inventing the modern political campaign as we know it, dominated by massiver funding, outside consultants, attack ads and "spin doctors."  

In the forefront:  Hollywood, then quite conservative, as studio bosses enacted forced donations from all employees.  Notably, MGM, under orders from the saintly Irving Thalberg and rightwinger Louis B. Mayer, produced a series of bogus newsreels--the first use of the screen to destroy a candidate--that scuttled Sinclair for good. 

Now Fincher in exploring how Herman "Mank" Mankiewicz came to write Citizen Kane (while worried that he will never get the credit he deserves), concentrates on his relationship not with Welles but with the man who served as the model for the title character, William Randolph Hearst, who also played a key role vs. Sinclair.   Along the way, Sinclair  looms large for many minutes, and we see bits of the fake newsreels that were shot, with Mank ultimately deciding to devote so much energy to Kane after being appalled by the actions of MGM and Hearst in that campaign.  It's a true "pivot point" and resonant today in this time of charges of "fake news" not to mention candidates being maligned as "socialists."   Here's a new NBC article about the movie which links to one of my old pieces about the campaign.

Fincher has said, "Mank depicts their alliance with Hearst to bring down Sinclair as a major motive for the disgust that spurred Mankiewicz to write Citizen Kane.  Once the Sinclair story was grafted on, we found a middle ground where we felt we had a more accurate portrayal of what really happened." 


UPDATE:  I have now seen the movie and the importance of the Sinclair race looms even larger than I expected.  It dominates the entire middle of the film, culminating in a suicide, with explicit points that tie it to "misinformation" today--and then Mank comes back to it (and confronts Hearst himself) in the key scene near the very end, so you can't miss it.  Many will chuckle when you see who very very briefly appears as Sinclair--he's not in the credits--although some will not recognize him, as shot from the side at a distance.  (Spoiler: It's science guy, Bill Nye.)

One imagines that my book must have been the key resource for the Sinclair scenes, but who knows.  Much more here on my book, including this NPR segment last month and my own summary here.   Trailer below. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Trailer for "Atomic Cover-up"

First trailer for my new film--just now being pitched to channels here and abroad by the distributor--on the U.S. suppression of the most shocking and important footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was the subject of that recent half-hour C-SPAN interview with me, and my book, "Atomic Cover-up." 

Note: Narrator here is not our narrator--in fact, we have no "narrator" as such, rather only the words of the Japanese and American producers/directors and cameramen.  

Much more here. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

75 Years Ago: Time to 'Get the Anti-Propagandists Out'

As I've noted in many previous posts--and in my new book The Beginning or the End--the U.S. after dropping the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was confronted with a worldwide publicity (not to mention,  moral) problem:  reports from Japan of a mysterious new disease afflicting survivors of the twin blasts.  Some there were already dubbing it "radiation disease," which was what our bomb-makers and policy-makers expected--but still, officials and most in media in U.S. mocked the idea.  No one from the West had yet reached either city.

Seventy-five years ago this week one of the most remarkable conversation of the nuclear took place. (See partial transcript.)

Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project (with J. Robert Oppenheimer, above), had received a telex the day before from Los Alamos, as scientists asked for information on those reports from Japan. Groves responded that they were nothing but "a hoax" or "propaganda."  The top radiation expert at Los Alamos also used the word "hoax."  Knowing that the press would be seeking his official response, Groves called Lt. Col. Charles Rea, a doctor at Oak Ridge hospital (part of the bomb project).  According to the official transcript, Rea called the reports of death-by-radiation "kind of crazy" and Groves joked, "Of course, it's crazy--a doctor like me can tell that."

But Groves knew it wasn't crazy and he grew agitated as he read passages from the Japanese reports.  He even asked if there was "any difference between Japanese blood and others."  Both men ultimately seized on the idea that everything was attributable to burns--or "good thermal burns," as Rea put it.  Groves replied, "Of course we are getting a good dose of propaganda"--and blamed some of our scientists and our media for some of that.  Groves revealed, "We are not bothered a bit, excepting for --what they are trying to do is create sympathy."

But Rea surely knew they were merely denying reality, admitting finally, "Of course, those Jap scientists over there aren't so dumb either."  Still, in a second conversation that day with Groves, Rea advised: "I think you had better get the anti-propagandists out."  One of the great quotes of our time. 

Five days later, on a visit to Oak Ridge, Groves labelled the reports from Japan propaganda and added, "The atomic bomb is not an inhuman weapon."

Groves' top aide, Kenneth D. Nichols, would admit in his 1987 memoirs that "we knew that there would be many deaths and injuries caused by the radiation..."

Saturday, August 29, 2020

First Reporter to Reach Hiroshima Exposed 'The Atomic Plague'

 On September 2, 1945, Australian war reporter Wilfred Burchett left Tokyo by train, intent on reaching distant Hiroshima before any of his journalistic colleagues, who were banned from taking such a trip by the American occupation chief, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Burchett, who had written dispatches glorifying the firebombing of Japanese cities, was just looking for a scoop. The following morning he encountered what he would describe as a “death-stricken alien planet.” He noticed a dank, sulfurous smell as he was taken directly to one of the few hospitals left standing. Its director felt certain that radiation sickness, far from being merely “propaganda” or a "hoax" as the United States was claiming, was very real. One in five patients was developing purple skin bruises, white cell counts had plunged for many, some were also losing their hair or simply expiring without any known injuries.

The reporter pulled out his typewriter and, sitting on a chunk of rubble near the hypocenter of the blast, composed his historic article, detailing the new disease, and commenting, “I write these facts as dispassionately as I can in the hope that they will act as a warning to the world.”

This part of the story is, by now, pretty well known. What happened next is not: the real beginning of the decades of suppression I detail in my book, Atomic Cover-Up.   For more see my new book, The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood--and America--Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

As Burchett was finishing his story, a group of journalists arrived on an Air Force plane, with a censor in tow. Included were the celebrated Bill Lawrence of the New York Times and Homer Bigart of the New York Herald-Tribune. Burchett told them to forget about the rubble, “the story is in the hospitals.”

They were not happy to find Burchett already there and with a finished article. He asked them to carry the story back to Tokyo and transmit it to his paper. They refused. Burchett managed to transmit his story to a colleague in Tokyo, who sneaked it past the censors, and it ran on September 5 on the front page of the London Daily Express, under the headline the atomic plague.

Articles written by the American reporters who had landed in Hiroshima gave no evidence that they had visited the hospitals. Yet Lawrence, years later in his memoirs, revealed, “We talked with dying Japanese in the hospitals.” Were those stories censored by MacArthur’s people? Lawrence also disclosed that MacArthur was “hopping mad” about the press junket and cut off supplies of gasoline to planes that might make another journo trip possible. Then he ordered all American reporters out of Tokyo to a closely watched enclave in Yokohama.

Meanwhile, the first American reporter to reach Nagasaki, George Weller, had found a similar “plague” in that city, but made the mistake of filing his stories directly through MacArthur’s office. All of the pieces would be spiked, only appearing for the first time in 2005.

But the story doesn’t end there. Back in Tokyo, General Thomas Farrell, who was directing the post-bomb official studies, held a press conference and categorically denied reports of (a) 70,000 to 100,000 killed in the atomic cities and (b) any kind of lingering radiation sickness. Suddenly Wilfred Burchett showed up, ill and unwashed, and told Farrell he was sadly misinformed. Farrell replied that Burchett had “fallen victim to Japanese propaganda.”

When the briefing broke up, Burchett was taken to a hospital, where it was discovered that his white blood cell count was below normal. Then, on leaving the hospital a few days later, he discovered that his camera containing film shot in Hiroshima was missing—and that MacArthur had ordered him expelled from Japan.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The First Post-Hiroshima Nuclear Death in America

The Hiroshima bomb killed or fatally damaged several American POWs on August 6, 1945, as I have observed here previously.  But the first American to die after this cataclysm was a nuclear scientist back in the U.S. named Harry Daghlian.  Seventy-five years ago today he was involved in a nuclear experiment at Los Alamos that went awry, and died one month later.  The Roland Joffe film Fat Man and Little Boy showed a kind of version of the accident, starring John Cusack.

On September 21, 1945, the New York Times published a brief item headlined “Atomic Bomb Worker Died From Burns.” Officials at Los Alamos, revealed that six days earlier a “worker” had died “from burns in an industrial accident.”  Daghlian, age 24, identified only as an instructor at Purdue University who had joined the bomb project in November 1943.

That was it. There was no information about the nature of the “industrial accident,” when it had occurred, or why the fatality was being reported five days after the fact. This wire service report would be the only mention of the incident in the American media. Only years later would details of the accident emerge. Daghlian was, in fact, no mere industrial “worker” but a scientist intimately involved with the bomb project. He had even helped assemble the core of the Trinity bomb. (For more, see my recent book Atomic Cover-up and my current book The Beginning or the End.)

Also, a second, similar death the following year

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

My Book on Hollywood Politics

My  e-book When Hollywood Turned Left  (Townsend Books), is something borrowed, something new, yet all very entertaining--and revealing.  It answers the question:  Okay, we all know Hollywood has been pretty damn liberal for a long time, but how did it get that way?  This book traces it back to the 1934 race for governor of California when the outrageous actions by the conservative studio bosses--such as docking every employee one day's pay for the GOP candidate and creating the first "attack ads" for the screen--forced left-leaning (but still powerless) actors and screenwriters to organize and fight back, in spades.  And the rest is history.

If this sounds fairly familiar--at least to my fans and/or longtime readers--it's because most of the book is taken from my 1992 "classic" The Campaign of the Century, although with a new Introduction and fresh material elsewhere.   That earlier 620-page hardcover book won the Goldsmith Book Prize and much other acclaim, including recently being picked at the Wall St. Journal as one of the five greatest books about any election ever.  Since it appeared, many would-be readers have requested that I create a smaller, although still very substantial, volume focusing on the wild and wooly Hollywood angle.  So, after a couple decades of hearing this, I finally did it, thanks to the brave new world of e-publishing, and now with clickable links!

So now there's no excuse (such as "I won't read any 600-page books") to not enjoy this story and it's wonderful cast of characters,  including Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Katharine Hepburn, Billy Wilder, W.R. Hearst, Jimmy Cagney, and on and on.  As some know, my major discovery was the trio of faked newsreels produced by the saintly Irving Thalberg to destroy Sinclair--the first full use of the screen to destroy a candidate, and precursor of TV "attack ads" today.   

Here's my video that covers some of that, including those attack ads.  But even that is just small part of this book ($3.79  for all Kindles, iPads etc.).  Hooray for Hollywood! And for the full Campaign of the Century go here in print or ebook.

Monday, August 17, 2020

DNC 1968: I Was There for The Chicago 'Police Riot'

Fifty-two years ago my trip to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention would culminate in the crushing of Sen. Eugene McCarthy's anti-Vietnam crusade inside the convention hall and the cracking of peacenik skulls by Mayor Richard Daley's police in the streets. Together, this doomed Hubert Humphrey to defeat in November at the hands of Richard Nixon.

I'd been a political-campaign junkie all my life. At the age of 8, I paraded in front of my boyhood home in Niagara Falls, N.Y., waving an "I Like Ike" sign. In 1968 I got to cover my first presidential campaign when one of Sen. McCarthy's nephews came to town, before the state primary, and I interviewed him for the Niagara Falls Gazette, where I worked as a summer reporter during college. I had been chair of the McCarthy campaign at my college. So much for non-biased reporting!

My mentor at the Gazette was a young, irreverent City Hall reporter named John Hanchette. He went on to an illustrious career at other papers, and as a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. Hanchette was in Chicago that week to cover party politics as a Gazette reporter and contributor to the Gannett News Service. I was to hang out with the young McCarthyites and the anti-war protesters and Yippies. To get to Chicago I took my first ride on a jetliner.

To make a long story short: On the climactic night of Aug. 28, 1968, Hanchette and I ended up just floors apart in the same building: the Conrad Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago.    I'd been out among the protests earlier that week, which had already turned bloody, but avoided any harm to myself, which was my way.  Just after the peace plank to the DNC platform was defeated that evening,  and with many of those around me in tears, TV coverage switched to shocking scenes of young folks getting beaten with nightsticks on the streets of Chicago, but we didn't know where.  Then we smelled tear gas and someone  the curtains along a wall of windows and we looked out  to see police savagely attacking protesters with nightsticks at the intersection directly below.

Soon I headed for the streets. By that time, the peak violence had passed, but cops were still pushing reporters and other innocent bystanders through plate glass windows at the front of the hotel, so the danger was still real. I held back in the lobby, where someone had set off a stink bomb. Some Democrats started returning from the convention hall -- after giving Humphrey the nomination even though McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy won most of the primaries -- as protesters inside the Hilton chanted, "You killed the party! You killed the party!"  And: "You killed the country." And, of course, "Dump the Hump!"

Finally, I screwed up my courage and crossed to Grant Park where the angry protest crowd gathered, with military troops in jeeps with machine guns pointed directly at us. And there I stayed all night, as the crowd and chants of "pig" directed at the cops increased. Many in the crowd wore bandages of had fresh blood on their faces. Phil Ochs (later a friend)  arrived and sang, along with other notables, including some of the peacenik delegates and a famous writer or two.  This was Zuccotti Park but with heavily armed soldiers ready to swoop in, not simply NYC cops. Somehow we survived the night. 

When I returned to Niagara Falls that Friday, I wrote a column for that Sunday's paper. I described the eerie feeling of sitting in Grant Park, and thousands around me yelling at the soldiers and the media, "The whole world is watching!" -- and knowing that, for once, it was true.  Months later organizers of the protest such as Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, faced charges at the notorious trial of the Chicago 8.   Abbie and the attorney, Bill Kunstler, later became regular writers for me at Crawdaddy.  I interviewed Tom for a New York Times Magazine piece and edited a major feature on him at Crawdaddy when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1976 (he lost but later served many years in the California state legislature).

More than 35 years later, after I had written two books on other infamous political campaigns, I returned to Chicago for a staged performance of a musical based on one of them. As I got out of a cab to make my way to the theater, I had an eerie feeling and, sure enough, looking up the street I noticed Grant Park a block away -- and the very intersection in front of the Hilton where skulls were cracked that night in 1968.

P.S. Norman Mailer's terrific book, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, is still in print.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Atom Bowl

Adapted from my new book, The Beginning or the End.

 The famed biologist Jacob Bronowski revealed in 1964 that his classic study Science and Human Values was born at the moment he arrived in Nagasaki in November 1945, three months after the atomic bombing (which killed at least 75,000 civilians) with a British military mission sent to study the effects of the new weapon.  Arriving by jeep after dark, he found a landscape as desolate as the craters of the moon. That moment, he wrote, “is present to me as I write, as vividly as when I lived it.” It was “a universal moment…civilization face to face with its own implications.” The power of science to produce good or evil had troubled other societies. “Nothing happened in 1945,” he observed, “except that we changed the scale of our indifference to man…“

One of the most bizarre episodes in the entire occupation of Japan took place less than two months later, on January 1, 1946, in Nagasaki.  (For more on this critical period,  and my own experiences in Nagasaki, see my new book or previous Atomic Cover-up.)

Back in the States, the Rose Bowl and other major college football bowl games, with the Great War over, were played as usual on New Year’s Day. To mark the day in Japan, and raise morale (at least for the Americans), two Marine divisions faced off in the so-called Atom Bowl, played on a killing field in Nagasaki that had been cleared of debris. It had been “carved out of dust and rubble,” as one wire service report put it--without mentioning that it was the former site of a high school where hundreds of students perished on August 9--and was soon dubbed "Atomic Athletic Field No. 2."

Both teams had enlisted former college (from UCLA to Temple) or pro stars serving in Japan for their squads. The “Bears” were led by quarterback Angelo Bertelli of Notre Dame, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1943, while the “Tigers” featured Bullet Bill Osmanski of the Chicago Bears, who topped pro football in rushing in 1939 (and then became a Navy dentist). Marines fashioned goal posts and bleachers out of scrap wood that had been blasted by the A-bomb. Nature helped provide more of a feel of America back home, as the day turned unusually chilly for Nagasaki and snow swirled.

More than 2000 turned out to watch. A band played the fight song, “On Wisconsin!” The rules were changed from tackle to two-hand touch because of all the irradiated glass shards from the atomic blast remaining on the turf.  A referee watched for infractions.  Each quarter lasted ten minutes. 

Press reports the next day claimed Japanese locals observed the game—from the shells of blasted-out buildings nearby.  The two stars, Bertelli and Osmanski had agreed to end the game in a tie so that both sides would be happy but Osmanski, after leading a second-half comeback, could not resist kicking the extra point that gave his team the win, 14-13.

More than 9,000 Allied POWs were processed through Nagasaki, but the number of occupation troops dropped steadily every month. By April 1946, the US had withdrawn military personnel from Hiroshima, and they were out of Nagasaki by summer. An estimated 118,000 military personnel passed through the atomic cities at one point or another. Some of them were there mainly as tourists, and wandered through the ruins, snapping photos and buying artifacts.

 A commemorative booklet produced for the game included this line:  "In the rubble of the atomic bomb, we made a gridiron.”

When the servicemen returned to the US, many of them suffered from strange rashes and sores. Years later some were afflicted with disease (such as thyroid problems and leukemia) or cancer (such as multiple myeloma or forms of lymphoma) associated with radiation exposure. More on this and related issues here.

UPDATE:   The images of the program for the game above were new to me until today.   A former  Marine named Bob Trujillo read my piece and sent it to a bunch of other Marines and the son of one of them responded with the program.  I've now been in touch with the son and, yes, his father later suffered health defects he related to his atomic exposure in 1946.   Thanks to Bob Trujillo (@chelledaddy) for this amazing contribution.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

After the Bombings Came the "Atomic Cover-up"

For the past several weeks, I have posted here numerous pieces related to my new book, The Beginning or the End:  How Hollywood--and America--Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.   Other sites, including Mother Jones, Daily Beast, and Lit Hub, have published almost twenty excerpts from the book and you can go here to find links for them and to reviews.   However, since we are now past the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the two atomic bombs over Japanese cities it is time to explore the suppression and "cover-up" that followed.

There is some of that in the new book, but a few years back I covered this at length in a previous book and then, just this year, in a film of the same title, Atomic Cover-up, which I wrote an directed.   I was interviewed by C-SPAN for a half-hour special this past weekend, which you can now view online.   You can order the book here.  In a sentence both reveal how the most shocking and important footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki--first by a Japanese newsreel team and then an elite U.S. Army squad--was buried and suppressed for decades in America (and why this matters today)./ 

Here is a longer outline of the focus of this book and film:

In the weeks following the atomic attacks on Japan in 1945, and then for decades afterward, the United States engaged in airtight suppression of all film shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings. This included footage shot by U.S. military crews and Japanese newsreel teams. In addition, for many years, all but a handful of newspaper photographs were seized or prohibited not only in the United States, but also in occupied Japan.

Meanwhile, the American public only got to see the same black and white images: a mushroom cloud, battered buildings, a devastated landscape. The true human costs–a full airing of the bomb’s effects on people –were kept hidden. The writer Mary McCarthy declared that Hiroshima had already fallen into “a hole in history.”  The public did not see any of the newsreel footage for 25 years, and the U.S. military film remained hidden for more than three decades. (The story is told in full in my book Atomic Cover-up.)

In fact, the Japanese footage might have disappeared forever if the newsreel team had not hidden one print from the Americans in a ceiling. The color U.S. military footage was not shown anywhere until the early 1980s, and has never been fully aired. It rests today at the National Archives in College Park, Md. When that footage finally emerged, I spoke with and corresponded with the man at the center of this drama: Lt. Col. (Ret.) Daniel A. McGovern, who directed the U.S. military film-makers in 1945-1946, managed the Japanese footage, and then kept watch on all of the top-secret material for decades.

McGovern observed that, "The main reason it was classified was...because of the horror, the devastation." I also met and interviewed one top member of his military crew, who had fought for years to get the footage aired widely in America, and interviewed some of the hibakusha who appear in the footage.  Those accounts form the center of Atomic Cover-Up.     But let's focus on tjhe Japanese newsreel footage, which was shot and seized first, for the moment.

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb over the center of Hiroshima, killing at least 70,000 civilians instantly and perhaps 70,000 more in the months to follow. Three days later, it exploded another atomic bomb over Nagasaki, killing 40,000 immediately and dooming tens of thousands of others. Within days, Japan had surrendered, and the U.S. readied plans to occupy the defeated country -- and documenting the first atomic catastrophe. But the Japanese also wanted to study it.

Within days of the second atomic attack, officials at the Tokyo-based newsreel company Nippon Eigasha sent two cameramen to the two cities.  A few days later their shocking footage was sent to Tokyo, where the Japanese authorities seized it.  Then when the Americans arrived in early September, they took it--and it has disappeared to this day.   A few days later,  as the American occupation began, director Ito Sueo set off for Nagasaki. There his crew filmed the utter destruction near ground zero and scenes in hospitals of the badly burned and those suffering from the lingering effects of radiation. On Sept. 15, another crew headed for Hiroshima.

When the first rushes came back to Tokyo, Iwasaki Akira, the chief producer (and well-known film writer), felt "every frame burned into my brain," he later said. At this point, the American public knew little about human conditions and radiation effects in the atomic cities. Newspaper photographs of victims were non-existent, or censored. Life magazine would later observe that for years "the world...knew only the physical facts of atomic destruction."

On October 24, 1945, a Japanese cameraman in Nagasaki was ordered to stop shooting by an American military policeman. His film, and then the rest of the 26,000 feet of Nippon Eisasha footage, was confiscated by the U.S. General Headquarters (GHQ). An order soon arrived banning all further filming. At this point Lt. Daniel McGovern took charge.

In early September 1945, McGovern had become one of the first Americans to arrive in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was a director with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, organized by the Army the previous November to study the effects of the air campaign against Germany, and now Japan.

As he made plans to shoot the official American record, McGovern learned about the seizure of the Japanese footage. He felt it would be a waste to not take advantage of the newsreel footage, noting in a letter to his superiors that "the conditions under which it was taken will not be duplicated, until another atomic bomb is released under combat conditions." McGovern proposed hiring some of the Japanese crew to shoot more footage and edit and "caption" the material, so it would have "scientific value."

About the same time, McGovern was ordered by General Douglas MacArthur on January 1, 1946 to document the results of the U.S. air campaign in more than 20 Japanese cities. His crew would shoot exclusively in color film, Kodachrome and Technicolor, rarely used at the time even in Hollywood.   His chief cameraman was Harry Mimura--who had shot Akira Kurosawa's first feature.   All of the color footage would also soon be classified and buried by the U.S., for several decades.

Early in 1946, the Japanese newsreel team was completing its work of editing and labeling their black and white footage into a rough cut of just under three hours. At this point, several members of the Japanese team took the courageous step of ordering from the lab a duplicate of the footage they had shot before the Americans took over the project. Director Ito later said: "The four of us agreed to be ready for 10 years of hard labor in case of being discovered." One incomplete, silent print would reside in a ceiling until the Occupation ended in 1952.

The negative of the finished Japanese film, nearly 15,000 feet of footage on 19 reels, was sent off to the U.S. in early May 1946. The Japanese were also ordered to include in this shipment all photographs and related material. The footage would be labeled SECRET and not emerge from the shadows for more than 20 years.

During this period, McGovern was looking after both the Japanese and the American footage. Fearful that the Japanese film might get lost forever in the military/government bureaucracy, he secretly made a 16 mm print and deposited it in the U.S. Air Force Central Film Depository at Wright-Patterson. There it remained out of sight, and generally out of mind.  On Sept. 12, 1967, the Air Force transferred the Japanese footage to the National Archives Audio Visual Branch in Washington, with the film "not to be released without approval of DOD (Department of Defense)."

Then, one morning in the summer of 1968, Erik Barnouw, author of landmark histories of film and broadcasting, opened his mail to discover a clipping from a Tokyo newspaper sent by a friend. It indicated that the U.S. had finally shipped to Japan a copy of black and white newsreel footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese had negotiated with the State Department for its return. From the Pentagon, Barnouw learned that the original nitrate film had been quietly turned over to the National Archives and went to take a look.

Soon Barnouw realized that, despite its marginal film quality, "enough of the footage was unforgettable in its implications, and historic in its importance, to warrant duplicating all of it," he later wrote. Attempting to create a subtle, quiet, even poetic, black and white film, he and his associates cut it from 160 to 16 minutes, with a montage of human effects clustered near the end for impact.

Barnouw arranged a screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and invited the press. A throng turned out and sat in respectful silence at its finish. "Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945" proved to be a sketchy but quite moving document of the aftermath of the bombing, captured in grainy but often startling black and white images: shadows of objects or people burned into walls, ruins of schools, miles of razed landscape viewed from the roof of a building.

 In the weeks ahead, however, none of the (then) three TV networks expressed interest in airing it. "Only NBC thought it might use the film," Barnouw later wrote, "if it could find a 'news hook.' We dared not speculate what kind of event this might call for." But then an article appeared in Parade magazine, and an editorial in the Boston Globe blasted the networks, saying that everyone in the country should see this film: "Television has brought the sight of war into America's sitting rooms from Vietnam. Surely it can find 16 minutes of prime time to show Americans what the first A-bombs, puny by today's weapons, did to people and property 25 years ago."

This at last pushed public television into the void. What was then called National Educational Television (NET) agreed to show the documentary on August 3, 1970, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of dropping the bomb. "I feel that classifying all of this filmed material was a misuse of the secrecy system since none of it had any military or national security aspect at all," Barnouw told me. "The reason must have been -- that if the public had seen it and Congressmen had seen it -- it would have been much harder to appropriate money for more bombs."

The color footage would not emerge for another decade.   But that's another story.

For a glimpse of my film, go here


Monday, August 10, 2020

Rod Lurie's Pitch for the Book

 From our lengthy Zoom chat last week, the director of the summer's #1 movie closed with this ringing and entertaining testimonial for The Beginning or the End.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Click Here for Excerpts (and Reviews) for New Book

In the few days since publication of THE BEGINNING OR THE END: How Hollywood--and America--Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb at least 15 outlets have posted full excerpts and now reviews are  arriving.  The Wall St. Journal and Philadelphia Inquirer hailed the book, as did Charles P. Pierce at Esquire.  Vanity Fair yesterday picked it as one of the "21 Best Books of 2020."   I was just featured in half-hour program at C-Span which aired eleven times.

You can order from Amazon or an indie site.  The book, of course, has the same title as the 1947 MGM drama, which President Truman and the military sabotaged so it would align with their pro-bomb narrative.   Nicholson Baker:  "Mitchell expertly chronicles the gradual transformation of a gigantic, and still radiating, moral catastrophe."  

Here are most of the recent excerpts in one place.....

Two major pieces at Mother Jones.  One reveals how Truman and the White House killed the key scene in the movie and  ordered a re-take--and then got the actor playing Truman fired. The latest just posted reveals how Truman and his allies plotted to undermine John Hersey's famous "Hiroshima" article--and succeeded.

The Daily Beast with four:  first to arrive with a lengthy and wild exploration  of a rival film script for Paramount written by....Ayn Rand.  Then they posted my piece on how the legendary editor of The New Yorker tried to get Truman to read the historic John Hersey piece two months after it appeared (the pay wall will end on Monday).  Now just out with how the lies on the atomic bombings started on the first day, and then the suppression started.   Finally: the tragedy of Nagasaki, a possible war crime but "the forgotten atomic city."
Newsweek with two:  on the first atomic test at Trinity, the cover up of radiation hazards--and the joking treatment in the MGM movie at the center of my story.  And now a new one raising questions about whether Truman had any regrets.

Lit Hub with my detailed exploration of how John Hersey came to write his "Hiroshima" article for the New Yorker and how it was received, with wild praise and some criticism.  This came just as the MGM film was gaining scrutiny, and then orders for revisions, from Truman and the White House.

The venerable and influential Washington Monthly with how Truman's involvement in the movie started with a turning point meeting at the White House.

American History on how MGM needed to get signed contracts from Einstein, Oppenheimer and other leading scientists to be portrayed, and why they mocked the movie--but ultimately caved to pressure--even as the FBI harassed them or tapped their phones.   And this from History News Network on the heated race/competition between MGM and Paramount (Ayn Rand project). 

The prestigious Asia-Pacific Journal with three excerpts, including this on the suppression by the U.S. of the key film footage shot in the two cities by both Japanese and Americans.

More on the book here.

"The Beginning or the End is an engrossing, wry, and always lively look behind the scenes of a historic Hollywood flop.  But it’s also much more than that: a deeply serious, meticulously researched account of how the movie industry—and the American public in general—embraced a comforting myth to justify one of the most controversial decisions in history. This is a first-rate piece of work by one of our most accomplished nonfiction storytellers.” --Gary Krist,  best-selling author of Empire of Sin and The Mirage Factory


"A story of dishy Hollywood doings but with atomic bombs and a screenplay by Ayn Rand—what more could a reader ask for?" -- Richard Rhodes,  The Making of the Atomic Bomb, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award


"From the nation's  top secret to the silver screen:  Mitchell tells an unforgettable tale about a forgotten film and the tug-of-war between scientists, the White House and the Pentagon over the Hollywood version of the bombing of Hiroshima.”—Peter Biskind, best-selling author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls 

"A fascinating and brilliantly researched account of how Hollywood and Washington grappled with how to portray and profit from the new nuclear age. Another great read and exposé from Mitchell." --Alex Kershaw, best-selling author of The Liberator and Avenue of Spies


"A fascinating book, and yet, because of the Hollywood shenanigans, weirdly fun." -- Harry Shearer, Le Show 

  Mitchell expertly chronicles the gradual transformation of a gigantic, and still-radiating, moral catastrophe." --Nicholson Baker, author of Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, and Double Fold, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award

"Mitchell shows how this desire to control the narrative around the atomic attacks fed into the U.S.’s continued insistence on its right to launch a nuclear first strike. While the film bombed at the box office, Mitchell’s rich account of its making and larger implications should draw both history buffs and those concerned with the continuing issues around nuclear weapons."  --Publishers Weekly

"This intriguing, behind-the-scenes look at a disjointed creative partnership is sure to be of interest to readers of history and cinema." --Library Journal

"Excellent research and rich dialogue give Mitchell’s book a novelistic flair....Reel film meets real history in this scintillating tale."--Kirkus Reviews 

"Seriously, this is a great book.  The amazing information in Mitchell's work speak a lot to the present day." --  Kurt Eichenwald, author of The Informant and Conspiracy of Fools 

Now On "Democracy Now!"

Was on with Amy Goodman on Thursday, and now watch four minutes of the entire 13-minute segment below.   Then if you wish you can order the book, The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood--and America--Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb here or at other outlets.   Go here for links to reviews and more than a dozen major excerpts at Mother Jones, Newsweek, Daily Beast and elsewhere. 

Or see numerous posts related to this subject right here on this blog.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Atomic Cover-ups on C-SPAN This Weekend

A half-hour interview with me--and many minutes of long-hidden film footage--will air starting tonight (Friday) on C-SPAN 3 as part of their "Reel America' series, and then repeated ten times all weekend.  Update:  You can watch via their site if no TV.

While it eventually gets to my new book, The Beginning or the End,  on how Truman and the military sabotaged the first Hollywood movie on the bomb, much of the program focuses on one of my earlier books, Atomic Cover-up, and the documentary of the same name that I recently completed. They cover the shocking, and significant story, of how all of the most important film footage shot in Hiroshima and  Nagasaki by an elite Japanese newsreel team--and then a U.S, military crew--was suppressed for decades by the U.S. 

Times (all ET), or watch online:   Friday  9:28 p.m.,  Saturday  1:28 a.m., 5:27 a.m., 10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m., 4 p.m.  Monday  2 a.m., 8:27 a.m.,  11:26 a.m., 2:26 p.m., 5:27 p.m.,

C-SPAN has posted a brief preview.

When First U.S. Reporter Reached Nagasaki--and His Reports Suppressed

More on suppression of evidence from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my books The Beginning or the End:  How Hollywood--and America--Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Atomic Cover-up.

Nagasaki, which lost over 80,000 civilians (and only a few military personnel) to a new weapon 75 years ago, has always been The Forgotten A-Bomb City. And Nagasaki was "forgotten" from the very start, thanks to a blatant act of press censorship.

One of the great mysteries of the Nuclear Age was solved just a decade ago: What was in the censored, and then lost to the ages, newspaper articles filed by the first reporter to reach Nagasaki following the atomic attack on that city on Aug. 9, 1945.

The reporter was George Weller, the distinguished correspondent for the now-defunct Chicago Daily News. His startling dispatches from Nagasaki, which could have affected public opinion on the future of the bomb, never emerged from General Douglas MacArthur's censorship office in Tokyo. I wrote about this cover-up in the book Atomic Cover-up, along the suppression for decades of film footage shot in the two atomic cities by the U.S. military.

Carbon copies of the stories were found in 2003 when his son discovered them after the reporter's death. Four of them were published in 2005 for the first time by the Tokyo daily Mainichi Shimbun, which purchased them from the son, Anthony Weller. I was first to report on this in the United States.

The articles published in Japan (and later included in a book assembled by Anthony Weller, First Into Nagasaki) revealed a remarkable and wrenching turn in Weller's view of the aftermath of the bombing, which anticipates the profound unease in our nuclear experience ever since. "It was remarkable to see that shifting perspective," Anthony Weller told me.

An early article that George Weller filed, on Sept. 8, 1945 -- two days after he reached the city, before any other journalist -- hailed the "effectiveness of the bomb as a military device," as his son describes it, and made no mention of the bomb's special, radiation-producing properties.

But later that day, after visiting two hospitals and shaken by what he saw, he described a mysterious "Disease X" that was killing people who had seemed to survive the bombing in relatively good shape. A month after the atomic inferno, they were passing away pitifully, some with legs and arms "speckled with tiny red spots in patches."

The following day he again described the atomic bomb's "peculiar disease" and reported that the leading local X-ray specialist was convinced that "these people are simply suffering" from the bomb's unknown radiation effects.

Anthony Weller, a novelist, told me that it was one of great disappointments of his father's life that these stories, "a real coup," were killed by MacArthur who, George Weller felt, "wanted all the credit for winning the war, not some scientists back in New Mexico."

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 aimed to avoid questions raised about the use of the weapon in 1945, or its wide scale development in the coming years. In fact, an official "coverup" of much of this information--involving print accounts, photographs and film footage--continued for years, even, in some cases, decades.

"Clearly," Anthony Weller told me of his father's reports, "they would have supplied an eyewitness account at a moment when the American people badly needed one."

The Scoop That Wasn't

How did George Weller get the scoop-that-wasn't?

After years of covering the Pacific war, Weller (left) arrived in Japan with the first wave of reporters and military in early September. He had already won a Pulitzer for his reporting in 1943. Appalled by MacArthur's censors, and "the conformists" in his profession who went along with strict press restrictions, he made his way, with permission, to the distant island of Kyushu to visit a former kamikaze base. But he noted that it was connected by railroad to Nagasaki. Pretending he was "a major or colonel," as his son put it, he slipped into the city (perhaps by boat) about three days before any of his colleagues, and just after Wilfred Burchett had filed his first report from Hiroshima.

Once arrived, Weller toured the city, the aid stations, the former POW camps (by some counts, more American POWs died from the A-bomb in Nagasaki than Japanese military personnel) and wrote numerous stories within days. According to his son, he managed to send the articles to Tokyo, not by wire, but by hand, and felt "that the sheer volume and importance of the stories would mean they would be respected" by MacArthur and his censors.

Although Weller did not express any outward disapproval of the use of the bomb, these stories -- and others he filed in the following two weeks from the vicinity -- would never see the light of the day, and the reporter lost track of his carbons. He would later summarize the experience with the censorship office in two words: "They won."

In the years that followed, Weller continued his journalism career, winning a George Polk award and other honors and covering many other conflicts. Neither the carbons nor the originals ever surfaced, before he passed away in 2002 at the age of 95. It was then that his son made a full search of the wildly disorganized "archives" at his father's home in Italy, and in 2003 found the carbons just 30 feet from his dad's desk.

And what a find: roughly 75 pages of stories, on fading brownish paper, that covered not only his first atomic dispatches but gripping accounts by prisoners of war, some of whom described watching the bomb go off on that fateful morning.

A 'Peculiar Weapon'

In the first article published by the Japanese paper, the first words from Weller were: "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." Weller described himself as "the first visitor to inspect the ruins."

He suggested about 24,000 may have died but he attributed the high numbers to "inadequate" air raid shelters and the "total failure" of the air warning system. He declared that the bomb was "a tremendous, but not a peculiar weapon," and said he spent hours in the ruins without apparent ill effects. He did note, with some regret, that a hospital and an American mission college were destroyed, but pointed out that to spare them would have also meant sparing munitions plants.

In his second story that day, however, following his hospital visits, he would describe "Disease X," and victims, who have "neither a burn or a broken limb," wasting away with "blackish" mouths and red spots, and small children who "have lost some hair."

A third piece, sent to MacArthur the following day, reported the disease "still snatching away lives here. 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.

"The doctors ... candidly confessed ... that the answer to the malady is beyond them." At one hospital, 200 of 343 admitted had died: "They are dead -- dead of atomic bomb -- and nobody knows why."
He closed this account with: "Twenty-five Americans are due to arrive Sept. 11 to study the Nagasaki bomb site. Japanese hope they will bring a solution for Disease X." To this day, that solution for the disease--and the threat of nuclear weapons--has still not arrived.

More on suppression of evidence from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my books The Beginning or the End:  How Hollywood--and America--Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Atomic Cover-up.