In the first weeks after the atomic bombings. Americans and others were exposed in print to only a few stock images: the mushroom cloud over one of the two Japanese cities or from the Trinity test, Hiroshima from a surveillance plane high overhead, a limited view of one largely destroyed area of Hiroshima--plus the crew of the “Enola Gay” or drawings of how the new weapon worked. No Japanese victims appeared. TIME magazine would picture a smiling Einstein next to a mushroom cloud.
Japanese photographers, on the other hand, were concentrating on victims on the ground in photos that would not be published anywhere for years or decades (and many still not seen outside Japan to this day).
Under the U.S. occupation, journalists from around the world--and the Japanese--were subject to strict censorship. Thousands of Japanese were dying from the new “radiation disease” but were never shown, as some reporters questioned that even such a malady was possible. Other images of rubble and iconic buildings (left) were relayed in the West (some even focused on Hiroshima “recovering”):
Meanwhile, photos of survivors (many of them about to die) taken by both U.S. journalists and military and Japanese cameramen were banned everywhere.
The great Alfred Eisenstadt took this photo for LIFE magazine but it was not published. Today a current gallery at LIFE presents 18 of their pictures of victims of the bombings, noting in their intro that “most” were never published--actually, almost none were. In a second gallery, they admit that “none” of those photos taken in 1945-46 were published. One has to ask: why not?
U.S. military photographers documented the scene but haunting photos would be kept hidden. For example (left), the flash of the bomb incinerating a citizen but leaving his shadow behind forever.
Meanwhile, a leading Japanese newsreel team had been shooting footage in the two atomic cities almost from the beginning. The U.S. military seized it and suppressed it for more than 20 years. In the late-1960s an American director made a 15-minute short from the footage that would be shown on some public TV stations in the U.S., offering most Americans their first view of the human effects of the bomb. But no one has made use of the more than two hours of additional footage since.
Early in 1946, an elite U.S. military film team arrived and shot the first and only color footage of the aftermath of the bombing. Much of its showed the human toll and terrible and lasting effects on civilians. The director and one of the top aides hoped to make a film out of the footage warning the world of the nuclear peril but the footage would be classified for decades and only emerge in the 1980s.
What emerged was a tribute to nuclear power. The next Hollywood film on the subject, in the 1950s, “Above and Beyond,” took a similarly positive view of the bombings. Nothing appeared on U.S. television for decades challenging the official story on Hiroshima.
In 1952, LIFE magazine finally published the only photos taken in Hiroshima on the day of the bomb, by a Japanese newspaper photographer. One of the shots would become widely-published over the years--but it showed citizens, at a distance from the bombing, terrified but seemingly not bad injured. This misleading picture made the image acceptable in the USA. Below that is a photo from Nagasaki taken the day after the bombing there that was never been published in the USA.
For many years, even as the first use of the bomb was kept hidden, the atomic age was often the subject of silly pop culture treatments--in songs, cartoons and advertising or “Miss Atomic” beauty contests. Just one example:
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were almost completely ignored in the 1950s and 1960s. Nuclear imagery focused on nuclear testing (in the Pacific and in Nevada), with mushroom clouds again almost the sole image, with no attention to locals or “downwinders” exposed to radiation. We did see people featured in coverage of fallout shelters, but in that case the subjects were those in the West. School kids were taught to “duck and cover”--but if images of the extent of devastation, and human effects, at the two places where (much smaller) bombs were already used had been aired most viewers might have shunned the whole notion of useful “civil defense.”
Hollywood produced some fine dramas that focused on current nuclear dangers (such as "Fail Safe" and "Dr. Strangelove") while completely ignoring how the Bomb had already been used against civilians. Although it was not a “documentary,” and focused on modern day UK and not Japan, Peter Watkins’ landmark “The War Game” in 1965 brought what might be called “Hiroshima imagery” to millions via TV and in movie theaters. Still, the footage actually shot in the atomic cities in 1945 was kept hidden. See my book on all the above, Atomic Cover-up.
Nothing really changed in the 1970s. But by the time of the global antinuclear movement of the early 1980s a mass movement in Japan had raised funds to purchase thousands of feet of that footage shot by the U.S. military in the atomic cities--which had just been declassified. This was how Americans learned that this footage even existed (my article on this in 1982 for Nuclear Times played a key role). Some U.S. fllmmakers started using a few seconds of the footage--but continued to focus on destruction, not people. Their Japanese counterparts made at least two documentaries that made wider use of the footage but they were (and are) rarely screened in the U.S. and never on TV Here’s part of one:
The 50th anniversary in 1995 inspired massive coverage but again the focus was on the decisions to build and drop the bomb, the Manhattan Project, the physical destruction of the bombs and psychological effects on the world of entering the nuclear age. We met many survivors of the bombing who told their stories in words but again we saw very images of what they actually experienced in 1945 and during their recoveries. There was much accounting on the costly nuclear arms race since 1945 but not probing of what a full airing of the atomic bombings effects might have slowed or halted that. In the U.S. there was exactly one TV special that challenged the common view that the bombings were absolutely necessary, hosted by Peter Jennings on ABC, and he was widely criticized for this. A balanced exhibit at the Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. was turned into a glorification of the bombings after protests. Here’s the Newsweek cover--again, just the mushroom cloud. The article, by the way, fully supported use of the bomb.
Almost twenty years later, a full airing of images and footage from the atomic bombings have still not occurred. Not a single documentary outside Japan that I know of has made wide use of the suppressed footage and even the yearly “anniversary” coverage each August has grown spotty. The issue remains such a “raw nerve” that when it was falsely reported that President Obama might visit Hiroshima--no sitting president has ever done this--loud protests echoed in the U.S. Polls show that a large number of American today don't even know that a nuclear weapon has ever been used against people or misidentify who used it. Others continue to falsely believe that the two bombs were used against prime military targets, not over large cities, and killing mainly women and children. So this reality--despite a phenomenal range of images and footage, largely unseen, is easily obtained at various archives--remains submerged:
Note: I've written three books on the subject: Hiroshima in America (with Robert Jay Lifton), Atomic Cover-Up (on the decades-long suppression of shocking film shot in the atomic cities by the U.S. military), and Hollywood Bomb (the wild story of how an MGM 1947 drama was censored by the military and Truman himself).