my new book "The Beginning or the End".
On Aug. 6, 1945, President Harry S. Truman faced the task of telling
the press, and the world, that America’s crusade against fascism had
culminated in exploding a revolutionary new weapon of extraordinary
destructive power over a Japanese city.
It was vital that this event be understood as a reflection of
dominant military power and at the same time consistent with American
decency and concern for human life. Everyone involved in preparing the
presidential statement sensed that the stakes were high, for this marked
the unveiling of both the atomic bomb and the official narrative of
When the astonishing news emerged that morning, exactly 74 years ago,
it took the form of a routine press release, a little more than a
thousand words long. President Truman was at sea a thousand miles away,
returning from the Potsdam conference. The Soviet Union was hours from
declaring war on Japan (“fini Japs” when that occurred,
Truman had written days before in his diary).
Shortly before eleven o’clock, an information officer from the War
Department arrived at the White House bearing bundles of press releases.
A few minutes later, assistant press secretary Eben Ayers began reading
the president’s announcement to about a dozen members of the Washington
The atmosphere was so casual, and the statement so momentous, that
the reporters had difficulty grasping it. “The thing didn’t penetrate
with most of them,” Ayers later remarked. Finally, they rushed to call
their editors, and at least one reporter found a disbeliever at the
other end of the line. The first few sentences of the statement set the
“Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on
Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power
than 20,000 tons of TNT. ...The Japanese began the war from the air at
Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold. ...It is an atomic bomb.
It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.”
Although details were modified at the last moment, Truman’s four-page
statement had been crafted with considerable care over many months.
From its very first words, however, the official narrative was built on a
lie. Hiroshima was not an “army base” but a city of 350,000. It did
contain one important military base, but the bomb had been aimed at the
very center of a city (and far from its industrial area). This was a
continuation of the American policy of bombing civilian populations in
Japan to undermine the morale of the enemy. It was also to take
advantage of what those who picked the target called the special
“focusing effect” provided by the hills which surrounded the city on
three sides. This would allow the blast to bounce back on the city,
destroying more of it, and its citizens.
Perhaps 10,000 military personnel lost their lives in the bomb but
the vast majority of the dead in Hiroshima would be women and children.
Also: at least a dozen American POWs. When Nagasaki was A-bombed three
days later it was officially described as a “naval base.”
There was something else missing in Truman’s announcement: Because
the president in his statement failed to mention radiation effects,
which officials knew were horrendous, the imagery of just a bigger bomb
would prevail in the press. Truman described the new weapon as
“revolutionary” but only in regard to the destruction it could cause,
failing to mention its most lethal new feature: radiation.
Many Americans first heard the news from the radio, which broadcast
the text of Truman’s statement shortly after its release. The afternoon
papers quickly arrived with banner headlines: “Atom Bomb, World’s
Greatest, Hits Japs!” and “Japan City Blasted by Atomic Bomb.” The
Pentagon had released no pictures, so most of the newspapers relied on
maps of Japan with Hiroshima circled.
It wasn’t until the following morning, Aug. 7, that the government’s
press offensive appeared, with the first detailed account of the making
of the atomic bomb, and the Hiroshima mission. Nearly every U.S.
newspaper carried all or parts of 14 separate press releases distributed
by the Pentagon several hours after the president’s announcement.
The Truman announcement of the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, and
the flood of material from the War Department, firmly established the
One of the few early stories that did not come directly from the
military was a wire service report filed by a journalist traveling with
the president on the Atlantic, returning from Europe. Approved by
military censors, it went beyond, but not far beyond, the measured tone
of the president’s official statement. It depicted Truman, his voice
“tense with excitement,” personally informing his shipmates about the
atomic attack. “The experiment,” he announced, “has been an overwhelming
The sailors were said to be “uproarious” over the news. “I guess I’ll
get home sooner now,” was a typical response. (Whether the declaration
of war by the Soviets might have produced surrender in a few days or
weeks remains an open question.) Nowhere in the story, however, was
there a strong sense of Truman’s reaction. Missing from this account was
his exultant remark when the news of the bombing first reached the
ship: “This is the greatest thing in history!”