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How Bombing Hiroshima got Hollywood Makeover

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The author has written extensively on propaganda related to the bomb. What follows is a story stemming from his previous research.

With Vladimir Putin’s Russia putting boots on the ground in Crimea and the Obama administration responding with rhetoric reminiscent of Cold War posturing, the past few days provided chilling reminders of the dangerous and costly nuclear arms race that gripped the two superpowers for nearly half a century. How far the U.S. and Russia will go in rattling their still enormous nuclear arsenals this time remains to be seen.

You might wonder why most Americans, after Hiroshima, accepted the new nuclear dangers so readily, even as atomic bombs led to hydrogen bombs and the world’s stockpile of warheads mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles expanded from mere dozens to thousands.

An important factor was the active suppression of vital information about radiation effects and other nuclear dangers by the Pentagon and other U.S. agencies. I have documented this in two books, “Hiroshima in America” (with Robert Jay Lifton) and “Atomic Cover-up.” This cover-up extended even to Hollywood.

This is a cautionary tale, one that has been buried for decades, on the official censorship—by the Truman White House—of a major Hollywood film on the bombing of Hiroshima. And the tale goes beyond censorship: it involves the outright falsification of major historical facts.

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A Propaganda Film is Born

The MGM drama, The Beginning or the End emerged in 1947, after many revisions, as a Hollywood version of America’s official nuclear narrative: The bomb was clearly necessary to end the war with Japan and save American lives—and we needed to build new and bigger weapons to protect us from the Soviets.

Just weeks after the Hiroshima attack in August 1945, Sam Marx, a producer at MGM, received a call from agent Tony Owen, who said his wife, actress Donna Reed, had received some fascinating letters from her high school chemistry teacher. That teacher, Dr. Edward Tomkins, who was then at the Oak Ridge nuclear site, wrote to ask if Hollywood had a feature on the atomic bomb in the works, one that would warn the world about the dangers of a nuclear arms race. He was surprised to learn they did not. But this would soon change.

Tompkins’ letter set in motion what MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, a conservative Republican, called “the most important story” he would ever film. MGM hired Norman Taurog to direct the film, and Hume Cronyn to star as physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the scientific effort to create the bomb.

President Truman himself provided the title, The Beginning or the End. Within weeks, as I learned through archival research, MGM writers were meeting with the atomic scientists at Oak Ridge and elsewhere.

My fascination with the making, and unmaking, of this seminal film about the dawn of the Atomic Age took me to the Truman Library, where I was the first to consult key documents, White House letters and scripts. The story of the derailing of the movie, and why it was important, is told in my book, “Hollywood Bomb.”

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The Bombing Gets a Hollywood Makeover

The early scripts, which I discovered at the library, raised doubts about President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima—and portrayed the effects of the bombing with a stark realism that would have shocked many viewers.

The script called for shots of a bombed-out Hiroshima as ghostlike ruins, with close-ups of a baby with a burned face. The underlying message reflected the regrets of many of the scientists who had worked to create the bomb: It would have been better to continue the war—even if it meant a full-scale invasion of Japan—“than release atomic energy in the world.”

But then something happened, and the “message” of The Beginning or the End shifted radically.

The reason for the shift was clear: General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project who was back at the Pentagon, had secured the all-important right of script approval—along with a then-hefty $10,000 fee—and was playing an active role in reshaping the film.

Unlike Groves and Truman, nearly all of the scientists impersonated in the film—even Albert Einstein—were not given script approval (although they signed releases). The Hollywoodization of the bomb had begun.

Facts were suppressed, and events were completely fabricated:

Suppression of fact:

In revised scripts, the decision to use the bomb was presented as justifiable, even admirable. The doubts raised earlier just disappeared. And now, after scenes depicting the bombing of Hiroshima, no victims were shown, just a charred landscape filmed from the air.

Suppression of fact:

Under General Groves’ guidance, the revised script made light of nuclear fallout.

Fabrication:

The B-29s flying over Hiroshima were pelted with heavy flak, a detail that made the attack seem more courageous. In fact, there was no antiaircraft fire over Hiroshima.

Fabrication:

One scene depicted fictional German scientists visiting a fabricated Japanese nuclear facility in—Hiroshima!

Fabrication:

In another entirely false episode, Matt Cochran, a young scientist arming the bomb, prevents a chain reaction from blowing up 40,000 people on a Pacific island—and thereby exposes himself to a fatal dose of radiation. But before he dies, Matt concludes,

“God has not shown us a new way to destroy ourselves. Atomic energy is the hand he has extended to lift us from the ruins of war and lighten the burdens of peace.”

Harry Truman’s Behavior Gets a Hollywood Makeover

After screening the film, Walter Lippmann, the famed columnist, said he still found one scene “shocking.” It pictured Truman deciding, rather cavalierly, after only a brief reflection, that the United States would use the weapon against Japan. President Truman felt uncomfortable with the scene, as well.

Following protests from the White House, the rightwing MGM screenwriter James K. McGuinness deleted the offending scene and wrote a new one:

Fabrication:

In the revised scene, Truman “reveals” that the United States would drop leaflets over Hiroshima warning of the coming attack with a new weapon as a means to “save lives.” There were no such leaflets.

Fabrication:

The fictional Truman also says there was a “consensus” that dropping the bomb would shorten the war by a year. No such consensus existed.

Fabrication:

And in the film the President predicts this “will mean life for…from 300,000 to half a million of America’s finest youth.” This was a highly inflated figure.

Fabrication:

President Truman says that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been picked as targets for their military value. In fact, they were selected because they had not been bombed previously and so would demonstrate the power of this new weapon. In any case, the aiming points for release of the bombs was the center of the cities, not military bases.

Fabrication:

The new scene also had Truman claiming he had spent “sleepless nights” making the decision. But in real life he proudly insisted he had never lost any sleep over it.

Suppression of fact:

The Truman White House demanded further changes. Among them, deleting a reference to morally concerned scientists who favored setting off a demonstration bomb for Japanese leaders in a remote area, to give them a chance to surrender before we dropped an atomic bomb on a city.

Fabrication:

The claim that the bombing would shorten the war by “approximately” a year was ordered changed to “at least” a year.

Truman even wrote a letter to the actor who had portrayed him in the original scene, complaining that he made it seem as if the president had come to a “snap judgment” in deciding to use the bomb. As indicated above, the offending scene was rewritten. This prompted the actor, Roman Bohnen, to write a sarcastic letter to the President, informing him that people would be debating the decision to drop the bomb for 100 years “and posterity is quite apt to be a little rough.” He went on to suggest that Truman should play himself in the movie. Truman, who normally ignored critical letters, took the trouble to reply and defend the atomic bomb decision, revealing, “I have no qualms about it whatever.”

Soon—likely on orders from the White House—Bohnen was replaced by another actor.

A Manufactured “aura of authenticity”

The drama that emerged in 1947, after many revisions, was a Hollywood version of what became America’s official nuclear narrative: The bomb was clearly necessary to end the war with Japan and save American lives—and we needed to build new and bigger weapons to protect us from the Soviets. The movie was seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans. Because of its quasi-documentary form, most viewers probably accepted its depiction of events as accurate.

The Beginning or the End, which billed itself as “basically a true story,” opened across the country in March 1947 to mixed reviews. Time laughed at the film’s “cheery imbecility,” but Variety praised its “aura of authenticity and special historical significance.” Bosley Crowther, the New York Times critic, applauded its handling of the moral issues in portraying the “necessary evil” of the atomic attacks.

On the other hand, Harrison Brown, who had worked on the bomb, exposed some of the film’s factual errors in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. He called the claim that warning leaflets had been showered on Hiroshima the “most horrible falsification of history.”

Physicist Leo Szilard knew what violence had been done to the truth. He summed it up this way: “If our sin as scientists was to make and use the bomb, then our punishment was to watch The Beginning or the End.

Life Magazine photo.

Life Magazine photo.

Mutual Assured Destruction

Mankind’s punishment would be the era of MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction—the Cold War doctrine that pitted the locked-and-loaded nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union against each other in a 50-year standoff. Those nuclear weapons, still on hair-trigger fuses—as well as those possessed by China, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel and other nations—continue to threaten the existence of life on earth whenever political leaders play “chicken” with one another for “strategic” advantage. And the nuclear arms race fed the vast nuclear power industry, marked by its own unprecedented dangers and accidents from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl and Fukushima.

IMAGE: Movie Poster,IMAGE: Harry Truman,IMAGE: NY Times Headline,IMAGE: Life Magazine Photo

Greg Mitchell is the author of more than a dozen books, including “Hiroshima in America” (with Robert Jay Lifton) and “Atomic Cover-up” and “Hollywood Bomb.” He is the former editor of Nuclear Times and Editor & Publisher and writes a daily column at The Nation.

 

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  • DMP

    Awake-Up..I’ll be brief !… governments ..all ..governments and governmental entities…massage the facts and events to fit their power interests and never the citizenry nor the truth

    • BigFish92672

      Do the Japanaese teach their people that the bombs were necessary to get them to surrender?

      • mnwildfan

        Do the Americans teach their children that they weren’t necessary? Because they weren’t.

      • drmikevasovski

        The Japanese do not teach their children about Pearl Harbor according to a Japanese person who visited Hawaii for the first time. After being taken to the harbor, she broke down in tears and said, “they never told us this in school”.

        • BigFish92672

          Probably because the destruction of Pearl Harbor was infinitesimal in comparison to what the US did to the population centers of mainland Japan. In your public school, did you learn that bombing of Tokyo in WWII was so intense, it caused lakes to boil? I’m guessing not. My point is, the victor writes the history, son never trust the victor’s version.

        • Snead Hearn

          The US had already caused Hiroshima-like destruction to Tokyo. They only difference was that it took many planes and 3 days (and no radiation victims).

        • DelmarJackson

          Japan has never had public discussions over the atrocities committed by the Japanese military and the public is quite ignorant over such things as the rape of Nanking China or the hundreds of thousands that died in their POW camps. Also, Japan was given immunity from any civil lawsuits so they have never paid money to citizens the way Germany was made to do and the way it has acknowledged its mistreatment of civilians.
          Not many Japanese citizens are aware of our soldiers held captive that were dissected while alive as medical experiments.
          I understand no one is perfect, there is good and bad in everybody, but people go over Americas actions with a fine tooth comb while being totally dismissive of the actions of the other side.

  • http://www.clippingpathspecialist.com/clipping-path.html Jannatul

    Its a matter of thinking so any kind of makeover can give an insight about Hiroshima tragedy.

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  • oldman67

    I have an aunt who was just a little girl living in Hiroshima the day the atomic bomb was dropped on that city. She will never talk about what it was like for her to live through that and from all the research i have done i feel there is no reason to ask her. Unbelievable how Japan was trying to surrender weeks before the bombs were dropped. All they asked was to keep their emperor which the U.S. refused to do. After demonstrating to the USSR America’s power and the surrender Japan was allowed to keep their emperor after all. I found it Interesting that Saddam tried to surrender but his military forces were destroyed along with tens of thousand of innocent civilians. I found it interesting how similar the tactics used by the U.S. to get Japan to attack Pearl Harbor and Saddam to invade Kuwait turned out to be.

    • DelmarJackson

      I think the hundreds of thousands of military and civilian prisoners in the over 500 Japanese POW camps who were dying by the thousands every week from starvation, torture, and being worked to death, if the bombs were not dropped may have a different opinion.

      • yesnowhat

        Delmar, either you’re an idiot or you can’t read. He said the Japanese were trying to surrender and were not allowed to do so. Therefore it follows that during the last weeks of the was, it is the fault of America that the pows were still in the camps, not the fault of the Japanese.

        • DelmarJackson

          if you have facts,-names,dates, proving the US deliberately dropped two atomic bombs on a Japan that had agreed to the surrender terms of our country, you should be on the news tonight. I await those facts.
          if you need to look at the facts of the hundreds of thousands of Asians, British, Dutch, Australian and American civilians and military that died in the Japanese POW camps , you can find it online, even in Wikipedia.
          The Japanese were extraordinary people who fought to the death. The war would have gone on for a much longer time if the bombs were not dropped and many more thousands non Japanese would have died in the POW camps, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of our military and their civilians that would have died in Japan after we invaded.
          The atomic bombs were horrible,so were the fire bombings of Dresden and other cities, and also the Japanese prison camps where hundreds of thousands died. The problem is, no one ever writes about the camps.

        • yesnowhat

          yes, two minutes of research shows that the Americans had received surrender terms virtually identical to the terms eventually accepted, by January 20, 1945 – this was a full 6 months before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. America therefore prolonged the war for 6 months so they could showcase their new weapon to the world.
          This was reported in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald on August 19, 1945.
          If you need more details, I suggest yo do your own research – it really isn’t that difficult.

        • DelmarJackson

          When your two minutes of research answers my question about your assertion the Japanese were bombed after agreeing to all the Allies conditions of surrender, I will be happy to read it. In the meantime,Telling me the surrender conditions the Japanese wanted was ” virtually” the same is kind of insulting. We all know what ” virtually” means. and it does not mean the same. If you are claiming we bombed the Japanese after they agreed to almost all of our conditions, , that is not your original statement.

        • mnwildfan

          Read the book “The House of War” by James Carroll. It explains how the Japanese talked about surrender before the bombings. Oldman67 is right. The only reason the Japanese didn’t surrender was the notion of unconditional surrender wouldn’t allow them to keep their Emperor.

        • DelmarJackson

          Gee, I wonder why the allies did not want the Japanese to keep their Emperor?

        • Holy Bacon

          The allies didn’t really *care* if Japan kept their Emperor. That is why Japan still has an Emperor today. What they wanted was an excuse to derail any overtures of peace so they could test their new weapon. Congratulations, you have proven yourself to be the epitome of the product of the Hollywood makeover of the atomic bombing of Japan.

        • DelmarJackson

          I think they tested their new weapon. It was at Los Alamos. Or was that a Hollywood myth too?
          I also think you are just making stuff up to suit your own agenda and have no proof. I am tired of people who want to rewrite the narrative of history and cherry pick facts and demonize people who object.
          The fact is the Japanese did not accept the terms of surrender, which was UNCONDITIONAL.
          The fact is hundreds of thousands of prisoners in the over 500 POW camps would have died from daily starvation, over work and torture if the war had not ended soon. The fact is hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides would have died along with hundreds of thousands of civilians if the war had gone on long enough for an invasion.
          Saying this is not so does not make the facts go away, as much as you would like for them to .

        • Holy Bacon

          Jesus you are thick. The whole point is that the US demanded unconditional surrender. The only terms the Japanese wanted in May 1945 was to leave the Emperor and not try him for war crimes… which we didn’t do anyway. We could have ended the war without invading and without killing entire cities. The test in the Nevada desert was just that, IN THE DESERT. It wasn’t a city and it wasn’t full of PEOPLE, which is the test they really wanted. You are regurgitating the same lie they have been repeating for 70 years, that there wasn’t a better alternative. I know it is hard to think that Americans could create a false narrative to justify atrocities because we are supposed to be “the good guys” but we have. I think you are just tired of people pointing out facts that poke holes in your accepted narrative of history because to do so would cause your entire paradigm of American “goodness” to crumble at your feet.

        • DelmarJackson

          Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. You are making a claim that the US deliberately dropped 2 atomic bombs on a civilian population as a “test” and your only proof is that, according to you, the Japanese were willing to surrender, so long as they could keep their Emperor (who they worshipped as a deity and would have jumped into a live volcano if he had summoned them to do so.) I can’t imagine why we did not accept. it is like if the Russians, upon advancing on Berlin, had been offered a surrender so long as the German people could keep Hitler. The Russians would have been animals not to accept such a fair offer. I am sure the Russians just wanted to flatten Berlin as a test.
          You know we never landed on the moon either.

        • Holy Bacon

          Ahh, the inevitable “oh yeah? Where is your proof that I can deny and pick apart with my apples to oranges comparisons and simplistic generalizations, hmm?” Scroll up. The House of War by James Carroll.

        • John Cook

          If you are willing to go far enough down the rabbit hole you will discover that they tested Both designs. The one we were later told about (at the time it was hidden behind a supposed explosion of an ammunition dump) was of the spherical style, but they also tested the “Gun Barrel” type. It was also called an ammunition explosion, but it wasn’t in the desert, it was a ship being loaded by a few hundred negro workers. They mostly died. Great test.

        • drmikevasovski

          The House of War is an amazing book. Glad to see it referenced in the comment section.

      • ND52

        Your avatar speaks volumes about your mindset @DelmarJackson:disqus

      • LocalHero

        Are you aware that the bomb incinerated American prisoners being held in Hiroshima? I didn’t think so.

        • DelmarJackson

          In the North atlantic convoys, after a ship was torpedoed, the destroyers would pass by seaman floating in the water to drop depth charges on the subs. No one could stop to pick them up. My uncle said his ship passed right by some sailors.he said could still see their faces.

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  • rightster

    The Japanese hit military targets at Pearl Harbor. They did ravage China, though.

  • ursulamargrit

    Truman knew ahead of time that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor, and waited patiently for it to happen, to get the people to finally approve of the USA joining the war.
    Also, apparently, the Japanese wanted to surrender, but without giving up their emperor, who was their god.
    The USA refused, wanting an unconditional surrender, with disposing of the emperor.
    AFTER dropping those bombs, they allowed for a conditional surrender.
    They wanted to drop the bombs to test them on real people, and to show Stalin what would happen to one of his cities if he crossed the United States.
    It had NOTHING to do with saving any lives at all.

    • Duke Woolworth

      Truman was a senator in 1941.

      • DelmarJackson

        Thank you!

        • Duke Woolworth

          The google strikes again!

      • Mike G

        He obviously meant FDR.

  • Duke Woolworth

    Only the losers are war criminals. The winners are heroes.

  • Snead Hearn

    War criminals Kissinger and Obama got Nobel Peace Prizes. Why not be consistent and give one to War Criminal Truman?

  • John Cook

    The two bombs were of different designs – they “needed” to test both. The raw Evil of those people is hard to believe. Neither bombs were necessary, the war was over, but the second one is absolute proof of the malevolence of the Americans in power.

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  • soonertroll

    The wretched Empire of Japan deserved everything it got during the war.

    • cruz_ctrl

      the last five letters of your username are appropriate.

  • Nick

    I prefer to think of the HST as described in this clip of John Taylor Gatto– calling out the Rockefellers for selling oil to both sides in 1942…

  • edwardrynearson

    and when all was said and done it was the making of the bombs which did us in > hanford nuclear reservation is one big “chickens coming home to roost” problem

  • IMPOed

    And our “leadership” is still practicing their deceitful practices today,, and getting away with it, how can this be?

    • cruz_ctrl

      “And our “leadership” is still practicing their deceitful practices today,, and getting away with it, how can this be?”

      Have you read some of the comments on this thread? Consider your question answered…

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  • cruz_ctrl

    right! let’s have a race to the bottom. who can out-atrocity whom…

  • traveler

    It makes the US just like them: a pig country, that do no hesitate to massacre and genocide, just like the nuts of japan did and the US does non stop today.

  • Robert Lloyd

    To think we chose to bomb women and children instead of the military taking casualties… is horrendous. And we are the good guys?