Media Watch: Does the Media Have a Double Standard on Nuclear Weapons?

Culture Watch

Normon Solomon is co-author of "Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America's Experience with Atomic Radiation" (Delacorte Press, 1982).

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 October 1962."

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 and guilt."

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 rendered speechless."

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.

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B. Sowers - 9/10/2002

I heartily concur with Mr. Williams, but let's not forget the effect of small arms fire as a type of non-nuclear weapon. Although I have no figures, it seems to me that the machine gun in WWI did a pretty good job of sending lots of men to their graves. I suspect more men probably died by machine gun fire than died (civilian and military) at the hands of the nukes of WWII.

Pierre S. Troublion - 6/17/2002

Of course, the decisionS to drop (2) atom bombs on Japan in 1945 should not be above reproach, but to even implicitly equate liberating the world from fascism with enforcing a claim to a few peaks and valleys in Kashmir is pitifully ridiculous. How appropriate that this piece is stationed next to one on how Americans are ignorant of history.

Jim Williams - 6/13/2002

In connection with both comment threads so far, I encourage those seeking the opinion of an avowedly antiwar, historically capable veteran to read the essay by Paul Fussell Thank God for the Atom Bomb, in the book by the same name.

Consider the context. The U.S. leaders, embittered by evidence of fanaticism and war crimes by the Japanese (Japanese maltreatment of prisoners (the Bataan Death March) was then common knowledge due to the reconquest of the Phillipines, along with atrocities in Manila for which Yamashita was later unjustly executed), wanted to end the war quickly with as few U.S. casualties as possible. They were not as concerned about Japanese deaths, perhaps partially due to racism but also to the passions born of this spectacularly brutal war (read With the Old Breed by E. B. Sledge or the recent best-seller Flags of Our Fathers). Nevertheless, if they had wished to maximize Japanese casualties, they could have nuked Tokyo or another big Japanese city.

In addition, there is no clear moral distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons. Today there are nukes less powerful than some of the heavy bombs we dropped in Afghanistan. At one point, we had nuclear mortar shells which could have been used down to the battalion level. Conventional weapons can also cause horrific results. The U.S. in its firebomb attacks on Tokyo and the allies in their attacks on Dresden and Hamburg killed more people than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki attacks.

Nor do the Japanese or Germans have the moral high ground, given the "Rape of Nanking", the blitz on Rotterdam, and the Coventry attack (not to mention the Holocaust, the Japanese biological warfare experiments, etc.). Does anyone seriously believe that the Nazis or Japanese would have restrained themselves from using A-bombs had they possessed them? The only reason, I believe, that the Japanese and Germans did not carry out firebomb attacks like those of the allies was because of lack of ability - short-lived air superiority, shortages of pilots, petroleum, munitions, and planes, and not enough good heavy bombers.

This leads in, of course, to the question of the morality of these indiscriminate strategic air attacks. I consider them immoral, probably more so than the use of nukes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They also were probably a misuse of scarce military resouces which could have been better applied to specific military targets.

Tragically, the use of the nukes may also have been as unnecessary as the fire-bombings, but there is little evidence showing that Truman knew of serious Japanese attempts to open negotiations towards surrender. The A-bombs insured the Japanese met quickly the allies' demand for unconditional surrender. If dropping the nukes prevented the firebombing of more major Japanese cities, they may even have saved Japanese lives.

War makes everyone dirty; as Thucydides showed 2400 years ago, it erodes morality and rationality in nearly everyone involved. Those who single out U.S. culpability in the use of nukes from the brutal and inhumane expedients of a vicious war reason selectively and ahistorically.

Tristan Traviolia - 6/12/2002

The author needs to sit down and talk to a veteran of the island hopping campaigns to understand the justification for dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. How does the author equate a nuclear exchange between the United States (two atomic bombs total) and Japan (no nuclear devices) with the current situation on the subcontinent where both sides have nuclear weapons in quantity? Quit grinding a rhetorical axe and stick to substantiated facts if you want your viewpoint to resonate.

Papaya - 6/11/2002

True, there were civilians there, but when Truman described Hiroshima as "a military base", he was telling the truth. It was heavily militarized, included a major army base, and was referred to by the Japanese as "a military city":