Nuclear Weapons, Media Fog

media outlets roused themselves from outright denial in early June,
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. 

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 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.” 

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 person in the Oval Office has carefully attended to public
relations, with major media rarely questioning the proclaimed humanitarian

an announcement on August 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.” 

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. 

U.S. media, the atomic bombings of 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. 

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

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.” 

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. 

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

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.” 

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.” 

months ago, the U.S. government’s new Nuclear
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.” 

goes around tends 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.                                   Z 

Solomon is co-author of
Killing Our Own: The Disaster
of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation
Press, 1982).