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How the US Hid Shocking Hiroshima Footage For Decades

The following article first appeared on the Web site of The Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its e-mail newsletters here.

In the weeks following the atomic attacks on Japan sixty-six years ago this week, and then for decades afterward, the United States engaged in airtight suppression of all film shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings. This included vivid color footage shot by U.S. military crews and black-and-white Japanese newsreel film.

The public did not see any of the newsreel footage for twenty-five years, and the shocking US military film remained hidden for nearly four decades. While the suppression of nuclear truths stretched over decades, Hiroshima sank into “a kind of hole in human history,” as the writer Mary McCarthy observed. The United States engaged in a costly and dangerous nuclear arms race. Thousands of nuclear warheads remain in the world, often under loose control; the United States retains its “first-strike” nuclear policy; and much of the world is partly or largely dependent on nuclear power plants, which pose their own hazards.

Our nuclear entrapment continues to this day—you might call it “From Hiroshima to Fukushima.”

The color US military footage would remain hidden until the early 1980s, and has never been fully aired. It rests today at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, in the form of 90,000 feet of raw footage labeled #342 USAF.

When that footage finally emerged, I spoke with and corresponded with the man at the center of this drama: Lt. Col. (Ret.) Daniel A. McGovern, who directed the US military film-makers in 1946, managed the Japanese footage, and then kept watch on all of the top-secr

et material for decades. I also interviewed one of his key assistants, Herbert Sussan, and some of the Japanese survivors they filmed.

Now I’ve written a book and e-book about this, titled Atomic Cover-up: Two US Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made. You can view some of the suppressed footage here or below.

“I always had the sense,” Dan McGovern told me, “that people in the Atomic Energy Commission were sorry we had dropped the bomb. The Air Force—it was also sorry. I was told by people in the Pentagon that they didn’t want those [film] images out because they showed effects on man, woman and child…. They didn’t want the general public to know what their weapons had done—at a time they were planning on more bomb tests. We didn’t want the material out because…we were sorry for our sins.”

Sussan, meanwhile, struggled for years to get some of the American footage aired on national TV, taking his request as high as President Truman, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward R. Murrow, to no avail.

The Japanese Newsreel Footage

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb over the center of Hiroshima, killing at least 70,000 civilians instantly and perhaps 50,000 more in the days and months to follow. Three days later, it exploded another atomic bomb over Nagasaki, slightly off target, killing 40,000 immediately and dooming tens of thousands of others. Within days, Japan had surrendered, and the US readied plans for occupying the defeated country—and documenting the first atomic catastrophe.

But the Japanese also wanted to study it. Within days of the second atomic attack, officials at the Tokyo-based newsreel company Nippon Eigasha discussed shooting film in the two stricken cities. When the first rushes came back to Toyko, Akira Iwasaki, the chief producer, felt “every frame burned into my brain,” he later said.

At this point, the American public knew little about conditions in the atomic cities beyond Japanese assertions that a mysterious affliction was attacking many of those who survived the initial blasts (claims that were largely taken to be propaganda). Newspaper photographs of victims were non-existent, or censored. Life magazine would later observe that for years “the world…knew only the physical facts of atomic destruction.”

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