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."
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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.