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 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-secret material for decades. I also interviewed one of his key assistants, Herbert Sussan, and some of the Japanese survivors they filmed.
“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. 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.”
Tens of thousands of American GIs occupied the two cities. Because of the alleged absence of residual radiation, no one was urged to take precautions.
Then, on October 24, 1945, a Japanese cameraman in Nagasaki was ordered to stop shooting by an American military policeman. His film, and then the rest of the 26,000 feet of Nippon Eisasha footage, was confiscated by the US General Headquarters (GHQ). An order soon arrived banning all further filming. It was at this point that Lt. Daniel McGovern took charge.
Shooting the US Military Footage
In early September, 1945, less than a month after the two bombs fell, Lt. McGovern—who as a member of Hollywood’s famed First Motion Picture Unit shot some of the footage for William Wyler’s “Memphis Belle”—had become one of the first Americans to arrive in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was a director with the US Strategic Bombing Survey, organized by the Army the previous November to study the effects of the air campaign against Germany, and now Japan.
As he made plans to shoot the official American record, McGovern learned about the seizure of the Japanese footage. He felt it would be a waste to not take advantage of the newsreel footage, noting in a letter to his superiors that “the conditions under which it was taken will not be duplicated, until another atomic bomb is released under combat conditions.” McGovern proposed hiring some of the Japanese crew to edit and “caption” the material, so it would have “scientific value.” He took charge of this effort in early January 1946.
At the same time, McGovern was ordered by General Douglas MacArthur on January 1, 1946, to document the results of the US air campaign in more than twenty Japanese cities. His crew would shoot exclusively on color film, Kodachrome and Technicolor, rarely used at the time even in Hollywood. McGovern assembled a crew of eleven, including two civilians. Third in command was a young lieutenant from New York named Herbert Sussan.
The unit left Tokyo in a specially outfitted train, and made it to Nagasaki. “Nothing and no one had prepared me for the devastation I met there,” Sussan later told me. “We were the only people with adequate ability and equipment to make a record of this holocaust…I felt that if we did not capture this horror on film, no one would ever really understand the dimensions of what had happened. At that time people back home had not seen anything but black and white pictures of blasted buildings or a mushroom cloud.”
Along with the rest of McGovern’s crew, Sussan documented the physical effects of the bomb, including the ghostly shadows of vaporized civilians burned into walls; and, most chillingly, dozens of people in hospitals who had survived (at least momentarily) and were asked to display their burns, scars, and other lingering effects for the camera as a warning to the world. At the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima, a Japanese physician traced the hideous, bright red scars that covered several of the patients—and then took off his white doctor’s shirt and displayed his own burns and cuts.
After sticking a camera on a rail car and building their own tracks through the ruins, the Americans filmed hair-raising tracking shots that could have been lifted right from a Hollywood movie. Their chief cameramen was a Japanese man, Harry Mimura, who in 1943 had shot Sanshiro Sugata—the first feature film by a then-unknown director named Akira Kurosawa.
The Suppression Begins
While all this was going on, the Japanese newsreel team was completing its work of editing. Several of them took the courageous step of ordering from the lab a duplicate of the footage they had shot before the Americans took over the project—and hiding it in a ceiling at the lab.
The following month, McGovern was abruptly ordered to return to the United States. He hauled the 90,000 feet of color footage to the Pentagon and turned it over to General Orvil Anderson. Locked up and declared top secret, it did not see the light of day for more than thirty years. McGovern would be charged with watching over it. Sussan would become obsessed with finding it and getting it aired.
Fearful that his film might get “buried,” McGovern stayed on at the Pentagon as an aide to Gen. Anderson, who was fascinated by the footage and had no qualms about showing it to the American people. “He was that kind of man, he didn’t give a damn what people thought,” McGovern told me. “He just wanted the story told.”
Once they eyeballed the footage, however, most of the top brass didn’t want it widely shown and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was also opposed, according to McGovern. It nixed a Warner Brothers feature film project based on the footage that Anderson had negotiated, while paying another studio about $80,000 to help make four training films.
In a March 3, 1947, memo, Francis E. Rundell, a major in the Air Corps, explained that the film would be classified “secret.” This was determined “after study of subject material, especially concerning footage taken at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
The color footage was shipped to the Wright-Patterson base in Ohio. McGovern went along after being told to put an I.D. number on the film “and not let anyone touch it—and that’s the way it stayed,” as he put it. After cataloging it, he placed it in a vault in the top secret area.
Sussan wrote a letter to President Truman, suggesting that a film based on the footage “would vividly and clearly reveal the implications and effects of the weapons that confront us at this serious moment in our history.” A reply from a Truman aide threw cold water on that idea, saying such a film would lack “wide public appeal.” (He also censored the first Hollywood movie, an MGM epic, about the bomb, a wild tale.)
McGovern, meanwhile, continued to “babysit” the film, now at Norton Air Force base in California.
The Japanese Footage Emerges
At the same time, McGovern was looking after the Japanese footage. The Japanese government repeatedly asked the US for the full footage of what was known in that country as “the film of illusion,” to no avail.
Despite rising nuclear fears in the 1960s, before and after the Cuban missile crisis, few in the United States challenged the consensus view that dropping the bomb on two Japanese cities was necessary. The United States maintained its “first-use” nuclear policy: under certain circumstances it would strike first with the bomb and ask questions later. In other words, there was no real taboo against using the bomb. This notion of acceptability had started with Hiroshima. A firm line against using nuclear weapons had been drawn—in the sand. The United States, in fact, had threatened to use nuclear weapons during the Cuban missile crisis and on other occasions.
On September 12, 1967, the Air Force transferred the Japanese footage to the National Archives Audio Visual Branch in Washington, with the film “not to be released without approval of DOD (Department of Defense).”
Then, in the summer of 1968, Erik Barnouw, author of landmark histories of film and broadcasting, discovered a clipping from a Tokyo newspaper sent by a friend. It indicated that the US had finally shipped to Japan a copy of black and white newsreel footage shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese had negotiated with the State Department for its return. From the Pentagon, Barnouw learned in 1968 that the original nitrate film had been quietly turned over to the National Archives, so he went to take a look.
Attempting to create a subtle, quiet, even poetic, black and white film, he and his associates cut it from 160 to sixteen minutes, with a montage of human effects clustered near the end for impact. “Hiroshima-Nagasaki 1945” proved to be a sketchy but quite moving document of the aftermath of the bombing, captured in grainy but often startling black and white images: shadows of objects or people burned into walls, ruins of schools, miles of razed landscape viewed from the roof of a building.
In the weeks ahead, however, none of the (then) three TV networks expressed interest in airing it. “Only NBC thought it might use the film,” Barnouw later wrote, “if it could find a ‘news hook.’ We dared not speculate what kind of event this might call for.” But then an editorial in the Boston Globe blasted the networks, saying that everyone in the country should see this film: This at last pushed public television into the void. What was then called National Educational Television (NET) agreed to show the documentary on August 3, 1970, to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the dropping of the bomb.
The American Footage Comes Out
About a decade later, by pure chance, Herb Sussan would spark the emergence of the American footage, ending its decades in the dark.
In the mid-1970s, Japanese antinuclear activists, led by Tsutomu Iwakura, discovered that few pictures of the aftermath of the atomic bombings existed in their country. Many had been seized by the US military after the war, they learned, and taken out of Japan. The Japanese had as little visual exposure to the true effects of the bomb as most Americans. Activists managed to track down hundreds of pictures in archives and private collections and published them in a popular book. In 1979 they mounted an exhibit at the United Nations in New York.
There, by chance, Iwakura met Sussan, who told him about the US military footage.
Iwakura found that the color footage, recently declassified, might be at the National Archives. A trip to Washington, DC, verified this. He found eighty reels of film. About one-fifth of the footage covered the atomic cities. According to a shot list, reel #11010 included, for example: “School, deaf and dumb, blast effect, damaged Commercial school demolished School, engineering, demolished.School, Shirayama elementary, demolished, blast effect Tenements, demolished.”
The film had been quietly declassified a few years earlier, but no one in the outside world knew it. An archivist there told me later, “If no one knows about the film to ask for it, it’s as closed as when it was classified.”
Eventually 200,000 Japanese citizens contributed half a million dollars and Iwakura was able to buy the film. He then traveled around Japan filming survivors who had posed for Sussan and McGovern in 1946. Iwakura quickly completed a documentary called Prophecy and in late spring 1982 arranged for a New York premiere.
Later a small part of the McGovern/Sussan footage turned up for the first time in an American film, one of the sensations of the New York Film Festival, called Dark Circle. Its co-director, Chris Beaver, told me, “No wonder the government didn’t want us to see it. I think they didn’t want Americans to see themselves in that picture. It’s one thing to know about that and another thing to see it.”
Despite this exposure, not a single story had yet appeared in an American newspaper about the shooting of the footage, its suppression or release. And Sussan was now ill with a form of lymphoma doctors had found in soldiers exposed to radiation in atomic tests during the 1950s—or in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Still, the question of precisely why the footage remained secret for so long lingered. But McGovern told me, “The main reason it was classified was because of the horror, the devastation. The medical effects were pretty gory. The attitude was: do not show any medical effects. Don’t make people sick.”
But who was behind this? “I always had the sense,” McGovern answered, “that people in the AEC were sorry they 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 images out because they showed effects on man, woman and child. But the AEC, they were the ones that stopped it from coming out. They had power of God over everybody. If it had anything to do with nukes, they had to see it. They were the ones who destroyed a lot of film and pictures of the first US nuclear tests after the war.”
As Dark Circle director Chris Beaver had said, “With the government trying to sell the public on a new civil defense program and Reagan arguing that a nuclear war is survivable, this footage could be awfully bad publicity.”
In the summer of 1984, I made my own pilgrimage to the atomic cities, to walk in the footsteps of Dan McGovern and Herb Sussan, and meet some of the people they filmed in 1946. (The month-long grant was arranged by the current mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba. My new book and e-book has a lengthy chapter describing what it’s like to be in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to interview survivors.) By then, the McGovern/ Sussan footage had turned up in several new documentaries. On September 2, 1985, however, Herb Sussan passed away. His final request to his children: Would they scatter his ashes at ground zero in Hiroshima?
In the mid-1990s, researching Hiroshima in America, a book I would write with Robert Jay Lifton, I discovered the deeper context for suppression of the US Army film: it was part of a broad effort to suppress a wide range of material related to the atomic bombings, including photographs, newspaper reports on radiation effects, information about the decision to drop the bomb, even a Hollywood movie.
Then, in 2003, as chief adviser to a documentary film, Original Child Bomb, I urged director Carey Schonegevel to draw on the atomic footage as much as possible. Original Child Bomb went on to debut at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival, win the top Silverdocs award, and debut on the Sundance cable channel. After sixty years at least a small portion of that footage reached part of the American public in the unflinching and powerful form its creators intended. Now i’ve written the first book and e-book about all of this, one of the last little told stories of World War II.
Americans who saw were finally able to fully judge for themselves what McGovern and Sussan were trying to accomplish in shooting the film, why the authorities felt they had to suppress it, and what impact their footage, if widely aired, might have had on the nuclear arms race—and the nuclear proliferation that plagues, and endangers, us today. But only small parts of the movie have been used (see the video below), only a small number of Americans have seen any of it. A major documentary on the footage, and the suppression, should still be made.Show