There’s a place for the rogue journalist who refuses to be manipulated and managed by the military. A place that has been explored extensively by Australian journalist and war correspondent Wilfred Burchett.
In the recently published book, Fallout – The Hiroshima cover-up and the reporter who revealed it to the world, Lesley Blume eulogises US journalist, John Hersey who wrote a major article for the New Yorker revealing the reality of atomic war.
But Hersey’s story, published in August 1946, was not the first to expose the impact of the Hiroshima bomb on the city and its people. That honour belongs to Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, who sent his dispatch to the London Daily Express, which published it on 5 September 1945.
Blume acknowledges Burchett’s article in her book but gives it limited coverage, thus making Hersey’s achievement look all the greater.
A few quotes from Burchett’s article show how remarkable it was. (Keep in mind that at that time most people had no idea what an atomic bomb was, never mind its after effects.)
The headings read: THE ATOMIC PLAGUE; I WRITE THIS AS A WARNING TO THE WORLD; DOCTORS FALL AS THEY WORK; POISON GAS FEAR: ALL WEAR MASKS.
Burchett’s opening paragraph reads: “In Hiroshima, 30 days after the first atomic bomb destroyed the city and shook the world, people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly – people who were uninjured by the cataclysm – from an unknown something which I can only describe as atomic plague.
“Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city. It looks as if a monster steamroller had passed over it and squashed it out of existence……In this first testing ground of the atomic bomb I have seen the most terrible and frightening desolation in four years of war. It makes a blitzed Pacific island seem like an Eden. The damage is far greater than photographs can show.”
After describing the 25 to 30 square miles of the flattened city, with only 20 factory chimneys still standing, but no factories, Burchett turns to the conditions in the hospitals:
“… I found people who, when the bomb fell, suffered absolutely no injuries, but now are dying from the uncanny after-effects. For no apparent reason, their health began to fail. They lost appetite. Their hair fell out. Bluish spots appeared on their bodies. And the bleeding began from the ears, nose and mouth.
“At first the doctors told me they thought these were the symptoms of general debility. They gave their patients Vitamin A injections. The results were horrible. The flesh started rotting away from the hole caused by the injection of the needle. And in every case the victim died.
“That is one of the after-effects of the first atomic bomb man ever dropped and I do not want to see any more examples of it.”
Burchett did not know what he had encountered. He reported a foul smell and said the people believed a poisonous gas was still issuing from the earth soaked with radioactivity released by the split uranium atom. The people of Hiroshima were walking through the forlorn desolation of their once proud city with gauze masks over their mouths and noses. “It probably does not help them physically. But it helps them mentally.”
Burchett said from the moment the devastation was loosed upon Hiroshima the people who survived had hated the white man. The counted dead number 53,000. Another 30,000 were missing, which meant “certainly dead.”
Nearly a month after the bombing, in a single day, one hundred people died from the bomb’s effects.
To get to Hiroshima Burchett had to break the rules restricting journalists’ movements in Japan. Along with hundreds of other journalists he had been accredited to witness the signing of the Japanese surrender onboard the USS Missouri. Instead, he slipped away and boarded a train for Hiroshima, which was officially off-limits.
Other journalists complied with the military’s directions.
Hersey’s 1946 “scoop” was only made possible thanks to that compliance and the military’s manipulation and management of the US media –a process that continues to this very day.
While Burchett was at Hiroshima, a contingent of approved journalists, accompanied by military managers, arrived at the site.
Did they not see the condition of the people? If they did, they certainly did not report it. Blume says Lieutenant Colonel McCray who accompanied them, instructed them to downplay the grotesque details because Americans were “not ready for it back home.”
But even worse, a week after Burchett’s story was published, the New York Times correspondent, Bill Lawrence, who had been on the approved Hiroshima junket, wrote an article seeking to discredit Burchett’s report saying that “horrible as the bomb undoubtedly is, the Japanese are exaggerating the effects .. in an effort to win sympathy for themselves…”
This would not be the last time this highly respected newspaper was manipulated by authorities. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, the paper published many stories claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They were sourced from exiles and US officials intent on waging war on Iraq. Investigations after the invasion found no sign of the reported secret camps where biological weapons were allegedly being produced or the facilities for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons supposedly in underground wells, private villas and under the Saddam Hussein Hospital in Baghdad. To its credit, the New York Times later acknowledged that its reporters and editors had not been sufficiently questioning and sceptical.
I still read, subscribe to and view mainstream US media. But I now do so with much scepticism, particularly when the source of a story is an anonymous US official or officials.
For example, I don’t doubt that various agents and criminals are seeking to scam or hack networks around the world. But the I’m sceptical when I read that a hack used “tradecraft that is amongst the most advanced in the world” https://archive.is/2vsFx#selection-497.261-497.413 and the writer then says that it was, therefore, a Russian, or as the case may be, Chinese hack. If it was highly sophisticated tradecraft, employing a trail of servers around the world, surely it is difficult to know for certain who is the originator?
US background briefings, which have justified US war escalation, have been found wanting from as far back as the Vietnam Gulf of Tonkin incident to the more recent claims of a Syrian Government sarin attack in Douma.
By any measure Wilfred Burchett was a controversial character, covering the Korean and Vietnam wars from behind the communist lines. But he did not take a “my country right or wrong” line. https://www.cambridge.org/au/academic/subjects/politics-international-relations/politics-general-interest/rebel-journalism-writings-wilfred-burchett?format=PB&isbn=9780521718264
Journalists of today would do well to adopt such a practice.