Why Color Atom Bomb Footage of Hiroshima & Nagasaki Was Censored by the Government for Decades


Back in October 2005, I wrote up an "Artifact" for Reason magazine (for the uninitiated, we call our feature on the last page of each issue Artifact; it consists of an image and a short text). Called "War's Nightmare Landscape," it's worth recalling today especially:

This horrifying image shows a young boy scarred by the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945. Almost unbelievably, he would not only survive, but live into the 21st century.

The U.S. military shot miles of color film documenting the effects of atomic bombs on residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then classified the footage as secret and locked it away until the 1980s. On the 60th anniversary of the dropping of the Bomb, the Sundance Channel ran the documentary Original Child Bomb, which brought some of the long-suppressed images to a wide audience for the first time. That same month, in response to legal action taken by the watchdog group the National Security Archive, the Pentagon released several dozen uncensored photos of flag-draped coffins of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and agreed to comply "as expeditiously as possible" with future Freedom of Information Act requests for images of casualties.

If you can stand to search for it in the melted flesh of the boy's back, you may find the reason why all governments try to conceal the human costs of war. Even on those rare occasions when the cause is unambiguously just, such images represent a blurred, nightmare landscape in which easy patriotism disappears.

That was written as the United States was mired in the thick of two wars, one of which (Iraq) was sold to the public on doubly dubious arguments. The first was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which turned out not to be true (as I argued back in 2002, even if it were true, the invasion of Iraq was best understood as a non sequitur in the "war on terror"). The second was that Iraq could be pacified on the cheap (lest we forget, Bush admin hand Larry Lindsey was sacked for suggesting that Iraq could cost as much as $200 billion, or double what the administration had suggested—and less than a fifth of what Iraq and Afghanistan have cost so far).

I don't think that there is any way to make a clean and easy evaluation regarding the moral or strategic righteousness of dropping the Bomb on Japan, but I do think it's an ongoing debate that is necessary and proper in any country that strives to be either moral or righteous. And the recognition that governments routinely and systematically lie about the causes, costs, and casualties of war—remember that image above and miles of color film of the aftermath of atomic bombs were hidden by the government for decades—is something that needs to be built into every calculation to send troops into harm's way. "Even on those rare occasions when the cause is unambiguously just," as I wrote seven years ago. 

Related: Information about the boy in the picture, Sumiteru Taniguchi, who is still alive.

Lucy Steigerwald reflects on "Some Reminders of the Cost of Ending World War II."

Wikipedia has a page that is a good starting point for further inquiry into the continuing controversy over the dropping of A-bombs on Japan here.

Streaming video of Alain Resnais' 1955 film, "Night and Fog," a brilliant and haunting meditation on genocide, war, and the mixed desires to forget and remember horror. And the start of his 1959 movie, Hiroshima Mon Amour,