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After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the U.S. attempted to suppress information about radioactivity—the very thing that made these new bombs different from all weapons of war before them. The tremendous explosive power of the A-bombs was stressed, even celebrated, but officials worked hard to keep people ignorant of the terrible effects of radiation poisoning, effects which seem to have surprised many who worked on the bombs and ordered their use.

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Scholar Janet Farrell Brodie explores how officials tried to “limit public understanding” of these poisonous after-effects. She approaches this history through the lens of agnotology, the study of the cultural production of ignorance and/or doubt, the ways “lack of knowledge has been fomented, cultivated, and maintained.” Hiding the reality of radioactivity was an early use of strategies that have since become commonplace, helping to undermining trust in institutions, both public and private.

The first Japanese responders to the bombings had no idea what was sickening people. They initially thought that a chemical or germ warfare device had accompanied or been a part of the bombing. (American officials were extremely worried about being labeled war criminals for using chemical or biological weapons.) By the end of that August, Japanese doctors and scientists realized they were dealing with “radiation sickness” or “roentgen disease.” Yet Japanese case notes, biopsies, slides, and other pieces of evidence were confiscated by U.S. occupation authorities—some of it kept classified for decades.

“Although the world quickly learned a few details—that some kind of “atomic plague” related to the atomic bomb was causing death and illness in the two bombed cities, U.S. authorities in Japan and at home moved quickly to contain deeper knowledge about the radiation and its effects.”

Between the Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9) attacks, for instance, the New York Times ran 132 news items about the bombings “but omitted or obscured anything about radiation.” In the ten months after the Nagasaki blast, the Times had 15 articles mentioning radiation, nine of them minimizing it, the rest more ambiguous. J. Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project, as an example, was quoted as saying “there is every reason to believe that there was no appreciable radioactivity on the ground in Hiroshima.”

Censorship and lies were only partially successful. The story of the poisonous effects of radioactivity unleashed by the A-bombs inevitably leaked out. Massive radiation contamination by A-bomb testing in the Pacific, which affected soldiers, test animals, and naval ships, added to the inevitable revelation of the grim realities of the nuclear age.

And when it became impossible to fully censor the story, misdirection came into play. Upbeat messaging “about the medical and biological benefits to be gained from radiation” and the “peaceful uses” of atomic power attempted to paper over the horrible burns, painful sickness, agonizing deaths, and genetic mutations caused by radioactivity.

Brodie’s synopsis of the efforts undertaken by officials could be used as a generic description of any number of once-secret stories, governmental and corporate, since: “Officials censored, suppressed, and distorted information through campaigns of misinformation and campaigns of reassurance.”


Operation Crossroads

Bombs and the Bikini Atoll

The haute beachwear known as the bikini was named after a string of islands turned into a nuclear wasteland by atomic bomb testing.

All this secrecy had consequences. Survivors were stigmatized and received no recognition or financial assistance from the Occupation (until 1952) or the Japanese government (until 1954). The U.S. study set up in 1946 to measure long-term effects of the bombing was specifically not allowed to provide medical treatment. Those affected by radiation from Nevada test sites, and bomb-production and storage facilities in the U.S., were similarly ignored. As Brodie writes, “secrecy, extraordinary levels of classification, lies, denial, and deception became the chief legacy of the initial impulse to censor radiation information.”

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Journal of Social History, Vol. 48, No. 4, E.P. Thompson after Fifty Years (Summer 2015), pp. 842-864
Oxford University Press