Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 75 Years After

By  Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen

Seventy-five years ago, the United States conducted two nuclear attacks against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, devastating their populations and destroying their infrastructure.

In the process of manufacturing and testing the nuclear weapons that would eventually be used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, civilians within downwind communities, nuclear workers, uranium miners and their families, and military personnel were also exposed to harmful and sometimes deadly levels of ionizing radiation. Following their use in Japan, the production and past testing of nuclear weapons in the United States and internationally continues to harm the health, environment, and cultures of communities around the world.

In the United States, we are commonly told that creating and dropping these nuclear bombs was “necessary” in order to end the Second World War and save additional lives. As several prominent historians have detailed extensively, this narrative is oversimplistic and ahistorical: the bombs were never intended to take the place of an invasion, and it is not even clear that they directly brought about the end of the war in the way that is often portrayed. Primary documents show that the commonly-taught narrative about the two atomic bombings can be easily deconstructed. Additionally, these nuclear bombings followed devastating conventional firebombings of Japanese cities that were specifically designed to target civilians and infrastructure.

Seventy-five years later, we commemorate the nuclear attacks and the unspeakable human suffering they inflicted, which remind us of the uniquely destructive capability of nuclear weapons and the importance of ensuring that they are never used in anger again.

In recognition of this 75th anniversary, the Federation of American Scientists is honored to join a coalition of nuclear weapons organizations and survivors in calling for our leaders to take the actions necessary to ensure nuclear weapons are never used again and to negotiate in good faith the global elimination of these most devastating weapons of mass destruction.

As our coalition statement reads,

Today, we are living in a time of extraordinary nuclear dangers. Vital international agreements to reduce and control nuclear weapons worldwide are being abandoned. Budgets for the development and production of new nuclear weapons are growing. Tensions among nuclear-armed nations are rising to levels not seen since the Cold War. 

As the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki warn: “We are badly off course in efforts to honor the plea of the hibakusha and end the nuclear threat.” 

As the only country to use nuclear weapons in conflict, the United States has a moral obligation to lead the world in ending this menace and restoring communities impacted by nuclear weapons.

People created these weapons and designed the systems governing their use; people can work to eliminate them. 

As we wrote on the 75th anniversary of the Trinity test, we are trending in the wrong direction. Despite reductions since the Cold War, there are still more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and every nuclear-armed country is currently in the midst of modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Disturbingly, bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements have fallen away or are currently under severe stress. Most immediately concerning is New START, which effectively limits US and Russian strategic warhead and launcher deployments, but expires in February 2021. As we have written, New START extension is a no-brainer: Russia and the United States can extend the New START treaty by up to 5 more years. It is essential both sides act responsibly and do so to preserve this essential agreement.

The Federation of American Scientists is honored to provide the world with the best non-classified estimates of the nuclear weapons arsenals. We are grateful for the financial support from the New Land Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, and the Prospect Hill Foundation to do this work. To explore this vast data, developed over many decades, start here.

Hollywood and the Bomb

Among the lesser known consequences of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago was that it triggered a race between Hollywood movie studios MGM and Paramount to bring the story of the atomic bomb — or at least some commercialized version of it — to the American public as a major motion picture.

In the new book The Beginning or the End (which was also the name of the resulting 1947 MGM film), author and journalist Greg Mitchell excavates this long-forgotten episode to discover what it says about the way the Bomb was perceived and assimilated into popular culture.

The idea for a popular film originated with a pitch from Manhattan Project chemist Ed Tompkins to his former pupil, the actress Donna Reed. Such a film, he told her, might help to “impress upon the public the horrors of atomic warfare.”

The idea caught the attention of the movie studios, and the race to bring the proposal to fruition began. Mitchell vividly captures the wheeling and dealing that went on to generate a suitable script, to line up appealing actors, and to win the necessary government cooperation and, indeed, approval.

Beyond the odd and sometimes amusing machinations of the movie business at the time, Mitchell tells a more important story.

“This book offers not only deep reconsideration of the use of the first nuclear weapons against two Japanese cities, but an urgent warning about secrecy, manipulation and suppression as threats to the planet accelerate today,” he wrote in the Preface.

But one could say that the book is only incidentally about nuclear history, and that it is best appreciated as a work of cultural analysis and critique.

Mitchell describes how, as it took shape, the film largely jettisoned the scientists’ concerns that had inspired the project. The filmmakers added spurious details, deleted inconvenient facts (including all mention of the Nagasaki bombing), and bowed to government pressure. They flattered government officials and scientists to win their support or their consent to be portrayed. (Niels Bohr stands out as one of few who could not be seduced or browbeaten to cooperate.) The overriding imperative was to draw audiences and to make money.

In almost every respect, it was a failure, Mitchell reports.

The film presented “melodramatic simplifications and, indeed, falsifications of what actually took place,” wrote columnist Walter Lippmann following a preview. Writing in Time Magazine, James Agee disdained its “cheery imbecility.” The movie performed poorly at the box office.

The filmmakers “actually think that they have made history,” wrote film critic Bosley Crowther in the New York Times. “It is a slightly ridiculous conceit.”

But, Mitchell counters, “one might say that the film — in exaggerating, glorifying, and even fabricating key events — did ‘make’ history.”

And that perspective is what makes this book so interesting and surprising. It illuminates the process by which a cultural artifact — a movie, in this case — is constructed, step by negotiated step. Mitchell has a light touch, and the book is easy to read. But it poses deep questions that go beyond the manufacture of crude propaganda. How does one tell a story? Whose voices count and whose are to be excluded? What leads story tellers (or filmmakers) to omit some facts and to embrace certain falsehoods? How does the profit motive skew the outcome?

The film The Beginning or the End has long been justifiably neglected and until now was hardly even a footnote in history (unlike, for example, John Hersey’s 1946 book Hiroshima, which endures). But Mitchell’s new book makes it worth recalling and considering, if not actually viewing.

The Urgency of Military History

The task of the military historian differs from that of the academic historian because military history has an operational dimension. It is supposed to help inform current military operations with the lessons and the perspectives of the past.

“The historian must always bear in mind that the whole purpose of the history office is to help the warfighter by serving as an advisor and presenting critical documentation when needed,” according to a new US Air Force Handbook on the subject. “The mission drives what is important for the historian, not the historian’s particular interest. ”

The military historian also is responsible for identifying and assembling the raw materials of future scholarship. Contrary to what “many new historians may incorrectly assume, documentation will not automatically arrive in the office. The historian must seek it.” See Aerospace Historian Operations in Peace and War, Air Force Handbook 84-106, April 2, 2020.

But operationally, history can only do so much.

“Military history does not produce solutions for problems and does [not] guarantee success on the battlefield,” an Army manual on the subject explains. “An approach with these goals leads to frustration and biased or inaccurate history.”

“Rather, military history affords an understanding of the dynamics to shape the present and enables Soldiers the perspective of viewing current and future problems with ideas of how similar challenges were confronted in the past. . .  If history rarely provides concrete answers, it offers insight and understanding.”

“Historians know that Army history records triumphs, challenges, and failures. Army historians do not judge operations and actions; they seek to tell the full story so that others learn from it.” See Military History Operations, ATP 1-20, US Army, June 2014.

Declassified U2 Photos Open a New Window into the Past

Updated below

Archaeologists are using declassified imagery captured by U2 spy planes in the 1950s to locate and study sites of historical interest that have since been obscured or destroyed.

This work extends previous efforts to apply CORONA spy satellite imagery, declassified in the 1990s, to geographical, environmental and historical research. But the U2 imagery is older and often of higher resolution, providing an even further look back.

“U2 photographs allowed us to present a more complete picture of the archaeological landscape than would have otherwise been possible,” wrote archaeologists Emily Hammer and Jason Ur in a new paper. See Near Eastern Landscapes and Declassified U2 Aerial ImageryAdvances in Archaeological Practice, published online March 12, 2019.

The exploitation of U2 imagery required some ingenuity and entrepreneurship on the authors’ part, especially since the declassified images are not very user-friendly.

“Logistical and technical barriers have for more than a decade prevented the use of U2 photography by archaeologists,” they noted. “The declassification included no spatial index or finding aid for the planes’ flight paths or areas of photographic coverage. The declassified imagery is not available for purchase or download; interested researchers must photograph the original negatives at the NARA II facility in College Park, Maryland.”

Since no finding aids existed, the authors created them themselves. Their paper also contains links to web maps to help other researchers locate relevant film cans and order them for viewing in College Park.

“These [U2] photographs are a phenomenal historical resource,” said Professor Ur. “Have a look at Aleppo in 1959 and Mosul in 1958. These places are now destroyed.”

Update: Related work involving declassified aerial imagery in the UK was described in “Use of archival aerial photographs for archaeological research in the Arabian Gulf” by Richard N. Fletcher et al, Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 48 (2018): 75–82:

    Summary
    A valuable archaeological and historical resource is contained within recently declassified aerial imagery from the UK’s Joint Aerial Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre (JARIC), now held at the National Collection of Aerial Photography in Edinburgh (NCAP). A project at UCL-Qatar has begun to exploit this to acquire and research the historical aerial photography of Qatar and the wider Gulf region. The JARIC collection, comprising perhaps as many as 25 million photographs from British intelligence sources in the twentieth century, mainly from Royal Air Force reconnaissance missions, is known to include large quantities of aerial photography from the Gulf that have never been seen outside intelligence circles, dating from 1939 to 1989. This paper will demonstrate how others may gain access to this valuable resource, not only for the Gulf but for the entire MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. We will explore the research value of these resources and demonstrate how they enrich our understanding of the area. The archive is likely to be of equal value to archaeologists and historians of other regions.

CIA Historical Review Panel Put on Hiatus

The Historical Review Panel that advises the Central Intelligence Agency on declassification of historical intelligence records said this week that its planned December 2018 meeting was canceled by CIA, and that no future meetings were scheduled.

But CIA said yesterday that the Panel would be reconvened following some administrative changes.

“We have recently been informed that the Panel is being restructured and will not meet again until this has been done,” said the Panel of independent historians, chaired by Prof. Robert Jervis of Columbia University, in a January 14 statement published on H-DIPLO. “The reasons for this remain unclear to us, and no schedule for resumed meetings has been announced.”

Upon further investigation, it appears that changes may be made regarding composition of Panel membership, term limits, and similar issues but that the scope of the Panel’s activities will be unaffected. The reconstituted Panel is expected to meet again sometime this year.

“The CIA is committed to the public release of historical information, and the Historical Review Panel remains an important and valuable resource for this endeavor,” said CIA spokesperson Sara Lichterman.

The Panel is purely advisory and does not make or execute policy. But it serves to represent the concerns of historians regarding declassification of intelligence records. It has helped to prioritize records of particular interest for declassification and to facilitate production of intelligence records for the Foreign Relations of the United States series. And perhaps most important, through its periodic meetings with the CIA Director, it has helped to elevate historians’ concerns about intelligence declassification within the Agency.

Historical Advisory Committee Reports Setbacks in 2017

The substantial progress that was achieved in recent years in producing the State Department’s official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series was reversed in several respects last year, according to a new annual report from the Department’s Historical Advisory Committee.

The FRUS series is required by statute to publish a “thorough, accurate, and reliable” documentary record of United States foreign relations no later than 30 years after the events that they document.

To a large extent, FRUS is dependent on — and also helps to motivate — declassification of national security and foreign policy records. Such declassification in turn depends on the cooperation of other agencies who are called upon to review selected documents.

But “The pace of the reviews of FRUS volumes submitted to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Department of Defense (DoD) and the declassification of documents was disappointing” in 2017, the new annual report said.

The Department of Defense “was unconscionably tardy and inattentive. It completed only one out of eleven volumes submitted for review throughout the entire year.”

Because most of the historically significant documents provided to DoD were not reviewed and cleared for release in any form, the FRUS volumes that were planned to contain them cannot be published any time soon.

Likewise, “Although in 2017 CIA did not behave nearly as irresponsibly as DoD, it performed below the expectations produced over the several preceding years.”

On the other hand, the Committee found reason to praise the State Department, the National Archives, and the National Security Council. Another bright spot in 2017 was the publication of the long-delayed FRUS supplement on events surrounding the 1953 coup in Iran.

The annual report concluded with several legislative proposals and policy recommendations that the Advisory Committee believes would promote an improved review and publication process.

But it is unclear whether the State Department itself will be receptive to any such improvements. The Department has not been overly friendly to its own History Office (HO), the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC) noted.

“The unexpected and unprecedented decision of the State Department’s leadership in December to reject HO’s request to renew three HAC members unsettled both the committee and the office,” the annual report said.

Declassification News

The National Declassification Center released a listing of 134 record collections that have undergone declassification review in the past five months.

The collections include records on the Weapons System Evaluations Group (discussed here), a compilation of records assembled by Judge Merrick Garland when he was special assistant to the attorney general in 1979-81 (discussed here), embassy files from Indonesia, Iraq, and Burundi, and miscellaneous others.

Meanwhile, the Public Interest Declassification Board said that it will soon release a draft report on “modernization of the US national security classification and declassification system.” The Board said it will seek public comments and feedback on the draft report prior to its finalization.

Documenting the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group

The National Declassification Center is preparing to release a set of newly declassified records concerning a little-known Pentagon advisory group called the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group (WSEG) that operated from 1948 to 1976.

The purpose of the WSEG was “to provide rigorous, unprejudiced and independent analyses and evaluations of present and future weapons systems under probable future combat conditions– prepared by the ablest professional minds, military and civilian, and the most advanced analytical methods that can be brought to bear,” according to its founding 1948 directive.

For at least part of its existence, the WSEG “occupied a preeminent position as the principal analytical support agency of its kind at the upper echelons of the DoD,” an official 1979 history of the organization said.

An overview of the upcoming release of declassified WSEG records was posted yesterday by Alex Daverede of the National Declassification Center.

The records include a broad range of topics on weapons systems and war fighting in the early cold war context, only a portion of which will actually be made public. One report, that apparently will remain classified, is entitled “Capabilities of Atomic Weapons for the Attack of Troop Targets.” Other studies address air defense, biological warfare, Soviet military systems, and more.

“I should be done with the declassification work by the end of the month, perhaps sooner,” Mr. Daverede said yesterday.

“This was not a big project for us–only 18 Hollinger [document storage] boxes,” he said. “Ten boxes hold documents that retained their classification after they were re-reviewed, so actual pages released would probably be closer to 5K pages.  Unfortunately there are multiple copies of each document, so in terms of unique pages declassified we are looking at considerably less than 5K.  The up side is that the whole series had been exempt before we re-examined it, so I feel pretty good about getting some records of this obscure organization out on the street.”

Some of the war-fighting topics considered by the WSEG were also on the mind of Daniel Ellsberg during some of the same years, as he discussed in his recent book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. The book has been widely and favorably reviewed in Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, and Arms Control Today (by Robert S. Norris of FAS), among others.

Ellsberg did not mention the WSEG in his book, but the WSEG was well aware of him.

There was a “period of JCS retrenchment in SIOP-related studies after the Ellsberg incident,” according to the 1979 WSEG history. That is, there was a decline in nuclear targeting studies requested by the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the WSEG following Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon papers.

Remembering Jeff Richelson

We were sad to learn that intelligence historian Jeffrey T. Richelson passed away last weekend.

Richelson was one of a small number of pioneers of a new genre of public interest research focused on national security and intelligence. He advanced the boundaries of public knowledge and understanding of the far-flung national security apparatus through his writing based on official documents, carefully read and digested.

Richelson’s book The US Intelligence Community, published last year in its 7th edition, is so richly detailed as to be hard to read– but enormously valuable as a reference. Other works among the entire shelf of books and articles that he authored, such as Spying on the Bomb on the history of nuclear weapons-related espionage, displayed his story-telling gifts more engagingly.

Richelson had a resolutely independent, almost contrarian streak. In the 1990s when it was becoming conventional wisdom to say that the Central Intelligence Agency failed to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union, Richelson wrote an article in The National Interest called “The CIA Vindicated” (with Bruce Berkowitz) in which he argued that the opposite was the case.

Not least important, he was a kind and decent person and a generous colleague.

Jeff Richelson was remembered by the National Security Archive here.

NSA Records Languish at National Archives for Now

Last year, the National Archives (NARA) acquired a large number of historically valuable National Security Agency records. But they remain inaccessible to researchers, at least for the time being.

David Langbart of NARA described the situation at a closed meeting of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee late last year. According to recently published minutes of that meeting:

“The [NSA] records consist of approximately 19,000 folders without any real arrangement. These records mostly consist of technical, analytical, historical, operational, and translation reports and related materials. Most of the records date from the period from the 1940s to the 1960s, but there are also documents from the 1920s and 1930s and even earlier. The NSA reviewed the records for declassification before accessioning and most documents and folder titles remain classified. Langbart concluded that the finding aid prepared by NSA was the only practical way to locate documents of interest for researchers, but it is 557 pages long and is classified.”

The National Archives confirmed that this description remains accurate today.

So not only are these thousands of half-century-old records still classified or otherwise unavailable, but the finding aid that would enable researchers to locate specific documents of interest is itself a classified document.

The Federation of American Scientists asked NSA officials to voluntarily declassify the 557-page finding aid as a first step towards making the NARA collection useful to researchers.

They agreed to do so.

“We can have a redacted version for you by September,” wrote Dr. David J. Sherman of NSA. “We of course will provide one to NARA as well.”

Dr. Sherman noted that the collection includes documents of widely varying complexity. “Judging by their titles, some almost certainly require significant training in mathematics and engineering to understand.  Others appear to have been written for more general audiences.”

Furthermore, although the collection as a whole is maintained as classified, “just under one third of the folders appear to be unclassified in full,” he estimated.

Under the circumstances, classifying the entire set of records along with its descriptive catalog was obviously not optimal, he agreed.

“I take the point about this foreclosing any possibility for researchers to know what might be available in the collection and agree it is something we should have addressed in this instance and need to fix in the future,” Dr. Sherman said.

Therefore, he added, “in any similar situations in the future — i.e. ones where we are transferring large, mixed collection such as this — we’ll make it standard practice to consider whether the percentage of unclassified materials is high enough to provide NARA with a redacted finding aid at the time of the transfer.”