First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japan and Its Prisoners of War
By George Weller
Crown, $25, 320 pp.
Every August, assorted pacifists, lefties and other spotlight-lovers who want to make a show of how "peace loving" they are turn their attention toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki, genuflecting before nuclear weapons like the simian cult in "Beneath the Planet of the Apes."
There are, of course, no memorials for the millions of Chinese slaughtered by the Japanese (the incredible orgy of up-close-and-personal brutality known as the Rape of Nanking killed more people than both atomic bombs combined -- and, unlike the Bomb, it was up close and personal). And somehow we never hear any speeches about how we must "never again" see another Bataan Death March.
This points to a reflexive anti-Americanism among the kind of people who engage in this peculiar kind of historical mourning. But if that’s all there is to it, you might ask why no special liturgies for the greater numbers who died in the purely conventional firebombings of Tokyo by B-29s?
A clue is contained in Walter Cronkite’s incongruously portentous foreword to First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches on Post-Atomic Japane and Its Prisoners of War by the late George Weller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent.
Cronkite writes that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who censored Weller’s reporting, "would have preferred to have had time to sanitize the ghastly details with a concocted, fictional version of the mass destruction and killing that man’s (read that, "America’s") newest weapon had bestowed on civilization."
Herein lies the key to the attraction of this issue for peaceniks: It’s a twofer. If you merely mourn the use of nuclear weapons, you get to look pious and compassionate -- and, as a bonus, you get to safely smack the United States by implication only.
But don’t let Cronkite’s foreword put you off. Weller’s straightforward dispatches throw a bucket of ice water on the over-emoting of the anti-A-bomb cult.
Weller was one of the few reporters to not hyperventilate over the destructive power of the atomic bomb. He was carefully analytical about the explosion, reporting how a mere slit trench protected some POWs who were near the blast while four who let their curiosity get the better of them were killed and how very few who sought shelter below ground became part of the gruesome statistics.
More importantly, Weller put the Bomb in moral context. He spent most of his time in the region around Nagasaki interviewing more than 10,000 Allied POWs who were interned there in a hell-on-Earth regime that, before too much longer, would have exterminated the vast majority of them.
First Into Nagasaki opens with an essay Weller wrote in 1966 about how he got the story by impersonating a colonel in order to penetrate the security MacArthur had place around Nagasaki.
Weller wrote a long series of dispatches about the conditions in Nagasaki — and even more about the conditions of the huge numbers of Allied POWs who were being worked to death in Japanese mines and factories.
The PR machine making the Japanese the victims of American brutality was already in full swing when Weller arrived. His response to any Japanese official who asked, "What kind of barbaric country could use such a weapon on the Japanese people?" was that they should ask that question of a resident of Pearl Harbor or one of their emaciated prisoners. That invariably sent the official scurrying off to find a more receptive audience. Judging from the last 62 years of coverage, there was a large one.
Each year the wire services dutifully report that several thousand more people have died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the result of the atomic bombs. Perhaps there is even some truth to it. But shouldn't someone question blaming the deaths of people who are 60 to 80 years old on the U.S.?
Unfortunately, MacArthur — for reasons both Weller and his son, Anthony, who writes the last section of the book, can only speculate about — censored the George Weller dispatches. Weller’s carbon copies were misplaced during his various assignments around the globe and presumed lost until Anthony Weller discovered them after his father's death.
But even more powerful than Weller’s matter-of-fact reports on post-atomic Nagasaki are his interviews with the POWs who survived the horrific experience of being prisoners of the Japanese. Several long sections of the book contain one- or two-paragraph quotes from the hundreds of prisoners who summed up their experiences or related particularly cruel incidents.
Savage beatings and starvation are the most common themes, followed by a complete lack of medical attention. One thing you won’t find among these accounts is any regret from these men that their freedom was won with atomic weapons.
In fact, the most chilling section of First into Nagasaki is an extended account of a so-called "hell ship" -- a forgotten but pervasive part of what it meant to be a prisoner of the Japanese.
Typically, POWs — many already sick or wounded -- were packed into the hulls of freighters for a long voyage on starvation provisions with little air and no medical attention. These trips had a staggering 84 percent attrition rate—though some deaths were due to the very effective Allied air attacks on Japanese shipping. Those who survived the voyage spent their time in Japanese prison camps which themselves had a 33 percent death rate-- as opposed to a 4 percent in the Nazis' POW camps.
Weller vividly tells the hair-raising tale of the prisoners who were shipped to Japan aboard the Oryoku Maru. The voyage started out with 1,600 Allied prisoners, but only 300 survived the cruel journey.
Today, even conservatives who defend the dropping of the atomic bombs tend to try to engage liberals on their own ground by falling back on the humanitarian justification. It’s almost politically correct to argue that more lives were spared by dropping the A-bombs than if a full invasion of Japan would have cost on both sides.
Weller conters any moral equivalence argument by pointing out the Japanese started the war after "years of friendship" with the United States, much immigration and cultural exchanges — and after great American assistance in their early 20th century war with Russia. Because the Japanese started the war, every casualty — including those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — is laid at the doorstep of their rulers.
As Andrew Weller points out in the book’s afterword, a mayor of Hiroshima was publicly pilloried and later shot by an assassin a few years ago for hinting that is the case.
Whatever the United States had to do to end a brutal and costly war against a merciless enemy is what the United States had to do. Period.
So why did MacArthur censor George Weller’s reports? Weller was a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, and his first-on-the-scene reporting would have had a great impact.
While reporting on the all-powerful bomb would later fuel leftist propaganda and peacenik fears, the United States then was the only country that had one. It's possible that it was thought that any exaggeration of its power or scope was good for keeping thugs like Stalin in line.
But don’t forget that MacArthur was also about to embark on the job of ruling and rebuilding Japan, and he had his own ideas about how it should be done.
If Weller’s dispatches had reached the United States, tales of the Mitsui mine in Nagasaki -- where many POWs were worked to death, where the only escape from the killing work was often to break one’s own arm -- would have outraged the public.
No doubt Baron Mitsui the owner of the mine would have been someone Americans would have liked to see taking a long drop at the end of a short rope. Mitsui died peacefully at a ripe old age, unlike many of his Allied "employees." In fact, the stamp collector Mitsui, after his death in 1983, was elected to the American Philatelic Society Hall of Fame while the story of his victims was largely forgotten.
George Weller had a productive career as a foreign and war correspondent but bitterly regretted both the censoring of his dispatches and the seeming loss of the carbons. With poignant irony, Anthony Weller tells of finding them in a box in his father’s extremely cluttered office just after his father's death. The award-winning journalist had spent his later years with the papers he so desperately sought not 20 feet from his desk.
Winston Churchill said of the Germans that they had sown the wind and "reaped the whirlwind." This applies to the Japanese in spades. While regrettable in many ways, the passengers of the Oryoku Maru or the POW slaves at the Mitsui mine could be forgiven for calling it justice.