New York Times reporter William L. Laurence was a firsthand witness to the development of the atomic bomb, which he agreed to keep secret until Fat Man was deployed over Nagasaki (which he also saw firsthand). Author David Goodman explains that that wasn’t the only secret Laurence kept.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a moment when nuclear bombs were used, not rhetorically but in fact, and the nation's media were used, too. What follows is a replay of an interview we first aired two years ago on the 60th anniversary of a wartime milestone. And Bob will take it from here. BOB GARFIELD: In the late morning of August 9th, 1945, United States Air Force Major Charles Sweeney flew a B-29 bomber into the overcast sky above Southern Japan. He climbed to an altitude of 28,900 feet and during a break in the cloud cover released his payload, a 10,000 pound atomic bomb code-named Fat Man, which fell more than a minute before exploding over the port city of Nagasaki. [SOUND OF EXPLOSIONS] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] CORRESPONDENT: Atomic explosions, as here at Nagasaki, caused the prompt surrender of Japan and ushered in the atomic era, perhaps the greatest event of the greatest news year. BOB GARFIELD: One of the era's main chroniclers of the Nagasaki bomb was William L. Laurence. His 10-part series profiling the bomb would win him and The New York Times a Pulitzer Prize in 1946.
Laurence was never on the ground in Japan, but he had observed the bomb’s manufacture and testing, and had a bird’s eye view from his perch on the military plane when Fat Man fell on Nagasaki. It was clear that Laurence benefited greatly from his access to the military.
What wasn’t known, until after the bombs fell, was that Laurence was actually on the payroll of the U.S. War Department. David Goodman wrote about Laurence in his book, Exception to the Rulers, co-authored with his sister Amy. He says Laurence was well situated to serve the Pentagon. DAVID GOODMAN: Laurence was an immigrant from Eastern Europe. He was a science reporter for the Times. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1937. And he became a staunch advocate of the atomic bomb long before the atomic bomb was ever dropped. Throughout the 1930s, he was advocating for research into the use of atomic power, such that he earned a nickname, "Atomic Bill." BOB GARFIELD: So when the War Department was looking explicitly for a working newspaperman to help mold public opinion about the bomb, natural choice. DAVID GOODMAN: Indeed. General Leslie Groves, who was the military director of the Manhattan Project, scientists who researched and created the bomb, his own words were that he was looking for a, quote, "suitable newspaperman" to tell the story of the bomb to the public, and to put the language of this arcane science into laypeople's terms.
So in March, 1945, there was an extraordinary secret meeting held at the offices of The New York Times, in which General Groves came to meet with William Laurence and ask that he become a special consultant to the War Department. BOB GARFIELD: David, there is one brief passage in a piece by Laurence, as he flew in the plane that was about to drop the bomb on Nagasaki. Can you read that for me, please? DAVID GOODMAN: What Laurence wrote was that he felt no, quote, "pity or compassion for the poor devils" who were about to die. When the bomb detonated, quote, "Awe-struck, we watched it shoot upward like a meteor coming from the earth, instead of from outer space, becoming ever more alive as it climbed skyward through the white clouds. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes." BOB GARFIELD: Now, the story goes beyond Laurence reporting, with an obvious conflict of interest, about the dropping of the bomb. It gets far more sordid because when the news of radiation disease began to leak out the War Department went into full defensive mode and used Laurence to publish, in effect, disinformation. Tell me about that. DAVID GOODMAN: General Groves handpicked a group of journalists to accompany him, not to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but to the bomb site out in New Mexico where the first bomb was detonated. And it was there that William Laurence wrote what General Groves had wanted him to write. Laurence, quoting General Groves, writes, "The Japanese claim that people died from radiation. If this is true, the number was very small."
Laurence continues in his own editorializing in the story. He writes, quote, "The Japanese are still continuing their propaganda, aimed at creating the impression that we won the war unfairly, and thus attempting to create sympathy for themselves and milder terms. Thus, at the beginning, the Japanese described symptoms that did not ring true." BOB GARFIELD: Sixty years later, the dropping of the bomb remains one of the great historical controversies. What I find so stunning about this is that at the contemporaneous moment when the world had to make up its mind, The New York Times, in effect, became a propaganda tool of the U.S. government. And for this, William L. Laurence and The New York Times were awarded a Pulitzer Prize. DAVID GOODMAN: That's right. And the very debate that you allude to about was the atomic bomb an appropriate response, well, Americans really wouldn't know if they don't know the reality of what happened on the ground. In our book we call for William Laurence's Pulitzer Prize to be stripped.
I think that this story has some very important modern parallels, certainly in the case of the Iraq War. Anytime we see the drums of war, we should really be looking to journalists to challenge those in power, not to become a megaphone for those in power. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: David Goodman is coauthor of The New York Times bestseller, The Exception to the Rulers, exposing oily politicians, war profiteers and the media that love them. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, how images make you smoke - and help you quit. BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.