Visions

The Week of the Atom Bomb

by Alex Wellerstein, published August 10th, 2012

This week is, as you all no doubt know, the 67th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These anniversaries happen to fall on the same days of the week as the original ones. So the bombing of Hiroshima on August, 6, 1945, was a Monday — just as with August 6, 2012. The bombing of Nagasaki, August 9, was a Thursday. The Smyth Report would be released on August 12, a Sunday. Hirohito’s “surrender” message would come on August 15, the next Wednesday.

For some reason, conceptualizing all of this as happening within a few weeks makes it seem awfully short in time. What a week that would have been.

Headline for the New York Times, August 7, 1945.

One of the things I really enjoy doing as an historian is looking through old newspaper front pages. You find so much out about past societies that way — the juxtaposition of related and unrelated articles provides a fascinating kaleidoscope of the day in question. Put a bunch of different newspaper headlines together, from different parts of the country, and you get an even more interesting portrait of a specific time and place.

In closing out the 67th anniversary of the Week of the Atom Bomb, I want to share a number of newspaper front pages with you. I’m limited in what I can conjure up, but I’ve managed to collect some 38 different front pages from newspapers in different parts of the country for the work week of August 6th through August 10th, each of which I thought was interesting or revealing in some way. Some of these newspapers will be immediately familiar to you — the New York Times, the Washington Post — some will be quite obscure — the Big Spring Daily Herald, from Big Spring, Texas, for example. Some represent quite specific markets: the Atlanta Constitution, for example, is an African-American newspaper in the age of segregation, and there are interesting differences between how they cover the issue versus the big city newspapers or the small town newspapers.

One additional point: the headlines are different, but the stories are almost exactly the same. This is because in the first week of the bomb, all of the stories were essentially written by William L. Laurence of the New York Times and released to the press by the Army. Not until the Smyth Report was released, on August 12th, do you start to see much independent reporting. The content of the “official” stories is interesting, but today I just want to focus on the headlines.

In an effort to keep this post from sprawling out forever, I’ve arranged all of the images in a little gallery below. If you are reading this on an RSS feed or an aggregator, you may have to visit the main site to view these.


August 6, 1945: Big Spring Daily Herald, Big Spring, Texas.

"Five Cities Hit, One By New Bomb": I find it interesting here that they've explicitly lumped the firebombed cities in with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The subheadline, "Atoms Harnessed for Destruction," is more vivid. But note that far more space is given to the firebombing than the atomic bomb -- likely because they had only just received word of the atomic bomb and had to fit it in later. There is an interesting ambivalence in describing the "helpless Japs" in the headline about the firebombs.

Picture 1 of 32
Picture 1 of 32


There are two images from the set that I’d really like to draw your attention to. The first is from the August 9, 1945, edition of the Indiana Evening Gazette, from Indiana, Pennsylvania. (A bit confusing, that.) It appears to have been used in a lot of newspapers that day in different parts of the country, so it probably originates on the AP wire service. Anyway, here’s the image:

DEATH KNOCKS AT EVERY JAP’S DOOR,” the main announcement reads. The caption is completely insane:

The utter desolation facing the Japanese, unless they surrender, as result of development of the atomic bomb is illustrated on the map above. Scientists say that if 1000 of the new weapons were exploded within each of the five circled areas, they would destroy virtually all life and property in the enemy homeland.

It’s not every day that you see small-town American newspapers cheerfully contemplating genocide, is it?

The second detail is a little illustration from the Kingsport Times, in Kingsport, Tennessee, published on August 9, 1945. It attempts, in visual form, to make sense of the force of an atomic bomb as described by President Truman (” …Ruin from the Air, The Like of Which Has Never Been Seen On Earth”):

On the left, a colorful illustration of an atomic bomb going off under the Empire State building: “The atomic bomb is the most terrible engine of destruction every conceived. One pound of U-235 could blast a great city, like New York, off the face of the map.”

In the middle, a train being blasted to oblivion: “To get a comparable explosion from TNT, you would have to set off 15,000 tons, or 300 carloads of 50 tons each. If U-235 exploded at TNT’s speed, pressure would be 1,000,000 times as great.” I don’t really know what they mean by the last line, there, but going from “trainloads of TNT’ to “an exploding train” is somewhat imaginative.

On the right, a dead fleet — presaging Operation Crossroads. “Exploded amid a great fleet at sea, an atomic bomb would sink most of the ships, send a great tidal wave shoreward. Most tightly compartmented ship would be crushed by air pressure.” Some original typos, there, but you get the picture.

As I’ve mentioned previously, there was a tremendous mixing of exaltation and  anxiety that first week of the bomb. It wasn’t just one thing or the other; it wasn’t all positive. Looking at these front pages, you see a real mixture of expressions, and a real diversity of types of coverage, even given the limitations imposed by secrecy. For some, the story is the secrecy itself — for others, the bomb gets mixed into an existing narrative about firebombingOut of the mixture of these narratives, our “standard narrative” of the history of bomb is derived. But it’s all too easy to turn that into a condensed, one-size-fits-all assessment of how Americans thought about the atomic bombs, when there was quite a diversity of opinion and expression, even from the start.

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5 Responses to “The Week of the Atom Bomb”

  1. Bill Higgins says:

    Thanks for putting this together. It’s a nice window into 1945 America.

  2. [...] 6th is the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Here’s a brief coverage of the week of the atom bomb, but there’s also posts on discussing whether a line was crossed and on biological warfare as [...]

  3. Susan Roy says:

    Thanks for sharing these. Really fascinating, and I loved your commentary. What was considered important, what wasn’t…the wide range of approaches…Wonderful idea.

  4. [...] thought they could be really used, how they sketched them on the backs of steno pads, and how they danced across the headlines, and how the people who made them looked, even what color their eyes were, and how hard it is to [...]

  5. D.F. Manno says:

    The reason many of the larger papers didn’t cover the Hiroshima bombing until the 7th is that they are morning papers. The announcement was made in time for the evening dailies, which is why their stories ran in Aug. 6 editions.

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