At the 60th Anniversary: The Embedded ‘New York Times’ Reporter Who Brought Us the ‘Atomic Age’

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By: Greg Mitchell

On the morning of Aug. 7, 1945, with reports of death and destruction from the atomic attack on Hiroshima, Japan, still thin, newspapers around the country dutifully carried, in full or part, most of the 14 press releases provided by the government the day before.

The official releases, which appeared under headlines such as “Basic Force of Universe Unleashed,” disclosed, among other amazing things, the story of the first atomic chain reaction, the existence of dozens of secret bomb sites, and the test of the new weapon at the Trinity site in July.

Taken together, they chronicled, according to the Pentagon, a “fabulous achievement” and the means to “save thousands of American lives,” which would come to be the key official rationale for killing tens of thousands of civilians in Japan.

Newspapers had to rely completely on information from the military. Press coverage amounted to little more than rewrites of War Department documents. But the War Department documents, it turns out, were written not by some military flack, but by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, one of the great names in the history of The New York Times — William L. Laurence.

In orchestrating the official story of Hiroshima, as in so many aspects of the bomb, General Leslie Groves, military director of the Manhattan Project, played a central role.

Back in March 1945 he had made a bold decision: to hire a “suitable newspaperman” to insert in the Manhattan Project. Reporters near the atomic bomb plants were starting to poke around, and Groves feared “serious breaks” after the first test of the bomb in the New Mexico desert that summer.

Even if secrecy held, the frightening new weapon would have to be sold to the public after it was used, both to justify dropping it over heavily populated cities, and to build more of them after the war. In an internal memo, Groves warned that once the secret was out, “the project will be subject to harassing investigation, official inquiries … and all the miscellany of crackpots, columnists, commentators, political aspirants, would-be authors and worldsavers.”

To combat this, Groves proposed that officials “control the situation by the issuance of carefully written press releases.” Indeed, from that moment on, control of nuclear commentary would be the government’s goal for decades.

The Manhattan Project already had a public-relations staff, but Groves sought a respected journalist who would supply a “more objective touch” and add authority to the press releases. An associate recommended a brilliant choice: William L. Laurence, the Harvard-educated, Putlizer Prize-winning science reporter for The New York Times.

Meeting secretly at the Times, Groves found Laurence eager to take what could be called the ultimate ?embedded reporter” job.

Laurence brought to any project what top Times editor Turner Catledge once called an “unquenchable, boyish enthusiasm.” Told about the bomb project, Laurence considered it the discovery of the century and believed that ?no greater honor could come to any newspaperman? than creating the War Department’s press releases.

In the weeks ahead, he would visit bomb plants around the country. Writing to Groves he promised an “Eyewitness account of the test in New Mexico … provided eyewitness survives.” But he asked: “You’re going to waste an atomic bomb on American soil? If you have a bomb, why not drop it on Japan right off and end the war? What’s the sense of wasting a good bomb?”

Laurence even wrote an early draft of President Truman’s announcement to the American public of the first atomic attack. But it was toned down radically, as Laurence had promised “a new Promised Land of wealth, health and happiness for all mankind” because of the bomb.

After Laurence completed his stories, they were stamped Top Secret, and locked in a vault, awaiting the end of the war or the use of the bomb, whichever came first.

The material would emerge on the morning of Aug. 7, with separate profiles of the laboratories, such as Oak Ridge, and factories that produced the weapon, among other details. (Laurence’s byline did not appear with them in most cases.) One story likened the still-secret Trinity test , held on July 16, 1945, to “the moment of creation when God said: ‘Let there be light.'” Laurence described the mushroom cloud there for a moment looking like ?a gigantic Statue of Liberty, its arm raised to the sky, symbolizing the birth of a new freedom for man.?

In fact, in the whole atomic chain in 1945, the only main event Laurence missed was the bomb run over Hiroshima.

The official releases that he wrote in the summer of 1945 would indeed “control the situation,” as Groves had hoped, thanks in no small part to the celebratory yet highly credible quality of Laurence’s writing. In one of these documents, Laurence would coin the expression “the Atomic Age,” and it was he, perhaps more than anyone, who set the tone for the entire era of nuclearism — and officials secrecy that would surround the bomb.

Few unembedded reporters dared to break the official control of the Hiroshima narrative. Last month, E&P revealed the story of George Weller, the Chicago Daily News reporter who filed the first stories from Nagasaki — only to see them spiked by General Douglas MacArthur’s censorship office in Tokyo and disappear for almost six decades. For years, few photographs from the two atomic cities were published, and all film footage was locked up for decades.

Where was Bill Laurence on Aug. 7, 1945, when his official stories made front pages around the country? On an island in the Pacific, with the second bomb, getting ready to observe the obliteration of another Japanese city. A month later, his exclusive account of the bombing of Nagasaki appeared on the front page of the Times, and dozens of other papers, glorifying the attack, while admitting that he felt no ?pity or compassion for the poor devils? about to die. It would be part of what became another Pulitzer Prize for Laurence and the Times.

Laurence’s atomic propaganda continued after that. On Sept.9 1945, for example, he revisited the Trinity test site with Gen. Groves and scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. He was invited, as he disclosed, to ?give lie? to Japanese claims ?that radiations were responsible for deaths even after? the Hiroshima attack. Laurence, as always, complied, more than willing to be of service to the nuclear cause, even though, unlike all the other reporters, he knew about the fallout scare surrounding the Trinity shot, when animals died and Geiger counters clicked off the charts.

The Sept. 9 Trinity tour led The New York Times to declare in an editorial that the bomb was ?bad enough? but not ?as bad as it was painted.?

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