Review: First into Nagasaki, by George Weller

New York: Crown Publishers, 2006. 320 pp. $25.00 (cloth), $14.95 (paperback).


During World War II, the prime source of information for Americans about the war overseas was the dispatches of foreign correspondents—men who put their lives on the line in war zones to report the truth. George Weller was a giant among such men. Captured by the Nazis and traded for a German journalist, Weller watched the Belgian Congolese Army attack Italians in Ethiopia, saw the invasion of Crete, interviewed Charles de Gaulle in South Africa following an escape through Lisbon, and overcame malaria to report on the war in the Pacific. He was the first foreign correspondent trained as a paratrooper, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his report of an appendectomy on a submarine. He wrote the book Singapore is Silent in 1942 after seeing the city fall to the Japanese, and he advocated a global system of United States bases in his 1943 book Bases Overseas. After witnessing Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945, he broke General Douglas MacArthur’s order against travel to Nagasaki by impersonating an American colonel and taking a train to the bombed-out city. In a period of six weeks, he sent typewritten dispatches totaling some fifty thousand words back to American newspapers through official channels of the military occupation. Under MacArthur’s directives, they were censored and never made it into print.

Weller died in 2002 thinking his dispatches had been lost. Months later his son, Anthony Weller, found a crate of moldy papers with the only surviving carbon copies. Anthony Weller edited the dispatches and included his own essay about his father, resulting in this priceless addition to our information about World War II in the Pacific, and the birth of the atomic age. The importance of the dispatches, however, extends far beyond the value of the information from Nagasaki. George Weller is a voice from a past generation, and the publication of his censored dispatches raises a series of deeply important issues and, in the process, reveals an immense cultural divide between his world and ours today.

On September 8, 1945, two days after he arrived in Nagasaki, Weller wrote his third dispatch concerning Nagasaki itself. He described wounded Japanese in two of Nagasaki’s undestroyed hospitals, and recorded the question posed by his official guide:

Showing them to you, as the first American outsider to reach Nagasaki since the surrender, your propaganda-conscious official guide looks meaningfully in your face and wants to know: “What do you think?”

What this question means is: Do you intend writing that America did something inhuman in loosing this weapon against Japan? That is what we want you to write (p. 37).

What would many reporters today write if asked this question by bombed enemy civilians? Weller moves directly into two pages of factual reports about the condition of the Japanese, describing, for instance, an unknown “Disease X,” which we now know to be radiation sickness. We learn that his Japanese guide tried to stop him from taking photos. We also learn that some Japanese said that anyone outdoors within a mile to a mile and a half was burned to death, which was “untrue because most of the Allied prisoners in the [Mitsubishi armaments] plant escaped and only about one-fourth were burned” (p. 38).  But Weller’s comprehensive answer to the question—the answer that reveals his values—began with the start of the next dispatch the very next day:

Watching Americans die from a lack of medicine—while Japanese bayonets denied them the use of a warehouse full of needed supplies a hundred and fifty yards away—was only one experience of two doctors, veterans of the Bataan death march, who reached Nagasaki today.

No pity for the Japanese was ever expressed by dentist Lieutenant William Blucher of Albuquerque or Lieutenant Vetalis Anderson of Denver. . . . How helpless they were to aid 8,000 Americans and 30,000 Filipinos dying respectively at a rate of twenty-five and three-hundred daily was retold by the two doctors (p. 40).

This is Weller’s answer to his Japanese guide: Page after page of narrative and testimony from American prisoners who were captured in war, force-marched by sadistic guards, herded into the holds of ships without food or water, and savagely worked to death. Weller’s dominant, indeed obsessive, concern for those prisoners is undeniable; he records their full names and addresses, to tell families back home of their conditions. (Anthony Weller properly omits the addresses.) To Weller, recording the words of American prisoners was news, and these words were more important than the pleas of the Japanese. Nor was Weller about to provide his official Japanese guide with statements that could be used as anti-American propaganda.

From a dispatch of September 12, we learn about Americans forced to work in underground mines:

For hundreds of Americans held in Kyushu prison camps, the atomic bomb bursting over Nagasaki in full view was a signal of their liberation from serfdom in Baron Mitsui’s cruel and dangerous coal mine. Some Bataan and Corregidor prisoners were worked to death here. Captain Robert W. Scott, an energetic dentist from What Cheer, Iowa, has succeeded the Japanese commander. Here are G.I.s’ comments on their coal mine slavery, and the bomb ending it. . . . [Following are the comments of 24 American POWs. To take one example:]

James Voelcker (Wetmore, Texas): “In February I got so weak with diarrhea that I couldn’t work, and mine overseers handed me over to the military who threw me in the aeso—that’s Japanese for guardhouse. It was cold and the Japanese made me carry water for them. My feet were always wet and finally froze. Gangrene set in and an Australian doctor had to amputate all my toes and both feet” (pp. 58–60).

Perhaps the most horrific of Weller’s accounts, as reported by the Chicago Daily News Foreign Service, was “one of the great American tragedies of the Pacific War: how more than 1,600 American officers and enlisted men, prisoners of the Japanese and survivors of the defenses of Bataan, Corregidor, and Mindanao, were reduced to the 300 survivors today” (p. 177). More than sixteen hundred Americans were marched through Manila, forced into the hold of the ship Oryoku Maru with neither food nor water, and taken to Japan—a journey lasting seven weeks. “When the Japanese looked down through the hatch,” Weller writes, “they saw a living pit of men staring upward, their chests and shoulders heaving as they struggled for air . . .” (p. 182). Just over four hundred came out in Japan—and one hundred of them died soon after. To record their story was Weller’s mission.

Again, what would many of today’s reporters do if they found themselves in Weller’s position? Walter Cronkite gives us a good indication.

In his foreword to First into Nagasaki, rather than prepare the reader for the remarkable  truths revealed by Weller, Cronkite homes in on what he regards as important: “General MacArthur’s censorship of all dispatches from Nagasaki.” The meaning of that censorship, Cronkite pontificates, is to be found in some hidden motive

to keep the United States and the rest of the world ignorant of the horrors of nuclear war. . . . Was it perhaps simply MacArthur’s swollen ego that led him to believe that the Pacific war was his alone to win? Or was it perhaps more complicated? Was there hope in MacArthur’s headquarters and perhaps in Harry Truman’s White House that our victory (and certainly the American lives that had been saved) would overshadow and justify beyond condemnation the mass destruction and casualties we had caused? . . . [Weller’s reports] have saved our history from the military censorship that would have preferred to have 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.

Only a profound difference in values can lead two renowned journalists to such different evaluations of the America’s actions in the war. Weller was surely frustrated by his inability to get his dispatches past military censors, and he has his own pointed criticisms of the censorship—more on this in a moment—but his assessment of the bombing of Nagasaki and the nature of the bomb was the polar opposite of Cronkite’s. In contrast to Cronkite’s lament about the “still smoldering and dying city,” this is what Weller wrote in his 1966 memoir Back to Nagasaki, long after he was subject to wartime censorship:

Nagasaki was never, strictly speaking, “destroyed.” Nagasaki had about 300,000 people, about the size of Worcester, Peoria or Tacoma. About 20,000 died right away, the majority by concussion from falling buildings or by burning in ruins, not by concussion of air or direct singeing. I was told that about 35,000 had been hurt, mostly by burns. [Sergeant Gilbert] Harrison’s figures were 25,000 and 40,000. About 18,000 homes, mostly two-room bungalows, were destroyed, for perhaps $20 million worth of total replacement (p. 16).

Back on September 8, 1945, Weller had also written, “All around the Mitsubishi plant are ruins which one would gladly have spared.” But to spare those plants—and the prison camp placed next to the armor plant—would have spared “the war plants of death,” which he details for his readers: the ammunition factory (with 1,740 employees), the ship parts plant (1,016 employees), the Mitsubishi torpedo plant (7,500 employees), and three steel foundries (3,400 employees) (pp. 30–31). This was the important truth that Americans needed to know about Nagasaki: It had been mass-producing weapons with the active assistance of thousands of civilians.

Weller’s evaluation of the bomb itself, including its use and effects, was unambiguous. He wrote on August 15, before he got to Nagasaki, “The atomic bomb holds first place over any other element as the cause of Japan’s decision to surrender, according to Japanese civilians with whom I’ve talked” (p. 246). Weller did not see the bomb as America’s bestowal of horror on the world; rather he saw it as “a tremendous but not a peculiar weapon.” “Nobody here in Nagasaki,” he wrote, “has yet been able to show that the bomb is different than any other, except in the broader extent of its flash and a more powerful knockout” (p. 30).

Looking beyond the particular circumstances of the war, Weller took a long-range view of his mission. He knew that only the truth—about the bombs, but also about the situation in Southeast Asia—could enable Americans to develop and implement a proper policy in the area. In his book Bases Overseas, George Weller showed his forethought in writing about the consequences of withholding the truth from Americans back home:

The American turns by reductio ad absurdum to an emotional apprehension of the war. If you cannot think about the war, can you not at least feel about it? . . . Today the fighting man overseas is waiting for the statesman at home to do something. The statesman at home is waiting for the people to suggest for him to do something. The people are waiting for the press and the radio to suggest what they should ask the statesman to do. The press and the radio are waiting for their foreign correspondents and war reporters overseas to suggest to them what they should suggest to the public. And the reporters and correspondents are unable to analyze, much less suggest political action, because the fighting men (officers and censorship, that is) say that politics is the affair of statesmen back home (p. 249).

“Officers and censorship” refers to the officers and censors who often thwarted Weller’s attempts to bring the full story to American newspapers. Weller thought that the American people needed “a long cold bath of reality,” that the Yalta conference with Stalin was a “disgrace,” and that publication of the truth about Indochina and the bombs would have saved American lives later. Weller here confronts the circular, second-hand paralysis that results when people wait for others to tell them what to think, while the others stare back with the same forlorn hope. He understood the crucial role of the foreign correspondent in bringing the truth to those back home, and in providing a proper context for readers to grasp the truth.

A good case can be made that MacArthur and the censors were wrong to prevent the correspondents from sending back their reports, especially after Japan’s surrender. But Weller was not charged with the success of the occupation in 1945, American commanders were, and they faced the serious possibility of an insurgency or even a communist revolution. They wanted to protect the American occupation from those who might undermine it. They also needed to control information about the bombs, the secrets of which had to be guarded. Our evaluations of the censorship policy must take into account the dangerous position of the American occupation forces in Japan, and the crucial responsibility with which MacArthur was charged. His job was to achieve a successful surrender and reform of Japanese society, and he succeeded magnificently.

By the mid-1960s, MacArthur’s concerns that commentators would attempt to undercut American actions had come true—as Cronkite, America’s most influential newscaster during the Vietnam era, knew through personal experience. In his 1966 discussion of Nagasaki, Weller explained this shift in journalistic reporting:

Soon after the Soviets consolidated their booty in the Kuriles [certain islands northwest of Japan] and the Rosenberg spy case developed, the atomic bomb became a “horror weapon.” The ideology of the Japanese army became that of the Communist International. Since then, Nagasaki’s casualties have been rising in multiples of five and ten thousand. At the most recent ban-the-bomb meetings the dead tripled to 65,000 (p. 17).

Weller understood why the truth about the bomb was buried beneath layers of propaganda. He knew that the Japanese fascist ideology had become “that of the Communist International.” Armed with this knowledge, he recognized that the essential similarities between the communists and the fascists led both to twist the truth and to present the entire world situation as the fault of America and its “horror weapon.” Thirty years after the victory over Japan, exaggerated casualty figures about the bombing of Nagasaki and claims that the city was of no military importance were linked to assertions about American “crimes” in Vietnam, which were used as rationalizations to whitewash North Vietnamese atrocities. Many of the commentators involved, who were seduced by the “ideals” of the communist revolution and thus sympathetic to the aims of the North Vietnamese, believed the propaganda about American actions, and they employed it in their accounts as if it were self-evidently true. But Weller was not one of those fooled by such propaganda.

The strongest argument against the wartime censorship is that Weller’s reports were not available in 1946 as a potent antidote to this anti-American propaganda. But the acceptance of such propaganda was based on something other than a lack of facts, for American newsmen in Vietnam had more facts about the war they were covering than any reporters in history. The problem was rather an inability to evaluate those facts properly—that is, to understand which facts in a given situation are important and what they mean. The fact that the bombing of Nagasaki stopped the ongoing brutalization of American POWs and permanently ended a war begun by Japan is essential to establishing a proper context for our understanding of that bombing. Only a difference in values could lead from the journalism of truthful candor to the journalism of propaganda and self-incrimination—from George Weller to Walter Cronkite. First-hand evidence for that difference, in the writings of a man for whom nothing was higher than his own grasp of the truth, is the great value of this book.

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