IN MARCH 1945, New Yorker co-founder and editor Harold Ross sent a letter to Janet Flanner, a war correspondent who had just filed a piece from Cologne about atrocities inflicted by Germans on their POWs. Ross was proud of Flanner’s reporting, and he feared that many other equally important events were not being covered—and might even be in danger of being lost forever in the chaos.
“The war is going to be over and forgotten before any number of real atrocity stories are printed, I’m afraid,” he told her. “Unless the New Yorker gets around to doing something.”
He was right to worry. News outlets were quick to move on. When the war in Europe ended in May, many Allied correspondents were re-routed to the Pacific theater right away. After the Japanese surrender three months later, some of those reporters instantly pivoted to occupation coverage in that country. Others began covering new post-war events, including war crimes trials, returning American troops, and the fledgling cold war between the United States and Soviet Russia.
In the war’s immediate aftermath, US leaders also encouraged Americans to look forward instead of back. Many gladly complied. Exhausted after surviving the deadliest conflict in human history, and numb from overexposure to atrocity news and clinical mass casualty statistics, Americans in 1945 seemed to have had little interest in absorbing new journalistic excavations of terrible wartime events.
Even the biggest stories of the war receded into the background, quickly becoming the provenance of historians, not reporters. Two of those stories—the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—had been arguably the most significant news events not only of the war, but human history: these bombings had revealed that mankind had finally come up with an invention that could instantly end civilization. (They were “stealing God’s stuff,” as New Yorker writer E. B. White put it.)
A couple of initial press reports out of Hiroshima were followed by near-radio silence on the subject of the bombings and their aftermath. As a result, the official government narrative that the bombs had essentially been conventional megaweapons was allowed to stand, and the public remained unaware of the new, global existential threat posited by nuclear warfare.
It would be easy to blame the shocking lack of reportorial investigation on the War Department’s almost impenetrable secrecy and on General Douglas MacArthur’s control over Japan-based correspondents, but Allied reporters and editors were also at fault. Within mere weeks of the bombings, many simply lost their appetite for covering such remnant war stories. Hiroshima was “old stuff,” as one editor put it; there seemed to be a collective newsroom decision that readers and audiences simply didn’t want to hear about it anymore. When occupation forces eventually made access to the atomic cities a little easier, the Tokyo-based Western press corps had long since shifted attention to new stories, such as Japan’s makeover…