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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Television Joins in A-Bomb Debate

August 04, 1995|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Showtime's "Hiroshima" has President Harry S. Truman joyously proclaiming about dropping the first atomic bomb that instantly killed at least 70,000 Japanese, most of them civilians: "This is the greatest thing in history!"

Coming near the end of this ambitious depiction, Truman's line speaks to today's enduring ambivalence over his decision to hit Hiroshima with the bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, and over the U.S. obliterating Nagasaki with a second A-bomb three days later.

Looking almost like a documentary, "Hiroshima" is often something very impressive to behold, symbolizing what looks like a commitment by Showtime to expand its catalogue of important original programming along the lines of its competitor, HBO.

"Hiroshima" arrives Sunday on the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the initial A-bomb. Knowing what we do about the blast's devastating results, Truman's folksy euphoria is jolting. How can a weapon that vaporizes a city and erases so many lives in an instant--to say nothing of causing thousands more casualties, lingering radiation sickness, hideous disfigurement and other agonies--evoke such delight?

Yet if that weapon spares thousands of American lives by helping end World War II and humble a nation then notorious for its aggression, brutal mass slaughters and atrocities, how can it not be celebrated?

Given this emotional tug of war, even an attempted scholarly reassessment of Truman's approval of A-bombing Japan can be perilous. The Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington discovered that this year when plans for its exhibition expounding and examining this chunk of volatile history detonated a towering mushroom cloud of outrage from veterans' groups and some politicians, who charged that it was un-American and insensitive to U.S. suffering at the hands of Japan during World War II. As a result, the museum's director resigned and the now-open exhibition was diluted and delayed.

Meanwhile, the debate over Truman's A-bomb decision continues via television, as does the dispute over censoring the Smithsonian.

"After all, freedom of discussion was one of the ideals that Americans fought and died for," Peter Jennings said recently, asserting that the severely restricted Smithsonian exhibition does not tell "the whole story of Hiroshima" and thus "is not fair to history--or the rest of us."

"World News Tonight" anchorman Jennings' gutsy brief commentary came at the end of last week's "Hiroshima: Why the Bomb Was Dropped," an excellent, probing documentary that he co-wrote with Sherry Jones and narrated for ABC News.

Because the evil of the militarist Japanese regime's warmongering is a given, the A-bomb's use is a non-issue for most Americans, including the nation's vast majority of surviving World War II vets, many of whom view it as their savior. Yet more than any other television program, "Why the Bomb Was Dropped" boldly went beyond the usual footage of city rubble to show the A-bomb's human carnage and--with the help of historians and other observers--examined tough questions that have been raised about the justification for using the bomb even on such an enemy.

At issue, as always, is whether Truman should have used other possible options for forcing an already-defeated Japan to the peace table, options that some claim he had available to him. Also in dispute is the number of U.S. lives saved by the A-bombings. For example, how much stock should be placed in constantly changing projected casualty figures (250,000 to 1 million) mentioned at various times by Truman and others regarding a proposed U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland? An invasion, by the way, whose likelihood of ever happening is itself in question.

*

The ABC documentary and the Showtime drama bookend a slew of other TV programs chronicling the A-bomb decision and other components of the U.S.-Japanese conflict in the Pacific. Ironically, two of the most incomplete histories on the topic were aired last week on cable's History Channel. One documentary, "Scorpions in a Bottle," routinely rehashed the oft-told story about the bomb's development, boiling down Truman's decision to employ it thusly: "Pros outweighed the cons." And another documentary, "Rain of Ruin," recalled the Enola Gay's mission over Hiroshima, mentioned the famous B-29's display at the National Air and Space Museum and celebrated the bomb's creation as representing "American intellect and ingenuity." But it ignored the rain of ruin that flattened plans for a more comprehensive exhibit at the museum.

That significant controversy was cited in "Victory in the Pacific," Thursday night's middle-of-the-road "CBS Reports" survey of the U.S.-Japan conflict, co-anchored at various locations by Dan Rather and retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who seemed as much at ease reading a TelePrompTer as he was Gulf War maps.

Rather: "Next, the coming of the B-29s."

Schwarzkopf: "And the arrival of a man named Hope."

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