For the next few days, television will turn its thousand-eyed gaze on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the chain of events that led to the two atomic blasts that ended World War II.
The first, ABC News’ splendid “Peter Jennings Reporting - Hiroshima: Why the Bomb was Dropped” airs Thursday night. In 90 minutes, it explores the military and political factors that informed “the atomic decision.”
It uses diaries, memoranda, decoded cables and present-day interviews with historians who have specialized in the event, and it asks the question that still makes us uncomfortable today: Were we justified in using it?
Was it conceivable that our leaders could have extracted Japan’s timely surrender without a costly invasion or use of the bomb?
The historians suggest we used the bomb against Japan several months before any invasion of the Japanese homeland could have been mounted; that we used it because we had it, because we wanted to learn what the bomb could do to cities, and because we wanted the Soviets to see.
Thus, Hiroshima and Nagasaki become the first shots of the Cold War. It’s a theory shared by “Hiroshima: The Decision to Drop the Bomb,” a 90-minute special airing Sunday on cable TV’s The History Channel.
On Aug. 6, the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the documentary will be simulcast on The History Channel and A&E.;
PBS’ one-hour offering, “Rain of Ruin: The Bombing of Nagasaki,” on Aug. 8, is a co-production of Oregon Public Broadcasting and Nagasaki Broadcasting Co.
It, too, uses archival documents, photographs and footage to chronicle the U.S. atomic decision but also reveals the internal conflicts of the divided “Big Six” council of Japanese military and political leaders.
The Big Six had a minority who knew the war was lost and made peace overtures through the double-dealing Soviets. There were also those who were determined to fight down to the last Japanese child and the last bamboo spear.
Unfortunately, the bomb is a minor player in CBS News’ “CBS Reports: Victory in the Pacific,” airing Aug. 3 and anchored by Dan Rather and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
It merges archival footage and CBS Radio reports with contemporary, first-person accounts. It’s intended to evoke a sense of what the war was like, but the result is overproduced yet somehow padded and hasty.
Vistas of cumulus clouds separate segments and tiresome, newsreel-style montages (“1942: America gears up for war!”) scribble through the years.
There are some touching interviews, including Japanese-Americans imprisoned by their own government. CBS notes piously that there is no record of espionage by Japanese-Americans but omits the government’s failure to imprison Americans of German and Italian ancestry.
The visual texture of “Victory” is wrong, too. It shifts irritatingly between velvety old sound and film to the hard, glossy videotape of Rather and Schwarzkopf strolling around old battle sites.
Together, they are a bit much. Schwarzkopf, our Gulf War general, was pushing 11 when the war ended. He brings little insight to the island-hopping campaigns and aircraft carrier battles of the Pacific.
Here he’s a stiff who makes Rather look laid back. He hits his marks, turns and says, “Yes, Dan …” several more times than you’d really prefer.
“Victory,” scripted by Rather and David Browning, finds little room for moral ambiguity, apart from citing the U.S. Marines’ bloody, heroic sacrifice in the unheralded and utterly useless conquest of the coral hell of Peleliu.
We get Rather’s commentary on the mass suicides at Saipan: “For the Americans, it was a chilling example of the fatalism and fanaticism they could expect as they pushed closer to Tokyo.” Well, yeah.
There’s one extremely chilling moment: Rather and Schwarzkopf stand in Hiroshima and the overhead camera zooms back about 1,000 feet to show them standing on the bridge that was the target for Enola Gay’s Little Boy.
“Victory in the Pacific” reads like a rationale for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It assumes the bomb was inevitable, a Pearl Harbor payback that saved U.S. and Japanese lives that would be lost in an equally inevitable invasion.
Well, maybe so, but by failing to offer other points of view, “Victory in the Pacific” advances neither our knowledge nor the debate.
The bomb as drama
Cable TV viewers will find dramatic interpretations of the atomic decision on Aug. 6.
“Hiroshima,” a “docudrama” about the atomic decision, airing Aug. 6 on Showtime, intercuts reenactments with archival footage and present-day interviews. It stars Richard D. Masur, Jeff Demunn and Saul Rubinek.
“Day One,” a 1989 Emmy Awardwinning made-for-TV movie, stars Michael Tucker (“L.A. Law”) as Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-born physicist who helped persuade FDR to back the Manhattan Project - and then argued against the bomb.
It also stars Brian Dennehy, Hal Holbrook, Richard Dysart and Hume Cronyn.
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