By Julian Lewis
Daily Express – 8 August 1995
History repeats itself and so, as I wrote last Friday in The Times, do biased history programmes. In August 1989, on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan, the BBC broadcast a sensationalised Timewatch account of the attack on Hiroshima. Entitled "Summer of the Bomb", the programme was presented by a radical US academic, Dr Gar Alperovitz, one of the eight Founding Fellows of the pro-Marxist "Institute for Policy Studies" in Washington.
He has been trying for the past 30 years to prove the anti-American "revisionist" case that the dropping of the atom bombs was not necessary to end the war because the Japanese would have surrendered anyway – the real purpose being instead to intimidate the Soviet Union. He has failed to do this, because it is not true.
"Summer of the Bomb" spelt out the usual Alperovitz line, and then ended with the bizarre claim that, while historians still argue about the decision to launch the attack,
"there is no doubt that the bombing of Hiroshima was also the beginning of the Cold War and of the arms race".
As the author of a detailed study of defence policy at the start of the Cold War, I joined forces with the broadcaster and campaigner Norris McWhirter to protest to the BBC. Our challenge was met with the astonishing (and insulting) reply from the Secretary of the BBC, John McCormick, that
"it is fair to describe that particular claim as commanding general assent among informed historians".
So we contacted five of the most eminent. All of them recognised Stalin's behaviour in Eastern Europe, months before the Hiroshima bomb, as a major cause of the Cold War. Indeed, so strongly did they refute the BBC claims that Mr McCormick – later promoted to Controller of BBC Scotland – admitted in a letter to us in May 1990 that
"we accept that Dr Alperovitz overstated his case ... we were wrong in the subsequent claim that his views commanded the general assent of informed historians. I am sorry I wrote in these terms".
As a result, Timewatch was obliged to make a new programme, giving a more objective account of the origins of the Cold War. It eventually went out in April 1991.
Last Sunday, BBC1 broadcast "Hiroshima: the Decision to Drop the Bomb". Written by Jeremy Bennett, its executive producer for the BBC was Laurence Rees, who took over as editor of the Timewatch series as long ago as 1992. Its sole credited "Historical Consultant" was none other than Dr Gar Alperovitz, who has written a new book on the subject. Its publishers describe this book as arguing "that the bomb was unnecessary". They also point out that it "ties in with a BBC1 documentary".
The book has been assessed by US historian Michael Beschloss as
"unlikely to convert those who do not believe that finding an alternative to the atomic bomb should have been an overarching priority for [US President] Truman in the summer of 1945".
Yet, despite its humiliation over the previous Alperovitz programme, the BBC has swallowed his line all over again.
At least three-quarters of Sunday's programme – made by a production company not only for the BBC but also for Hiroshima Home TV, TV Novosti and The History Channel – confines itself to the facts. From these, it is obvious that the Japanese had it in their power to surrender and chose not to, despite the 1945 Potsdam Ultimatum which accurately warned them to expect "prompt and utter destruction" unless they submitted.
The film also admits that, even after the first atom bomb was dropped,
"the Japanese military were still desperately trying to downplay the defeat [at Russian hands] in Manchuria and to conceal the devastation of Hiroshima from the people ... The Japanese War Cabinet was deadlocked. Emperor Hirohito now found himself caught in a dispute between those who wanted to surrender immediately and those who wanted to hold out for better terms."
So by what twists of perverted logic do the BBC and Dr Alperovitz condemn the victims of Japanese militarism – the American democrats – for defeating the aggressors who started the Far East war and who could have stopped it at any time by surrendering?
Simply, by relying on bald assertions that, if the Americans had conceded in advance that the Emperor could remain on the throne, the Japanese would have accepted the Potsdam Ultimatum after all, and that, if the atom bombs had not been used, the enemy would have been "in no position to carry on fighting anyway" and a bloody US invasion of Japan itself would not have been needed.
This is counter-factual history at its most speculative, unprovable and improbable. As Professor Sir Michael Howard has observed,
"The military leaders, who were still firmly in charge of Japan, had not even begun to contemplate surrender in the summer of 1945 ... Only when the second bomb fell on Nagasaki did the Emperor summon up courage to overrule them; even then, a fanatical group of young officers attempted to sabotage his announcement to the people".
The BBC have no excuse for misleading the viewers of Britain, Japan, Russia and America in this way. Last year saw the publication of Stalin and the Bomb, a masterly and comprehensive study by Professor David Holloway of Stanford University. Despite his familiarity with the Alperovitz arguments, he concluded:
"The fact that there was extensive discussion within the [US] administration about the impact of the bomb on relations with the Soviet Union should not obscure the fact that the primary motive for using the bomb against Japan was to bring the war to a speedy end."
Jeremy Bennett and Laurence Rees have worked together before. In 1992, they produced an intriguing BBC television series about propaganda and manipulation entitled "We Have Ways of Making You Think". Rees's book accompanying the series stated that
"the more the work of contemporary 'communicators' is examined, the more, in most respects, Goebbels has been there before them. Goebbels was undeniably a nasty piece of work, but he was a genius in his chosen field and one should be prepared to learn from nasty people as well as nice ones."
In their treatment of the decision to bomb Hiroshima, Messrs Bennett and Rees amply demonstrate that they have taken this lesson to heart.
[For subsequent developments, including how – in an attempt to deflect criticism – the programme was secretly toned down before being broadcast, click here.]
* * *
In 2008, BBC Books published World War Two: Behind Closed Doors – Stalin, the Nazis and the West. This is what it said about the Alperovitz thesis on the bombing of Hiroshima (pp.376–7):
"though there was an attempt more than ten years [ref.60] ago to portray Truman's decision to use the nuclear bomb against the Japanese as influenced to a large extent by a desire to demonstrate to Stalin the 'powerful new weapon' at the disposal of the Americans, other scholarship [ref.61] has demonstrated this was not the case. The reason the bomb was dropped was – as common sense suggested all along – primarily because the Americans wanted to end the war as quickly as possible and, crucially, prevent the need to invade the Japanese home islands." [Emphasis added]
On p.426, reference 60 was to "Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Nuclear Bomb, Vintage Books, 1996", and reference 61 stated: "See, for example, Robert H. Ferrell (ed.), Harry S. Truman and the Bomb: a Documentary History, Worland, 1996; and in particular David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb, Yale University Press, 1996".
The author of this BBC book was none other than Laurence Rees himself – who, regrettably, made no mention of his own, and the BBC's, role in promoting the Alperovitz thesis in the mid-1990s and gave no explanation of their refusal to accept the judgement of Professor Holloway and other serious historians at the time.