The Times – 4 August 1995
The BBC has proudly unveiled a series of programmes on "The Bomb". However, we doubt if the main one, "Hiroshima: the Decision to Drop the Bomb" (which goes out on August 6), will be more than a re-run of the notorious Timewatch film "Summer of the Bomb" broadcast by the BBC on the 1989 anniversary of the bombing of Japan.
The programme was handed over to the radical left-wing American historian, Dr Gar Alperovitz. He has been trying for 30 years to prove the revisionist case that the atomic bombing was not necessary to end the war as the Japanese would have surrendered anyway – the real purpose being instead to intimidate Stalin.
Dr Alperovitz's polemic even claimed that, whilst historians still debate the decision to use the bomb,
"there is no doubt that the bombing of Hiroshima was also the beginning of the Cold War and of the arms race".
When we challenged this preposterous claim, the then Secretary of the BBC, John McCormick, declared that
"it is fair to describe that particular claim as commanding general assent among informed historians".
We therefore contacted five of the most respected historians of the period who unanimously refuted this assertion recognising Stalin's behaviour in Eastern Europe months before the Hiroshima bomb as a major factor in starting the Cold War. This forced the BBC to recant. In a letter to us dated May 18, 1990, Mr McCormick admitted 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 were obliged to make a new programme setting out a much more objective account of the origins of the Cold War. It was broadcast on April 10, 1991.
This almost unique climbdown seems to have taught the BBC little. Under questioning, it admits that the sole credited consultant for next Sunday's programme is – Dr Alperovitz. He also has a new book coming out, summarised by his publishers as follows:
"argues that the bomb was unnecessary. Ties in with a BBC-1 documentary".
The BBC's own handout for its programme bluntly states that it
"argues that the atomic bombs were dropped ... as a show of strength by the United States against the Soviet Union".
Only last year, in his magisterial history Stalin and the Bomb, Professor David Holloway of Stanford University concluded that:
"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."
But perhaps the BBC does not regard Holloway as an "informed historian".
Dr JULIAN LEWIS
[For later developments, 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.