By Norris McWhirter
Freedom Today – October 1995
An amazing saga of bias, dishonesty and hypocrisy by the BBC, in its coverage of the 50th anniversary of the ending of the war with Japan, has been unravelled by The Freedom Association. For the second time in six years, the Corporation has prostituted its duty of objectivity by following the line of left-wing, American historical revisionists – even though a previous attempt to promote their propaganda led to a humiliating climbdown in 1990.
Round One: 'Summer of the Bomb'
The story begins in August 1989, when the BBC handed over an edition of its Timewatch series to radical left-wing American historian, Dr Gar Alperovitz. He was one of the eight ‘Founding Fellows’ of the pro-Marxist Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, whose Castroite links are well-documented, and he published his first account of the atomic bombing of Japan as long ago as 1965. For the past thirty years he has unsuccessfully tried to convince the academic world that Hiroshima and Nagasaki need not have been destroyed as the Japanese would have surrendered anyway; that a bloody Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland would not have been needed; and that the real reason behind the atomic attacks was to intimidate Stalin's Russia.
The BBC is supposed to treat controversial subjects like this with “due impartiality” – a concept which can best be explained by the phrase “appropriate fairness”. No one can reasonably object to the inclusion of Dr Alperovitz's viewpoint in any proper debate about the decision to use the atom bombs in 1945. Indeed, a recent programme on Radio 5 Live – ‘Was Nagasaki Necessary?’ was a model for the proper treatment of its subject. Alperovitz was given an opportunity to put his side of the case, which more orthodox historians proceeded to contradict. The narration was scrupulously fair and the listeners were allowed to draw their own conclusions.
The Timewatch treatment was very different, both in 1989 and again in 1995. The 1989 programme, entitled 'Summer of the Bomb', served simply as a platform for Alperovitz, its presenter. Buttressed by an equally partisan article in the Radio Times, it parroted the usual revisionist line. Typically, Alperovitz overreached himself; he ended the program by claiming that
“Historians still debate precisely how much weight to place on this factor [i.e. the wish to curb Stalin] in relation to military issues. But there is no doubt that the bombing of Hiroshima was also the beginning of the Cold War and of the arms race”.
When I challenged this preposterous claim, on account of the distrust caused by Stalin's behaviour in Eastern Europe months before the bombs were dropped, the then Secretary of the BBC, John McCormick, replied in the following terms on 12th February 1990:
“You contend that historians do not in the main accept that Hiroshima was the start of the Cold War and the arms race. We believe that it is fair to describe that particular claim as commanding general assent among informed historians”.
This extraordinary assertion – clearly drafted for McCormick by the propagandist programme-makers themselves – was immediately denounced by five leading historians of the period: Professor Donald Cameron Watt (LSE), Professors Norman Stone and Lord Beloff (Oxford), Lord (Hugh) Thomas of Swynnerton and Dr Victor Rothwell. All agreed that Soviet behaviour in Eastern Europe, especially in respect of Poland, well before August 1945 had soured East-West relations. Professor Watt concluded that
“the statement by Mr McCormick is so far from being true that the question must arise as to what enquiries he made ... and on what authority it was given”.
In the face of this chorus of criticism, McCormick had to capitulate. Either the five distinguished academics must be excluded from the ranks of “informed historians” (as defined by the BBC), or the BBC must eat its words. Eat them it did in another letter from McCormick, dated 18th May 1990:
“As you know, we have recently heard from Professor [Donald] Cameron Watt, writing as the author of an authoritative survey of literature on the origins of the Cold War. He advises us that a number of informed historians dispute the claim made by Dr Alperowitz [sic], in the closing sentence, that Hiroshima was the beginning of the Cold War and the arms race. Accordingly, we accept that Dr Alperowitz overstated his case. By the same token I accept that 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.”
McCormick promised that the next series of Timewatch would include a programme “allowing an opportunity for historians who disagree with Dr Alperowitz about the origins of the Cold War to state their case”. This programme was eventually broadcast on 10th April 1991 – just over 20 months after the original Alperovitz distortions.
Round Two: 'Hiroshima – The Decision to Drop the Bomb'
So far as I know, cases where the BBC surrender like this are extremely rare. Of course, it would have been too much to expect that anyone would actually be sacked, punished or even reprimanded for the gross irresponsibility of the 1989 fiasco.
McCormick himself, for example, was duly promoted to the post of Controller of BBC Scotland. Any repercussions upon the Timewatch team behind ‘Summer of the Bomb’ were certainly hidden from public view. Probably there was nothing to hide.
Nevertheless, having burnt their fingers once through over-reliance on Alperovitz, Timewatch might have been expected to treat him more cautiously in the future. Not a bit of it! The first indication that the Corporation was going to carry on where it left off in August 1989, came in a notice in the Bookseller for Alperovitz's forthcoming tome on The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. Despite its 847 pages, the publishers summarised it succinctly as follows:
“Argues that the bomb was unnecessary. Ties in with a BBC 1 documentary”.
And what was this documentary? – none other than the flagship programme in BBC television's coverage of the anniversary of the bombing. And which was the team behind it? – none other than Timewatch. And who turned out to be the programme's sole ‘Historical Consultant’? – none other than Dr Alperovitz himself.
Finally, what line would this film be taking? It was not hard to guess. In July, the BBC issued a press pack on its forthcoming coverage of the events of 1945. This is what it said about its new programme: ‘Hiroshima – the Decision to Drop the Bomb’, to be shown on Sunday, 6th August,
“argues that the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II as a show of strength by the United States against the Soviet Union ... the programme claims that the mission sought to intimidate the Soviet Union and to curb Stalin's territorial ambitions, deterring him from a planned invasion of northern Japan”.
The press pack also explained that, according to the programme,
“President Truman knew the Japanese were on the point of surrender and that the bombings were a blatant display of power politics by the US against the Soviet Union”.
A foretaste of its tendentious methodology was also included:
“Sergio Beria, a Captain in Soviet Intelligence and son of secret police chief L. Beria argues: ‘The reason the atomic bombs were dropped was to try to ensure that the Soviet Union did not become entrenched in China, or God forbid, from the US point of view, on the mainland of Japan itself’.”
Nowhere did the programme explain how a former Soviet intelligence officer could possibly have known the motivations of President Truman and his advisers. What Beria said was simply unsubstantiated assertion.
The same applied to a series of other witnesses featured with little contradiction. One, Stuart Udall, was a long-serving, Left-wing American Congressman whose sole qualification to pontificate on the dropping of the bomb appeared to be that he had been in the US Air Force (in some unstated capacity) between 1942 and 1945. Referring to the atomic attack he declared:
“This was turning cities and civilians into the primary targets; and this ran counter to the rules of war that the United States did more than any other nation to uphold”.
And what, pray, had the conventional bombing of innumerable German and Japanese cities been doing for the past four years? Udall's comments were totally irrelevant to the question of the atomic bomb, as opposed to the morality of bombing cities in general.
Another purported witness was described as having been in the US ‘Secret Service’ in 1942–45. The main role of the US Secret Service is as Presidential bodyguards and investigators of forged currency. Perhaps this witness's role was different, but any special qualifications he may have had for commenting on the events which ended the Japanese war were not shared with the viewers.
The minority of defenders of the US decision were overwhelmed by the quantity of opposing comments in quick succession at the end of the programme. A typical example claimed that
“The use of atomic weapons was criminally unnecessary – we didn't need to use them at all”.
The speaker was not identified at this late stage. Only by replaying the earlier part of the programme could one establish that he was actually one Ellsworth Carrington, a pilot on the Air Strike force in the closing months of the war. Whilst it is marginally interesting to know what pilots think about the bombs they are trained to drop, this adds little to the sum of objective historical knowledge about the actual reasons for the decisions of the political leaders and Service Chiefs actually responsible for running the war. Not one viewer in a hundred could be expected to identify Mr Carrington's comments at their true value – as the personal opinions of someone with no significant role in, nor any special qualification to pronounce upon, the decision to drop the bomb.
Round Three: The Challenge to the BBC
Five days before the new programme was due to be broadcast, Julian Lewis of the Conservative Research Department contacted the Timewatch editorial office. The Editor of Timewatch is Laurence Rees. He was appointed to that post in 1992 – less than a year after Timewatch had been obliged to make its programme compensating for Alperovitz's previous distortions of the origins of the Cold War. It would be remarkable if Rees knew nothing of this damaging episode in Timewatch's recent past.
Dr Lewis, an historian of British military planning at the start of the Cold War, wrote to Rees in the following terms:
“My question to you is simple: Does your programme take a properly balanced view of both sides of this controversial question, or does it simply reflect the Alperovitz argument – as did the wholly one-sided examination of this very question, ‘Summer of the Bomb’, which Timewatch (to its grave discredit) broadcast in August 1989? Alternatively, does your programme properly set out the views opposed to Alperovitz, such as those of Professor David Holloway of Stanford University, whose massive study of Stalin and the Bomb (Yale University Press, 1994, p.122) 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’?”
Rees's reply combined a paean of praise for the programme's producer, and an assurance that it contained “a range of interviewees”, with an admission that
“Dr Alperovitz does not appear in the film although he was a consultant to it”.
By then, Julian Lewis had found out rather more about the programme. His reply to Rees commented that:
“Your statement that Alperovitz ‘does not appear in the film although he was a consultant to it’ would have been a little more illuminating if it had revealed that he is the only consultant in the film's credits – a point I established only by specifically enquiring”.
Dr Lewis concluded that the BBC's decision to provide yet another “vehicle for Alperovitz's thirty-year thesis” was
“not a creditable way for the British Broadcasting Corporation to mark the 50th anniversary of the Allies’ well-deserved defeat of Japanese militarism”.
In the meantime, the Radio Times had quoted the programme producer as claiming that
“if the Americans had guaranteed that the Emperor could have stayed, the evidence is that the Japanese would have surrendered. Though, admittedly, it would not have been unconditional. Our evidence also suggests that the bomb was dropped principally as a show of power to the Soviet Union – though there were other reasons, too.”
On 4th August, The Times published a long letter from Dr Lewis and me setting out the story so far and challenging the BBC to say whether academics of the calibre of Professor David Holloway should once again be excluded from the ranks of “informed historians” – that is to say, radical revisionists like Gar Alperovitz. That afternoon the Daily Express invited Julian Lewis to examine a tape of the programme provided by the BBC to newspaper review columnists and write a review article about it. The date of this tape was 2nd August and it appeared from the tape that the completed BBC programme had been “in the can” since 8th July. These dates were important, in view of what was to follow.
Round Four: The BBC Doctors the Broadcast
Julian Lewis's article appeared in the Daily Express on Tuesday, 8th August. Amongst other charges, it attacked the film for claiming that (in his words)
“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 surrendered, and that
“if the atom bombs had not been used, the enemy would have been in no position to carry on fighting anyway”.
Laurence Rees replied two days later denying that such claims had appeared in the broadcast version of the film. But, he overlooked the fact that the Radio Times had already quoted the programme producer making claims of precisely this sort. According to Rees, however, Dr Lewis must have seen “an early preview copy” which had been “subject to refinement” prior to transmission. He concluded pompously:
“The BBC stands by the integrity of this programme and rejects any charge of bias or imbalance”.
Yet, as we have seen, the version Dr Lewis reviewed had been the one prepared by the BBC on Wednesday, 2nd August, and supplied to the Daily Express as late as Friday, 4th August. Therefore, any changes made in he programme must have been made in the three or four days between our private and public challenges to the BBC over this programme and the actual broadcast on the evening of Sunday, 6th August.
As Director of the Media Monitoring Unit at Conservative Central Office, Julian Lewis had equipment capable of running the preview tape and the final broadcast version simultaneously for purposes of comparison. This quickly revealed what had happened. There were eight changes in the text of the programme (see Appendix). Every change was designed to cut support for the Alperovitz thesis out of the programme's narration. The BBC's motivation for this was obvious. By cutting the worst bias from the narration, Timewatch could argue that the programme as a whole was not simply a vehicle for the revisionists, even though the interviewees on the programme backing the Alperovitz line still outnumbered the occasional voices defending Truman.
This programme took the production company a year to make. It was completed by 8th July. There seem to have been no changes to it between 8th July and 2nd August – when the preview tapes were prepared for the press. These tapes were still being supplied to the press up to and including Friday, 4th August, when our letter attacking the programme appeared in The Times. The BBC seems then to have made frantic last-minute attempts to tone down the blatant bias of the programme's narration – though it was physically impossible to eliminate it from the rest of the film.
Having doctored the programme in this way, BBC spokesmen – not just Laurence Rees – were repeatedly quoted in the press as stating that the Corporation “stood by its integrity”. Yet, if the programme had integrity, it would not have been necessary to censor its bias two or three days before transmission, just after Julian Lewis and I had publicly challenged it. If, on the other hand, the BBC recognised the programme's deficiencies and tried to reduce them at the last minute, given our awareness of the previous apology over Alperovitz, then it should have had the decency to own up. It should have admitted it had made another mistake, and it should have confessed that it had done its best to put things right in the hours available before the programme went out on the Sunday night.
Laurence Rees cannot seriously expect us to believe that it was sheer coincidence that the eight changes made to the film were simply the outcome of a routine review. They were obviously connected with the BBC's renewed seduction by the Alperovitz thesis, and the realisation that this had been rumbled by the very same critics – Julian Lewis and me – who had caught out the Corporation in 1989. It is preposterous to suggest that the fact that all these changes related to the Alperovitz line, and to nothing else, was completely unconnected with our public challenge two days before the broadcast. The cuts were clearly made in a frantic attempt to defuse our criticisms. This means that the BBC's claim to be standing by the programme's integrity, was hypocrisy of the highest order.
To sum up this sorry tale: the BBC swallowed an unproven Leftist line in 1989 and had to eat its words; when it thought it was safe to try again in 1995, it ran around the same convoluted course; and when caught out a second time, it desperately tried to cover its tracks by concealing the worst abuses. Simultaneously, it suggested to the country at large that the last-minute alterations had nothing to do with the embarrassing spotlight we had focused upon the film just in the nick of time.
On 27th August, Mandrake in the Sunday Telegraph drew attention to some of the differences between the review copies of the film, dated 2nd August, and the actual programme broadcast four days later:
“The review version, for example, has the narrator asserting that Truman dropped the bomb to curb Stalin's aims and that he was never serious about negotiating with Japan. Had he been, said the narrator, Japan would have surrendered, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. These assertions by the narrator are absent from the broadcast version.”
In a follow-up letter, published by the paper on 3rd September, I listed some of the other cuts including the claim that
“There was to be no peace settlement. Truman and Byrnes had no intention of allowing Japan to negotiate peace terms before the bomb was dropped”.
I concluded that
“Instead of admitting that it had got it wrong, the BBC doctored the film to reduce its bias – though unable to eliminate it – then hypocritically claimed that it ‘stood by its integrity’.”
One would have thought that these serious charges against the Corporation, in successive issues of a major Sunday newspaper, would have elicited some response from the programme-makers if they had been accused unjustly.
Instead, there has been nothing but a stony silence.
* * * *
APPENDIX: THE UNCENSORED VERSION
(Given to Press Previewers as late as 4th August 1995 – words omitted from transmitted version on 6th August 1995 are in underlined bold italics)
NARRATOR: [US President] Truman had demanded unconditional surrender from Japan. Now he was advised to modify those terms – to allow Japan to keep its Emperor and make surrender possible. Admiral Leahy, Truman's Chief of Staff, said “Surrender can be arranged, with terms”.
[US WITNESS]: ... The press got into the habit of calling him [Secretary of State James Byrnes] the “Assistant President”. Byrnes was the hardliner.
NARRATOR: As a confidant of Roosevelt, Byrnes had known everything about the Manhattan Project [US atomic Bomb project]. He now became the most powerful advocate of using the atomic Bomb against Japan and was behind Truman's rejection of all advice to modify the surrender terms...
NARRATOR: ... When Stalin told Truman he had been asked to receive a peace mission from the Emperor, the President did not press the Soviet leader to hasten a Japanese surrender. Now the Bomb was ready. Truman calculated that America could end the war on its own terms, without Stalin's intervention.
[RUSSIAN WITNESS]: Logically, the Americans should discourage us to conduct the peace negotiations, because they wanted to show that they could end this war by themselves...
NARRATOR: ... Truman and Byrnes decided in Potsdam to use the Bomb on Japan. This would have the effect of curbing Stalin's aims for political control in Europe and Asia.
[US WITNESS]: They didn't want the Russians in the war...
NARRATOR: …On his way back from Potsdam, Truman was greeted in Plymouth Harbour by King George VI. They discussed the Bomb. By now the decision had been taken. The final order to drop the Bomb had been given by Truman from Potsdam the day before the Allied Declaration was issued. There was to be no peace settlement. Truman and Byrnes had no intention of allowing Japan to negotiate peace terms before the Bomb was dropped. The Supreme Commander in Europe, General Eisenhower, had serious reservations at the time…
[US WITNESS]: ...through the Swiss, or anyone else that their minds were changing with respect to the war.
NARRATOR: The Americans were keen to use their second atomic weapon – a plutonium Bomb nicknamed ‘Fat Man’. This time the Bomb was autographed by the aircrew with special messages for the Japanese and their Emperor...
[US WITNESS]: ... it would certainly ice the cake.
NARRATOR: Truman said the atomic Bomb stopped the war and saved American lives. But the invasion of Japan was not planned to start until three months later. By then, with the Soviets in the war, Truman's advisers told him the Japanese would be in no position to carry on fighting anyway.
PROFESSOR J. K. GALBRAITH (‘US Government Strategic Bombing Survey, 1945’): The official doctrine at the time was “We are going to invade Japan – and here comes this great weapon, it's dropped – Nagasaki and Hiroshima – and the war comes to an end”. Well, it's plausible to assume that lives were saved. But, in the aftermath, we know that Japan was in the process of surrender, and therefore lives were not saved.
MARTIN QUIGLEY (‘US Secret Service, 1942-45’): There was no need to drop the Bomb – either of them. The second one, certainly not. The first one was unnecessary because it is now well established that the Japanese would have had to surrender by the early Fall.
NARRATOR: But the mood of the American people still demanded revenge against the Emperor, and the decision to drop the atomic Bombs was popular. A Gallup poll taken only days afterwards showed 85 per cent of the American public approved their use. And the great majority believed Truman's explanation that the Bombs ended the war and saved lives. But there were other reasons for the Bomb too...
[JAPANESE WITNESS]: ... Now, when I stressed the point with ‘Freedom, Justice, Tolerance’, Emperor began to cry.
NARRATOR: Now the Bombs had been dropped, and the world had been shown America's power, Truman chose the course of political expediency and allowed the Emperor to remain as ruler of Japan. It was a complete reversal of his policy at Potsdam. Had this concession been made earlier, there could have been a negotiated peace, with a saving of hundreds of thousands of lives, American and Japanese, and without the use of the atomic Bombs.
[US WITNESS]: My view of the Bomb is that it prolonged the war ...
* * *
* * *
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." [Italics 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.