Like many people I first became aware of Ken Burns from his marvelous documentary The Civil War. It is a film that I have watched with wonder five or six times since it first aired and I still feel I learn something new each time I’ve watched it. As a rabid Baseball fan I was also intrigued by his Baseball documentary. I have also greatly admired his two latest documentaries Prohibition and National Parks, but where I think Mr. Burns got it wrong was with his World war II documentary The War.
Ken Burns has never been one to shy away from controversy in his films, nor share more info about our history than we ever learned in school. In The War he doesn’t run from telling the story of the Japanese Internment Camps, the segregated military or the hardships that Afro-Americans suffered by trying to get jobs at ship building centers like Mobile Alabama. We are shown the irony of fighting for freedom so people don’t have to live under the yoke of Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan on the one hand, but denying it to our own citizens on the other. By shining a light on these inconsistencies the film bumps up directly against the patriotic way that most Americans view World war II. In fact for some, you could say the role of the U.S. in that war has taken on almost a sacred mission to restore freedom to subjugated people around the world.
I did not initially watch The War when it aired on PBS because of the way our actions in that war have taken on this sacred persona. I have come to believe because of my own Spirituality as a follower of the Nonviolent Jesus Christ, whom Gandhi called the greatest practitioner of Nonviolence in the history of the world, that ALL wars are wrong. I later bought a copy of the film and was very pleased as I watched the episodes unfold and Mr. Burns told the stories that would somewhat tarnish this sacred cow. He also showed the stark reality of the war by following several individuals and the horrifying times they lived in because of the war, and that despite the so-called glory that too many associate with combat, the real aspects of war are suffering and death. I also hoped that I might catch a glimpse of my Dad who was a medic in the wake of D-Day. As I watched in the back of my mind I was apprehensive to see the last chapter of this story, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were supposedly needed to end the war, wondering how Mr. Burns would tell that part of the story.
My apprehension was because I knew that the reasons for dropping the atomic bombs were probably the most sacrosanct of all the stories from World war II. I knew from reading Gar Alperovitz’s book, The Decision To Use The Atomic Bomb, and from work on the documentary about nuclear weapons that I had made along with Stuart Overbey called The Forgotten Bomb (visit http://forgottenbomb.com to view the trailer), that it was a total fallacy that we had to use those weapons to win the war and that they had saved a million lives, including many Japanese. If anything, waiting to use the atomic bombs cost American lives. Having broken the Japanese codes we knew they were trying to surrender through the Soviet Union and the only thing they were requesting was the safety of the Emperor. When President Truman heard of the successful Trinity test of the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945 he again insisted that Japan surrender “unconditionally”, and as the Emperor was seen as a god in Japan the war continued on to its horrific conclusion. So the question we should ask ourselves – how many U.S. soldiers died from when we first heard that Japan was looking to surrender until the official “unconditional” surrender on August 15th?
Unfortunately my apprehension proved to be warranted as Ken Burns took the company line regarding the dropping of the bombs. He had several stories from GIs who were horrified about the potential of having to invade the Japanese homeland, and who sincerely felt that the dropping of those atomic bombs saved their lives. But those are assumptions not based on the facts. In our film we have a clip of President Truman recounting his view of World war II and he says that the U.S. had planned to keep the Emperor all along as a means of controlling the Japanese people.
In The Forgotten Bomb we interview Ivan Olrich from the Federation of American Scientists, an organization that was started by many of the Manhattan Project scientists who attempted to get a petition to President Truman asking that there be a demonstration of the bomb for the Japanese high command before it was dropped on any city. Unfortunately the petition never got to Truman and there was no mention of this incident in The War. Mr. Olrich goes on to say that many people believe that the real reason for the dropping of the bombs was to impress the Soviets so they would not get out of line when the war came to an end.
Mr. Burns would certainly not be breaking new ground by putting any of these stories in his film. For the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, Peter Jennings of ABC News produced a documentary with many of these stories in it prompted by the controversary over displaying the Enola Gaye at the Smithsonian. Many Veterans did not want to deviate from the myth regarding the bombings. Mr. Jennings saw the irony in the fact that one of the things these vets had fought for in the war, the truth, was being buried.
I hope that Mr. Burns will continue for many years to produce and direct documentaries of the quality of Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, which shine a light on our American story that is to often given short shrift in the history textbooks that we use in school. I also hope that like he did with Baseball he will add an addendum to The War so he will at least tell the other side of the atomic story and let his viewers make their own decision about whether we needed to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to win the war as Mr. Jennings did. This information is not only an important part of our own history, but of world history as well, as the atomic age started with those bombings. Can this story be told based on what some World war II Vets, who were certainly not privy to any of the intelligence of that time, and who thought that in an invasion of Japan they would lose their lives? Vets, who like the rest of us, have been propagandized into believing the bombs actually “saved” a million lives.
Bud Ryan is the co-coordinator of Pax Christi New Mexico and a filmmaker. His most recent film is The Forgotten Bomb.