The Times reports:
France's most authoritative newspaper has been forced to admit that it was fooled by gruesome photographs, supposedly of the 1945 atomic attack on Hiroshima, which have stirred anti-American sentiment this week.
Le Monde devoted a page to a report on “Hiroshima: What the world never saw” last weekend. It recounted the discovery of “ten pictures hidden for more than 60 years by an American soldier which show for the first time the victims of the bomb dropped on the Japanese city on August 6, 1945”. It emerged however that the pictures, from the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, depicted the aftermath of a 1923 earthquake near Tokyo. They were immediately recognised by experts in Japan and the US....
Le Monde's presentation of the pictures invited disapproval. The photographs, found by Robert Capp, a soldier, and given in 1998 to the Californian Institution, offered a view of Hiroshima that had escaped US censorship, said Le Monde. The US media had been strangely silent on their discovery this year, it added. “The horror of the photographs again prompts the question: was the atomic bomb the only way of ending the Pacific war?”
The historical question - which does not resolve the ethical debate, but ought in my view to inform it - can be answered with a high degree of probability. The A-bomb was the only way to avoid hundreds of thousands of American casualties in direct combat in a conventional invasion, and millions of civilian deaths in Japan and the captive nations of the Japanese empire. That conclusion would not have been affected by Le Monde's leading questions, but it is nonetheless an extraordinary blunder by a great newspaper not to have checked the provenance of these photographs. (Note also a statement by the American academic, Sean Malloy, who had disseminated the photographs.)
UPDATE: Two other points on this story. The historian Sean Malloy is quoted in the International Herald Tribune thus:
"If these [photographs] had been in a cardboard box," Malloy said, "I would have asked more questions. But they came from a well-respected, nationally known archive. That explains why a lot of people should have asked more questions."
Malloy is a reviewer in the current issue of the Journal of Military History. His review (not online) is of the book Hiroshima in History, edited by one of my correspondents, Robert James Maddox, which I have previously recommended. Malloy describes the book as "a useful compendium", but claims that the essay by Professor Maddox "overreaches". Ironic, in the circumstances.
Andrew Sullivan presented the photographs with his judgement that, till now, "we've been sheltered from the full force of the human horror of Hiroshima". Andrew has since noted on his blog that the photographs are disputed, but I wouldn't agree with him on this in any event. Knowledge of the horrific suffering caused by the A-bombs is ingrained in our culture. It has been so since at least the publication of the journalist John Hersey's famous account in The New Yorker in August 1946. It's right that it should be, for pragmatic reasons as well as moral ones, to maintain the taboo on use of nuclear weapons. What is not ingrained in our culture, and ought to be, is the immense human costs (to within, say, the nearest million deaths) of the Japanese Empire from 1931 to 1945.
It is not my argument that the barbarism of that Empire justified use of the A-bomb. It is, rather, that even a delay of a few weeks in the Japanese surrender (which came when it did owing to the shock of the bomb) would have cost more civilian lives than were lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
UPDATE II: Note the unsubtle buck-passing in Professor Malloy's statement, quoted above. Here's what the Hoover Institution, where the photographs are kept, has to say (emphasis added):
A recently released book, Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb against Japan, by Professor Sean L. Malloy of the University of California, Merced, includes three photos from the Robert L. Capp Collection held in the Hoover Institution Archives. The collection was donated by Mr. Capp in 1998 and opened to researchers in 2007.
The Capp Collection includes photos taken by Mr. Capp, a U.S. serviceman who was on the ground in Hiroshima soon after the bombing, as well as photos developed from film he found outside Hiroshima.
In the oral history (which is part of this collection), Mr. Capp indicates that the photos he took, that are part of the collection, were of the devastation of Hiroshima. He adds that the collection also contains photos that he did not take but that were developed from undocumented and unattributed film that he found in Hamada.
On Prof. Malloy’s website, he acknowledged the Hoover Archives’ statement that the photos were from an unknown photographer and he asked for assistance in identifying them—which came quickly. This information, along with further investigation, indicates that the undocumented photos appear to be from the Kanto earthquake of 1923.
As ever, Hoover’s goal is to provide accurate information about our collections and to document fully the collections’ history. Our goal is not to draw conclusions from collections—we leave that to the scholars who use the archives.
That's a cruel riposte, but a fair one. Malloy put these pictures in a book; but he hadn't checked their provenance. It's difficult to understate the magnitude of such an error in an academic historian.