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Final Project: One Instrument : Propaganda and the embargo of images following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

One Instrument, the Virtual Reality (VR) documentary using historical footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, will attempt to connect the dots between the persistent false narrative that the US had to drop the bomb and the propaganda machine that created the story after the fact in 1945. To this day, when people are asked about the bombing of Hiroshima, they will get serious, look you in the eye, and shake their head saying, “Oh, yes. They had to drop the bomb; otherwise, Japan would have never surrendered,” Seventy-five years later! This is a false but tenacious story crafted by the US government through propaganda, censorship, and counter-narratives. The fact that it persists after 75 years is a testament to the effectiveness of this program.

The original idea for One Instrument comes from my short story “Nightfall” published in July of 2018 about two survivors of an apocalyptic event that neither of them understands. In the story, the woman returns to her home in the blast zone to find her badly burned husband lying on top of the rubble that had been their home. She lies to him about help coming as she sits by his side and waits for him to die.

The research for the story brought me to the New Yorker Magazine piece, “Hiroshima” by John Hersey which later became a book by the same title. I didn’t realize that the first significant piece written about Hiroshima was that piece a year later. After a little digging, I discovered that the Office of Censorship, and then, General Leslie Groves, were instrumental in keeping a lid on the images and stories broadcast from Japan in the immediate aftermath of the blast. The US occupied Japan until 1952, and the stories of the survivors didn’t come out until after the US left.

This project is a DH project for the general public. The NEH Digital Projects for the Public requires that it be for as large an audience as possible. So, I tried to make it as broad, excluding only the very young as possible audience members in the idea for its execution. It should also be ready for the 75th Anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which will be in 2020. The semester-long project will prototype a short immersive documentary that will lay down the techniques to be used for the longer ten -twelve-minute documentary (twelve minutes is the upper limit of attention inside of VR).

When thinking about how this project fits into the digital humanities, the Klein piece about James Hemings, “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings” comes to mind with its reference to Alan Liu’s call to action to reestablish “cultural criticism” (665) in the Digital Humanities. This documentary will squarely focus an eye on the critique of our culture both in the present and in the past. Also, Klein’s impetus to make Hemings’ “ghost” visible in the archives (668) is in the same vein as illuminating the use of propaganda through broadcast archival footage.

One instrument intends to look closely at the relationship between the narrative and the reality helping the viewer to understand how their opinion about the US bombing in Hiroshima might have been shaped by showing them embargoed images while the audio narrative plays the propaganda. Perhaps the public will begin to understand how their opinions are influenced as well as realizing how the US covered up the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Having worked as a broadcast news producer for a foreign agency during much of the Iraq War, I have seen the sanitized images that the US broadcast news agencies play. Even though there has been not Office of the Censor since 1945, we are still living under a kind of panopticon behavior modification that shows we believe that “they” will come knocking on the door at any minute if we show the “wrong” images.