The Manhattan Project Doctors' Role in the Collapse of the Official Narrative

EDITORIAL NOTE: The following is an excerpt from James L. Nolan, Jr.’s book, Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age. In the book, Nolan follows the medical doctors, who were part of the Manhattan Project, on their unique journey through the early nuclear age. One of these doctors, the author’s grandfather Captain James F. Nolan, M.D., was recruited by Robert Oppenheimer in early 1943 to serve as the post surgeon in Los Alamos. Given his training as an OB/GYN, Dr. Nolan spent most of his time, at least initially, delivering the many babies who were born in Los Alamos during the war, including Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer’s daughter, Toni. Among his other roles, Nolan set up the safety and evacuation procedures for the Trinity Test and escorted the uranium core of the Hiroshima bomb from Los Alamos to Tinian Island. He was also part of the Joint Commission that went into Japan immediately after the end of World War II to survey the structural and biological damages caused by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. This selection from Atomic Doctors details some of what the doctors saw and experienced when they traveled into Japan in September 1945. This text appears here with the permission of Havard University Press, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

It was a scene right out of hell.
—Raisuke Shirabe, A Physician’s Diary

As James F. Nolan and Stafford Warren traversed the four-hundred-plus-mile train ride between Hiroshima and Tokyo, they passed through “one bombed out city after another,” interspersed between acres of beautiful countryside. Taking in the incongruous scenery was made difficult by the conditions of the “old style coach” in which they traveled, with its tattered and “filthy dirty” straight-up seats and the pungent “perfume” emanating from the train’s platform-style benjo. After an “arduous” journey, the two Manhattan Project doctors finally arrived back in Tokyo on September 15, where they received word that “our wandering generals had already been into Nagasaki.” They also soon learned that Warren’s group—which the colonel had left behind in Okinawa nine days earlier—had finally made it into Nagasaki. Nolan and Warren then set about making their own arrangements to get to Nagasaki and succeeded in securing a morning flight for September 19, two days after the rest of Warren’s men had reached the city.

After their arrival and a brief survey of the damages in Nagasaki, Warren stayed with his group “to spur their investigations,” while Nolan returned the next day “to push the arrival of the second group under Friedell.” Hymer Friedell’s team, still stranded in Zamboanga, had been delayed because of several typhoons. They would not get to Hiroshima until September 26, thus making this group’s overall stay in Japan relatively short, about ten days in total. It was during this time in Tokyo, before returning to Nagasaki, that Nolan first met Averill Liebow, who, like John Flick, was part of Ashley W. Oughterson’s army general headquarters group. Liebow’s diary recounts the September 21 meeting in Tokyo of these two army doctors: “Captain Nolan of the Manhattan District, a tall and very affable young man[,] . . . gave us some preliminary details concerning Hiroshima.” Interestingly, on this occasion, Nolan, like Warren, offered an understated and somewhat ambiguous account of their findings, though it was still substantively distinct from that presented by Farrell a week earlier. Nolan reported that their “Geiger counters and other detection equipment . . . had found no significant residual radiation.” Nolan, however, also told Liebow and company that it had “rained twice after the catastrophe”—a factor, as acknowledged by Robert Oppenheimer, that can intensify radioactive fallout—and that “many” Japanese victims “had multiple petechial hemorrhages and injury to the bowel,” direct effects of radiation exposure.

As far as I know, my grandfather maintained until the end of his life a full belief in the dominant narrative about the use of the atom bombs—that is, that these destructive weapons were necessary to end the war and that their use saved thousands of American (and even Japanese) lives. Interestingly, Nolan and other Manhattan Project members of the Joint Commission played a significant, albeit indirect, role in advancing a counter-narrative to this official view, one that gave more attention to the horrific and ongoing effects of radiation and other injuries in Japan, and that raised important moral questions about the use of the bomb.

During his time in Tokyo, Nolan and other Joint Commission doctors made trips to the Pathological Institute of the Imperial Tokyo University in order to examine “microscopic sections” of specimens prepared for them by Masao Tsuzuki. The doctors would eventually take many of these specimens back with them to the United States for further study, a move that troubled some of the Japanese doctors. In addition to examining biological specimens, during one of these trips to the Pathological Institute, the Joint Commission doctors also “absconded with the Geisha girl in the tin can” (another act of souvenir-collecting tourism).

While in Tokyo, Nolan and other Joint Commission doctors “investigated Fr. Siemes.” Father John Siemes, a German Jesuit priest, had been living at his order’s novitiate house in the hills of Nagatsuka, about three miles outside Hiroshima, when the bomb exploded on the morning of August 6. In the weeks that followed, Siemes wrote a compelling account of the impact of the bomb and of his community’s heroic rescue and aid efforts. More than a hundred injured survivors were given shelter at the novitiate house in Nagatsuka, where they received care from, among others, the medically trained Father Pedro Arrupe, another member the community and the future superior general of the Jesuits.

On August 7, the day after the bomb, Arrupe said Mass at the novitiate house in a room filled with the wounded, “who were lying on the floor very near to one another, suffering terribly, twisted with pain.” When he turned around from facing the altar (in pre–Vatican II style) at the end of the Mass, he was overwhelmed by what he saw. “I can never forget the terrible feeling I experienced when I turned toward them and saw this sight from the altar. I could not move. I stayed there as if I was paralyzed, my arms outstretched, contemplating this human tragedy—human science and technological progress used to destroy the human race. They were all looking at me, eyes full of agony and despair as if they were waiting for some consolation to come from the altar. What a terrible scene!” Four of the priests in the order, including Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, were actually residing in the center of Hiroshima at the parish house of the central mission church, about eight blocks from the hypocenter, on the morning of the bomb.

After meeting with the Manhattan Project group in Tokyo, Siemes gave Warren a copy of his account, written in German. Warren handed the manuscript over to Liebow, who knew German, and asked him to translate the document into English. Siemes’s written testimony became an important source for John Hersey’s best-selling book Hiroshima. Hersey had read Liebow’s translation of Siemes’s account before arriving in Hiroshima in April 1946. Having done so, Hersey’s “first move in arriving was to get in touch with the Jesuit mission in Hiroshima.” There he met Kleinsorge, who became one of the six accounts featured in Hersey’s riveting on-the-ground description of real people affected by Little Boy. The book, which was originally published as a long article in the New Yorker in late August 1946, gave many Americans, for the first time, a vivid picture of the devastating human consequences of the atom bomb.

When Liebow read and translated Siemes’s “remarkable document,” he was “spellbound and horrified” by Siemes’s “stirring, beautifully and modestly written description.” While in Tokyo, Liebow read his English translation aloud to one of the army sergeants traveling with Warren’s group, who skillfully typed up the dictated testimony. Inspired by the account, the Joint Commission doctors visited the ailing Kleinsorge, whom Liebow described as a “keen kindly man, thin and pale,” at the St. Luke’s International Catholic Hospital in Tokyo. Hersey, in fact, notes in Hiroshima that during this first of numerous hospitalizations, when Kleinsorge was exhibiting many of the classic signs of radiation sickness, including leukopenia (low white blood cell count), “American doctors came by the dozen to observe him.” For Liebow, who had yet to visit either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, this was his first direct contact with an atomic bomb patient. After completing the translation of Siemes’s account, Liebow gave the English version to Warren. On October 2, while waiting for a table with Nolan at the Dai-Ichi Hotel in Tokyo, Warren communicated to Liebow his “pleasure at the Siemes translation.”

Warren’s positive response is interesting for several reasons. First, Siemes discussed the effects of radiation from the bomb in a manner not fully in keeping with Farrell’s public statements. Siemes noted, for example, that in some cases in which the “prognosis seemed good,” the victims “died suddenly.” While he was a little skeptical about the exaggerated effects of residual radiation, Siemes understood that “gamma rays had been given out at the time of the explosion, following which the internal organs had been injured in a manner resembling that consequent upon Roentgen irradiation,” which “produces a diminution in the number of the white corpuscles,” as occurred with his fellow priest Kleinsorge.

In addition to these observations on the effects of radiation exposure, Siemes also reflected on the morality of the bomb, which he and his community had evidently contemplated together in the days and weeks after August 6. “We have discussed among ourselves the ethics of the use of the bomb,” he wrote.

Some consider it in the same category as poison gas and were against its use on a civil population. Others were of the view that in total war, as carried on in Japan, there was no difference between civilians and soldiers, and that to bomb itself was an effective force tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus to avoid total destruction. It seems logical to us that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of a war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences, which far exceed whatever the good that might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?

This exact quotation from the English translation of Siemes’s account is included in Hersey’s Hiroshima. Interestingly, after returning to the United States, Warren would give a copy of the document to General Leslie Groves. Groves would subsequently quote selectively from it in his testimony before Congress in November 1945.

What did Warren and Nolan make of these reflections? Did they also question the morality of the bomb, witnessing as they did the direct consequences of its power and lingering deathly effects? Were they also confounded by the destructive capacities that humans had produced through scientific and technological progress? Apparently, they did have occasion to reflect on these questions, though they seem to have come to different conclusions from those of Siemes. While awaiting their return trip to Tokyo, the American and Japanese members of the Joint Commission grounded at the Iwakuni Airport engaged in a long discussion one evening about the “ethics of the bomb” that lasted “far into the night.” According to Warren, the group collectively “came up with the following arguments” (though he conceded that the Japanese were less communicative than the Americans on this occasion).

First, according to Warren, it was agreed that even before the bombs were dropped, the Japanese realized that they were defeated; yet they were still prepared to fight for a couple of months following the initiation of an anticipated land invasion. With the utter devastation from the atomic bombs, however, further resistance was made impossible, thus enabling the Japanese to save face and surrender without having to commit hara-kiri, which would otherwise have been expected of them. Second, a land invasion “would have killed perhaps as many as several million Japanese” and “as many as five hundred thousand American boys.” “Was it not better,” the group reportedly concluded, “to extinguish two cities instantaneously and bring the matter to an abrupt stop by what amounted to a surgical operation, the net result of which saved many more lives?”

These, of course, are arguments characteristic of the dominant narrative—that is, that the Japanese were not prepared to surrender in the summer of 1945 and that the only viable alternative to dropping the bombs was a bloody land invasion that would cost hundreds of thousands of both American and Japanese lives. Years later, Warren elaborated on this perspective and, like Siemes, compared the atom bombs to the “total war” attacks in places like Tokyo. However, rather than questioning the morality of total war itself, as did Siemes, Warren concluded that the quick and “surgical” nature of nuclear warfare was comparatively more “merciful.” Consider his reasoning: “Very few people realize the fact that more people were killed by the fire bombing in Japan—at Tokyo and Yokohama—than were killed by the two bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The difference was that it took a week or more in the former cases for the fire bombing, and people were subject to the terror of the attack and the fire. If there is any such thing as that any kind of killing is more merciful, the atom bomb is more merciful.”

Given this perspective, it is ironic that, though Warren and other Manhattan Project doctors maintained their allegiance to the official narrative, they actually contributed to the development of an important and foundational text in the “counternarrative” canon, one that unnerved American officials. General Farrell, for example, was so troubled by Hersey’s article that, just a few days after its publication, he wrote a letter to Bernard Baruch, then serving as the US representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, urging him to produce and publish an equally compelling article in the New Yorker about the mistreatment of prisoners of war in Japan. Discomfort among American officials only intensified when, shortly after reading Hersey’s article, the journalist Norman Cousins penned a response in the Saturday Review in which he articulated, through a series of questions inspired by Hersey’s piece, essential tenets of the counternarrative: “Do we know, for example, that many thousands of human beings in Japan will die of cancer during the next few years because of radioactivity released by the bomb? Do we know that the bomb is in reality a death ray, and that the damage by the blast and fire may be secondary to the damage caused by radiological assault upon human tissue? Have we as a people any sense of responsibility for the crime of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” Cousins additionally questioned why the physicists’ proposal for a demonstration test was ignored, and he challenged the official and oft-stated view that use of the bomb saved “numberless thousands of American lives.”

Hersey’s article and Cousins’s response to it alarmed US officials. American leaders also had to contend with the findings of their own US Strategic Bombing Survey, which were released in early July 1946. The civilian-led survey team, comprising more than one thousand military and civilian personnel, “interviewed more than 700 Japanese military, government, and industrial officials.” Based on its thorough investigative work, which began in the fall of 1945, as well as testimonies collected from Japanese leaders, the survey team concluded, “It is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

Following these various counternarrative publications in the summer of 1946, a concerted and coordinated effort was initiated to put forth a clear and convincing articulation of the dominant narrative, the final result of which became a famous Harper’s magazine article, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” published in February 1947. The Harper’s article was assembled and written by a number of people, including Groves, though strategically published under the authorship of the esteemed former secretary of war Henry Stimson. Regarded as “the most influential article ever published on the atomic bomb,” its persuasive presentation of the official narrative effectively stemmed the tide of growing sympathy with the counternarrative. Significantly, the Stimson article makes no mention of the effects of radiation, residual or otherwise.

While the article succeeded in muting the public potency of the counter-narrative engendered by Hersey’s Hiroshima, the debate represented in these early missives has far from subsided, as the heated controversy over the Smithsonian’s proposed 1995 exhibit of the Enola Gay made clear. Had the originally planned exhibit gone forward, it would have included information, visual and otherwise, about the effects of the bomb in Japan. However, heated opposition from veterans’ groups, among others, resulted in the jettisoning of such “revisionist history.” About a year after the publication of the Stimson article, Warren himself observed that ethical concerns about the morality of the bomb had “quieted down both in Japan and the United States,” though, tendentiously, he also lamented that “our own people frequently bring the subject up as a sort of neurotic self-flagellation.”


Nolan’s second trip to Nagasaki was somewhat limited (September 29 to October 2), though it was meant to be longer. As Nolan recalled, “We returned to Nagasaki for the first group and it was during this flight that another typhoon caused us to be three days late for a three hour trip.” After finally arriving on September 29, Nolan joined the rest of Warren’s group at Omura Naval Hospital, about twenty-two miles north of Nagasaki, where a large number of the injured survivors (along with doctors from Warren’s team) had been relocated. One of the Japanese doctors collaborating with the Americans in Omura was Raisuke Shirabe, a surgeon from the Nagasaki Medical School.

On the morning of August 9, Shirabe had been in his office at the medical school reviewing a student’s thesis when the second atomic bomb used in warfare was dropped. Originally intended for the primary target of Kokura, the B-29 Bockscar, piloted by Major Charles Sweeney, was redirected to its secondary target, Nagasaki. Here, too, cloud cover prevented a clear view of the city. As Bockscar approached Nagasaki from the north, the clouds briefly opened and the plutonium bomb Fat Man was released, a mile and a half north of the intended target, over the suburb of Urakami, rather than the center of Nagasaki. The bomb detonated at 11:02 a.m. about 550 yards from the Nagasaki Medical School and about 650 yards from the Urakami Catholic Cathedral, for centuries the center of Japan’s long-suffering Christian community. Of the approximately 12,000 Christians living in Urakami at the time, 8,500 were killed, including several dozen parishioners and two Catholic priests, who were hearing confessions in the cathedral that morning.

Members of the Manhattan Project team, surveying the destruction of Nagasaki in September, took immediate notice of the damaged cathedral, large photographs of which are included in my grandfather’s files. In fact, even before landing in Nagasaki on September 17, as Warren’s group circled the city in a C-54, they observed and commented on the ruins of the cathedral. Once on the ground, Donald Collins was struck by the destruction of one of the cathedral’s belfries, which he described as a “dramatic indication of the tremendous force of the blast.” He and his colleague, the Oak Ridge civil engineer Captain Walter Youngs, observed that the fifty-ton bell tower had been blown into a ravine nearly “fifty meters distant from the church.” The relocated belfry remains in the ravine today, not far from the reconstructed cathedral.

The destruction of the Urakami Cathedral and the high number of fatalities among the Nagasaki Christians is ironic for several reasons. Not only was another city, Kokura, the intended primary target for Fat Man on August 9, but Kyoto had previously been on the list of potential targets. Kyoto was, in fact, one of General Groves’s preferred targets. Following a somewhat tense struggle between Groves and Stimson, Kyoto was ultimately removed from the list. Having visited the city in the 1920s, Stimson strongly objected to Kyoto because of the city’s religious and cultural significance. In a curious twist of fate, Nagasaki, also a place of religious significance—in fact, for centuries, the epicenter of Christianity in Japan—would become the ultimate target for the plutonium bomb. The Urakami Cathedral had been intentionally built on a site where the persecuted “hidden Christians” had endured severe forms of torture for many years. The Christians finally emerged from more than two centuries of hiding when Japanese authorities loosened restrictions on religious freedom in the second half of the nineteenth century, a development that was itself a consequence of Western influence. The Urakami Cathedral was the largest Christian structure in the Asia-Pacific region at the time of the bombing.

As illustrated in this case, Nagasaki, the setting for the famous opera Madame Butterfly, had long been a port city open to Western influence. The tragic paradox that Nagasaki then became a target of a Western-produced weapon of mass destruction is not lost on the Japanese. The very first descriptive caption one encounters upon entering the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum highlights this paradox. “Nagasaki, where the curtain of history opened with the arrival of Portuguese ships in 1571. Nagasaki, which through its relations with Holland and China was Japan’s only open port from 1641 to 1859. Nagasaki, where Japanese students gathered to draw from the well of Western Knowledge. Nagasaki, [where] Western style buildings stood side by side and the foreign settlements bustled in the late 19th century. . . . Nagasaki, surrounded on three sides by mountains and boasting a colorful history of 374 years, greeted the summer morning of August 9, 1945.”

The French-influenced neo-Romanesque cathedral in Urakami, the construction of which began in 1895 and was completed in 1925, was one of the most renowned and visible Western-style buildings in Nagasaki referenced in the museum’s display caption. Images of the cathedral ruins, which are prominently featured in the museum and elsewhere, were (and remain) one of the most well-known and recognized symbols of the destruction of Nagasaki. So iconic were the images of the cathedral ruins—often compared to the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima—that there was strong resistance among many Nagasaki citizens to removing the crumbling remains of the church and rebuilding the cathedral on the same site. City officials preferred maintaining the ruins (as was done with Hiroshima’s A-Bomb Dome) as a memorial to the historical significance of the August 9 bombing. The Christian community, however, very much favored reconstruction of the cathedral, and on the same site, because of its important history to their community. In the end, the Urakami Catholics prevailed, and the new building, completed in 1959, looks much like the original structure.


James L. Nolan, Jr.

James L. Nolan, Jr., is Washington Gladden 1859 Professor of Sociology at Williams College. His previous books include What They Saw in America: Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb and Reinventing Justice: The American Drug Court Movement.

Read more by James L. Nolan, Jr.