Pamphleteer’s Press Drops Bomb On Myths of Atomic Age

More publishers exist to perpetuate myths-about celebrity, self-help, money-making, politics, history-than to dispel them, Americans apparently preferring their book reading soft-core and, sometimes foolishly, trusting newspapers and other forms of journalism for factual information. It was in order to counter this trend that the journalist Lawrence Lifschultz and his wife, Rabia Ali, a scholar of Pakistani politics, started the Pamphleteer’s Press in 1991 in the coastal hamlet of Stony Creek, Conn.

Like driftwood washing ashore, the press came about somewhat inadvertently when the couple decided to write (with Steven Galster, a research associate at the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C.) and publish an investigation into the trial and conviction of Iran-contra figure Arif Durrani in pamphlet form. Hence, with due respect to Tom Paine, the name of their press, which set itself the goal of focusing on public-affairs issues, and has gone on to publish books on Bosnia, national health care reform and freedom of expression. Mr. Lifschultz is currently traveling in Pakistan on a grant from the Alicia Patterson Foundation to report a series of magazine articles on nuclear proliferation in South Asia. So it seems fitting that, while he is on his trip, his tiny publishing concern is putting the finishing touches on its most large-scale and provocative publication so far, Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy . A striking 664-page book on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it tackles the myths its editors contend envelop the termination of World War II, as well as “one of the great intellectual scandals of American history,” as the book puts it, the controversial cancellation of the Smithsonian Institution’s planned 1995 Enola Gay exhibition. It will be out in May.

The anthology was compiled by the journalist and biographer Kai Bird along with Mr. Lifschultz. It contains a preface by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist Joseph Rotblat, contemporary essays, historical documents pertaining to the debates about how victory over Japan was to be achieved and about the subsequent use of nuclear weapons, and a rare selection of images of Nagasaki the day after the bombing by a Japanese photographer, Yosuke Yamahata, confiscated by the American military. Unlike Philip Nobile’s more pugilistic 1995 quickie, Judgment at the Smithsonian: The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -in which he published the wall-text script for the canceled National Air and Space Museum exhibition as well as galloped his particular hobbyhorse, the erroneous research about the bombing of Japan in David McCullough’s best-selling Truman -the Pamphleteer’s Press book, an attempt at a balanced survey to set the historical record straight and strip it of patriotic mythology, has been some four years in the making. “It was supposed to be a fast, three-to-four-month book,” said Mr. Bird, “but once we got into it, it grew and grew.”

Pamphleteer’s Press, Mr. Bird said, treated the delays with patience and understanding, a response he feels he would have been less likely to encounter at a larger, more commercial publisher. (Simon & Schuster published his The Chairman: John J. McCloy-The Making of the American Establishment , in 1992, and will release his biography-in-progress of McGeorge and William Bundy next October.) Yet, he said, speaking for the traveling Mr. Lifschultz, the Pamphleteer’s Press “is making money on its books. They’re doing what big publishers aren’t doing, publishing high-quality, lengthy, serious books for not much money.” Advances, of course, are not high; most of the contributors to Hiroshima’s Shadow , for instance, are academics or pro bono-ish journalists. And print runs are conservative: The first printing on the anthology is 1,500, and further ones will depend on demand. Mr. Lifschultz also uses the LPC Group-a division started by the huge, Chicago-based medical textbook distributor Logan Brothers Book Company to serve the growing number of small presses-to help disseminate his titles. The hope is that the book, as topical now at a time of threatened biological warfare and continued nuclear build-up as any, will narrow the gap between what scholars know and what the public has been asked to believe for several generations, especially that the use of atomic weapons was right because it was unavoidable.

Mr. Bird does not hesitate to blame fellow journalists in the mainstream press for the fact that little of the information in the book has permeated beyond the walls of academe. Even Donald Graham, he said, publisher of The Washington Post , wrote him at the height of the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay contretemps that he and his top editors would not meet with Mr. Bird and other members of a diverse Historians Committee for Open Debate on Hiroshima because, “You appear to be propagandists who wish The Post would take your side.” The side The Post continued to take instead was traditionalist, despite the fact, Mr. Bird said, that Mr. Graham’s grandfather, Eugene Meyer, had advocated the kind of conditional surrender by Japan that would have prevented the war’s atomic outcome.

Another person Mr. Bird said he ran into recently at a book party in the “small town” that is Washington, D.C., is I. Michael Heyman, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution who had canceled the Enola Gay exhibition under pressure from the American Legion and the Air Force Association, a lobby for the military aerospace industry. When Mr. Bird identified himself as having been one of Mr. Heyman’s critics during the cancellation proceedings and told him about the book, the secretary greeted him jovially and said “that when he was no longer in this job, we should go out and have a drink and talk about it [the exhibition’s fate],” Mr. Bird said. Contacted about Hiroshima’s Shadow , Mr. Heyman said through a spokesman than he had not heard of it and therefore could not comment.

Mr. Bird is currently drafting a letter asking the Smithsonian to stock copies in its bookstores, including at the Air and Space Museum, but he is doubtful orders will be forthcoming. Gore Vidal, however, whose current political satire, The Smithsonian Institution , is for sale there, provided a pre-publication comment for Hiroshima’s Shadow . It is, he wrote in his blurb, “easily the best overview of the most debated event in our stormy history and, best of all, every voice is heard.”

Faxing Thomas Pynchon

It made David Hajdu very happy that Bob Dylan swept the Grammys. Mr. Hajdu is the author of Lush Life , the biography of jazz composer Billy Strayhorn that recently won the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Visions Award. He is well along with his next book, Children of Darkness , for Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a prismatic take on the early 60’s and the folk-rock scene, epitomized for him by the pivotal four-way relationship between the former Bobby Zimmerman, his friend and rival Richard Fariña, Fariña’s wife, Mimi, and her sister Joan Baez. Mr. Hajdu has already conducted more than 100 interviews, he said, although Mr. Dylan has proved his usual elusive self, so far. Fariña himself is dead, killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966 on the way home from the party for his novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me , on his wife’s 21st birthday.

A significant fifth friend, Mr. Hajdu mentioned, was Thomas Pynchon, the best man at Fariña’s wedding and a pallbearer at his funeral. So when Mr. Hajdu cryptically added that he had just had “an extraordinary stroke of good fortune” in being able to interview “one of the five people I’ve named,” The Observer naturally asked whether that interview had taken place at an address thought to be that of Mr. Pynchon’s Manhattan residence. After Mr. Hajdu demurred that the interview with his mystery person was actually conducted by fax, the question arose as to whether the faxes might be of special interest to the Morgan Library, which had recently publicized itself as a repository of correspondence between Mr. Pynchon and his erstwhile agent, Candida Donadio. Mr. Hajdu acknowledged that they most certainly would. The same could not necessarily be said for letters from Mr. Dylan, Ms. Baez or the Fariñas. In contrast to Ms. Donadio, though, Mr. Hajdu said he doesn’t plan to part with his missives at any price.

Pamphleteer’s Press Drops Bomb On Myths of Atomic Age