Events

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Background to Hiroshima and V-J Day: Potsdam Conference, AP Wirephoto

Among the first little historical curiosities that I collected as a high school student was a group of World War II Associated Press Wirephotos found among the random stuff in the bins of a Wisconsin antiques store. (I seem to recall that there were other subjects and I simply picked out the few wartime shots as most suited to my interests and budget.)

Accustomed as we now are to being able to receive the news in live time, most of us have no idea what the classic AP "Wirephoto" service was: how it functioned , and how it revolutionized journalism by transmitting images with unprecedented speed, thus enabling them to become news in their own right.

As this retrospective nicely explains, a transmitter, equipped with a sort of early optical scanner, converted a photo to electrical signals, sent via "10,000 miles of leased telephone lines – the wires," to a receiver, where they were "converted back into light, which was then recorded onto the negative, reproducing the original image." (The "Wirephoto" still exists, but in digital form since 1989.)


World War II, understandably enough, greatly increased the demand for photographic reportage, and the US Army Signal Corps developed its own radiophoto system. This Wirephoto depicts a US security checkpoint on the eve of the Potsdam Conference.

MPs CHECK VEHICLES IN CONFERENCE AREA--MILITARY POLICE OF THE 713TH MP BATTALION CHECK VEHICLES AND PERSONNEL AT A ROAD BARRIER IN THE AMERICAN COMPOUND OF THE POTSDAM CONFERENCE AREA, JULY 15. (AP WIREPHOTO FROM SIGNAL CORPS RADIOPHOTO FROM PARIS)

The 713th Military Police Battalion was responsible for security in the US sector of nearby Berlin. The Signal Corps radiophoto above features in Robert L. Gunnarsson's history of American Military Police in Europe.

The meeting (July 17- August 2, 1945) is of course best known for mandating the shared occupation and denazification of recently defeated Germany, as well as endorsing the redrawing of the Soviet-Polish-German borders and, more controversially, permitting the expulsion of ethnic Germans from the former occupied territories of Central Europe.

But the Conference also had a bearing on the war in the Pacific and the dropping of the atomic bomb, treated in a recent post. The official declaration demanded unconditional surrender of Japan, lest she suffer "the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland." There was no mention of the atomic bomb, as such (tested in secret just as the conference began), but it did figure in a now-famous conversation between Truman and Stalin.

As the US Department of Energy aptly summarizes:
During the second week of Allied deliberations at Potsdam, on the evening of July 24, 1945, Truman approached Stalin without an interpreter and, as casually as he could, told him that the United States had a "new weapon of unusual destructive force."  Stalin showed little interest, replying only that he hoped the United States would make "good use of it against the Japanese."  The reason for Stalin's composure became clear later: Soviet intelligence had been receiving information about the atomic bomb program since fall 1941.
The nuclear arms race was already beginning.



Next Wirephoto:  Okinawa

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