Note: I wrote this article in 2015 on the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima. Nuclear weapons should be eliminated from the planet.
August 6, 1945. Hiroshima. A Japanese city roughly the size of Houston. Incinerated by the first atomic bomb. Three days later, Nagasaki. Japanese surrender followed. It seemed the bombs had been worth it, saving countless American (and Japanese) lives, seeing that a major invasion of the Japanese home islands was no longer needed. But was the A-bomb truly decisive in convincing the Japanese to surrender?
President Truman’s decision to use atomic bombs against Japan is perhaps the most analyzed, and, in the United States, most controversial decision made during World War II. The controversy usually creates more heat than light, with hardliners posed on mutually opposed sides. The traditional interpretation is that Truman used the A-bombs to convince a recalcitrant Japanese Emperor that the war was truly lost. A quick Japanese surrender appeared to justify Truman’s choice. It also saved tens of thousands of Allied lives in the Pacific (while killing approximately 250K Japanese). This thesis is best summed up in Paul Fussell’s famous essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb.”
Even before Hiroshima, however, a small number of scientists argued that the A-bomb should not be used against Japan without a prior demonstration in a remote and uninhabited location. Later, as the horrible nature of radiation casualties became clearer to the American people, and as the Soviet Union developed its own arsenal of atomic weapons, threatening the United States with nuclear Armageddon, Americans began to reexamine Truman’s decision in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist view that Truman was practicing “atomic diplomacy” won its share of advocates in the 1960s. (Alperovitz expanded upon this thesis in the 1990s.) Other historians suggested that racism and motives of revenge played a significant role in shaping the U.S. decision. This debate reached its boiling point in the early 1990s, as the Smithsonian’s attempt to create a “revisionist” display to mark the bomb’s 50th anniversary became a lightning rod in the “culture wars” between a Democratic administration and a resurgent Republican Congress.
Were the atomic bombs necessary to get the Japanese to surrender? Would other, more humane, options have worked, such as a demonstration to the Japanese of the bomb’s power? We’ll never know with certainty the answer to such questions. Perhaps if the U.S. had been more explicit in their negotiations with Japan that “unconditional surrender” did not mean the end of Japan’s Emperor, the Japanese may have surrendered earlier, before the A-bomb was fully ready. Then again, U.S. flexibility could have been interpreted by Japanese hardliners as a sign of American weakness or war fatigue.
Unwilling to risk appearing weak or weary, U.S. leaders dropped the A-bomb to shock the Japanese into surrendering. Together with Stalin’s entry into the war against Japan, these shocks were sufficient to convince the Japanese emperor “to bear the unbearable,” in this case total capitulation, a national disgrace.
A longer war in the Pacific — if only a matter of weeks — would indeed have meant higher casualties among the Allies, since the Japanese were prepared to mount large-scale Kamikaze attacks. Certainly, the Allies were unwilling to risk losing men when they had a bomb available that promised results. The mentality seems to have been: We developed it. We have it. Let’s use it. Anything to get this war over with as quickly as possible.
That mentality was not humane, but it was human. Truman had a weapon that promised decisiveness, so he used it. The attack on Hiroshima was basically business as usual, especially when you consider the earlier firebombing raids led by General Curtis LeMay. Indeed, such “conventional” firebombing raids continued after Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the Japanese finally sent a clear signal of surrender.
Of course, an event as momentous, as horrific, as Hiroshima took on extra meaning after the war, given the nuclear arms race, the Cold War and a climate represented by the telling acronym of MAD (mutually assured destruction). U.S. decisionmakers like Truman were portrayed as callous, as racist, as war criminals. Yet in the context of 1945, it’s difficult to see any other U.S. president making a different decision, especially given Japan’s apparent reluctance to surrender and their proven fanaticism at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere.
As Andrew Rotter notes in Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb (2008), World War II witnessed the weakening, if not erasure, of distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, notably during LeMay’s firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 but in many other raids as well (Rotterdam and Coventry and Hamburg and Dresden, among so many others). In his book, Rotter supports the American belief that Japan would fight even more fanatically for their home islands than they did at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two horrendous battles in 1945 that preceded the bomb. But he argues that Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson engaged in “self-deception” when they envisioned that the effects of the atomic bomb could be limited to “a purely military” target.
A quarter of a million Japanese died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and in the years and decades following. They died horrible deaths. And their deaths serve as a warning to us all of the awful nature of war and the terrible destructiveness of nuclear weapons.
Hans Bethe worked on the bomb during the Manhattan Project. A decent, humane, and thoughtful man, he nevertheless worked hard to create a weapon of mass destruction. His words of reflection have always stayed with me. They come in Jon Else’s powerful documentary, “The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb.”
Here is what Bethe said (edited slightly):
The first reaction we [scientists] had [after Hiroshima] was one of fulfillment. Now it has been done. The second reaction was one of shock and awe: What have we done? What have we done. The third reaction was it should never be done again.
It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine.
Let us hope it is never done again. Let us hope a nuclear weapon is never used again. For that way madness lies.
Here are two comments I made in response to previous comments on this article:
I think the comments once again show that no consensus is possible on whether the atomic bombs were decisive in ending the war sooner. Even well-informed people at the time disagreed.
Again, I return to the context of August 1945. A war-weary America, facing the prospect of a delayed Japanese surrender, was using every weapon at its disposal to drive the Japanese into the ground. That included blockade, firebombing, and invasions (Iwo Jima and Okinawa). A longer blockade and more Japanese would have starved. More firebombing, more dead Japanese. More invasions, more dead Japanese, and of course Allied troops as well. The Japanese were well indoctrinated to fall in battle like cherry blossoms in the service of the emperor, whom they viewed as a god.
How to get a Japanese leadership and people to surrender when they saw the very act as dishonorable to the warrior code of Bushido? How to persuade a military that was already committing suicide on a massive scale in Kamikaze attacks against Allied ships to capitulate and live on with the shame of defeat?
It’s clear from the evidence that Truman believed the atomic bomb would shock the “beast” of Japan (“beast” was Truman’s word, a description that Allied soldiers and other Asian peoples who suffered at the hands of Japan, e.g. the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, would have agreed with). It surely did shock them. Profoundly. Was it sufficient? Was it necessary?
Again, there is no alternate reality in which the atomic bomb wasn’t dropped, and thus no way of knowing whether in that other reality, the Japanese would have agreed to surrender on August 15th.
My reading of the evidence is that impressing the Soviets was a factor, but not THE factor, in the decision to use the bomb. Ending the war as quickly as possible was the driving factor. If the bomb had been ready in December 1944, it would have been used against Nazi Germany as the Battle of the Bulge raged. But the bomb wasn’t ready until July 1945, when the Germans had already surrendered.
Iwo Jima and Okinawa were fresh in the minds of everyone. Though the Japanese had extended peace-feelers, others in Japan were hardline and didn’t wish to surrender on any terms. Faced with a war that could last weeks or months longer, perhaps into 1946 if an invasion of the Japanese home islands had been necessary, the US leadership decided the bomb could be the shock that would force the Japanese to capitulate. And so it seemed, after the fact.
It’s a very complicated question that I’ve read a lot about, and written about as well. Many people at the time simply saw the bomb as a “bigger” bomb, not as something world-changing. Only a few people truly grasped the horror of atomic weapons.
I know this probably isn’t convincing, but again this is my reading of the evidence. Certainly, Nagasaki was completely unnecessary — it came far too quickly for the Japanese to process what had happened at Hiroshima.
21 thoughts on “It Should Never Be Done Again: Hiroshima, 75 Years Later”
Your own 2 comments sum it all up as well as I can imagine… And, as for the future: Between nuclear disarmament, climate change, and possibly a united neighborhoods of earth approach that supersedes the united nations, we might still have a chance, “to live long and prosper.”
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My dad was with Patton’s troops in Europe. My uncle was a sailor in the Pacific. Neither of them ever talked about their experiences. My mom always said, “The decision to drop the bomb agonized Roosevelt into his grave. Truman got in, and said, ‘Drop it.’ No hesitation. Thank God for that.” As a teenager in the ’70s, I argued more than once that dropping the bomb was so horrendous, nothing could justify it. Both parents said, “You didn’t live through it. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” So you’re right, Mr. Astore, that at least the public was behind the deployment of nuclear weapons in the summer of ’45.
I’ve done some reading on the subject, and have come across assertions that the Japanese had broached the subject of [at least conditional, preserving the emperor] surrender some time before Hiroshima, and that in the immediate aftermath, they did offer to surrender unconditionally, but the bomb was nevertheless dropped on Nagasaki. I agree with you that the second bombing was absolutely unnecessary, and I strongly believe that it was done mostly to provide an example to the Soviets of our willingness to be ruthless.
I also believe that there’s much of the story of WWII that isn’t part of the accepted narrative. Even in my parents’ day, there were whispers that FDR knew in advance about Pearl Harbor. They had no opinion on the issue, but said our entry into the war was inevitable. I myself was much impressed with Gore Vidal’s extensively researched “The Golden Age,” in which he reproduces memos from FDR that certainly support the case of not only foreknowledge, but provocation. I tend to trust that Vidal was correct, but also to think that preservation of the world as “we” knew it depended upon our declaring war. Ends justifying means, at terrible cost.
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In Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War, I present definitive evidence that the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities did NOT shorten the war. I have made a public offer of 6 US forever stamps to anyone who can dispute this evidence.
Hi Bruce: I don’t think there’s any way to prove Hiroshima/Nagasaki shortened the war.
I think the evidence suggests that everything Japan was suffering (Hiroshima, Soviet entry, the naval blockade, the firebombings) convinced the Japanese emperor to intervene and to announce the surrender. Even then, hardliners tried to revolt against him.
Who is to say, precisely, what weight the emperor assigned to those two horrific bombings?
Personally, I think Hiroshima played a role, and Nagasaki none. Nagasaki was a rush job. It was supposed to be August 11th and a different city. The attack was moved up due to weather, and Nagasaki was the secondary target. It should never have been bombed.
The horrors of Hiroshima, it could be argued, have served at least partially as a deterrent to nuclear war. Then again, most people have no idea of the difference between an atomic bomb and a hydrogen one. People are shocked by the recent explosion in Beirut, but that was a tiny explosion compared to the nuclear bombs and warheads the U.S. military is ready to deploy each and every minute of each and every day. It’s madness.
We must eliminate those nuclear bombs and warheads!
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I read a book a few years ago on the last 2 years of the war in the Pacific. The author wrote the book from the perspective of what was happening at the time, rather than a look back view of history. Sorry cannot remember the name.
It had been established by the British and Americans that cities were a legitimate military target, because of their abilities to produce the enemy’s weapons of war. Thus, bombing even if civilians were were being killed was balanced with the notion that a destroyed factory reduced the enemy’s capacity to produce weapons and continue fighting.
The heavy losses sustained by the Americans on Iwo Jima and Okinawa meant that a World War 1 style of fighting would be the norm on the Japanese home islands, rather than the WW 2 fighting that had went on in Central and Western Europe. The closest the American and British had in Europe to a potential precursor to a war against the Japanese on their home islands was the costly slogging up the Italian “boot” where armored forces were of minimal value in breaking through.
There was the other morale factor that soldiers in Western Europe after Germany’s defeat would need to be re-deployed to the Pacific to continue the fight against Japan.
The idea that Japan’s military or will to resist would be broken on the home islands was dismissed. The Germans had fought bitterly up until the end.
The Soviet entry into the war was a huge factor according to the book. Per WIKI:
Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s research has led him to conclude that the atomic bombings were not the principal reason for Japan’s capitulation. He argues that Japan’s leaders were impacted more by the swift and devastating Soviet victories on the mainland in the week following Joseph Stalin’s August 8 declaration of war because the Japanese strategy to protect the home islands was designed to fend off an Allied invasion from the south, and left virtually no spare troops to counter a Soviet threat from the north. Furthermore, the Japanese could no longer hope to achieve a negotiated peace with the Allies by using the Soviet Union as a mediator with the Soviet declaration of war. This, according to Hasegawa, amounted to a “strategic bankruptcy” for the Japanese and forced their message of surrender on August 15, 1945. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet%E2%80%93Japanese_War
What is so worrisome today is the almost cavalier attitude there is about the need to confront China.
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Served at Iwakuni MCAS, 1967-68, I got to Hiroshima several times and walked around ground Zero. It was a very thought provoking stroll. To add a little point – counter point read “Back to Hiroshima: Why Dropping the Bomb Saved Ten Million Lives”
By, Philip Jenkins – https://www.abc.net.au/religion/back-to-hiroshima-why-dropping-the-bomb-saved-ten-million-lives/10096982
The overt American military and “covert” regime-change “intelligence community” have murdered more millions of innocent foreigners after the twin Japanese nuclear bombings, employing every conceivable technique and toy of dealing out death-and-suffering short of thermonuclear explosives. The killing will go on because the American people, collectively, find it satisfying and have no desire to end it. Hence the real American hero:
Anal Retentive Android
America, the global hemorrhoid,
Awaits arrival of an asteroid
A karmic retribution from the void
In payment for the human life destroyed
With any-and-all weaponry employed
By “leadership” inept and rheumatoid;
Enthralled by dreams imbibed from celluloid;
Frustrated, hateful, angry, and annoyed
At all who’ve somehow managed to avoid
The deaths America has so enjoyed
Dispensing over decades. Paranoid,
Its useless legions still abroad deployed
Bankrupting the US, itself devoid
Of any future, leaving overjoyed
A world to savor Peace (and Schadenfreude).
Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2020
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Masterful! Heavens to Murgatroyd!
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“If the bomb had been ready in December 1944, it would have been used against Nazi Germany”
In all the “what if” questions that usually get posed when replaying the war in Europe and postulating that if the Third Reich had done this or that rather than what they actually did and how it could have altered the course of the war I’ve found it odd that I have never seen this brought up. I think anything that had succeeded in slowing Allied progress there would simply have meant that Germany would have been the target of a few atomic bombs instead of Japan.
I’ve done quite a lot of reading on the subject and in my opinion there was no need to use the bombs on Japan for the purpose of ending the war. Demonstrating to the U.S.S.R. and the rest of the world just what it could do was probably the biggest reason they had for dropping them, along with the plain desire to make use of something that had taken so much effort.
Often left out of these discussions is the effect the U.S. Navy had on Japan’s ability to continue to fight. By the last year of the war Japan’s merchant marine had been reduced to almost nothing so they were really going to be unable to continue fighting.
Moving on to today though, I have to admit to being utterly dismayed that there seems to be a widespread, bipartisan effort to get Cold War II on the road after we only survived the first one by pure luck.
Thoughtful, valid points all.
After the war, General Groves made a compelling argument for why the bomb was used when it was. The reason: it was ready. And the war was still ongoing. And, if Truman hadn’t have used the bomb, people would have argued he’d whiffed on the best chance of ending the war as quickly as possible. As Groves put it, people would have argued Truman had American blood on his hands for not dropping the bomb. (Others would have argued the government had wasted $2 billion on a weapon they never used. And $2 billion back then is probably $50 billion or more today.)
Rarely have I seen this point discussed. It’s in John Else’s documentary, “The Day After Trinity.” Recall as well that Truman was a new president who, as VP, had known nothing about the bomb. You might say he made the easy choice, or the predictable one, or he took the path of least resistance.
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Yes, I would say those things about Truman. Still….I can’t even imagine the emotional consequences of such a decision.
Hi all, it’s me again the half-a-comment-at-a-time guy. The whole thing won’t go so here is part 1 of 2
Whatever the case is on Hiroshima, what should concerns us is what to do now?
Though everyone agrees nuclear proliferation is not good, it is impossible to imagine the technology going away or anyone who has the bomb being willing to give it up. Even reducing the number of warheads has been a problem. Though there has been a reduction, there are still more than enough left to leave all the cities of any size of the US, Russia and China smoking radioactive ruins.
Because of the existence of nuclear weapons ready to be used it is absurd for the three major nuclear powers to be inciting each other (looking at you, Donald) just as it is absurd for the US to be undertaking a modernization of its nuclear weapons. How can such devastating weaponry be improved that would increase security rather than reduce it? Suppose reliability were down to 10% yield for all our nuclear weaponry. It would still be suicidal for any foe to put it to the test.
(end of part 1 of 2)
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(part 2 of 2)
I think it is indisputable that the horror of Hiroshima has put an image of Armageddon into the minds of most people, which no test over empty landscape could have done, producing shadows on walls as all that remained of incinerated people or people left screaming in agony with melted skin. Yes, incendiary attacks like those on Dresden and Tokyo were horrific but not instantly achieved from a distance with no warning. The Hiroshima attack could have been recalled up to the last moment, ICBM’s could not be and therefor we have “launch on warning” to seal our fate before a single nuclear explosion has occurred and 30 minutes travel time from launch to detonation.
Though it should cause great anxiety, it doesn’t terrify because we’ve buried it beneath our daily concerns, yet it lurks always ready while leaders are quick to assert that they have everything in hand, even those the possibility of nuclear war makes all the deployment of thousands of tanks, troops and carrier battle groups useless for anything other than putting the screws on non-nuclear opponents. North Korea shows this clearly.
An there’s hypocrisy. Iran, the “bad guys” are denounced while the “good guys” (Israel) get a free pass to act militarily with conventional weapons with impunity and to threaten Iran continually.
We have them, we can’t do more than reduce them and the odds of one going off, just one that could start a panic to retaliate even if the detonation were accidental, even an own goal thought to be the work of terrorists, makes me think it is only a matter of time. The explosives in Beirut sat there for five years, warnings weren’t heeded. All it took was enough time and this week the clock ran out. I see no difference with nuclear weapons.
Is it hopeless? Do I feel helpless? Yes to both. There is something to be said for simply carrying on with life, though suddenly it may well be we can’t.
“On the Beach” is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen; “The China Syndrome” is right up there, too. People my age (62) grew up with the fear of nukes. I don’t think that’s the case with, say, today’s under-40 crowd. That is, they’re not afraid enough to demand a halt to the new Cold War.
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Denise, that was a remarkable movie, as was Fail Safe, not least for the fact that it showed no devastation. When the submarine crew went to find the source of the radio signal in San Francisco, the crew walked through empty streets that had intact buildings. Not one body to be seen. Talk about avoidance! Even in such a serious, depressing movie there was a limit on what they would show. If I recall, at the close a banner was shown over the street in Australia, the last hold out where the end had finally come. It said “Brother, There is Still Time”
If any readers have not seen the movie, please do.
We know how to tap emotion, but not how to control it.
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I agree with your point about Hollywood’s reticence in showing destruction. However, the ghostly effect of the totally empty city was still off- the-scale creepy.
For a truly depressing treatment of post-apocalyptic horror, read Cormac McCarthy’s: The Road, made into a faithful eponymous film starring Viggo Mortensen, with cameo appearances by a few other well-known actors. I could sit through “No Country for Old Men” again, but not “The Road.” Well made and performed, but the subject matter simply terrifies.
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Several “I thinks”:
I think it’s all too easy to look back and say what should have been done about anything when viewed though the lens of our (ahem) more enlightened times.
I think “you weren’t there” shoots down pretty much any and all subsequent armchair generalship.
I think “the moral high ground” is a fanciful concept that evaporates the moment hostilities begin.
I think we have always claimed a nobility of thought and action, guided by God’s Own Hand, which – like “the moral high ground” – is a pissant’s pipedream. Which leads to how –
I think we shout for justice, but what we want is revenge. Vaporizing Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of revenge. “They started it, we ended it.” Justice takes too long.
I think that any thoughts of Stalin’s declaration of war against Japan making any difference are unfounded. Japan was never and could never be a real threat to Russia, who has historically felt threatened by the West, anyway.
I think blowing up some lonely atoll in the Pacific wouldn’t have had any effect at all on the Japanese. It would have been – to keep a popular thread running through Bracing Views – like Jack Crabbe telling Wild Bill how many bottles he can shoot “thrown in the air.”
And (I think) the feeling was it was necessary to show we not only had it, but were willing to come down from the “moral high ground” with our high regard for the sanctity of life (as seen in Berlin, Hamburg, certainly Dresden, on and on) and use it.
And (I think) Nagasaki was an exclamation point. It also opened the possibility that it wasn’t a one-off deal. We did it twice in quick succession – a not so subliminal message to Ivan – and who could say with any certainty we didn’t have a warehouse full of the things?
Finally (I think) it’s entirely possible all of the above is yet another pissant’s pipedream or, perhaps more accurately, a collection of them.
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It should never be done again: Just typing those words here from memory sends chills up my spine. Me, too.
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Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum.
Why do the voters sigh: “Ho Hum”?
(All Sizes Fit One)
Nothing off the table
Something on the floor
Metaphor and fable
Adding up to war
Bomber John and Lindsey
Graham and McCain
War for them is whimsy
Others get the pain
So at least in theory
Goes the latest “plan”
Two, at least, are leery:
Russia and Iran
China, too, ain’t buying
What we’ve got to sell:
More bad debt and crying
On the road to Hell
Waffle Waitress Nikki
Threatens the UN:
“We will have our quickie!
Any where or when!”
Deadbeat country failing
Fighting just to lose
“Sick” or “ill” or “ailing”:
“Options” we can “choose”
“On the table” sit:
All scream, “More divisions!”
Same old sorry shit.
Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2018
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