This past week marked an ominous, momentous and transformational event of the twentieth century that few would deny has narrated and punctuated the past 70 years of warfare in the modern age. Few events during the Second World War (and since) capture our collective imagination, fear and horror as much as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945 respectively. I am reminded of William Faulkner’s famous quote: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” In total, the atomic explosion over Hiroshima wiped out almost 90 percent of the city, killing in excess of 100,000 people (and arguably tens of thousands more due to exposure to radiation and illness). Only three days later, on August 9, 1945 a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing an estimated 70,000 people. 70 years after the catastrophic destruction of both cities, controversy remains resolute around those who question the use of atomic weapons; and those who support its use as the ultimate deterrent to further war. The passing of 70 years has re-opened a frank examination of Allied culpability for the use of such a weapon against a largely civilian population; but also of Japanese atrocities and responsibility for a host of horrendous acts in China and indeed across the Pacific.
The bloody unending war in the Pacific bogged down Allied troops in a slow and painful crawl against Japanese forces. It was known early on that victory over Japan would come at tremendous cost for the United States and its allies in the Pacific theatre of war. Based on historical records, US forces were losing 5 soldiers to every 1 Japanese soldier. This fact alone necessitated a very different approach to defeating Japan. Based on strategic plans, Hiroshima remained the primary target for the first atomic bomb mission over Japan – as Tokyo had already sustained heavy bombing (with a loss of life that was very similar to that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined). Five target areas were chosen for possible bombing, but the location of a major military establishment in Hiroshima meant the city was of particular strategic value to the Allies. Historical evidence speaks to US efforts to protect Japan’s cultural gems such as the ancient city Kyoto and the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, but decisions were more likely a result of a need to target industrial and military locations rather than targets of cultural value to the Japanese. At 8:15 AM on the morning of August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb to ever be used in war exploded over the Aioi Bridge at the centre of Hiroshima with a blast that could be heard and seen many miles away – with a mushroom cloud souring over 60,000 feet into the sky. Approximately 12 square kilometres of the city was fully destroyed. Of the estimated total loss of life in Hiroshima of approximately 100-140,000, 20,000 were soldiers.
The devastation of Hiroshima failed to elicit a Japanese surrender. The city of Kokura was the intended target of the second atomic bomb, but heavy clouds over the city forced the B-29 bomber to fly to the backup target of Nagasaki. The atomic bomb would explode over the city’s industrial sector shortly after 11:00 AM where significant ordnance and steel factories were located. Given Nagasaki’s geographic position in a valley and among mountains, damage was limited to only 7 square kilometres. However, the bomb dropped over Nagasaki was more powerful than the bomb used at Hiroshima, so the level of damage at Nagasaki was more devastating to the city.
Here is an excerpt from the bombing crew led by then Commander F. L. Ashworth, U.S.N., who was in technical command of the bomb and was charged with the responsibility of insuring that the bomb was successfully dropped at the proper time and on the designated target. He notes: “The bomb burst with a blinding flash and a huge column of black smoke swirled up toward us. Out of this column of smoke there boiled a great swirling mushroom of gray smoke, luminous with red, flashing flame, that reached to 40,000 feet in less than 8 minutes. Below through the clouds we could see the pall of black smoke ringed with fire that covered what had been the industrial area of Nagasaki. By this time our fuel supply was dangerously low, so after one quick circle of Nagasaki, we headed direct for Okinawa for an emergency landing and refueling.”
Six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, at noon on August 15, 1945 Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender in a radio broadcast. The formal surrender agreement – and the iconic image aboard the USS Missouri – was signed on September 2, 1945 while anchored in Tokyo Bay. The war was officially over. Seventy years of retrospect has afforded the post-war generation a unique position to reflect on events of August 1945, and its role in shaping the world we see today. Japan would be rebuilt by the United States, becoming one of the richest and most successful global economies. The scars of that conflict however have not healed as well. Evidence of atrocities perpetrated by the Allies and Japan has somewhat tempered the rhetoric and emotional blame-game that time affords, but debate around the moral use of atomic weapons is an aspect of this historical event that refuses to diminish with time.
A review of Japanese and American textbooks (a key indicator of how history is being interpreted and taught to future generations) tells a very different story of the Second World War and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The narrative that is WWII is understandably a soul-searching moment for both the United States (including the Allies) and Japan. From an American perspective, the use of the atomic bombs over Japan saves countless lives that could have been lost defeating Japan – island by island, and city by city. From the Japanese perspective, and aside from the moral implications of weapons of mass destruction, it is generally believed that Japan would have surrender regardless of the bombing, making the use of atomic weapons superfluous. As a historian, I cannot influence the changing narrative of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I believe is an important organic part of cultures and nations striving to understand themselves. Controversy at the very least fuels questions. Questions can lead to answers. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will remain a vivid and potent lesson to current and future generations for the forseeable future. interpretation of history is not isolated to academics and university lecture halls. We all have skin in the game and the way we see ourselves in events, both past and present, very much influences and defines the kind of civilization we become.
I leave you with a quote from US President Harry Truman detailing his reasoning for ordering the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The following quote is not meant to justify or de-legitimize the bombing, but reveal some context and the mindset of the president during a defining moment of the twentieth century. The following excerpt is taken from a letter by Harry Truman in January of 1953 to Prof. James L. Cate.
“I ordered atomic bombs dropped on the two cities named on the way back from Potsdam, when we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. In your letter, you raise the fact that the directive to General Spaatz to prepare for delivering the bomb is dated July twenty-fifth. It was, of course, necessary to set the military wheels in motion, as these orders did, but the final decision was in my hands, and was not made until we were returning from Potsdam. Dropping the bombs ended the war, saved lives, and gave the free nations a chance to face the facts. When it looked as if Japan would quit, Russia hurried into the fray less than a week before the surrender, so as to be in at the settlement. No military contribution was made by the Russians toward victory over Japan. Prisoners were surrendered and Manchuria occupied by the Soviets, as was Korea, North of the 38th parallel.” – Harry Truman, January 12, 1953
For more information about Hiroshima and Nagasaki please feel free to consult some of the following sources:
The Council on Foreign Relation – Timeline of the Last Days of Imperial Japan
Harry S. Truman Library and Museum – The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb
U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey: The Effects of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, June 19, 1946. President’s Secretary’s File, Truman Papers.
Nuclear Files – Decision to Drop the Bomb
White House Press Release on Hiroshima, Statement by the President of the United States
Nagasaki Archive – Mapping Project
Hiroshima Archive – Mapping Project
Hiroshima National Peace Memorial
Nagasaki National Peace Memorial
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
BBC News – Hiroshima marks 70 years since atomic bomb
Note: Cover image is courtesy of a National Archives image (208-N-43888) and an image taken by Enola Gay Tail Gunner S/Sgt. George R. (Bob) Caron via Wikipedia Commons.