Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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Two explosions.
It never changes
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A view to kill
I made one great mistake in my life.
Albert Einstein[1]
In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him.
Robert Oppenheimer[2]

The atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Hiroshima, quickly followed by the bombing of Nagasaki (on 6 and 9 August 1945, respectively) established that the Greek myth of "opening Pandora's box" had real-life consequences.[3]

With a combined death toll of at least 200,000,[4] the attacks marked the end of World War II with the total surrender of Imperial Japan, the culmination of the Manhattan Project, and doomed human civilization to over 40 70 years of threatening apocalypse for strategic gain.

But why?[edit]

The ethical justifications of nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain in considerable debate. Proponents, including former President Harry Truman (who never recanted his decision to drop the bombs), maintain that it was a necessary measure to prevent a costly invasion of Japan, with casualties expected to rise into the millions.[5] However, opponents consider it state terrorism (or genocidal) and question its military necessity as Soviet forces were already cornering Manchuria from the north and the war in Europe was over.

A study performed by physicist William Shockley for the staff of Secretary of War Henry Stimson estimated that the invasion of Japan would have cost 1.7-4 million American casualties, including 400,000-800,000 fatalities, and 5-10 million Japanese deaths. The estimates are twice the number of American deaths in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific theater.[6] The U.S. planned to drop another bomb a few days after the second, followed by a total of 12 additional atomic bombs.[7]

Some view the bombing of Japan rather than Germany as racist, but Germany surrendered in early May 1945, before the bomb was ready. Had the war in Europe continued, Berlin may have been nuked as well,[8] especially since the Nazis were trying to develop an atomic bomb of their own.[9] Furthermore, Japan itself had an atomic program during the war (even though it was nowhere near as developed as that of the U.S.).[10] Also, Japan itself expressed immense racism towards other Asian countries in the course of the war, even if that wouldn’t excuse Americans' racism.

The idea of the fanatical Japanese warrior-state that would fight to the bitter end, with images of school children and housewives using bamboo spears to defend the God-Emperor often being invoked, not unjustifiably. This was indeed an accurate reflection of reality, despite claims to the contrary. The Kyujo IncidentWikipedia comes to mind, when a group of super-fanatical Japanese soldiers tried to arrest the Emperor to prevent him from announcing Japan's surrender, not even a week after Nagasaki!

If the bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States would have had no choice but to launch Operation DownfallWikipedia, which would have caused even more casualties on both sides. For those who groaned against Japanese colonialism and imperialism, like the people of China and Korea, the incident was rather a moral decision that quickly ended the war and freed the people of Asia suffering from the fascist Empire.

American, Australian and other allied forces had seen that Japanese troops would often die in futile charges or commit ritual suicide rather than surrender. At the Battle of OkinawaWikipedia, Japanese soldiers used child soldiers, forced the civilian population into makeshift military units, and instructed them to kill themselves rather than surrender. Of the five Japanese commanders at Okinawa, only one was captured alive. A war memorial on Okinawa shows that almost 80,000 Japanese soldiers died there, along with almost 150,000 civilians.[11] Only 7,000 Japanese soldiers were taken as prisoners of war.

There is some indication[12] that the Japanese realized there was no way they could win (even if Emperor Shōwa himself did not), and were willing to negotiate a surrender before the U.S. dropped the two bombs. The problem with this was that they were going to make Downfall bloody enough for the Allies that such negotiations would have Soviet mediation. After the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, however, that was kind of no longer an option.

Robert Pape has suggested that if the U.S. was willing to budge just a little on some issues (not demanding total surrender from the Japanese, letting the Emperor go on pretending to be a living god), a settlement could have been reached before the bombings; however, his assessment is not universally supported.

Compounding the issue is the fact that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hardly the first times the Allies had dropped bombs on a city with the express intent of burning the place to the ground. The firebombing of Hamburg had left hardly a building standing, and the firebombing of Tokyo (earlier the same year as the atomic bomb attacks) carried a death toll of nearly 140,000, most of whom were civilians. The doctrine at work in those two earlier cases was strategic bombing, the notion that one could win a war of attrition by taking away the enemy's factories and population.

Regardless, the bombing did amount to an enormous strategic advantage for the United States. By detonating not one, but two nukes, the U.S. showed other would-be superpowers that Uncle Sam had the ability and the will to use such devastating weapons in conflicts.[13] On the other hand, there was no consensus among the generals whether committing the bombings were "necessary" either.[14] Some of the generals who believed it was unnecessary include none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, who had this to say about the bombings:

In 1945 Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.[15]

Here's what Bill Leahy, Truman's Chief of Staff, had to say about it:

Once it had been tested, President Truman faced the decision as to whether to use it. He did not like the idea, but he was persuaded that it would shorten the war against Japan and save American lives. It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons... My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.[16]

In fact, some have asked the inevitable question: if Nazi Germany were the ones to have done this, whether they would have been tried for crimes against humanity because of it, even using the same justifications as the ones the U.S. did? It's probable they would've been, and this goes to show that history is written by the victors indeed.[17]

The perspective of thinking about this event in modern Japan (post-war Japan)[edit]

Japan's right-wingers want the U.S. to apologize for this.

Japan's ultra-rightists claim that Japan was a victim of World War II. On the other hand, they also deny the killings, biopsies and brutal sex crimes they committed in other countries. In particular, far-right groups, including Nippon Kaigi, support the distorted view of history as a "victim of World War II" because Japan was damaged by the atomic bomb and promote it globally, to erase that they were allies with Nazis and fascists at the time and that they were serious war crimes perpetrators.[18]

Liberals and leftists in Japan argue that we should not stick to the issue and that the war crimes committed by the Japanese Empire should be considered first. In other words, Japan does not have the right to demand an apology from the U.S. in this matter.

Internally, Japanese liberals and leftists tend to oppose nuclear power, which is also the impact of the trauma of radiation damage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Possible positive impact[edit]

Could've sworn there used to be a city here.

Some contend that a positive side effect of the bombing was that it showed the world the true horrors of a nuclear attack, and that the Cold War didn't go nuclear because leaders on both sides saw that nuclear weapons did more than cause massive explosions.

Lingering horror[edit]

Japan's diagnoses of leukemia increased significantly in the wake of the bombings.[19] This link between radiation and cancer gave birth to modern radiophobia.

Incredibly, one manWikipedia managed to survive both explosions. He lived to the age of 93 before dying of (what else?) cancer, which affected multiple parts of his body.

There are still roughly 250,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but despite their noticeably higher rates of cancer, the Japanese government only officially recognizes less than one percent as having A-bomb Disease. Many professionals allege that the real difficulty in meeting the legal criteria is that the Japanese government doesn't want to pay everyone the monthly 140,000 yen special medical allowance required for any citizen diagnosed with A-bomb disease.[20]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Letters of Note: Einstein to FDR
  2. Bird, K., Sherwin, M.J. and Rigden, J.S., 2005. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Physics Today, 58(11), p. 305. Quote is originally from the Bhagavad Gita
  3. "...and the genie can't be stuffed back in the bottle." - Lawrence Johnston, "Little Man" developer
  4. The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Total Casualties, Yale
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Operation Downfall. (Double the landing force of Normandy and 42 aircraft carriers. Yes, you heard that correctly.)
  6. "The Nuking of Japan was a Tactical and Moral Imparative", Forbes
  7. TheDailyBeast
  8. Studs Terkel 2002 interview with Enola Gay pilot
  9. See the Wikipedia article on German nuclear weapon project.
  10. Hoyt, Edwin P. (2001). Japan's War: The Great Pacific Conflict. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  11. See the Wikipedia article on Cornerstone of Peace.
  12. Frank, Richard B. (2005-08-08). "Why Truman Dropped the Bomb." The Weekly Standard 010 (44)
  13. Alperovitz, Gar (1965). Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam. New York: Simon and Schuster
  14. Who disagreed with the atomic bombing?, University of Colorado
  15. The White House Years: Mandate for Change (1963), p. 312-313
  16. William D. Leahy, I Was There (1949), p. 441
  17. "Truman Did Not Understand" - an interview with Leo SzilardWikipedia, Truman's nuclear advisor
  18. The Economist of Britain on 5 January 2013. Cited in: William L. Brooks (2013), Will history again trip up Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? The Asahi Shimbun, 7 May 2013
  19. Leukaemia in Nagasaki atomic bomb survivors from 1945 through 1959, WHO