August 6, 2020
75 years ago today, on August 6, 1945, a United States B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, in the western part of the main Japanese island of Honshu. It instantly killed about 80,000 Japanese people, out of a total population of 280,000, and left many thousands more horribly burned. Estimates of the susequent death toll from radiation sickness vary widely, but it is quite possible that an even greater number died in the years that followed. Three days later, the same thing happened to the city of Nagasaki, on the west coast of the island of Kyushu, killing at least 35,000 people. The first bomb, nicknamed "Little Boy" because of its slim shape, used two big chunks of uranium-235 that were rammed together to create a critical mass necessary for chain-reaction fission to take place. The second bomb, nicknamed "Fat Man," used several smaller chunks of plutonium-239 that were imploded with a sophisticated timing device. No one involved with those missions knew for sure that the bombers would reach their targets, that the bombs would work properly after being dropped, or how much death and destruction they would cause.
Today's Washington Post had several articles related to the bombing of Hiroshima, including a dramatic narrative of the flight of the B-29, nicknamed "Enola Gay" after the mother of the pilot, Col. Paul Tibbetts. Most of his crew members (12 altogether) did not know the nature of their secret mission until he disclosed it to them as the aircraft was approaching Japan. How would they have reacted if they had been told before the plane took off? This was a new era of warfare, almost beyond comprehension in scope, and the guilt over what some people would consider mass murder might have been too much for some of the men to bear. The article linked above mentions that about 97,000 people had died after U.S. bombers rained incendiary hell over the capital city of Tokyo the previous March, and many thousands died in other cities as well. If the United States sought revenge for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, this was going way overboard.
This is an appropriate time to reexamine the decision to develop the atomic bomb, and once the technology was proven in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, to actually use it against Japan. As World War II was unfolding, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to urge President Roosevelt to explore the military uses of nuclear energy, and this is what led to the Manhattan Project. As a German Jewish refugee, Einstein was well aware that Hitler was determined to exploit technology to the utmost, and the later V-1 and V-2 missile programs showed just how adept the Germans were at doing so. Fear of a possible German atomic bomb is what spurred the Americans into their all-out effort to develop the bomb. (One lesson of this is that, if Germany had managed to resist the Allies for a few more months, we might have dropped the first atomic bomb on Berlin or some other German city.) Secret military research bases were built in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hanford, Washington, and Los Almamos, New Mexico. Robert Oppenheimer led the scientific research effort, and General Leslie Groves headed the military organization overseeing everything. It was dangerous work, and some of the workers died from radiation poisoning or other things.
But once Germany was defeated in May 1945, was there a compelling reason to use the nuclear bomb against Japan? Over 100,000 American servicemen had already died fighting Japan by August, and the prolonged, bloody conquest of the Japanese island of Okinawa was a taste of what was sure to come if we had to invade Japan itself. The plan was to invade Kyushu in November 1945, and the main island of Honshu (where Tokyo is located) in March 1946. Over a million American soldiers and Marines would be needed to subjugate the enemy, and a death toll of up to 100,000 or even more was entirely possible. Given their pattern of fanatic resistance, it is likely that over a million Japanese would have died while defending their homeland. So while one can make the conventional utilitarian calculation that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably saved many lives by forcing the Japanese to surrender, that is merely guesswork. No one really knows whether Emperor Hirohito would have demanded that his generals end the war.
Personally, I think the decision to use the atomic bomb was justified, but I wish that they had staged a "demonstration" blast a few miles offshore from Tokyo as a warning shot. That would have made the American threat (announced in propaganda leaflets dropped by U.S. bomber aircraft) that Japan's cities would soon be completely destroyed unless it surrendered a lot more convincing. Perhaps the decision not to do so can be explained the fact that only two such bombs were available at the time, and it would take months to build additional ones.
There is another uncomfortable moral angle to all this: did the use of the atomic bomb amount to "terrorism"? Quite possibly, but it was hardly the first time the Allies had done this. Britain had launched brutal mass night bombing attacks against Cologne and Hamburg in 1943, deliberately killing many thousands of German civilians in a misguided attempt to demoralize them. It didn't work. The fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945 and of Tokyo one month later were likewise cruel exercises of raw military power that yielded little if any strategic benefit. From that point of view, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just a small step up the ladder of escalation.
The shadow of potential global extermination from an all-out nuclear war hung over mankind from the 1950s until the end of the 1980s -- four decades of apocalyptic fear. I remember "duck and cover" air raid drills in elementary schools, which was actually rather absurd given that a small midwestern town was an unlikely target, but for someone in Brooklyn, New York or Seattle, Washington, it was not beyond the realm of possibilities. It was because of the radical incompatibility of the main Cold War adversaries that all-out nuclear was even conceivable. Pacifists claimed that "no one" would win a nuclear war, while strategic thinkers such as Herman Kahn pondered the various scenarios of escalation, trying assess the utility of various nuclear force levels in deterring aggression by the Soviets. It is important to point out that the United States did not rule out the first use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, despite its otherwise clear moral standing as a free democracy. Because of the superiority in conventional forces possessed by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies in Europe, West Germany and our other NATO allies were in jeopardy of being conquered in a matter of weeks. Nuclear weapons were the "ace in the hole" that might have been the only way to prevent a Soviet victory in World War III.
To get a better perspective on the military context behind the decision to drop the bomb, see my World War Two page, with newly-updated interactive maps.