60 years ago today: Hiroshima

Sixty years ago today, our world changed forever. Yes, I know it's a cliche, but in this case I don't care. This is one of those rare topics when the cliche is completely true and even appropriate, because on August 6, 1945 we entered the nuclear age. True, it could be argued that the more appropriate date for our entrance into the nuclear age was July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was detonated in the sands of New Mexico, rather than the bombing of Hiroshima, which resulted in 60,000 dead, but today marks the anniversary of the world's learning about the destructive power that had first been unleashed three weeks before. This information was to shape the history of the succeeding six decades in a way that perhaps no other information has, and fear of the bomb continues to shape our history and policies even today, well over a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Indeed, even now, the "war on terror" is based in large part on the not unreasonable fear that someday, somewhere, terrorists will get their hands on a nuclear weapon and detonate it in a major city.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been controversial in the decades since they occurred, but it is surprising to note how uncontroversial the decision to drop the bomb was at the time. The U.S. had been engaged in a brutal, two-front war for nearly four years. In the development of the bomb from its very beginnings, there was no doubt that it would be used as soon as possible. The military leadership was contemplating a land invasion of Japan in the fall of 1945, with the planning and approval of Operation Downfall earlier in the summer. The Japanese had their own defense plan, designed to go down in a blaze of glory. A horrific invasion would have been necessary, followed by several months of fighting, with the possibility of a guerilla war after that. Casualty estimates ranged from 100,000 to 500,000 American soldier and as many as millions of Japanese. This was the thinking that informed the decision. Indeed, as David M. Kennedy noted in a recent Time op-ed article:
Stimson appointed the so-called Interim Committee on May 1, 1945, to give advice on the Bomb's use against Japan. Scholars have probed the record of the committee's month-long existence in vain for evidence of the kind of deliberative decision-making process that the resort to nuclear weaponry might seem to have warranted. Stimson asked the committee primarily for recommendations about how, not whether, to use the new weapon. Members spent only about 10 minutes of a lunch break discussing a possible demonstration of the Bomb's effect in an unpopulated area. No other alternatives were brought forward. Without qualifications, the committee recommended "that the bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible."

The discomforting truth is that Allied leaders strode unhesitantly into the atomic age. "I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used," Truman later wrote. "[N]or did I ever hear the slightest suggestion that we should do otherwise," Winston Churchill added. Nothing in the record contradicts them. Dropping the Bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, was among history's most notorious foregone conclusions.
One sad truth that made the use of such horrific weapons a foregone conclusion is that the atomic bombings appeared at the time to be merly an extension, a ratcheting up if you will, of the Allied bomber war and the culmination of a trend in bombing that had begun in World War I, continued in a variety of conflicts between the wars, and then was taken up with a vengeance by Germany, Japan, and the Allies. I've written about this before, specifically the bombing of Dresden and the firebombing of Tokyo. The bombing campaigns against Germany, conceived initially as the Allies' only means of "hitting back" at Germany in the dark days of 1942-1943 as well as a means of destroying their industrial and military production, continued as a relatively ineffective program in 1943 and early 1944. (I say "relatively ineffective," because through 1943 casualty rates among American bomber crews were very high, verging on unsustainable, in return for relatively little impact on Germany's industrial capacity.) Initially, U.S. believed in a doctrine of daylight raids using "precision bombing" to target closely German industrial and military targets, but the technology of the time could not produce the required accuracy. "Precision bombing" was in practice little different from area bombing. As Germany's air defenses collapsed and the Allies developed fighters that could accompany the bombers all the way to their targets and back, the number and destructiveness of the raids increased exponentially, culiminating in the Dresden bombing. When the war in the Pacific lead to the American capture of islands within heavy bombing range of the Japanese homeland late in the war, it only seemed logical to extend the bombing campaign to Japanese cities, using even larger bombers and more destructive raids. It is important to note when considering Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the combined death toll of these two atomic bombings was roughly equal to the death toll of the firebombing of Tokyo using conventional incendiary bombs five months earlier, and that the bombing campaign on the Japanese homeland in essence leveled more than 60 Japanese cities and produced hundreds of thousands of deaths.

All of this leads to the uncomfortable question of whether the use of atomic bombs against Japan was morally justifiable. Not surprisingly, there are strong opinions on both sides and always have been. Surprisingly (or maybe just evidence that perhaps I don't know as much about the history of this issue as I thought I did), I discovered that, in the early years after the war, the group that was most critical of Truman's decision to drop the bombs was conservative, for example, Herbert Hoover, who wrote to a friend: ""[t]he use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul." Weeks after Japan's surrender, an article in the conservative magazine Human Events called the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki morally "more shameful" than Pearl Harbor, and even through the 1950's, noted conservatives like William F. Buckley and George S. Schuyler lambasted the decision. Today, as has been noted, "Times change." It is now conservative talk radio hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity; conservative writers and bloggers (for example, Victor David Hanson); and conservative "satirists" such as Scott Ott, who are the most vocal defenders of the decision to use the atomic bomb (although in the more libertarian strain of conservatism, the old criticisms still live, joined by liberals, some of whom have an unfortunate tendency to conflate ridiculously the bombing of Hiroshima with the war in Iraq when criticizing U.S. policy).

On the other side still remains the argument that not bombing would have lead to a continuation of the war and even more Japanese casualties. To American pilots and support crews charged with the atomic bombing and troops facing the prospect of many months, if not years, of more war and being ordered into what would have been the largest and bloodiest invasion in history, the bombings were widely cheered because of the perception that they shortened the war and made an invasion of Japan no longer necessary. There is little doubt of that, given the fanaticism of the military leaders holding sway in Japan in the summer of 1945, who were determined to fight to the death and kill as many American troops as possible while going down in a blaze of glory, even if it meant the deaths of millions of Japanese civilians, who were being groomed to fight a guerrilla war. Japanese leaders had proven this in part by not having surrendered already and then proved it again by not surrendering after the first atomic bombing, believing the Hiroshima was a "one-off stunt" that could not be replicated any time soon. Given that background, there is little doubt that the bombings probably shortened the war substantially, and that is undoubtedly a good thing. Unfortunately, victory came at a considerable moral cost, as it made the U.S. the only nation in the world ever to have used nuclear weapons in combat. On the other hand, there is little doubt that almost any government in the midst of total war would choose to use such a weapon as soon as possible after it is developed. The mindset and logic of total war and the Allied policy of demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan demanded nothing less. That's one reason why, sixty years later, such debates about the morality of the bombings are almost beside the point. Although other choices could have been made, it would have been a rare leader indeed with the will to choose not to use the bomb as soon as it became available. Just consider the situation: You are the leader of a nation engaged in a massive war, and your military informs you that they have just devloped a devastating new weapon that could end the war in one stroke. How, as a leader, do you justify not using it?

Nonethless, such debates do serve a purpose today. It is not so much the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki themselves that should be troubling to the U.S., a nation that prides itself on having a higher moral purpose than other nations. These bombings were in reality only the culmination of a larger policy devised and executed over the preceding three years of the war, that of bombing enemy cities with little concern for the civilian casualties that would result. Like Jonathan Rauch (whom I have quoted before), I like to think that America's present policies with regards to war, in which the military goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties even when it puts our own troops at more risk to do so, is in some part a consequence of the horror and an attempt to make up for past excesses:
It is true that the United States in 1945, in marked and important contrast with, say, al Qaeda in 2001, viewed the targeting of civilians as a last rather than a first resort; and it is true that throughout history even the virtuous have wound up fighting dirty if fighting clean failed; and it is true that sometimes the good must do terrible things to destroy a great evil. But it is also true that if the good find themselves driven to barbarism, they own up afterward and search their souls.

America is better at reforming than at repenting, which is probably just as well. Perhaps America's quiet way of paying its debt to the dead of Tokyo has been to take unprecedented pains, far beyond anything done by any other great power, to design and deploy weapons and tactics that spare civilian lives. A lot of innocent people in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan are alive today as a result. Still, the erasure of the Tokyo firebombing from Americans' collective memory is not a noble thing.
These sorts of policies with regard to avoiding civilian casualties, developed in the decades since World War II, are often derided by the "bomb 'em all" crowd who like to call in to conservative talk radio shows to advocate massive retaliation after every insurgent attack or who, like Tom Tancredo and his supporters, consider the bombing of holy sites to be an appropriate response to a terrorist attack on the U.S. However, I consider such policies to be noble and like to think that their evolution and implementation might, just might, mean that we have learned a lesson from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the bombing campaign that led up to them.

Select links on the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

Hiroshima: What People Think Now
Why U.S. Leaders Never Questioned the Idea of Dropping the Bomb
Will We Still Remember Hiroshima After the Last Victims Die?
What Recent Scholarship Concludes About Hiroshima
Why Did the Japanese Delay Surrendering?
The Birth of "Mere Terror"
Why It's Time for Us to Confront Hiroshima
Reflections of Nagasaki remain worlds apart
Crossing the Moral Threshold
Harry Truman on Trial
Hiroshima-Nagasaki was Democide
Suppressed film of 1945 nuclear attacks to air
Hiroshima gallery


  1. I've heard that the reason Japan surrendered was fear of Soviet engagement, not the atomic bombings. Any opinion on that?

    Also, do you think it is morally right for a country that has been attacked to value the lives of its citizens more than the lives of the citizens of the enemy? Would it be all right to kill 100,000 extra Japanese civilians if that would mean saving 25,000 US servicemen?

  2. For fossils like myself who still read "books", I would like to recommend "Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays" by Paul Fussell. Fussell served in the American Army late in WWII, and became an historian after the war. If Japan had not surrendered when it did, he would have been sent as part of the invasion force.

  3. The Japanese only surrendered after the second bomb was used,therefore a demonstration would have been futile.One of my patients who was on the military planning group for the invasion of Japan,remembers estimates of 1 million US causualties, and many more Japanese. If you study the civilian mass suicides during the Okinawa invasion,you can see the potential for millions of deaths.
    Writing as a liberal,not as a conservative,I have never understood the differentiation of death by an A bomb vs fire bomb,or bullet.
    Where is the anquish about the rape of Nanking,where in order to save ammunition,the Japanese butchered over 300,000 chinese.They killed the children in front of the parents,then raped and disemboweled the women,then decapited the men. Were they any less dead,any less [ or probably more] horrified. The Japanese seem to like to believe the are a peaceful people,but there have been few rivals to there level of brutality.
    As my father was on a ship moving toward Japan when they surrendered ,and as Iwas born in 1947 after he arrived home alive,I don't question the use of weapons to end a war not of our choosing.

    William Barrett MD

  4. Dr. Barrett: You're attacking a bit of a straw man there, as I never even advocated using a "demonstration," mainly because I agree that it would have been pointless. If the U.S. were going to use the bomb at all, it would have to be against a military target. My point was that the use of the atomic bomb was probably almost inevitable once the U.S. devised it and on a strictly military basis, it was probably the right decision. However, it came at a high cost, as far as both the Japanese lives and the moral standing of the U.S. On the other hand, it was merely the fruition of the strategic bombing campaign devised and implemented three years earlier. It was only unique in that a city could be destroyed with one bomb, rather than requiring thousands of bombs, as were required for the destruction of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo.

    Most historians these days believe that the estimates of 1 million U.S. casualties were probably high, but probably not orders of magnitude too high. It's certain there would have been hundreds of thousands of U.S. casualties with a land invasion, as some of the links I posted show, and it's almost certain that the atomic bombings greatly shortened the war, given the fanaticism of the military leaders of Japan.

    As for the Rape of Nanking, if you read my other articles on the Holocaust, you will know what my thoughts are on that atrocity. The only reason I haven't written on it before is that I simply don't know nearly as much about it as I do about the Holocaust and the Allied strategic bombing campaign. Go with what you know. That's a cardinal rule for any blogger.

    Finally, as for not questioning the use of a weapon to end a war not of our own choosing, we'll have to disagree there. On the other hand, I can completely understand why those who would have been in the line of fire in the event of an invasion considered the atomic bombings a great good. They ended the war. I had an uncle, unfortunately now deceased, who was a corpsman in the Marines on Okinawa late in the war and would likely have been part of the invasion force, had an invasion occurred.

    Jorj: I doubt it was fear of Soviet agression that caused the Japanese to surrender. True, the Japanese did hold out hope for an alliance with the Soviet Union almost until the very end, but the Soviets didn't declare war on Japan until August 8 (I believe), when the atomic bombing made it clear that Japan could not win.

  5. What the people who complain about Hiroshima and Nagasaki have forgotten, or more likely have never bothered to find out is that even if those weapons had not been used, it was intended to use six atomic weapons as part of the pre-landing bombardment for Operation Olympic.

    While less civilians would have died the long term radiation casualties on both sides would have been just as horrendous

  6. What the people who complain about Hiroshima and Nagasaki have forgotten, or more likely have never bothered to find out is that even if those weapons had not been used, it was intended to use six atomic weapons as part of the pre-landing bombardment for Operation Olympic (and here I am not sure) for Operation Coronet as well.

    While less civilians might have died the long term radiation casualties on both sides would have been just as horrendous

  7. Wikipedia has information on the Japanese war atrocities in Nanking under "Nanking Massacre".

  8. Annymous mentions the info on Nanking in Wikipedia. Would it surprise anyone to find out -- though one might not have thought about it -- that there are Nanking Revisionists who prove that it's all a pack of lies? They can probably be found in the Discussion pages of the Nanking massacre article, though I haven't hung out there recently.

    But what I meant to mention here was that this was an extraordinarily good essay. One cringes on seeing August 6 articles, not because of the horribleness of the subject, but because of the horribleness of the debate, in which everyone is in possession of the absolute truth. This posting was highly uncringeworthy; its central point, the real undebatability of using the bomb at the time, has always been overlooked.

    Of course, some people did try to debate the point, scientists like Leo Szilard, but who ever listened to him? [Joke. The Roosevelt administration paid attention to the Einstein letter, of which Szilard was probably the main drafter.] Not listening to scientists was an important focus of policy then. So don't feel uniquely bereft when you look at the present.

    By the way, though being a victim of Nanking was not better than being a victim of Hiroshima, there is still much that's special about the Bomb. The first special thing is what I suddenly noticed watching The Day after Trinity the first time, when they described the July 16 test. What bomb? That's no freakin bomb, it's something else. Hardly like what you know as a bomb at all. (See Marx on the quantitative becoming the qualitative.) Everyone was calling it a bomb, and thinking of it as a bomb, which made it all the more unlikely that anyone would see how it was radicallly new.

  9. "there are Nanking Revisionists who prove that it's all a pack of lies?"

    I respectfully disagree with your statement, Porlock Junior. They may claim that it is all a pack of lies, but they have no proof. Or, if you prefer, they claim to have proof that it is all a pack of lies. The Rape of Nanking was not one incident, it was a series of atrocities involving hundreds of thousands of people.

  10. Porlock: Actually, I forgot to mention one other who said he expressed grave misgivings about using the bomb to the Secretary of War: Dwight Eisenhower himself. So, yes, the decision was relatively uncontroversial, but there were some prominent leaders who argued against it. Eisenhower, of course, being a good military man, supported the decision once it was made. Also, many of these statements by some leaders saying that they opposed the bomb were made after the war in interviews, and it's hard not to wonder whether they overplayed the misgivings the individuals making them had.

    Anonymous, I really think Porlock misspoke when he said "proved" and didn't mean to say that (or maybe he meant to put the word "proved" in quotation marks as sarcasm). Clearly there are indeed Nanking revisionists who, just as with Holocaust revisionists, claim the Japanese atrocities never happened, were nowhere near as bad as claimed, or were a justified response response to "resistance" or "partisans." Worse, they seem to be gaining some influence in Japan, as evidenced by a recent textbook that I read about not to long ago that whitewashed the massacre.

  11. It suddenly occurred to me this morning that I had made a serious error in my previous post, winding up with essentially no sarcasm indicators in my comments on the Nanking atrocities and the revisionists. Had I merely inserted the word Holocaust, it would have been clear enough. I apologize for this; it's not trivial, because it causes unnecessary shock and annoyance, even perhaps for people who correctly guess (thank you, Orac) what the intent was. Must watch this; better to err on the side of Victorian heavy-handedness than to put up annoying distractions from the point. There is no sarcasm in this posting.

    Back to the point, another non-scientist with really serious misgivings: Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, no less. Not only did he disapprove of mass terror bombing and try to keep it under control (but no one could give orders to Curtis LeMay), he had a pretty clear awareness of what I just said no one was aware of. "We don't think it mere new weapon" is one line from his notes. In Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb, pp. 642 ff. there is a description of the May 31 meeting of the Interim Committee that is required reading for any understanding of what went on. Not to mention the other 880 pages of the book.

  12. Like so many arguments about historical events, there are opinions and there are fashions of the times.

    We want to judge previous generations and other cultures based on our current knowledge of history and morality, and both of these are variable, both are flawed.

    I suppose the justification for this is so that we as individuals or collectively can feel morally superior to previous generations, but as much as anything it's largely to distract ourselves and others from the morally important decisions we are making now and will make in the future.

  13. So let me get this straight. Do you think it would be "using flawed morality or historical understanding" to judge the Nazis for the Holocaust or the Japanese for the Rape of Nanking? Is it "making us feel morally superior" to condemn such atrocities from the past? If your answer is no, then why is it not acceptable to make such judgments on other major historical events, like the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

  14. BTW, here's an article about Japanese revisionism about its war in China:


  15. Great summary of the subject. Thanks for the link. I think that the discussion of morality should center on the issue of "unconditional surrender" and on the precedent of the fire bombings prior to 8/6, and whether either was justified. Both of these issues made the use of the bombs a fait accompli. But ultimately, there is just no way you cannot pin the large majority of the blame on the Japanese.

    Porlock, Rhodes'Making of the A Bomb is fantastic, as is Dark Sun, his H bomb book. 1600 or so of the best written history you will find.

    One takeaway from the two books, and this discussion, is the relatively primitive nature of the actual bombs dropped on H and N, compared to later A bombs, and particularly Hydrogen bombs.

    Most people today probably associate the cold war concerns about a nuclear war with the bombs dropped at H and N, and are justifiably horrified at the pictures of the sites.

    But the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were equivalent 13000 and 22000 tons (kilotons) of TNT. They could actually be considered "tactical" fission weapons today. "Mike", the first Hydrogen/fusion bomb dropped, was a 10.4 megaton bomb, or equal to 10.4 million tons of TNT. Where the Hiroshima weapon would have taken out a few city blocks of Manhattan, Mike would have destroyed all five boroughs.

    The upper limit of the H bomb's power was much much higher, with 100+ megaton bombs possible. (The soviets apparently had a 54MT bomb). Prior to the first H bomb test, there was concern from serious scientists on the job that a thermonuclear reaction from the test could actually cause an uncontrolled chain reaction in the atmosphere.

    A long way from Hiroshima.

  16. Whether we like it or not, a nuclear weapon is just a bigger, better spear.

  17. Interestingly, my two Purple Hearts from Vietnam were minted in 1945. My neighbors kid was pinned a few months ago with another one minted in 1945.

    The vernacular surrounding the Purple Heart is curiuous. Please either say that it is awarded or the recipient won it. I do not consider it to be an "award", thus is could not be "awarded" and I do not believe that one "wins" it, as it certainly can be the booby prize.

    As for the use of additional bombs had the Japanese not surrendered...we were lucky....I recall reading, source not recalled, that we were out of fissionable material, and did not have another supply for at least a year or more afterwards.

  18. 500,000 purple hearts were produced in anticipation of Operation Olympic. They are still being used today.

  19. Im in 9th grade and we're doing a 3 day debate on whether it should of happened or not... and i have like 3 good points for it but also 2 against. I dont understand why the japanese wouldnt just give it up after the first bomb.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts