This week marks the 70th anniversary of the US dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which effectively ended WWII. The US unleashed these weapons of extreme terror and mass destruction on Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki on August 9, 1944. These bombings are estimated to have killed in excess of 200,000 persons, including casualties as a result of the actual blasts and those who died due to side effects, most of them civilians and wounded countless more. In addition, the physical and emotional damage to these cities and its inhabitants was incalculable. Japan, which had stubbornly refused to surrender, finally capitulated, announcing its acceptance of the Allies’ terms of unconditional surrender on August 15. The official signing of the surrender was on September 2 on board the USS Missouri. Thus, the long nightmare of WWII was finally over.
The above narrative is, however, merely the short story. There was a considerable “back story” to the bombings. For example, how did the US happen to develop the atomic bomb? How were the targets selected? How were the raids carried out? Lastly, were they justifiable? Good questions. Read on for the answers.
The concept of nuclear fission was discovered by two German scientists in the late 1930s. Certain US scientists became aware of this discovery from German refugees and defectors. The frightening idea of a nuclear weapon was now possible, in theory. Although it remained a long way from actuality, scientists realized that whoever were to develop an effective weapon first would have a significant military advantage and would likely win the war. Accordingly, a group of US scientists, led by Albert Einstein, petitioned the US government to develop its own nuclear capacity. Eventually, they convinced FDR and others to do so, and the top secret Manhattan Project was launched.
The head of Project was Major General Leslie Groves. He appointed Robert Oppenheimer to run the lab in Los Alamos, NM. Oppenheimer had the full support of the vast resources of the US government, and by mid-1945 we had successfully tested two types of nuclear weapons – a gun-type fission weapon that utilized uranium- 235, and an implosion-type weapon that used plutonium.
The next step was the selection of the target(s). Groves established a Target Committee to ascertain likely targets based on certain criteria: (1) larger than 3 miles, (2) of strategic importance, (3) located in a large urban area, (4) the blast would create significant and effective damage, (5) an attack would inflict significant psychological damage, and (6) it was unlikely to have been bombed before August 1945. Based on the foregoing criteria the possible targets identified were Hiroshima, Kyoto, Kokura, Yokohama, and Niigata. Later, Nagasaki was substituted for Kyoto.
Before the final authorization to proceed, pursuant to the Quebec Agreement of 1943 between the US and Great Britain, which precluded the use of nuclear weapons against another country without mutual consent, the US had to obtain GB’s approval. Such approval was secured on July 4, 1945. Colonel Paul Tibbets was selected to organize and execute the raid(s). The plane was christened the Enola Gay (named for Tibbets’ mother). Hiroshima, which housed a significant stockpile of military personnel and supplies, was the headquarters of the Second General Army that commanded the defense of all of southern Japan, and was also a major communications center, was selected as the primary target, with Kokura and Nagasaki as the alternates. President signed off on the bombings, personally.
The Enola Gay took off from Tinian Island on August 6. She had a crew of 12. The run was successful. By design, the bomb, code-named “Little Boy,” exploded in the air above Hiroshima, so most of its force was directed downward rather than sideways. As we know, damage was extensive. Casualties in the initial blast exceeded 100,000; 69% of Hiroshima’s buildings were destroyed and fires caused considerable additional damage. Over 90% of its doctors were killed or injured and virtually all the hospitals sustained major damage, which hampered medical response severely.
Still, the Japanese did not surrender. It was only following the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9 that they capitulated. Some historians believe that Russia’s declaring war against Japan was a contributing factor. As stated above, Japan announced its surrender on August 15, and the documents were signed on September 2.
The US had planned several additional bomb runs had Japan not surrendered. The Japanese had steadfastly reiterated their refusal to surrender. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that they would vigorously resist an invasion and would fight to the proverbial “last man.” Allies’ casualty estimates ran as high as 1 million, with Japanese civilian casualties far exceeding that number. Furthermore, the war would have been prolonged for months, if not years. Still, the debate has continued to this day. Criticisms of the bombings have cited them as immoral, racist, militarily unnecessary and tantamount to state-sponsored terrorism.
In my opinion, President Truman, who truly believed in his famous motto, “the buck stops here,” made a tough decision, but the right one. It is important to evaluate the bombings within the context of the times. Japan had begun the war by unleashing a vicious, dastardly, merciless surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. Moreover, it had conducted a vicious, almost primitive war fraught with violations of the Geneva Convention, including rape, murder and torture. Anti-Japanese feelings were rampant throughout the country, even extending to US citizens of Japanese descent. Political correctness as we know it, did not exist. Many people felt “war is hell,” anything goes,” and “they deserve whatever they get.”
When deciding between ending the war the way we did or with a protracted, vicious, costly invasion, I believe the overwhelming majority of Americans, then and now, would opt for the former.