Thursday, August 6, 2015


At 8:15 a.m. on this day 70 years ago, the United States military dropped the world's first atomic bomb.  

One hour later, a photographer in an airplane took this picture above the city.

On the ground below, more than 100,000 died, some immediately and others more slowly as their bodies absorbed radiation poisoning, a disease that had not been seen before.

The Decision to Use the Bomb

Germany, another enemy in World War II, initiated the effort to build an A-bomb.  When key scientists in the program fled the Nazi regime, the U.S. paired them with American researchers in the Manhattan Project, which was charged with finishing development of such a bomb.  

After Germany surrendered, ending the war in Europe in spring 1945, Japan continued to fight even as it became clear that it was headed for certain defeat.

In early 1945, Allied forces had retaken many Pacific islands and begun an inexorable move to take the war to Japan itself.

A key battle was for the Japanese island of Okinawa, 340 miles from Tokyo.  It took an 82-day siege by four Army divisions, two Marine divisions, naval support, air support and amphibious landings to accomplish the goal.  More than 14,000 Americans died in the effort, including two commanding generals and famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

The cost was far greater for Japan, which lost an estimated 77,000 fighters.  It was even worse for native Okinawans. The Japanese army impressed an estimated 30,000 civilians into battle and used others as human shields.  By the battle's end, a third or more of the island's 300,000 residents had died.  A uncounted number of fighters and civilians killed themselves in accord with the Japanese belief that surrender was dishonorable and after being told by the Japanese army that American troops would rape, pillage and murder if they prevailed in the battle.

During Okinawa and afterward, Allied forces firebombed Japanese cities and pressed for a Japanese surrender.  Japan said no.

During the Potsdam Conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in mid-July, President Harry Truman received word that an atomic bomb beta test in New Mexico had been successful.  

In late July, Truman again demanded unconditional surrender from Japan; failure, he said, would lead to "prompt and utter destruction."  The Japanese refused again.

Military strategists reasoned that if taking Okinawa had cost as many as 240,000 lives, conquering the four most populated Japanese islands -- guarded by 2 million soldiers and home to more than 90 million people -- would involve a humanitarian catastrophe on a hitherto unimaginable scale. 

The Hiroshima bomb was dropped on August 6.  Two days later, the U.S.S.R. declared war against Japan and attacked Japanese-held Manchuria on the Chinese mainland.
Urged again to surrender, Japan again said no. 

On August 9, the U.S. dropped another atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

On August 15, the Japanese emperor announced surrender in a radio broadcast, the first time his subjects, who regarded him as omnipotent if not immortal, had heard his voice.  The war was over.

Later Views

In the years since, focus has shifted to Japanese personal losses. Some stories from survivors:

     Keiko Ogura, eight years old, was out on the street in front of the house.
         "I was surrounded by a tremendous flash and blast at the same time," she 
     says. "I couldn't breathe. I was knocked to the ground and became unconscious. 
         "When I awoke I thought it was already night because I could not see anything, 
     there was no sound at all."

     By mid-morning, survivors of the blast began pouring out of the city looking for 
          help. Many were in a terrible state.
          "Most of the people who were fleeing tried to go to the hillside. . . . "Their 
     skin was peeling off and hanging. At first I saw some and I thought they were 
     holding a rag or something, but really it was skin peeling off. I noticed their 
     burned hair. There was a very bad smell."

      Eighteen-year-old Shizuko Abe was staggering out of the city, the whole 
      right side of her body burned, her skin hanging off. Now 88, she still bears 
      the terrible imprint of the bomb on her face and hands.

     "I was burned badly on my right side and my left hand was also burned from
     the bomb. Fire was coming closer… We were told to run to rivers when hit by air 
     raids so people jumped into the rivers.
          "So many bodies were floating in the river that I could not even see the water," 
     she says.
          Somehow, despite the agony, she staggered to a medical station.
          "They did not even have any dressing for the wounds. Many injured people 
     lay their bodies down under the roof, so I found a place there as well to lie down. 
          People around me were calling out, 'Mother it hurts, Father it hurts'.
          "When I stopped hearing that, I realized they had died right next to me."

The emotional scars remain.  Even today, it is reported, many Japanese families do not want their children to marry the grandchildren of people who survived radiation poisoning.

Long-term Effects

America's decision to use nuclear weapons in 1945 was based on the best strategic knowledge at the time.  But in the 70 years since, the world has recognized the costs of letting that evil genie out of its bottle.

A few short years later, the U.S.S.R. and China had built their own nuclear arsenals.  For decades it was assumed that the balance of weapons held each country in check, that to release such a bomb on an enemy would provoke a similar or greater retaliation.  The term was "mutual assured destruction."  It led to the formation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

The mutual assured destruction thesis assumed that nations had more to lose by using the A-bomb than could possibly be gained.  That was in the days when diplomats thought even malign leaders were rational enough not to imperil their countries.  

Today the nuclear stalemate seems more precarious.  Muslim Pakistan and mostly Hindu India are deeply suspicious of each other and have nuclear arms.  Deeply isolated Korea, led by an apparently irrational third-generation dictator, seems perfectly willing to sell its nuclear technology (developed in violation of promises not to build such) to bad actors large and small.  An Iranian regime that has vowed for 40 years to erase Israel from the map now promises it will cease nuclear research, at least for a while.  Death-cult terrorist organizations almost certainly are seeking nuclear technology to extend their destructive power.  

In Japan

Below is a picture of Hiroshima's Prefectural Promotion Building, one of few that survived the 1945 bombing.

In the years since the Enola Gay dropped its terrible payload, the building has been renamed the A-bomb Dome, a peace memorial.  This morning, in the 70th anniversary remembrance, flocks of doves, symbols of peace, were released, along with prayers that the world will never see another nuclear weapon released.  

We can only hope.

Note:  The BBC made a documentary in 2007 examining the HIroshima and Nagasaki bombings from many perspectives.  Different pieces in four- and five-minute segments can be found easily on Youtube.  Pretty interesting and worth a look.

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