Seventy-five years ago, the Second World War came to a close and the world was thrust into the Atomic Age when the United States dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the decades since that epochal event, there has been much debate as to whether or not the bombing was justified.
In his memoirs, US President Harry S. Truman recorded his anxiousness to avoid invading Japan. Japanese soldiers, with their willingness to engage in suicide attacks and their low rate of surrender, would make the subjugation of Japan a lengthy and extremely costly enterprise — as many as half a million American lives were expected to be lost in such a venture. “I have never heard or read of this kind of fighting,” wrote one American Marine Major General after seeing the Japanese in action at Guadalcanal. “These people refuse to surrender.” One can obtain a measure of the Japanese soldier’s determination by reading the memoirs of Hiroo Onoda, an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army. In his book No Surrender – My Thirty-Year War, Onoda describes how, refusing to believe that the war was over, he hid in a jungle on an island in the Philippines for the next three decades.
Nor was he the only one to display such resilience — the firebombing of Tokyo, in which 100,000 people died in a single night, seemingly had no effect on a people inculcated with a twisted version of the medieval samurai code of bushido. Given all of this, it is not surprising that the US Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, believed it necessary to shock Japan into surrendering.
Much of the decision-making regarding these events is discussed in one of the most comprehensive accounts of the development of the bomb: Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. In this mammoth 900-page tome, Rhodes recounts in detail how the impetus to develop the weapon was led by scientists, a number of whom had fled German-occupied Europe and feared that the Nazis would create the bomb and use it to conquer Europe.
At the behest of some of his fellow physicists, Albert Einstein helped draft the famous letter to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to initiate an atomic bomb programme. The result was the Manhattan Project, which gathered together some of the finest scientific minds of the era. Among the luminaries who were at one time or another involved in the project were J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Arthur Compton, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Ernest O. Lawrence, John Von Neumann, Leo Szilard, and Eugene Wigner — most of whom would win the Nobel Prize during their careers. Indeed, a contemporary observer opined that it was the greatest assembly of intellects since ancient Athens.
The US government’s justification of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was that it was a necessary evil. But was it? And have terrible weapons ever stopped warfare, as some have optimistically predicted through history?
Of course, intellects are not immune from hubris or short-sightedness. As the project proceeded, some disturbing behaviour began to surface. Fermi observed that some of the eager scientists, going beyond the call of duty, actually wanted to make the bomb. Many of those working on the project did not think very hard about the consequences of their work. As Feynman remembered it: “You see what happened to me — what happened to the rest of us, is we started for a good reason, then you’re working very hard to accomplish something, and it’s pleasure, it’s excitement. And you just stop thinking, you know, you stop.”
Reactions to the first bomb test ranged from terror to jubilation. Some of the physicists laid bets on its explosive yield. When Hiroshima was destroyed, physicist Otto Frisch felt nausea when he saw how many of his friends were rushing to the telephone to book tables at a hotel in order to celebrate. Teller was similarly uneasy. “The physicists have known sin,” said Oppenheimer, “and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” Thus, the modern Prometheus seems to bear more of a resemblance to Faust than to the sages of ancient Greece.
As C. Wright Mills wrote in his perceptive book The Power Elite: “[T]he man of knowledge has not become a philosopher king; but he has often become a consultant, and moreover a consultant to a man who is neither king-like nor philosophical.”
But unlike Truman, who declared the bomb to be “the greatest thing in history” and claimed that he never lost a night’s sleep over his decision to use it, a number of scientists later expressed regret at what had occurred. “If I had known that the Germans would not succeed in constructing the atom bomb,” said Einstein, “I would never have lifted a finger.” Teller, who would later go on to develop the hydrogen bomb, came to believe that the atomic bomb should not have been dropped before first carrying out a demonstration. Vannevar Bush, one of the administrators of the Manhattan Project, opined that, while the bomb ended the war, it would have ended soon in any case, given that Japan had been brought to her knees.
However, the impact of the bomb did not figure largely in the war discussions of the Japanese generals, nor did it seem to bend their spirit. While Truman was warning of “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth”, one senior Japanese officer was offering his government a plan of victory, involving a special kamikaze attack of 20 million people.
Even after both bombs had been dropped, the Japanese air force was distributing fliers advocating a continuation of the war. It was the Emperor Hirohito who seems to have been affected by the bomb’s power, for it was he who decided on Japan’s capitulation, over the objections of some of his staff. Elements of the military even attempted a short-lived coup to stop the Emperor’s declaration of surrender.
On the morning of August 6, 1945, the first bomb exploded approximately 1,800 feet above Hiroshima. Almost all buildings within a radius of two miles were destroyed; flash burns affected people even further away. The reported death toll varies: 80,000 is a common figure. Similar statistics of death and ruin apply to the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. But later deaths — due to radiation poisoning and other side-effects — have put the combined total in the low hundreds of thousands.
The firebombing of Tokyo killed more people than the initial blasts of either of the atomic bombs, and was no less horrendous. But the attention given to the atomic bombings has been substantially greater. This may be because the atomic devastation occurred in an instant, and was caused by a single bomb carried by a single plane. Perhaps it was the extraordinarily high concentration of death: according to Rhodes, the firebombing of Tokyo had a 10 percent death rate, while the death rates for the atomic bombings exceeded 50 percent.
Reading the descriptions of the bombings and their aftermath by those who directly experienced it is to be immersed in scenes of an apocalyptic order. Michihiko Hachiya’s Hiroshima Diary tells of steaming bones, people with no faces, a man holding his own eye in the palm of his hand and shadows burned into stone and metal. Tatsuichiro Akizuki’s Nagasaki 1945 describes a baby with its intestines protruding from its sliced stomach, and the dead bodies of a woman and her foetus, still connected by an umbilical cord.
In these accounts by Japanese survivors, one can also glean something of the Japanese tenacity mentioned earlier. Hachiya relates how he and his associates were outraged at the news of surrender and wanted to continue fighting — this after having experienced first-hand what would happen if the war continued. Akizuki mentions his hatred of the Americans for the devastation they had caused. But it is important to note that, in both accounts, the authors spend more time criticising their own military leaders than blaming the Americans.
During the First World War, the use of poison gas had sometimes been justified with the argument that it would shorten the war and thus save lives. Alfred Nobel thought that his invention of dynamite would end warfare. Half a century later, a winner of the Nobel Prize — Ernest O. Lawrence — similarly thought that the atomic bomb might succeed in ending all wars. The naive idea that the bomb would lead to some sort or reign of peace on earth was suggested or hoped for by many different figures, from US Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Edward Teller, to Leo Szilard and Niels Bohr. Of course, nuclear weapons were never used again after 1945, but war hardly came to an end; the 20th century continued to be one of the bloodiest in history.
By the end of 1943 it was clear that the German atomic bomb programme had not advanced beyond the early stages. Yet the American programme continued, with the final successful test occurring just weeks before the bomb was dropped on Japan. Years of war had altered the Allied position from one of refusing to indiscriminately bomb cities, to deliberately targeting civilians. Szilard, who had helped to create the first nuclear chain reaction (and who thought it “a black day in the history of mankind”), tried to persuade the US government not to target a populated city. American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who disliked the idea of his country being the first to use such an “awful” weapon, also thought that the dropping of the bomb was unnecessary, since Japan was on the verge of surrender.
In his book Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer dedicates several pages to these shifts of policy and, with reason, finds fault with the moral position of the demand of the Allies that the Japanese surrender unconditionally. “In the summer of 1945, the victorious Americans owed the Japanese people an experiment in negotiation. To use the atomic bomb, to kill and terrorise civilians, without even attempting such an experiment, was a double crime.”
Or, as physicist Kenneth Bainbridge remarked to Oppenheimer after the first atomic bomb test: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”
The writer is an antiquarian
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 16th, 2020