Last Thursday was the 75th anniversary of the first time a nuclear bomb was used against people.
… a town of dreams … a place of fun …. An extremely beautiful city …. A very graceful place ….it encompassed the best of traditional culture .. —Survivors views of Hiroshima before 6 August 1945
To bomb or not to bomb
By Roger Childs
The Americans developed the atomic bomb at their secret base of Los Alamos in Nevada. They wanted to construct and detonate the weapon before the Russians developed their own nuclear technology. Some 200,000 people had worked on it at a cost of over $US 2 billion.
After a successful test on 16 July 1945, American military leaders convinced President Truman to authorize its use to end the war against Japan.
A letter by 70 scientists to Truman said it should not be used against people because of the likely horrific results, but the military intercepted the letter and the president never saw it.
The fateful day: 6 August 1945
I was 13 years old and a member of the student mobilization program. We were at the army headquarters 1.8 km from ground zero. At 8.15 am as Major Yanai was giving us a pep talk at the assembly, suddenly I saw in the window a blinding bluish-white flash and I still remember to this day the sensation of floating in the air.
As I regained consciousness in the silence and darkness, I found myself pinned by a collapsed building. I could not move and I knew I faced death … Then suddenly. I felt someone’s hand touching my left shoulder and heard a man saying “Don’t give up! Keep moving! Keep pushing! I am trying to free you. See the light coming through that opening? Crawl towards it and get out as quickly as possible.” As I crawled out the ruins were on fire. Most of my classmates in that room were burned alive …
I saw streams of ghostly figures slowly shuffling from the center of the city to the nearby hills. They did not look like human beings; their hair stood straight up and they were naked and tattered, bleeding, burned, blackened and swollen. Parts of their bodies were missing, flesh and skin hanging from their bones; some with eyeballs hanging in their hands and some with their stomachs burst open, their intestines hanging out …
Setsuko Thurlow “A Long Journey”
For those who had survived the initial blast, tens of thousands had horrific injuries which would eventually prove fatal. By the end of 1945 the overall death toll was more than 140,000 and since then a further 120,000 have died.
More devastation and huge problems on the ground
The US followed up with the dropping of a plutonium bomb on the city of Nagasaki three days later causing 40,000+ deaths. The Japanese subsequently surrendered and the Americans congratulated themselves on bringing the war in Asia and the Pacific to an end. The men who had flown the bombers became heroes.
Meanwhile in and around the two devastated cities the survivors faced huge problems – starvation, homelessness, no medical care and no government services. Furthermore there was rapidly spreading social discrimination against the “contaminated ones”. In the absence of any help from outside, local gangs and the Japanese Yakusa mafia took over large areas of the cities.
Ultimately the American Occupation Forces under General McArthur took control of Japan and the new authorities were keen to control what the rest of the world should be told about the dropping of the nuclear bombs.
American priorities – radiation research and censorship
An American Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission was established with the sole purpose of studying the effects of radiation on human beings, and not to provide treatment to the injured. (Setsuko Thurlow) Having come through the horrific bombing the survivors were now treated like guinea pigs in medical research. Furthermore they could not tell their stories to the world.
The Occupational Forces also censored media coverage of survivors’ suffering and confiscated their diaries, literary writings, films. photographs, medical records etc … more than 32,000 items in all. (Setsuko Thurlow)
However, through the work of investigative journalists the reality did eventually emerge, especially after Japan regained full sovereignty over the nation in 1952. The United States countered the adverse publicity by claiming that the dropping of the two nuclear bombs was “a cruel necessity” to end the war.
The truth emerges
From 1952 a flood of political, scientific, medical and historical material became available to researchers and writers, and the myth of the atomic bombs being used primarily for military reasons was progressively dispelled. The Americans had argued that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary to avoid a huge number of casualties, on both sides, from a costly invasion of Japan.
It soon became clear from the research that the main motives for the nuclear attack on the two cities were strategic and geopolitical.
- The Americans wanted to become the dominant major power in East Asia after the war.
- They wanted to keep ahead of the Soviet Union in nuclear technology and had not carried out earlier conventional bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki so they could test their weapons on previously undamaged centres.
- The planned invasion of Japan had not been scheduled until November 1 1945.
- The Americans knew in August that the Japanese military government was close to collapse.
- The Japanese government, such as it was, had already made some peace overtures.
There was the issue of the status of the divine emperor in the event of an unconditional surrender. However, this could have been worked through.
Of course the Americans did hope that the dropping of the nuclear bombs would bring an early end to the war, but first and foremost they were experimenting with new weapons and keen to keep their military advantage with a new technology which would soon spread.
The judgement of history
75 years on the United States stands condemned before the bar of history. The hundreds of thousands who were killed or subsequently died from the two bomb drops were victims in one of the world’s greatest atrocities. This was no “cruel necessity”, but was a barbaric military experiment with a clear geopolitical motive.
Richard Falk, Princeton University Emeritus Professor of International Law sums it up.
The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were viewed as contributions to the ending of a popular and just war. Therefore they have never been appraised … as atrocities. Somehow we have got to create that awareness, so that Hiroshima is understood to have been on the same level of depravity, and in many ways far more dangerous to us as species and as a civilization that was even Auschwitz.
(Thanks to Setsuko Thurlow for the extracts from “A Long Journey” first published in 2015.)
Today is the 75th anniversary of the second atomic bomb, dropped on Nagasaki.