WASHINGTON D.C. – Seventy-five years ago this week, The United States detonated two nuclear bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively killing between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians, making the US the only country in the world to detonate a nuclear weapon against an enemy.
On August 6, 1945, an American aircraft dropped a 9,700-pound uranium bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” over Hiroshima, Japan killing about 70,000 people instantly. Three days later, on Aug. 9, a second atomic bomb, named “Fat Man,” was unleashed over Nagasaki killing 40,000 on spot. The toll reached an estimated 200,000 by 1950 as those who survived the blast succumbed to fatal burns, radiation sickness and various cancers. On Aug. 14, 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally, bringing an end to World War II and ushering in the era of weapons of mass destruction.
It takes around 10 seconds for the fireball from a nuclear explosion to reach its maximum size, but the effects span across generations. Five to six years after the bombings, the incidence of leukaemia increased noticeably among survivors. After about a decade, survivors began suffering from thyroid, breast, lung and other cancers at higher than normal rates. Pregnant women exposed to the bombings experienced higher rates of miscarriage and deaths among their infants; their children were more likely to have intellectual disabilities, impaired growth and an increased risk of developing cancer. And for all survivors, cancers related to radiation exposure still continue to increase throughout their lifespan, even to this day, seven decades later.
In Hiroshima 90 per cent of physicians and nurses were killed or injured; 42 of 45 hospitals were rendered non-functional; and 70 per cent of victims had combined injuries including, in most cases, severe burns. Most victims died without any care to ease their suffering while some of those who entered the cities after the bombings to provide assistance also died from the radiation.
Planning the invasion
In the final year of World War II, the Allies prepared for a very costly invasion of the Japanese mainland. This undertaking was preceded by a firebombing campaign which devastated 67 Japanese cities. With Germany surrendering on May 8, 1945, the Allies turned all their wrath to Japan. They called for the unconditional surrender of Japan by July 26, 1945, with the alternative being “prompt and utter destruction” but Japan ignored the ultimatum and fought fiercely, ensuring that the Allied victory would come at an enormous cost. Indeed, by 1945, America’s reserves of manpower were running out and there was consideration of drafting women. At the same time, the public was becoming war-weary, and demanding that long-serving servicemen be sent home.
In April 1945, the decision to use atomic bombs on Japan was finalized and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nominated as potential targets. Hiroshima was described as an important army depot and a good radar target that could be extensively damaged. There were also adjacent hills which were likely to produce a focusing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage.
For several months, the U.S. had warned civilians of potential air raids by dropping more than 63 million leaflets across Japan. The Japanese regarded the leaflet messages as truthful, with many of them choosing to leave major cities. The leaflets caused such concern that the government ordered the arrest of anyone caught in possession of a leaflet.
Hiroshima was the primary target of the first atomic bombing mission on August 6, with Kokura and Nagasaki as alternative targets. During the night of August 5–6, Japanese early warning radar detected the approach of numerous American aircraft headed for the southern part of Japan and an alert was given and radio broadcasting stopped in many cities, among them Hiroshima. People on the ground reported a brilliant flash of light—followed by a loud booming sound.] Some 70,000–80,000 people, around 30 percent of the population of Hiroshima at the time, were killed by the blast and resultant firestorm, and another 70,000 were injured. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 Japanese soldiers and over 90 percent of the doctors and 93 percent of the nurses in Hiroshima were killed or injured—most had been in the downtown area which received the greatest damage.
After the Hiroshima bombing, Truman issued a statement announcing the use of the new weapon. He stated, “What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history. It was done under high pressure and without failure”. Truman then warned Japan: “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. On August 7, a day after Hiroshima was destroyed, Japanese atomic physicists arrived in the city, examined the damage and went back to Tokyo and told the cabinet that Hiroshima was indeed destroyed by a nuclear weapon.
Then as Japan was still reeling from the attack on Hiroshima, the city of Nagasaki was also bombed on August 9. The bombing of Nagasaki had been scheduled for August 11 but was moved earlier by two days to avoid a five-day period of bad weather forecast to begin on August 10. At about 07:50 Japanese time the Fat Man weapon was dropped over the city’s industrial valley.
Meanwhile, the stories of atomic bomb survivors, a dwindling number, have shaped the way we think about the consequences of using nuclear weapons. When Robert Oppenheimer, an American physicist and one of the designers of the atomic bomb was asked in an interview in 1965 to reflect on the bombings, he said: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
A survivor’s tale
Koko Tanimoto Kondo, 75, is one person whose world was destroyed on August 6, 1945. Kondo was 8 months old and with her mother when the house in Hiroshima they were in, a parsonage of the church where her father was a minister, caved in and buried them under mounds of twisted metal and rubble as Japan’s most industrialized city was consumed by the searing heat of the world’s first nuclear attack.
They escaped after her mother saw a tiny crack of light through the wreckage and was able to make an opening large enough to push her baby out and then crawl out herself. In a recent Zoom call, Kondo described how a medical student told her parents that he did not think that their baby, racked with fever and injuries, would survive.
“But here I am today, 75 years later,” she said.
For years, Kondo underwent annual examinations so doctors and scientists could study the impact of radiation on the human body, a process she described as “humiliating.”
Kondo said she had vowed to find the person who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
“I wanted to kick or bite or punch this person,” she said.
She, however, said that she has since changed her mind after watching Capt. Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the aircraft that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, during a television interview with tears in his eyes, saying he had written in his flight log on August 6, 1945: “My God, what have we done?”. She says she resolved not to hate the person but the war itself. She urged young people to learn from history and not let what happened in Hiroshima happen again.
Charles Maier, a professor of history at Harvard University, said that while it was possible for President Harry Truman to have made another decision, he said “It would have been hard to justify to the American public why he prolonged the war when this weapon was available.”
“It seemed to offer a potentially magical solution that would spare a lot of pain. There was a widespread belief among American military planners that the Japanese would fight to the last man,” he told CNN.
Maier said; ” the Japanese use of suicidal Kamikaze attacks had made a strong psychological impact on US military decision-makers who reckoned that the whole country would be mobilized to defend the home islands.”
Maier said some historians have speculated that the possibility of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war helped spur the decision to bring the war to a quick end by using the bomb.
The utter devastation caused by the bombing has led many to criticize the decision.
In his 1963 memoir, “Mandate for Change,” former President Dwight D. Eisenhower criticized the use of the atomic bombs, saying Japan may have been willing to end the war with conditions like keeping the emperor in place.
But Truman stressed the necessity of the decision referencing how the US had “been shot in the back” in the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan and saying that the decision to use the two nuclear bombs saved the lives of 250,000 Allied troops and 250,000 Japanese by helping to prevent an invasion.
Three-quarters of a century later, tensions, complications and uncertainties over nuclear weapons and how to ensure they are not used again are still very much with us.