The bombs were dropped. A war was ended. Japanese mourned. Americans rejoiced. The weapons were tragic but necessary. Order ensued. Prosperity emerged. Japan and the United States became friends.
The first accounts of any historical event tend to become the benchmarks by which all subsequent accounts are measured. And for the past 70 years, this popular narrative, concerning the atomic bombs and the final chapter of the Asia-Pacific War, has continued relatively unabated in the global imagination. Backed by early years of scholarship and official government positions on both sides of the Pacific, the story eventually became known as the traditional account. It remains an easy pill to swallow. The weapons came first, the surrender happened shortly thereafter. Thus, the first caused the second. What is left to know?
Despite its tenacity, the traditional account has been dismissed from most serious historical scholarship for at least two decades. A major problem with the narrative is that it potentially delivers little more than a post hoc fallacy (“after this, therefore because of this”). It also contributes to a muddying of facts and moral considerations, along with a reduction of several key military, political, and economic variables, into a dichotomy of dropping the bomb, good or bad?
In a more nuanced, evidence-supported interpretation, the use of atomic weapons against Japan, in August of 1945, remains an enormously complex, emotional, and even paradoxical subject, one that undoubtedly supplies no single, satisfactory narrative for everyone. In his chapter on Robert Oppenheimer, from a book entitled The Dark Side of Creativity, David Hecht noted that if any single event has ever called into question faith in science, creativity, and human progress itself, this one is it. Oppenheimer himself, writing critically in 1948, described his shared, atomic creation as “an unparalleled instrument of coercion”.
Numerous scholars, activists, and other scientists, both before and after, would join the critique. The motives to build the atomic bomb, the decision to use it during wartime, the actual role it played in ending the war, the ultimate moral ramifications since its use, and the question of whether it was even needed, are interconnected yet distinct issues for discussion and debate. The 20th century was the scientific century, when humankind would pursue scientific truth to liberate itself from superstition and social and physical illnesses. At the same time, backed by an array of new scientific vocations and institutions, modern violence itself had taken on a scientific character, increasingly impersonal, rationally organised, and infused with economic principles.
The nuclear device known as “Little Boy”, an enriched uranium-235 fission weapon, which cost the United States roughly 14 times more in initial development than the production cost of an entire WWII aircraft carrier, annihilated an estimated 70-80,000 people at 8:15am, on Monday, August 6, Hiroshima time. As a result of injury and radiation poisoning, the disputed death toll reached somewhere between 90,000-160,000 by the end of the year, and climbed to over 200,000 within the next five years, making the detonation the single largest destruction of human life as a result of an engineered weapon. By comparison, during the night of March 9–10 earlier that year, 279 B-29s had dropped close to 2,000 tons of mostly incendiary bombs over the densely populated eastern wards of Tokyo. The prevailing winds, which were factored in during pre-strike planning, helped ignite a firestorm that destroyed approximately 15.8 square miles (25.4 square km) of the city, killing 100,000 people and injuring nearly a million.
A major problem with the narrative is that it potentially delivers little more than a post hoc fallacy…
Three days after Hiroshima, on August 9, the more complex, more powerful, and equally expensive plutonium implosion device, known as “Fat Man” (a copy of the original Trinity test device in New Mexico), was detonated over Nagasaki. The city was actually the secondary target on the mission, the primary being Kokura, the historic city-arsenal at the Straits of Shimonoseki between Honshu and Kyushu. Except cloud cover, and the smoke from nearby conventional bombing, forced the B-29 to divert one hour and 18 minutes of flying time to Nagasaki, where the plane was running short of fuel and encountering more cloud cover. At the last moment, not wanting to simply drop their expensive weapon into the sea (it could not be disarmed in flight), the crew spotted a less-than-optimal targeting point through the clouds. Far upriver from central Nagasaki, Fat Man was released. The blast destroyed a largely industrial sector, limiting the initial death toll to a disputed 50-70,000, which rose to 70-100,000 by the end of the year, and to over 140,000 across five years.
By comparison, the United States has never offered compensation, neither to its own severely affected POWs interned near the two sites at the time of the bombings…
In the decades since, hundreds of thousands, from both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have been classified as hibakusha, literally “bomb-affected people”. In total over 30,000 casualties, of those classified as either killed or surviving the blasts, were non-Japanese, some of them Allied POWs. In total, over the course of the entire war, a minimum of 500,000 Japanese civilians died as a result of military actions, the majority of them from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or in one of the numerous conventional air raids. At least another 500,000 perished due to famine and disease. (From all countries, an estimated 15-22 million civilians died throughout the Asia-Pacific conflict of the 1930s and 40s, mostly from famine and disease.)
The facts of the atomic devices, from the “what” of their design and construction, to the “how” of their deployment and detonation, remain undisputed. The dilemma arises with questions regarding the “why”, including the essential questions of whether the bombs were necessary, and whether their uses could be considered crimes against humanity. For the historically minded, how accurate and complete these questions are, and not simply how well argued they are, remains tantamount.
In a 2012 paper, entitled Dissociative Entanglement, Yuko Shibata discussed the way in which both Japanese and American literary interpretations of the atomic bomb, beginning with John Hersey’s 1946 novel, Hiroshima, became inextricably woven into the public discourse from the outset. John Dower, the award-winning American historian of Japan and the Pacific War, took this a step further. Throughout the body of his work on the predominantly U.S. postwar occupation, Dower made the case that such interweaving was deliberate, with the Japanese and Americans working together to construct tenable stories about the war and about the bombs, which included pushing the hibakusha out of sight as a means of buttressing censorship and propaganda. The efforts included misinformation and discrimination, where public ignorance about radiation sickness and its alleged contagiousness, as well as the shame of disfigurement, were exploited by the tightly controlled Japanese press.
Not until the 1950s and ’60s, after the end of the occupation, and after considerable activism on the part of the hibakusha themselves, did the Japanese government provide special medical and monetary assistance to atomic blast survivors. By comparison, the United States has never offered compensation, neither to its own severely affected POWs interned near the two sites at the time of the bombings, nor to its own citizens who surveyed the sites after the war and suffered the effects of radiation.
The postwar information control had other purposes as well. With the exception of specifically assigned occupation, engineering, and relief detachments, American military personnel were largely kept at a distance from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, from 1945 to 1951, the occupation of Hiroshima prefecture, along with the surrounding areas and Shikoku Island, were placed under the control of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF), which numbered 37,000 personnel during its peak (45,000 total over the period). The American position was, because of the shock of the atomic weapon used against the city of Hiroshima, the U.S. should hand over occupation duties of the entire region to non-American forces, to aid in the pacification process.
The largest staffing of the BCOF came from Australia, reaching about 12,000 personnel at any given point, and a total of more than 16,000 for the period. For their efforts, hundreds of these Australians later reported disproportionately high rates of cancers, particularly individuals who had spent considerable time near the centre of the blast or eaten a fair amount of locally grown food. Over the years, many of these veterans filed claims for special services or assistance, with both the Australian and Japanese governments, but to date neither nation has acknowledged them.
A recent fact sheet released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would appear to back the government decisions. Though readily acknowledged that Japanese persons and Allied POWs received massive doses of radiation, from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts and during the subsequent weeks of fallout, by the time occupation forces had arrived, in October 1945, radiation levels at the center of Hiroshima had fallen to about 1.25 rem or less. This is roughly twice the daily dose of natural radiation absorbed by the human body, which is still considered a safe level, and for every kilometer away from ground-zero the fallout levels dropped significantly. The problem with this accurate, nonetheless general, analysis is that it cannot account for individual incidents of radioactive exposure or contamination, and to date, determining the biological effects of such radiation remains an inexact science, where susceptibility to negative consequences can be case-by-case.
As for keeping American service personnel away from Hiroshima, another reason for this strategy was to help control perceptions of atomic devastation back home among the American public. The United States was becoming a technological superpower and the economic master of the world, and images of children or the elderly with their skin falling off, due to atomic blasts, ran counter to nuclear power as a symbol of American progress, and to the nation’s justification for taking any and all life in the name of preserving life and democracy. The problem was that whereas the Occupation authorities could keep a fairly tight lid on official television and newspaper sources, many of the greatest day-to-day accounts of the entire war and subsequent occupation, including many of the most graphic images, were recorded by military personnel on the ground. Among the photographs of atomic bomb survivors that eventually made it to the U.S., some of the most disturbing were captured by U.S. marines and soldiers who had passed through Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Someone with early access to the accounts of atomic bomb survivors was John Hersey, who got the idea to write his genre-defining Hiroshima after discovering the documents of a Jesuit missionary who had lived to tell. Hersey, with two years of experience as a war correspondent, in both Europe and the Pacific, and one of the few journalists permitted entry into Hiroshima early in the occupation, was commissioned by The New Yorker to write a series of articles about nuclear devastation. Hiroshima, constructed entirely from Hersey’s interviews with six blast survivors, was so shocking that The New Yorker published the entire 31,000-word piece as a stand-alone article in its 31 August, 1946 edition, before it was released as a book that November.
In predictable fashion, relying on official accounts and honoring the narrative of wartime necessity, which was part of a public relations campaign endorsed by the U.S. State Department from the fall of 1945, The Atlantic ran its own article on December 1, 1946. The piece justified the bomb because it supposedly stopped an impending invasion of the Japanese home islands, one that would have killed tens of thousands of Americans pitted against Japanese “peasants, and the ignorant masses,” blind followers who simply placed no value on life. The rhetoric was crucial, and would eventually be employed throughout the Cold War against other Asians, particularly in the Korean and Vietnam wars to come.
As for the actual, intended U.S.-led operation, codenamed Olympic, and slated for November 1945 against the Japanese home island of Kyushu, the projected casualty levels were higher than The Atlantic had assumed: at least an estimated 150,000 Americans for the entire campaign, and a minimum of 600,000 Japanese in just the first month of the operation. It was also true that the Japanese Imperial war planners, rather than negotiating some kind of end to the war, partly to protect their own power and to protect themselves from postwar prosecution, were training (exploiting) thousands of children and the elderly in how to fight with bamboo spears against American flamethrowers and machine guns.
At the same time, the binary of either the Invasion or the Bomb no longer holds much weight among scholars. President Harry Truman, General George Marshall, Admiral Ernest King, and other leading political and military figures were, based on the intelligence they were receiving during the summer of 1945, already having serious doubts about Olympic. Given the severity and effectiveness of the U.S. blockade-and-bombing strategy up to that point, it seems reasonable that Olympic would have been at least postponed and probably even cancelled, with or without the atomic bomb.
If the atomic bomb played any role in ending the Asia-Pacific war, it was to hasten imperial and military leaders to a ceasefire.
On the Japanese side, according to the minutes of the Imperial Administration emergency session on the night of August 9-10, called in the wake of the Nagasaki bomb and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, both earlier that same day, the principle concern, particularly with the Emperor, was the “domestic situation”. The military and imperial administrators had been in agreement for months that Japan would eventually surrender. The terms of that surrender remained an obstacle, with the military entrenched in an Armageddon strategy of undermining the American will to fight by inflicting as many casualties as possible, which entailed the sacrifice of millions of Japanese civilians in the process. Recognising a nation on the verge of mass starvation, the Showa Emperor (Hirohito), who was perhaps more responsible for a ceasefire than anyone, foresaw internal political and social collapse if Japan continued diverting all of its resources to the military’s gambit. Given the outcomes of Germany and Russia in World War One, both of which had collapsed under similar circumstances, followed by the destruction of their respective imperial institutions, the Japanese emperor invariably found a better option for preserving his own legacy in the Americans than at home.
If the atomic bomb played any role in ending the Asia-Pacific war, it was to hasten imperial and military leaders to a ceasefire. In the process, hundreds-of-thousands of civilians perished, and many more would suffer in the years to come. If the bombs had not been used, and no Allied invasion ultimately imminent, the protracted blockade-and-bombing campaign would have invariably killed a different set of hundreds-of-thousands. It might have also changed the nature of the postwar era, forcing the Occupation government to contend with additional millions of starving and homeless, and with a military that had been ordered to surrender out of political and logistical coercion, rather than by military necessity or defeat – the exact problem that had faced Germany after World War One, which had led to the rise of National Socialism and hardened militarism.
Ultimately, the narratives that have grown up around the atomic weapons used against Japan have histories of their own, each influenced by political, social, economic, moral, and speculative arguments. Though some of these are more accurate, telling, and better researched than others, a definitive account will likely never emerge. Histories of controversial subjects tend to be histories of relevance and perspective, of agendas and power structures. In the quest for narrative coherence, they often devolve into simplistic interpretations misrepresented as ones of clarity. Seven decades since the end of the turmoil, and drawing on records that paint more detailed strokes, it is best to realise which narratives remain overly simplistic and belong in the bin of myth.
A referenced version of this article is available upon request at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image | Maarten Heerlien