The Effects of the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: A Historical Perspective

By Robbie

May 26, 2009

“Rest in peace, for this mistake will not be repeated.”

Inscription on the cenotaph in the Hiroshima Peace Park.


In my paper, I will discuss several established social and political views on the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, carried out in August of 1945 by the United States at the order of President Harry Truman. First, I will evaluate the truthfulness of the popular conception that these attacks saved innocent lives by forcing the Japanese into surrendering, thereby avoiding a costly ground assault that would have cost many lives on both sides. Second, I will examine how the bombings and the subsequent surrender of the Japanese Empire created tensions between the United States and the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) that would eventually lead to the Cold War. Third and finally, I will show how the very invention of the nuclear bomb put everyone on earth at risk, reducing the concept of scientific progress to absurdity.

On August 6, 1945, American bombers, at the order of President Harry Truman, dropped the nuclear weapon “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, the nearby city of Nagasaki was also attacked with a larger, more powerful bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man”. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are to date the only nuclear attacks in the history of warfare, and they killed thousands of Japanese. The bombs did what they were intended to do – six days later, the Empire of Japan surrendered to the United States, officially ending World War II in the Pacific. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while undeniably tragic, did save lives in the short term by shocking Japan into surrendering, thereby avoiding a costly ground assault that would have cost more lives on both sides. However, they also escalated hostilities between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that would last for decades, leading to the proliferation of nuclear bombs worldwide and reducing the idea of scientific progress to absurdity.

Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by the atomic bombs. It is currently estimated that about 70,000 Japanese were killed in the bombing of Hiroshima and 40,000 in the attack on Nagasaki; by the end of 1945, about 110,000 more had reportedly died of injuries, burns, and radiation poisoning. While Hiroshima and Nagasaki were important military and industrial centers of wartime Japan, civilian casualties on this scale can never be justified; even President Truman, who boldly claimed in an interview that using the bomb was “not a big decision at all” , was known to struggle with the issue in private. However, the bombings ultimately saved millions of American and Japanese lives by shocking the ultra-nationalistic Japanese government into surrendering.

The American army and navy had already suffered huge casualties in the Pacific theater of War II, and as they slowly advanced toward the Japanese home islands, the fighting was only growing fiercer. General Douglas MacArthur, who headed the American campaign (and would later govern over post-war Japan), estimated 500,000 American casualties for a planned invasion of Kyushu, the Southernmost of the four main islands of the Japanese archipelago . It is widely believed that MacArthur deliberately underestimated this figure in an attempt to convince Truman to give him the go-ahead; A study done by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in April of 1946 put the number of casualties closer to 1.6 million, including over 370,000 dead . The Japanese War Ministry had also issued orders in 1944 mandating the execution of every Allied prisoner of war (over 100,000 men altogether) if the Japanese mainland was ever invaded . Opponents of the nuclear attacks have criticized Truman for causing the deaths of so many Japanese citizens, but simply ignoring the possibility of half a million Allied deaths and continuing the Pacific campaign would hardly have been a wiser decision.

Additionally, Japan would have suffered far more had the Pacific Campaign continued. The Japanese were hopelessly outnumbered by the American forces; with their navy almost completely destroyed, they had little chance of stopping the American invasion. Conventional bombings of Japanese cities by U.S. planes had already killed far more people than the atomic bombs would (the firebombing of Tokyo, for instance, destroyed half the city and left almost 100,000 dead) and would have continued if the Pacific campaign had gone on . Furthermore, the blockade of American mines and submarines placed across Japanese sea routes had prevented food and supplies from reaching many of the islands – Japanese historian Daikichi Irokawa estimates that “10 million people would have starved to death” if the war had not ended promptly.

Any other country in the place of Japan would have surrendered, but due to their historical isolation from other cultures and their rapid industrial rise at the start of the twentieth century, the people of Japan had become extremely nationalistic. Surrounded by government propaganda emphasizing the strength and superiority of the Japanese military, they felt as if their country could literally not be defeated. The Japanese Emperor Hirohito, leader of the Showa Regime, was viewed as a divine being by his people, who were expected to sacrifice their lives for him without question. Beliefs like this were reinforced by the Japanese code of conduct known as bushido (“way of the warrior”), adapted from the teachings of the ancient Samurai warriors that ruled in feudal Japan. The teachings of bushido emphasized respect for authority, and rejected surrender as cowardly and dishonorable. In “The Great East Asia War Picture Book”, published in 1944, Japanese children’s author Ueda Hiroshi perfectly summarized this fervent brand of nationalism: “From ancient times, the Japanese army has never surrendered to a foe. There has never been a single soldier whose life was so dear to him that he became a prisoner of war. There is not a single one of us who has not made the resolve to commit gyokusai (death for honor) for the sake of emperor and country” . The U.S. continually asked Japan to surrender (their last attempt being the Potsdam Ultimatum on July 26, 1945), but considering how foreign the idea of surrender was to Japanese society at the time, it seems very likely that the Showa Regime would have continued to ignore these proposals and kept fighting a war it could not win at the expense of its own people.

As American forces drew closer to the home islands, the Japanese government resorted to extreme measures. The draft age was lowered to fifteen for boys and seventeen for girls, and every citizen who could not fight was mobilized to work in the war factories. As supplies ran low, suicide attacks, or kamikaze, were seen as a more cost effective alternative. According to an Air Force survey, the Japanese government “instructed millions of women, old men, and boys and girls…to resist by such means as attacking with bamboo spears and strapping explosives to their bodies” Propaganda was later found that proved these allegations; in addition, the Japanese government produced various posters and books glorifying the pilots of kamikaze planes and boats, calling them “war gods” in an attempt to gain more recruits. By playing on the nationalistic feelings of its people, the Showa Regime under Hirohito was able to control their perceptions, portraying each bombing raid and famine as evidence of the intrinsic strength and superiority of the Japanese people, the so-called “Yamato race” that was destined to rule the world. Truman and his advisors knew that the only thing that could break through this wall of propaganda and end the war was a shock that not even the government could explain away. The nuclear attacks were precisely that. In the space of three days, two Japanese cities were almost completely destroyed by devices the government of Japan could not understand. Many Japanese civilians believed the atomic attacks were an act of divine punishment; when no better explanation came from their leaders, the country fell into panic and eventually surrendered on April 15th. As Doctor Taro Takemi, President of the Japanese Medical Association (which provides free healthcare for bomb survivors and their children) would later say: “When one considers the possibility that the Japanese military might have sacrificed the entire nation…this bomb might have saved Japan” . The deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were inexcusable, but, by bringing a swift end to the war, these attacks also prevented the almost total destruction of the Japanese people in Hirohito’s ruthless war machine, as well as horrendous casualties for America, Britain, and the other Allied Nations.

However, the atomic attacks also escalated tensions between the U.S. and the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), eventually leading to the Cold War. The USSR, a Communist nation led by Premier Josef Stalin, maintained a neutrality pact with Japan throughout most of World War II. However, during the 1945 Yalta Conference, U.S leaders convinced Stalin to terminate this pact and enter into the Pacific theater approximately three months after the upcoming surrender of Germany. On August 9th, Soviet armies began their surprise invasion of Manchuria, winning several decisive victories against the occupying Japanese. That same day, the U.S. dropped their second bomb on Nagasaki, sending the country into a panic. Most historians agree that both of these catastrophic events were equally important factors in the defeat of Japan. However, when he surrendered, Emperor Hirohito accepted the terms of the Americans, not the Soviet Union. As a result, the reconstruction government set up in Japan under General MacArthur was dominated by American officials.

Understandably, Stalin felt betrayed by the leaders of the U.S. Through espionage, the Premier already knew about the development of the atomic bomb, but he was shocked that America had used it on Japan, and more importantly, used it in a way that was completely against the interests of the Soviets. The USSR had hoped to create a Communist government in postwar Japan, but despite the sacrifices its armies had made in their campaign, the country received virtually no representation in the new government. It seemed as if Roosevelt and Truman had simply used the armies of the USSR for their own benefit. The mistrust created between America and the Soviet Union by this incident, combined with Stalin’s fear that the USSR was at risk of a nuclear attack from the U.S, would eventually lead the Soviet Union to create its own nuclear bomb in 1949. After this, both countries began pouring trillions of dollars into building nuclear weapons, each one hoping to gain an advantage over the other, and the period of intense hostility between the two nuclear superpowers known as the Cold War began. Today, with the Cold War and the events leading up to it a distant memory, the government of the USSR is increasingly portrayed as the aggressor in this conflict: a backward, totalitarian regime that refused to embrace the values of democracy and freedom embodied by America. Ideological differences were a major source of tension between the U.S. and USSR, even before World War II, but American leaders turned a bad situation into a worse one by betraying a country that once viewed them as an ally and shutting the Soviets out of postwar Japan.

The discovery of the atom and the immense power that could be generated from it was a scientific breakthrough, but by using these principles to create the first nuclear bombs, American scientists ended up introducing the concept of scientific progress to absurdity. This may seem like a strange claim – after all, technically speaking, science and technology flourished in the period after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Before the nuclear bomb, scientists had been (for the most part) a small group of highly educated people, usually working individually. The Manhattan Project was a radically different concept – the U.S. military selected hundreds of the best scientists in the country, brought them all to a top-secret research facility in the Nevada desert, and worked them rigorously until they created the desired product. The Project acted as a new model for relations between scientists and the government – instead of waiting for scientists to come up with new ideas, the administrations in industrialized countries began to actively sponsor scientific research. This idea is the basis of the “military-industrial complex” – the strong alliance between corporations based on war industry (the sellers of military technology) and the government (the buyers) that is still thriving today. According to the proponents of this system, the military-industrial complexes that formed in the U.S. and USSR after World War II were making great scientific progress, paving the road to a utopian future with technological advances.

However, the invention and use of the atomic bomb disproved the theory of scientific progress by reducing it to a logical contradiction. By definition, progress is anything that betters the lives of people in a society. However, America’s quest for scientific progress had led to the creation of a weapon with the potential to kill millions of people in an instant, endangering the lives of every person on the planet. Therefore, the governments of the U.S. and USSR were not making “progress” with their expensive nuclear programs – they were just making more bombs. If scientific progress leads to this outcome, it can hardly be called progress at all.

The nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed thousands of people, but also saved millions more by shocking Japan into surrender. However, President Truman’s betrayal of Stalin’s trust led to the Cold War between the United States and the USSR, reducing the two most powerful countries in the world to feuding children. And even in a time where science and technology were making huge leaps thanks to government funding and mobilization, the invention of nuclear weapons threw the entire concept of “scientific progress” into doubt – how can science be a progressive force when it puts the entire world in danger of a nuclear strike?

Perhaps the first (and only) use of the nuclear bomb in warfare is not something that can be dealt with in absolutes. Its consequences were not wholly good for the world, but they were not completely negative either. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who is often considered the “father” of the nuclear bomb, was maybe the first to recognize this double standard. After seeing the Trinity test (the first explosion of a nuclear bomb) Oppenheimer recalled two verses from the Bhagavad Gita, a work of Hindu Scripture: Describing the sense of awe he had felt upon watching the flashing fireball, he said: “If you could take a thousand stars from the sky and put them before you, that would still not equal the brightness of the Mighty One.” Later, however, he remembered another passage: “I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.”

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