Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bombings of
By mid‐1945, Manhattan Project scientists produced two kinds of atomic bombs: a gun type, detonated by firing one mass of uranium down a cylinder into another mass to create a self‐sustaining chain reaction; and an implosion bomb, which detonated when a volatile outer shell drove a layer of plutonium inward to collapse into a plutonium core and form a critical mass.
On 16 July 1945, as President Harry S. Truman began meeting with Soviet leader Josef Stalin and British prime minister Winston S. Churchill at the Potsdam Conference, Manhattan Project officials oversaw the first successful test of a nuclear weapon at Trinity Site, Alamogordo, New Mexico. Debate had already begun as to the wisdom and morality of using the bomb. It came to a choice between demonstrating the bomb (e.g., by destroying an island in Tokyo Bay), or obliterating an actual city. A panel of scientists concluded that saving American lives outweighed all other considerations and that no effective demonstration was feasible.
During the Potsdam Conference, Arnold argued that USAAF raids over Japan could end the war. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall worried that conventional bombing could not defeat such a determined enemy and would require an invasion of Japan. Marshall's view reinforced Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson's view and Truman's own belief that the bomb should be dropped before the U.S. invasion, scheduled for November 1945.
After informing Churchill and providing a vague reference about the weapon to Stalin, Truman issued a warning to Japan to surrender. Tokyo did not respond to the offer because the Japanese leaders were deeply divided. Some saw no alternative to surrender, while others wanted peace but feared for Emperor Hirohito's safety. A small faction advocated fighting to the death. There were deluded hopes that the Soviet Union might mediate for Japan. These notions created official paralysis. On 30 July, Truman approved the use of the atomic bomb.
On 3 August 1945, orders were issued to drop the first bomb when weather permitted. Operations began at 2:45 A.M., 6 August, as the Enola Gay and two observation B‐29s launched from Tinian. The primary target was Hiroshima, an industrial city that had seldom been attacked. Of little military significance, the city of 250,000 provided a good test of the bomb's destructiveness.
At 8:15 A.M. local time, the Enola Gay dropped the gun‐type uranium device, nicknamed “Little Boy,” from 31,600 feet. It detonated in the center of the city fifty seconds later. A 20,000‐foot mushroom cloud of smoke and debris whirled upward. At its base, a combination of blast, fire, and lethal radiation killed at least 60,000 civilians and several thousand military personnel; subsequently another 60,000 fatalities resulted from injuries or radiation poisoning. It also destroyed 81 percent of the city's structures.
When the Japanese government remained deadlocked, U.S. officials authorized the use of a second bomb. The primary target for the plutonium, implosion bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man,” was Kokura, a steel manufacturing center. Major Sweeney, who had flown his observation B‐29, The Great Artiste, during the Hiroshima raid, led the second mission. Without time to restore his plane to a bombing configuration, Sweeney switched planes with Capt. Frederick C. Bock, taking off in Bock's Car around 3:30 A.M. on 9 August. Sweeney found Kokura obscured by clouds and turned to a secondary target, Nagasaki, a seaport. At 10:58 A.M. local time, the bomb was dropped from 28,900 feet. It exploded two miles wide of the target because of the bombardier's reliance on radar until, when the clouds broke at the last minute, he returned to visual aiming. Because Nagasaki lay among hills surrounding the bay, whereas Hiroshima sat on a plain, parts of the city of 200,000 were sheltered from the blast. Still, at least 35,000 persons were killed. Afterwards, 40,000 more died from radiation and other injuries. Nearly half of the city's buildings were destroyed.
On 8 August, Soviet forces had overrun Japanese defenses in Manchuria, and with this and the atomic bombing, Emperor Hirohito concluded that the situation was hopeless. While still uncertain of his future, he chose to seek peace, thus invoking the moral authority of his office and defying the tradition that made the emperor a spokesman for his ministers rather than a ruler. After resistance by a few obsessed by the humiliation of surrender, he prevailed. This debate took time, and U.S. officials believed progress toward peace had failed. Truman ordered the resumption of conventional bombing on 14 August, with more than 1,000 B‐29s attacking Japan. As the B‐29s returned, Truman announced that the war was over. That same evening, Japan surrendered unconditionally, with official ceremonies held aboard the USS Missouri on 2 September, in Tokyo Bay.
The controversy over the use of the atomic bombs emerged during the Cold War as the world agonized over the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. In 1994–95, the debate focused on the nature of a planned exhibit of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in connection with the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing.
The atomic bomb has had a profound effect, ushering in the Cold War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Thus far, the era has also shown ostensibly that there is a point beyond which mankind will not go. Today, civili zation's greatest challenge is to make sure that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain singular events.
[See also Atomic Scientists; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course; World War II: Postwar Impact; World War II: Changing Interpretations; World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War Against Japan.]
Herbert Feis , The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II, 1966.
Martin Sherwin , A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and the Origins of the Arms Race, 1973; rev. ed. 1987.
Paul W. Tibbets,, with Clair Stebbins, and and Harry Franken , The Tibbets Story, 1978.
Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, eds., The Army Air Forces in World War II, Vol. V: The Pacific: Matterhorn to Nagasaki, June 1944 to August 1945, 1983.
Bernard C. Nalty,, John F. Shiner,, and and George M. Watson , With Courage: The U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, 1994.
Barton J. Bernstein , The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered, Foreign Affairs (January/February 1995); pp. 135–52.
Ralph J. Capio , The Atomic Bombings of Japan: A 50‐Year Retrospective, Air Power Journal (Summer 1995); pp. 65–73.
Charles G. Hibbard , Training the Atomic Bomb Group, Air Power History (Fall 1995); pp. 25–33.
Robert P. Newman , Truman and the Hiroshima Cult, 1995.
Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, eds., History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, 1996.
Dennis D. Wainstock , The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb, 1996.