Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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These two cities are etched in the collective consciousness of the world as scenes of utter destruction and inhumanity. The decision of President Harry S Truman to authorize the use of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also remains one of the most contentious issues associated with the conduct of Allied forces in World War II.

Emotional Debates

The deep emotions that people feel toward this decision continue to resonate in American and Japanese life. These emotions were expressed in the reactions to the fiftieth-anniversary exhibitions about the dropping of the bomb at Hiroshima by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and an exhibit in Hiroshima in 1995. Professional historians serving as museum curators prepared the Smithsonian exhibit. It was carefully vetted by a wider advisory group of American historians who represented varied views about the rationale and ethics of the American decision to use the atomic bomb. Yet when word leaked to members of Congress about the content of the exhibit, special hearings were held and a firestorm of controversy and publicity resulted in a complete redesign of the exhibit into a much more innocuous display of the Enola Gay bomber with a few selected images and commentary about the events of a half-century before.

A widely cited Gallup poll of the American public at the time found 85 percent approving of the use of the bomb on Japanese cities. Various public figures in Japan remonstrated about America's unwillingness to face fully the import of its actions, and public demonstrations occurred in both countries over this contentious exhibit. Yet in a similar manner, considerable controversy occurred in Japan over a new exhibit in Hiroshima on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary that highlighted Japanese aggression in the Pacific and suggested that some Japanese military units had committed war crimes in their prosecution of the war effort. Many Japanese public figures condemned the exhibit and called for its withdrawal.

What Happened

It is impossible from the vantage point of history to fully know what people in the United States and Japan knew, understood, surmised, and most importantly, felt, during the period when these momentous decisions were made. World War II by this point had seen more than 55 million deaths. By 1945 the Japanese military had lost 3 million men, including more than a million in the previous year. U.S. air forces dominated the skies of Japan, and bombers flew sorties in open daylight. More than a million Japanese civilians had been killed in air raids. Yet still the Japanese refused to surrender.

Across the Pacific plans were coming to life as men, materials, ships, communications systems, and so on were all being prepared for a momentous invasion of Japan that would involve in excess of a million troops in the initial assault in the south and another million in a second wave of assaults to the north. Intelligence sources indicated that the Japanese were massing troops all over key points in Japan and preparing to repel an invasion force they were sure was coming. American troops and their leaders who had studied the vicious fighting on Okinawa where U.S. marines suffered 67,000 casualties (about 35 percent of their total fighting force), including 7,700 dead, contemplated what it would be like to now try to take the Japanese homeland where a similarly high casualty rate might be anticipated. Naval personnel recalled the ferocious kamikaze attacks they had already endured and wondered how many thousands of more planes and pilots would be flung at their ships as they entered Japanese home waters and how many more U.S. ships would be sent to the bottom of the sea.

Oral accounts of major actors' thoughts, attitudes, convictions, actions, and beliefs after the fact is colored by those facts as well as the vicissitudes of public opinion such that these recollections may prove unreliable. Historians have amassed considerable written evidence that suggests that all of the following statements hold. Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Truman always believed the bomb could and should be used. The Soviet Union was already perceived as a major threat to world peace on the conclusion of hostilities against Japan, and containing the Soviet threat was paramount in the minds of America's senior policy-makers. Estimations of casualties in the first (ninety-day-long) phase of the invasion of Japan varied widely from a low of 50,000 to a high of 250,000. The United States was willing to let the emperor remain on the throne—even though this was not communicated to the Japanese. Japan had made overtures to surrender through Russian and Swiss contacts as well as directly to General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters in January 1945. General Curtis LeMay, commander of the U.S. strategic bomber forces in the Pacific, was determined to maximize air power effectiveness. The broken Japanese code indicated in July that the emperor was contemplating intervening with the Japanese military to broker a surrender. The United States had advance notice that the Soviets were entering the war against Japan in early August. The atomic bomb possessed a psychological effect well beyond its military effect and was clearly a weapon in a class by itself.

The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (population 285,000 civilians along with 43,000 soldiers) on August 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m. local time. The immediate death toll according to estimates from a joint Japanese and American report issued in 1966 was greater than 70,000, including two American prisoners of war, with another 70,000 casualties. Of the city's 76,000 buildings, all but 6,000 were damaged and 48,000 were totally destroyed over an area of about eleven square kilometers. A total of almost 232,000 have died up to the present from disorders and problems linked to this event in Hiroshima, including children from 1945 dying from various cancers caused by the intense radiation.

The bomb dropped on Nagasaki (population 195,000) three days later killed some 36,000 Japanese outright, injured another 40,000, and caused about another 25,000 subsequent deaths due to burns and radiation exposure. By U.S. Army estimates, about 44 percent of the city was destroyed, the remainder being spared by the steep hills and topography of the city. Although Nagasaki was on the list of potential target cities, the selection of Nagasaki was "accidental" that day because clouds obscured the preferred target city of Kokura.

It is important to view the casualty figures in the context of the air war with Japan. The U.S. firebombing of Tokyo on March 9–10, 1945, resulted in more than 100,000 Japanese deaths in a twenty-four-hour period during which ground temperatures reached 1,100 degrees Celsius (the heat at the center of the atomic blasts by contrast briefly equaled that of the interior of the sun). Two subsequent air strikes against Tokyo resulted in more than half the city being completely destroyed by late May. What made the atomic bombs different was the devastation from one single bomb coupled with visual and nonvisual effects that dwarfed nonnuclear devices and long-term effects that could not even be predicted.

Postwar Assessments

The development of the atomic bomb was a major scientific and technical feat that employed at its peak 160,000 people and consumed two-fifths of the entire U.S. war budget while remaining hidden from members of Congress and even most senior military leaders, and prompted considerable angst and second-guessing on its moral appropriateness on the part of many of the scientists intimately connected with its birth.

One scientist, Joseph Rotblat, left the Manhattan Project because of his ethical concerns. Others self-organized and created a series of written documents that expressed their collective ethical and moral concerns about the bomb and its use. Captain Claude Eartherly, a pilot who flew the reconnaissance plane over Hiroshima but did not view the drop itself, later expressed regrets over his involvement and the American decision. This admission was seized on by the German philosopher Gunther Anders in a book called Burning Conscience and by advocacy groups to support arguments against both the use of nuclear weapons as well as the American decision to deploy them during the war. Eartherly became somewhat of a hero in communist countries and among "ban the bomb" groups. His wartime colleagues, including his commanding officer colonel Paul Tibbets who flew the B-29 that actually dropped the bomb, viewed Eartherly as a gambler, drunk, and publicity hound. (He spent his later years in a mental health facility.) Brigadier-General Tibbets expressed no regrets over his decision, although his service as deputy director of the U.S. military supply mission to India in the mid-1960s was cut short when the pro-Communist press in India labeled him as the "world's greatest killer."

A small panel of senior military, political, and scientific leaders made the final recommendation to President Truman after an intensive but brief consideration of various options. J. Robert Oppenheimer, lead science director for the project and a participant in these deliberations, later concluded that the military had kept civilians considerably in the dark about the actual state of affairs in the Pacific and the estimated impact of the proposed invasion of Japan.

Admiral William Leahy, Truman's chief of staff, believed throughout the process and after that use of the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities was completely unwarranted. He called for a return to warfare that excluded women, children, and other noncombatants. (The Allies, following the lead of the Japanese in China in the 1930s and the German firebombing of Coventry, England, in November 1940, regularly firebombed Axis cities causing massive civilian casualties on the grounds that this would hasten the end of the war.)

Justifications for the use of the atomic bomb against Japan flowed swiftly after its use, both from the White House and from military press releases. The U.S. public was also reassured that the latent results from this new weapon were modest. The New York Times headline of September 13, 1945, amazingly declared, "No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Ruin." Even in the earliest years, however, doubts about the necessity of the bomb as a military option to expedite the surrender of Japan were expressed by senior U.S. military leaders including Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, Chief of Staff General George Marshall, and General Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces.

Historians in the ensuing decades have built an extensive, well-documented argument that a complex set of factors determined the decision with a principal facet, as expressed forcefully by Secretary of State James Byrnes, focused on containing the Soviet threat to the postwar world. Demonstrating the bomb against a real target would place the United States and Great Britain in a much more powerful negotiating position with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the end of the conflict.

While the necessity of the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan will continue to be debated, as Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell (1996) noted, "You cannot understand the twentieth century without Hiroshima" (p. xi). The Memorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park declares, "Let all souls here rest in peace; for we shall not repeat the evil." Atomic bombs and the even more powerful thermonuclear weapons that have followed them have spawned a true human capability for omnicide—the wiping out of all life on the planet humans inhabit.


SEE ALSO Atomic Bomb;Pugwash Conferences;Weapons of Mass Destruction.


Alperovitz, Gar. (1995). The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth. New York: Knopf. One of the better known books that argues that the American decision to use the bomb was motivated by politics not military necessity and how this choice dramatically affected events in the post-war world.

Butow, Robert J. C. (1954). Japan's Decision to Surrender. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. The best single treatment about the discussions, debates, and maneuvers among military and political leaders in Japan regarding surrender or continued resistance to the allies leading up to and beyond the dropping the atomic bombs.

Goldstein, Donald M.; Katherine V. Dillon; and J. Michael Wenger. (1995). Rain of Ruin: A Photographic History of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Washington, DC: Brassey's. Startling black and white photographs accompanied by text portray the cities before and after the bombings and in the years since, along with photos of survivors and military and political leaders.

Hershey, John. (1989). Hiroshima. New York: Vintage. A brief and powerful Pulitzer-Prize winner's account drawing upon first hand survivors recollections.

Lifton, Robert Jay, and Greg Mitchell. (1996). Hiroshima in America: A Half-Century of Denial. New York: Quill. An exploration of events surrounding the Hiroshima decision that focuses on its effects in America, including alleged government cover-ups and American insensitivities to violence.

Sekimori, Gaynor, ed. (1986). Hibakusha: Survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing. "Hibakusha," Japanese for survivors, is a carefully created recollection of activities, emotions, and devastation experienced by the inhabitants of these two cities.

Takaki, Ronald. (1995). Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb. Boston: Little, Brown. This study by a cultural studies expert, argues that stereotypes of the Japanese influenced racist attitudes on the part of the American public and their leaders and led to the decision to use the atomic bomb to intimidate the Soviet Union.

Thomas, Gordon, and Max Morgan Witts. (1990 [1977]). Ruin from the Air: The Enola Gay's Atomic Mission to Hiroshima. Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House. A reconstruction of events leading up to and beyond the moment of the bombing based on interviews, diaries, and documents with a particular focus on the men who flew the Enola Gay.

Walker, J. Samuel. (1997). Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Concisely argues that the decision to use the bomb was sound and wise militarily, politically, diplomatically, and morally.