DROPPING THE BOMB: The Myths and Legacies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

This past August marked exactly 70 years since American bombers dropped an uranium gun-type bomb (nicknamed Little Boy) on Hiroshima; this was an event that witnessed the obliteration of a large city in the blink of an eye.[1] Hiroshima did have a military presence, since it contained a naval base and the home of the Second General Army Headquarters. Nonetheless, American strategic planners aimed the bomb not at the army base, but at the very center of the civilian part of the city in order to maximize the bomb’s devastation.[2] On August 6, 1945, Little Boy exploded 1,900 feet above the courtyard of Shima Hospital with a yield equivalent to 12,500 TNT. The temperature at ground zero reached 5,400 degrees Fahrenheit, which immediately created a fireball within half a mile. The absolute devastation roasted many people alive; thousands of charred bundles were strew in the streets, sidewalks, and bridges. The instant destructive power of the bomb also vaporized many others. The bomb, for instance, left only the shadow of one man imprinted onto the granite steps of a bank; he had been waiting for the bank to open before the bomb hit. The blasts that followed the original explosion obliterated thousands of houses. Of 76,000 buildings in the industrial city, 70,000 were destroyed.[3] Altogether, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima killed around 90,000 to 100,000 persons instantly; by the end of 1945, the number of those lost had risen to 145,000 (only about 20,000 of them soldiers).[4]

Even though thousands of persons disappeared in a blistering flash, the bomb did leave a number of survivors.[5] The survivors found themselves in a strange, hideous world where all that was left of the many persons who had perished were simply shadows etched onto the stone. John Hersey, who was 32 at the time of the bombing, was able to capture the horrors of Hiroshima and the stories of the survivors in his famous account Hiroshima, which was written immediately after the bombing and first published in the New Yorker in 1946.[6] In Hersey’s account, Mrs. Nakamura, a widow and mother of three, described how the initial blast made “everything whiter than any white she had ever seen.”[7] Dr. Saaki, the only surviving doctor at the Red Cross Hospital, told Hersey that he was “staggered” by the amount of “raw flesh” that had clung to many of his fellow survivors. As well, Mr. Tanimoto recounted how he had helped to ferry survivors across a river, despite being appalled by the sight of their skin slipping off “in huge, glove-like pieces.” He admitted to Hersey that he had “to keep consciously repeating to himself that these were human beings.”[8]

It took about a week for Japanese civilians to learn that the Hiroshima bombing had been an atomic attack, but by then American bombers had already dropped a second atomic bomb. At 11:02 am on August 9th, Fat Man, an atomic bomb with a plutonium core, exploded over the densely populated industrial city of Nagasaki in western Kyushu.[9] Although Nagasaki was spared from the widespread firestorms that raged after the Hiroshima attack, the consequences of its bombing were still horrifying by any measure. While the hills that surround Nagasaki stopped the devastating effects of the bombing from spreading, they also concentrated the destructive power of the bomb, which made it more intense in the areas closest to ground zero. The bomb, for instance, obliterated a hospital and medical school that lay within 3,000 feet of the explosion. Persons that were within a radius of a half-mile of the bomb’s explosion vanished instantly. The atomic attack on Nagasaki killed as many as 60,000-70,000 persons. All in all, the combined number of civilians killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is more than twice the number of American troops killed during the entire Pacific War.[10]

On August 15, 1945 Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces, which was formalized on September 2 and effectively ended World War II. Still, concerns about whether the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are actually what brought about the end of the war and whether that level of destruction can ever be justified to prevent hypothetical future bloodshed remain sources of perennial historical study and debate. As historian John Dower first described, American interpretations of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be divided into two basic narratives: the “triumphal” or “heroic” and the “tragic”.[11]

The heroic version—strongly backed by popular media outlets, politicians, and the general public—insists that the dropping of the bomb was absolutely essential, because it was the only way to make the Japanese surrender and to avoid a massively bloody invasion that would have cost millions of American lives. As the proponents of the heroic narrative contend, it’s important to remember that on the eve of the atomic bombings the brutal battle for Okinawa, whose invasion exceeded the D-Day landings in scale, had just been won, but with exceptionally high causalities. Moreover, according to the heroic narrative, the violent struggle for Okinawa in combination with the war-crime atrocities committed by the Japanese military ultimately compelled American leaders to seek any possible way to end the war in the Pacific without an invasion of the Japanese home islands. From the heroic viewpoint, the use of the bomb was not only a logical step, but also a necessary action for ending the war against a fanatically resistant foe.[12]

Scholars who follow the heroic narrative have looked to several pieces of evidence to support their claims that the bomb was the only way to end the war without an invasion of Japan.[13] Robert Mattox and Richard Frank, for instance, claim that American intelligence files (specifically, the Magic Diplomatic Summary) show that Japanese leaders were determined to fight to the bitter end. Furthermore, Frank argues that the intelligence files demonstrate that even though Japanese authorities had floated offers of a negotiated peace settlement, they were still developing a last-ditch effort to resist an invasion of the Japanese main islands. [14] As Frank explains it, top military leaders had devised the proposed plan, known as Ketsu-Go, as a way to break American morale by inflicting heavy damage on American forces during an attempted invasion of Kyushu. According to Frank, Japanese leaders believed that if Ketsu-Go turned out to be successful, then they could insist upon something other than an unconditional surrender. Thus, for Frank and other supporters of the heroic narrative, the United States’ utilization of atomic weapons avoided a costly invasion of Japan and destroyed the Imperial Army’s faith in Ketsu-Go.[15]

The lunchbox of a first-year student who perished with so many others in the Hiroshima bombing.

Other scholars have offered a more tragic interpretation of the decision to drop the bomb. They argue that the use of the bomb was not necessary to end the war, because American authorities understood that Japan was teetering on the edge of defeat and that Japanese leaders were looking for a way to surrender on the sole condition of keeping the Emperor.[16] According to the tragic narrative, the real motives for the use of the bomb were first to intimidate Stalin and his triumphant generals from further territorial ambitions in Europe and Asia, and second to secure mastery over a new weapons’ technology that could ensure victory in what many believed to be an inevitable war with the Soviet Union.[17] In 1965, Gar Alperovitz initiated the scholarly challenges to the heroic narrative with his path-breaking work, Atomic Diplomacy. In this study, Alperovitz draws upon recently opened sources, such as the papers of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, to argue that the United States dropped the bomb for political reasons rather than for military reasons. In the end, Alperovitz contends that President Truman did not seriously consider alternatives to the bomb, because he wanted to impress the Soviets with its power. Hence, in Alperovitz’s analysis, the bomb is best understood as the first act of the Cold War, and not as the last act of World War II. [18]

Similar to their heroic-narrative counterparts, scholarly supporters of the tragic narrative have also pointed to several pieces of evidence to buttress their claims. As they point out, by the early summer months of 1945, American officials had already started to gather Japanese communications that indicated that a number of Japanese leaders were looking to broker a peace agreement. As early as May 31st, for instance, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) reported receiving feelers for a peace agreement through a Japanese diplomat stationed in Portugal. The Japanese diplomat suggested that the actual terms of a peace agreement were insignificant so long as the phrase “unconditional surrender” was not included; the Japanese were afraid that an unconditional agreement would mean the removal of the Emperor. Additionally, on July 13th Secretary of the Navy James Vincent Forrestal noted in his diary: “The first real evidence of a Japanese desire to get out of the war came today through intercepted messages from Togo, Foreign Minister, to Sato, Jap Ambassador in Moscow, instructing the latter to see [Vyacheslav] Molotov [the Soviet Union’s Minister of Foreign Affairs] if possible before his departure for the Big Three meeting and if not then immediately afterward to lay before him the Emperor’s strong desire to secure a termination of the war.” Even President Truman noted in a July 18th diary entry during the Potsdam Conference that “Stalin had told P.M. [William Churchill] of a telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.”[19] With these sources and others, proponents of the tragic narrative have concluded that after the success of the Trinity Test on July 16th, President Truman and some of his advisors had become convinced that the use of the atomic bomb would allow the United States to prevent, or at least delay, Soviet entry into the war and, thus, diminish Soviet influence in East Asia.[20]

So, what is to be made from these conflicting narratives and contrasting pieces of information? As with so much in the vast array of human history, the significance of the bomb’s usage in World War II cannot be reduced to simple black and white judgments. In order to deconstruct the historical significance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we have to address three questions. The first of which is whether the bombings were absolutely necessary for ending the war in the Pacific. As J. Samuel Walker makes clear in Prompt and Utter Destruction, backers of the heroic narrative have created a false categorical choice that Truman had to choose between, on the one hand, authorizing attacks on Japanese cities with atomic bombs or, on the other hand, ordering an invasion. But, as Walker skillfully shows, the Truman administration knew that there were alternatives to dropping the bomb that did not include a full-scale invasion of Japan, such as continuing the conventional bombing campaign and intensifying the blockade, waiting for the Soviets to enter the war, or modifying the unconditional surrender terms.[21] Indeed, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, in his tremendously researched study Racing the Enemy, argues that while the bombing of Hiroshima stunned Japanese leaders, the Soviets’ announcement on August 8th of their intention to enter the war shocked the Japanese even more. As Hasegawa puts it, the subsequent Soviet invasion of Manchuria on August 9th “meant the end of any hope of achieving a settlement short of unconditional surrender. Eventually, the fear of the Soviet political influence in Japan’s occupation drove the emperor to accept unconditionally the Potsdam surrender terms.”[22] Thus, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not essential for ending the war, because there were other feasible options, such as waiting for Soviet entry into the war, that could have also achieved peace within a reasonably short time.

Even if the bombings were not necessary for bringing the war to an end and avoiding an American invasion of the Japanese main islands, did they still accomplish something? The answer to this second question is yes, because the bombings did serve a purpose; they helped to end the war at the earliest possible moment. As both Walker and Hasegawa conclude, the bombings in combination with the Soviet attack on Manchuria were the key developments that forced the hawkish-military faction of the Imperial government to admit defeat and surrender in August.[23] This last point raises an important detail. As Hasegawa makes clear, it is important to understand that the Japanese leaders of World War II were not a monolithic group. Towards the end of the war, moreover, Japanese policymakers were hopelessly divided between two camps: those who wanted to end the war as soon as possible to save the emperor and the imperial house and those who wanted to fight a last decisive battle to preserve the national spirit embodied in the imperial system.[24] Although pro-peace Japanese officials had been floating negotiated peace settlements to the Allied Powers in the summer of 1945, the pro-war, military faction of the Japanese government still wielded a considerable amount of power. As Hasegawa asserts, “Without the twin shocks of the atomic bombs and Soviet entry into the war, the Japanese would never have surrendered in August.”[25] Even though there were alternatives that would have also ended the war within a short amount of time, the atomic bombings helped to ensure Japan’s surrender at the earliest possible date.

When assessing what the bombings achieved, Walker also reminds us that it is important to recognize how desperately Truman wanted to end the war on the best terms possible for Americans. Although in the summer of 1945 American military planners had predicted that if in the worst-case scenario an American invasion proved to be necessary, the number of American lives lost would be around several thousands (far fewer than the hundreds of thousands that Truman claimed after the war) that estimation was still too high for Truman. The prospect of continuing the war for however long it took the other alternatives to secure peace also meant the possibility of losing more American lives. While Truman certainly understood that the bomb would improve his negotiating position with the Soviets, it is also clear that Truman saw the bomb was a way to end the war as soon as possible with little to no American lives lost.[26]

The final question concerns the morality of American leaders’ decision to use the bomb. As Andrew Anthony of the Guardian points out, the question of the bomb’s effectiveness is distinct from the question of its morality, even though the two are often confused. In Anthony’s words, “There are many observers who look at the horror inflicted upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki and conclude that not only was it wrong but therefore, almost by definition, unnecessary.”[27] While the bomb was not essential for ending the war, it did serve a purpose in that it helped to bring the war to a close as early as possible. But, does that purpose justify the decision to drop the bomb not once but twice and to unleash an unprecedented level of destructive power? Scholars who follow the heroic narrative, such as Richard Frank, have justified the principles behind the Truman administration’s decision to drop the bomb by arguing that it saved more lives than it cost. In particular, Frank maintains that without the atomic bombings the starvation that would have followed an increase in the blockade and traditional bombardment campaign would have killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese combatants and non-combatants in addition to the hundreds of thousands that would have perished from a full-scale Soviet invasion of the Japanese main islands.[28]

Still, a number of scholars have questioned the righteousness of the bomb’s usage in World War II. For starters, many challenge the reasoning behind the bombing of Nagasaki. Historian Marilyn Young, for example, insists, “there was no justification for the Nagasaki bomb, which was dropped before the impact of the Soviet invasion and Hiroshima could have been assessed by the Japanese. Many would call the Nagasaki bomb a war crime—I do.”[29] The scholars who follow this line of argument ultimately contend that American leaders decided to drop the bomb twice as a way to ensure that both the uranium-based bomb, which was used on Hiroshima, and the plutonium-based bomb, which was used on Nagasaki, could work under combat conditions as well as to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that the United States had mastered the use of atomic weaponry.[30]

A few scholars have even condemned the decision to use the bomb as a reckless act that set free a new type of destructive power that has the potential to end the existence of human life as we know it. As scholar Peter Kuznick argues, “By unleashing nuclear weapons on the world as the U.S. did in 1945, in a manner that Soviet Leaders, as expected, immediately recognized as ominous and threatening, Truman and his collaborators were gambling with the future of life on the planet.”[31] What’s more, as Kuznick establishes, Truman and his advisors were aware of the potential cataclysmic effects of atomic weapons when they made the decision to drop the bomb. On the first day of Truman’s presidency, for instance, soon-to-be Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, told the new president that the U.S. was building an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world.”[32] A couple of days later on April 25, Secretary of War Henry Stimson reiterated to Truman the potential dangers of the new technology by warning that “modern civilization might be completely destroyed” by atomic bombs and that the fate of humankind would be determined by how such weapons were used and controlled.[33] After the success of the Trinity Test, Truman even noted in his diary on July 25, “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley, after Noah and his fabulous ark.”[34]

The Truman administration’s decision to use the bomb in World War II was ultimately immoral not only because it unleashed an unparalleled level of violence against the Japanese people, but also because it created a tremendously dangerous world that we are continuing to grapple with today, particularly the long-term ramifications of nuclear war and the extinction of human life that would follow. When summing up the horrors of the bomb, John Hersey put it ever so eloquently many years ago: “Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceed whatever good that might result?”[35] What is clear from both sides of the historical scholarship on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that even the most crude atomic weapon can cause absolute devastation and the immediate deaths of several thousands of people in a single blistering flash. What’s more, many thousands of markedly more powerful nuclear weapons were subsequently developed during the Cold War as the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union took hold, and there have been several occasions when these weapons have come disastrously close to being used.[36]

With the nuclear weapons of today, nuclear warfare would cause an incomprehensible number of immediate deaths, and it would force the survivors of the initial blasts to face the horrors of radiation poisoning and the catastrophic environmental effects of a nuclear winter. Nuclear annihilation is random, but it is also universal, as it would ultimately destroy the very threads that hold us together as species. In the words of Yasuhiko Taketa, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing, “nuclear weapons cannot create true peace, though they are certainly capable of destroying the human race… there is no such thing as peace for one nation.”[37] If there can only be one agreed upon lesson from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, let it be that we must strive to make our world as safe as possible so that those in power never have to face another situation in which the use of nuclear weapons can appear to be the lesser evil.

[1] Andrew Anthony, “Hiroshima’s fate, 70 years ago this week, must not be forgotten,” Guardian, 2 August 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/02/hiroshima-bombing-70-years-on-eric-schlosser (accessed 28 November 2015).

[2] “Chronology on Decision to Bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Nuclear Files, http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/pre-cold-war/hiroshima-nagasaki/decision-drop-bomb-chronology.htm; Peter Kuznick, “The Decision to Risk the Future: Harry Truman, the Atomic Bomb and the Apocalyptic Narrative,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 23 July 2007, http://japanfocus.org/site/view/2479 (accessed 28 November 2015).

[3] Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and Japan’s Surrender (Belknap Press, 2005), 179-180.

[4] Kuznick, “The Decision to Risk the Future,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, http://japanfocus.org/site/view/2479.

[5] Ishaan Tharoor, “What It Was Like to Survive the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima,” Washington Post, 5 August 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/08/05/what-it-was-like-to-survive-the-atomic-bombing-of-hiroshima/ (accessed 17 December 2015).

[6] Martin Chilton, “Hiroshima: The True Account of Hell on Earth,” Telegraph, 5 August 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/hiroshima-the-true-account/ (accessed 17 December 2015).

[7] John Hersey, “Hiroshima,” New Yorker, 31 August 1946, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1946/08/31/hiroshima (accessed 17 December 2015).

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Chronology on Decision to Bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Nuclear Files, http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/pre-cold-war/hiroshima-nagasaki/decision-drop-bomb-chronology.htm; Chilton, “Hiroshima: The True Account of Hell on Earth,” Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/hiroshima-the-true-account/

[10] J. Samuel Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan (The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 80; Christian Appy, “Our ‘Merciful Ending to the ‘Good War,” Huffington Post, 4 August 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christian-appy/our-merciful-ending-to-the_b_7933574.html (accessed 28 November 2015).


[11] John Dower, “Triumphal and Tragic Narratives of the War in Asia,” in Hein and Selden, eds., Living With the Bomb: American and Japanese Cultural Conflicts in the Nuclear Age (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997), 37-51.

[12] “The Decision to Drop the Bomb,” Nuclear Files, http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/educators/study-guides/history_decision-to-drop-bomb.htm; Kuznick, “The Decision to Risk the Future,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, http://japanfocus.org/site/view/2479.

[13] See Robert Newman, Truman and the Hiroshima Cult (Michigan State University Press, 1995); Thomas Allen and Norman Polmar, Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1995); Robert Mattox, Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision (University of Missouri Press, 1995); and Richard Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (Penguin Books, 1999).

[14] Frank argues that previous scholars have only looked at selected messages from the Magic Diplomatic Summary to paint a false picture of Japanese intentions to surrender and American leaders knowledge of those intentions. Frank contends that when the Magic records are looked at in full, it becomes clear that Japan was determined to fight “to the bitter end.” See Frank, Downfall, 104-105, 116.

[15] Frank, Downfall, 196 & 239.

[16] See Gar Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam: The Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power (Pluto Press, 1965); his later work The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1995); Martin Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York: Random House, 1977); and Appy, “Our ‘Merciful Ending to the ‘Good War,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christian-appy/our-merciful-ending-to-the_b_7933574.html.

[17] “The Decision to Drop the Bomb,” Nuclear Files, http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/educators/study-guides/history_decision-to-drop-bomb.htm.

[18] See Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy.

[19] Robert H. Ferrell, ed., Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1980), 53; “Chronology on Decision to Bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Nuclear Files, http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/pre-cold-war/hiroshima-nagasaki/decision-drop-bomb-chronology.htm ; See also Kuznick, “The Decision to Risk the Future,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, http://japanfocus.org/site/view/2479.

[20] Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction, 64-65.

[21] Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction, 5-6.

[22] Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy, 3.

[23] Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction 96-97; Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy, 3.

[24] Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy, 3.

[25] Ibid., 295.

[26] Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction 92, 94-97.

[27] Anthony, “Hiroshima’s fate,” Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/02/hiroshima-bombing-70-years-on-eric-schlosser.

[28] Frank, Downfall, 343-360.

[29] Eileen Reynolds, “70 Years After Hiroshima: Marilyn Young Is Worrying and Does Not Love the Bomb,” NYU Stories, 4 August 2015, https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/nyu-stories/marilyn-young-on-hiroshima-anniversary.html (accessed 28 November 2015).

[30] Chronology on Decision to Bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Nuclear Files, http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/pre-cold-war/hiroshima-nagasaki/decision-drop-bomb-chronology.htm.

[31] Kuznick, “The Decision to Risk the Future,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, http://japanfocus.org/site/view/2479.

[32] Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, vol. 1, Years of Decisions (New York: New American Library, 1955), 21.

[33] Henry L. Stimson and McGeorge Bundy, On Active Service in Peace and War (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), 634-5.

[34] Chronology on Decision to Bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Nuclear Files, http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/pre-cold-war/hiroshima-nagasaki/decision-drop-bomb-chronology.htm.

[35] See Appy, “Our ‘Merciful Ending to the ‘Good War,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christian-appy/our-merciful-ending-to-the_b_7933574.html.


[36] Anthony, “Hiroshima’s fate,” Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/aug/02/hiroshima-bombing-70-years-on-eric-schlosser.

[37] “Testimony of Yasuhiko Taketa, A Survivor of Hiroshima,” Gensuikin: Humankind and Nuclear Technology Cannot Coexist, http://www.gensuikin.org/english/taketa.html (accessed 20 December 2015).

3 thoughts on “DROPPING THE BOMB: The Myths and Legacies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

  1. President Harry Truman had the opportunity to try to control the spread of nuclear weapons through international agreements. Instead, he doubled-down and agreed to the development of the H-bomb, which helped to spawn the arms race.

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