The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima 70 years ago on Thursday past and three days later at Nagasaki, anniversary tomorrow. Ulster historian GORDON LUCY recounts the context of the attacks, which caused massive loss of life, and concludes that it is hard to see how their usage could have been avoided
In August 1942 the US Army was given the responsibility of coordinating the efforts of British and US physicists seeking to harness nuclear energy for military purposes, a venture which became known as the Manhattan Project.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, America’s leading theoretical physicist and the son of a German immigrant, was given responsibility for establishing and administering a laboratory to carry out this task.
In 1943 he established this facility at Los Alamos, near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The first atomic bomb was successfully tested in the New Mexico desert, 120 miles south of Albuquerque, on July 16 1945.
One observer, sixty miles away, described it as ‘a blinding flash of light that lighted the entire northwestern sky. In the centre of the flash there appeared to be a huge billow of smoke … As the first flash died, there arose in the approximate centre of where the original flash had occurred an enormous ball of what appeared to be fire and closely resembled a rising sun…’
Oppenheimer, who had studied Sanskrit and Oriental philosophy at Harvard, recalled some pertinent lines from the Bhagavad Gita: ‘If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One … I am become Death, Shatterer of Worlds.’
News of the successful test was relayed to President Harry S. Truman who was in conference with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam. Truman was experiencing increasing difficulties with Stalin over the fate of Eastern Europe. Churchill recalled that Truman was greatly buoyed up by the news and stood up to Stalin in ‘a most emphatic and decisive manner’.
On July 24, as the Potsdam Conference drew to a close, Truman casually mentioned to Stalin that he had acquired ‘a new weapon of unusual destructive force’.
Because of the treachery of Klaus Fuchs, a member of the British scientific team, the Russians were aware of the existence of the bomb.
Equally casually, Stalin replied that ‘he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make good use of it against the Japanese’.
As early as September 1944 Churchill and President Roosevelt, Truman’s predecessor, had agreed that when the bomb would be ready ‘it might … be used against the Japanese’.
In April 1945 a committee of USAAF (US Army Air Force) personnel started work on identifying suitable targets.
By June the committee reluctantly concluded that it could ‘propose no technical demonstration of the bomb likely to bring an end to the war … no acceptable alternative to direct military use’.
The decision to use the bomb caused Truman rather more agony and soul searching than he was ever publicly prepared to admit.
Privately, he wrote to his sister that it was ‘a terrible decision’. In his journal he reflected on whether the Japanese, even if they were ‘savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic,’ deserved such a fate.
On July 26 Truman issued the Potsdam Declaration, threatening ‘the complete and utter destruction’ of Japan if it did not unconditionally surrender but the Japanese leadership rejected the declaration and insisted that they would continue the war.
On August 6 Enola Gay, a USAAF B-29 bomber, dropped a uranium bomb, nicknamed ‘Little Boy’ after President Roosevelt, on Hiroshima. The explosion, which had the force of more than 15,000 tons of TNT, instantly and completely devastated the heart of a city of 343,000 inhabitants. Of this number, some 66,000 were killed immediately and a comparable number were left to die of radiation poisoning.
More than 67 per cent of the city’s buildings were destroyed or damaged.
On August 9 ‘Fat Man’, a plutonium bomb nicknamed after Winston Churchill was dropped on Nagasaki.
The intended target was Kokura, now part of Kitakyushu, but as it was covered by heavy cloud, the aircraft was diverted to Nagasaki.
Although the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was more powerful than that dropped on Hiroshima, because of Nagasaki’s topography and the fact it was a smaller and less populous city, this bomb killed fewer people: about 40,000.
A similar number would have died of radiation poisoning. Approximately 40 per cent of the city’s buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged. The next day the Japanese government sued for peace. They agreed to terms of surrender on August 15 and did so formally on September 2.
What role was played by the two atomic bombs? Their role was crucial because, as we have already seen, the Japanese had rejected the Potsdam Declaration and had no intention of surrendering. It is difficult to see how their use might have been avoided.
Would one bomb have sufficed? Possibly but some Japanese leaders believed the Americans possessed only one bomb and Japan could continue to fight.
Revisionist historians contend – inaccurately – that Japan was already on the verge of defeat and that Truman deployed the bombs to overawe Stalin and the Soviet Union.
Others argue that without deploying the two bombs the war against Japan might have extended well into 1946 or even 1947.
Truman’s justification for Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a report from advisers that America would incur huge casualties in an invasion of Japan. In the battle for Okinawa, which ended on 21 June 1945, some 7,000 US soldiers and marines were killed. Some 5,000 US sailors were killed and a further 5,000 wounded in the protracted sea-air battle offshore. Some 70,000 Japanese died on Okinawa, along side some 80,000 Okinawans.
Although the capture of Okinawa was a comprehensive US victory, the battle for the island had the paradoxical effect of blunting the offensive spirit of Americans while inspiring the Japanese to greater resistance.
From a Japanese perspective, less than three divisions, cut off from all external support and subject to intense naval bombardment, had successfully held out against a US force more than twice as strong for 100 days.
With favourable terrain, short lines of communication and more than adequate supplies the Japanese viewed the defence of their homeland with burgeoning confidence.
Unfortunately it required the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to alter the Japanese military mindset.