This weekend marks the 66th anniversary of the first – and only – uses of atomic bombs in war. On August 6, 1945 the US dropped the first wartime nuclear bomb ever on the Japanese city, Hiroshima. On August 9 a second nuclear bomb was dropped on another city Nagasaki.
The Hiroshima bomb eventually killed 140,000 people – some right away, many others later of radiation poisoning. The justification offered was that the bombing was needed to bring a quick end to the war; otherwise, the argument went, American troops would have had to continue the series of difficult amphibious assaults in which so many had died already as the US fought its way, island to island, across the Pacific. The most eloquent statement of this argument, in my opinion, was made by the essayist Paul Fussell in Thank God for the Atom Bomb.
Others – like my friend Gar Alperovitz in his book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb – deny that using the bomb was necessary to get a quick Japanese surrender. The real reason, according to this school, lay in the politics of what was to become the Cold War. It was well known that the USSR was about to declare war on Japan, and thought likely that such a declaration would lead to a Japanese surrender. President Truman wanted the US, not the USSR, to get the credit for forcing a surrender; and he wanted to demonstrate to the world that the US had a terrifyingly powerful weapon.
If the second argument is correct, the decision to drop the bomb seems moreally questionable. It’s one thing to save your people’s lives by killing a lot of your enemy; it’s quite another to kill 140,000 people for purely political reasons.
Whatever the truth about Hiroshima, though, I have never understood how bombing Nagasaki could be justifiable. The demonstration had been made, the Japanese had been shocked, the Russians had been kept out – so what was the purpose? There is a strong suspicion (not only by me) that the second bomb was dropped only because it used a different technology from the first, and the military people wanted to see how well it worked in comparison. I hope that’s not true – it’s barbaric – but I’ve never heard another explanation that is the least bit convincing.
I always try to pause for a moment at this time of year and think about these two terrible events. Now that the Cold War is over, there is no need for nuclear weapons. They are slowly proliferating to more countries, and will continue to do so – unless and until we in the US commit to getting rid of our own nuclear weapons as part of a move to a nuclear-free world. It’s time to do this.