The atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: A historical reflection


A week ago, U.S Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, posted a tweet on his account on Twitter, reflecting on the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the devastation of nuclear weapons. In his own words: “We reaffirm that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought”. A nuclear war can never be won indeed, however nuclear weapons have been used before. Regarding the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can that be described as a war crime, a military necessity, or just another implementation of realism, where there are no boundaries towards victory?

Importance and background of the event

On December 28, 1942, the President of the U.S, Theodore Roosevelt, authorized the “Manhattan Project”, which was created to weaponize nuclear energy. It was clear by then that WWII entered a new phase of competition and struggle, with superpowers like the U.S trying to develop the first nuclear weapons, to assert themselves as the only nation capable of developing nuclear weapons.

On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died at the age of 63, and Harry Truman was named the 33rd President of the USA. Now, the whole project was on his shoulders and soon a very difficult decision had to be made. To stop the war in the Pacific, President Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb, known as “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945. Three days later a plutonium bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, known as “Fat Man”. As a result, Emperor Hirohito announced on August 15, 1945, the unconditional surrender of Japan, officially ending the Second World War.

According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the bomb detonated in Hiroshima had an explosive yield equal to 15.000 tons of TNT, destroying 70% of the city and causing more than 140.000 deaths. 70% of the victims in Hiroshima suffered severe burns, and most of them died on the same day due to radiation exposure. In Nagasaki, the bomb that was dropped by the U.S leveled 6.7 km2 of the city, killing more than 74.000 people, while ground temperatures reached 4.000 Celsius degrees. Five years after the explosions there were increased incidents of leukemia among the survivors, and in later years there were increased cases of different types of cancer.

Up until this day, historians argue about the use of the atomic bomb. Some argue that it was used for military reasons while other historians think it was unnecessary and was only used to intimidate the Soviet Union.

Nuclear annihilation: A terrible success

After Truman became the 33rd President of the United States, it was clear that a huge decisionwas laying on his shoulders. His country had the chance to finish one of the deadliest wars in human history but with the cost of corruption of human morality. He was in favor of the operation as he saw no alternative to ending the war against the Japanese. He later called the use of the atomic bomb, “a terrible success”.

The biggest argument in favor of the use of the bomb was the fact that this tactic would prevent further casualties from the American side. With a direct invasion of Japan, advisors near Truman expected that casualties could range from 200.000 to 1.000.000 American soldiers. In addition, the USA predicted the casualties from the Japanese side, which ranged from 100.000 to 1.000.000 depending on the duration of the invasion and the possibility of a Soviet invasion from the north.

The use of the atomic bomb was the best way to finish the war once and for all without having to deploy more military troops and continuing the war for more months. It was the fastest and easiest way to make Japan surrender. It was clear that by 1945, Japan was committed to the essence of total war, and the Japanese leaders refused to surrender. Emperor Hirohito himself, being pressured by people like Hideki Tojo, the prime minister of Japan, kept declaring to his people that they will not surrender whatsoever. Combined with the Bushido code -the way of the warrior- that many soldiers followed where they were trained to fight until death, made the plan to invade Japan more and more repulsive.

The statement from Delfin Jaranilla, a judge from the Philippines, and a member of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, that took place on April 29, 1946, best describes the thinking of the people that were in favor of a swift end to WWII. In his own words: “If a means is justified by an end, the use of the atomic bomb was justified for it brought Japan to her knees and ended the horrible war. If the war had gone longer, without the use of the atomic bomb, how many thousands and thousands of helpless men, women, and children would have needlessly died and suffered?”

Nuclear annihilation: A terrible disaster

Although there were a lot of Truman’s advisors who believed that the use of the atomic bomb was the only way to end the war, there was strong opposition against this option. Assistant Secretary of the Navy and member of the Interim Committee on Atomic Matters, Ralph A. Bard, tried to convince President Truman that a standard naval blockade would be enough to make the Japanese surrender. He wanted the U.S not to drop the atomic bomb or at least first give a warning to the population.

The idea was that if the U.S had just warned them about the bomb they would consider surrendering. Bard submitted his resignation at about the time the Interim Committee made its recommendation to Truman on the use of the bomb which he opposed. In 1946 he received the Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal. He died on April 5th, 1975.

In addition, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are considered by many historians and authors as war crimes that reach the level of genocide. Historian Martin Sherwin argued that it should be considered a genocide. “The bombings were gratuitous at best and genocidal at worst”. Especially in the case of the Nagasaki bombing which came only three days after the Hiroshima bombing, many argue that it was completely unnecessary, totally inhumane, and fundamentally immoral.

The historical point of view: There was no other way

How will history judge our actions? Are we certain that specific actions from individuals will be judged accordingly? For better or worse, historians tend to disagree on historical events, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are no exemption.

Some historians believe that the use of the atomic bomb was the only way to convince Japan to surrender. The militaristic and nationalistic propaganda that was promoted since the Great Depression, convinced the Japanese people to fight until the end. According to Richard B. Frank, an American military historian and the author of the book “Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire”,  the necessity of the atomic bomb as a tool of destruction was crucial to saving thousands of American lives and millions of Japanese lives.

By 1945, the U.S military had intercepted important messages and information from the Japanese army and it was clear that Japan’s armed forces were determined to fight a final destructive battle in their homeland against the Allied invasion. This tactic was called Ketsu Go in Japanese, which can be freely translated to Operation Decisive. The idea was that American morale was fragile and could be shattered by heavy losses in the initial invasion. As a result, the American side would happily negotiate an end to the war without implementing the idea of unconditional Japanese surrender.

The historical point of view: The competition with the Soviet Union

According to plenty of revisionist historians, the use of the atomic bomb was completely unnecessary, and it was not the reason for Japan’s surrender. Instead, they point out that the entrance of the Soviet Union in the war against Japan on August 8, 1945, was the only reason Japan surrendered.

Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a Japanese-American historian specializing in Soviet history and the relations between the Soviet Union, Japan, and the United States, agrees on the importance of the Soviet Union as a major threat to the U.S. His book, “Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan”, is a revisionist study of the end of the Pacific War. He suggests that the only reason Japan surrendered in WWII was because of the Soviet Union, advancing from Manchuria and it had nothing to do with the use of the atomic bomb which he viewed as completely unnecessary. In one chapter of his book, he states that:

“As long as England and the United States insist upon unconditional surrender, the Japanese Empire had no alternative but to fight on with all its strength for the honor and existence of the Motherland. However, based on the available evidence, it is clear that the two atomic bombs alone were not decisive in inducing Japan to surrender. Despite their destructive power, the atomic bombs were not sufficient to change the direction of Japanese diplomacy. The Soviet invasion was. Without the Soviet entry into the war, the Japanese would have continued to fight until numerous atomic bombs, a successful allied invasion of the home islands, or continued aerial bombardments, combined with a naval blockade, rendered them incapable of doing so”. (Hasegawa 2005, p. 298).

The historical point of view: The human aspect

There are historians who focus on the humanitarian aspect of the bombings rather than if it was a military necessity or the decisive factor in Japan’s surrender. It is more important to remember that human lives were destroyed and thousands of people were affected by these bombings that directly changed the route of history.

Alex Wellerstein is a historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology who studies the history of nuclear weapons. In 2013 he published an article with post-bombing photographs of the two cities, condemning the scale of damage that the U.S caused in Japan and focusing more on the catastrophe rather than the reasons behind using the atomic bombs in the first place. From a short excerpt from his article we can understand his point of view that does not justify whatsoever the atomic bombings:

What is the right view to have about the bombings? An ugly, troublesome, disturbing one; right between those extremes. The atomic bomb was a weapon used to inflict tremendous human suffering. This is true whether you think its use was justified or not. If an atomic bomb were to go off over your city, the damage would be horrifying, the death toll staggering. But it’s a level of destruction that people should try to appreciate for what it is, a realistic possibility, not a clean science-fiction ending or a blow to be shrugged off”.

Alongside this point of viewing these events purely from the humanitarian perspective comes the famous argument of whether or not the U.S had warned the Japanese civilians about the atomic bombings. On the internet, anyone can find certain photos displaying B-29 aircrafts dropping leaflets which the Americans used to call LeMay leaflets, giving a warning to the Japanese civilians about the intentions of the U.S to drop atomic bombs on their country.

In one of his articles for the Washington Post, historian Gregg Herken, author of the book The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War and Brotherhood of the Bomb, 2014, exposes myths regarding the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. One of those myths is the fact that the Japanese were warned about the bombings specifically in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those LeMay leaflets were dropped indeed, but Herken stresses the fact that nothing was mentioned about the use of such a powerful weapon. In addition, Hiroshima and Nagasaki civilians were never warned about these attacks because the US feared that their attack would be sabotaged by the Japanese.

In this day and age, we should all take any given information with a pinch of salt, since even historical events are up for debate as to their necessity. With that being said since the U.S never warned the civilians of the two cities that were completely destroyed, should we consider this an actual crime against humanity? The decision indeed saved thousands if not millions of lives, but what happens when we need to evaluate the corruption of human morality that comes with difficult decisions like the one that President Truman had to go through?

To this day, none of the American Presidents have apologized for the event. Barack Obama was the first U.S President to set foot in the destroyed city of Hiroshima. He paid tribute to the survivors of the attack and talked about the need for a moral revolution regarding the use of nuclear power. However, he did not apologize for the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As of this point in 2022, it seems like the mindset of the U.S regarding these events is set on a military necessity mode. Without a formal apology, we will probably expect more tweets and posts from U.S officials reminding us of their own decisions that led to the destruction of two cities.

One might think that there are no easy decisions throughout history and that the hardest choices cannot be seen at first glance. The point though is, how can we learn from these events so that we will not repeat them? We might be on the verge of a nuclear detonation again and if it comes to the stage of a third world war, we will know it will be fought with nuclear weapons. However, if we reach such a stage, then most certainly, a fourth world war will be fought with sticks and stones.

Nikita Triandafillidis
Nikita Triandafillidis
Bachelor's Degree in International Relations & Political Science. Columnist focusing on Global Affairs


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