On August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Out of a total population of 360,000 people in the city, 70,000 were killed instantly and approximately 140,000 died by the end of 1945 from both physical and radiation injuries resulting from the explosion, with most of these people being non-combatants. The temperature at ground zero of the bombing reached 5,400 degrees and the mushroom cloud could be seen from miles away. Most of the city was annihilated. Two days later the Soviets declared war on Japan, and one day after the Soviet declaration, the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On August 15, 1945, the emperor announced the surrender of the Japanese people, directly citing the use of a “new and cruel bomb.” He told his people that continuing to fight would not only mean the destruction of Japan but also the end of human civilization.
The following is a guest post from Zackery Ward.
Why was the Bomb Dropped
The going thought among the top brass in the US military was that a land invasion of Japan would cause more than a million allied casualties. The battle of Iwo Jima cemented this idea, as it was the first time the marines lost more men than the Japanese. The US ordered 500,000 purple heart medals in anticipation of a full-scale invasion. Japanese soldiers were notorious for their refusal to surrender and would fight to the last man. The firebombing of every major Japanese city would have continued throughout the invasion effort and wrought even more devastation over a longer period. In one specific instance, an incendiary attack on Tokyo in March of 1945 killed 100,000 people in one night. During a meeting with Stalin and Churchill in Potsdam in July of 1945, Truman demanded surrender from the Japanese and warned them of a new weapon. Japan ignored these warnings, and Truman authorized the use of the bomb. The dropping of the atomic bomb was a way to end the war quickly and save an untold number of Allied lives.
Hiroshima was the location of a major military base that housed around 40,000 soldiers. This made the city a prime target for destruction under a military operation. Hiroshima had also been largely untouched by the bombing raids in Japan leading up to the development of the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs and the city was seen as a perfect opportunity to test the destructive force of an atomic bomb.
Effects of the Radiation
The radiation from the atomic bomb had very serious health effects on the survivors of the initial blast. Initially, survivors complained of vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and general malaise. Approximately two weeks following the explosion, many people exposed to the radiation developed small hemorrhages under the skin that presented as a pattern of dots and began to experience hair loss. Around this two-week mark, the death rate began to increase again, including people who had only received minor injuries from the initial bombing. Blood tests performed on these victims showed they were suffering from extremely low white blood cell counts. Even low levels of radiation exposure can lead to changes in human blood and blood-forming organs, particularly the blood marrow. People who survive initial exposure are still at risk of developing long-term conditions including cataracts, leukemia, and various cancerous tumors. Exposure can also lead to mental defects in unborn children and even genetic defects that can be passed down from generation to generation.
Devastation on the Ground
Setsuko Thurlow gave a survivor’s testimony for the Irish Studies in International Affairs at the Royal Irish Academy. She described the survivors leaving ground zero as a stream of ghostly figures that no longer looked like human beings. They were missing body parts with organs and skin hanging from their bodies. Her sister and nephew had been burned beyond recognition, her aunt and two cousins were found as skeletons, and her sister-in-law is still missing. Her uncle and his wife survived the initial blast, but both died about ten days later with purple spots on their bodies. Her city was reduced to piles of ash, rubble, skeletons, and blackened corpses. Survivors faced discrimination from their own people as “contaminated ones by nuclear poison”.
The suffering these people endured did not stop at physical devastation, sickness, and death. After the bomb fell, they dealt with near-starvation, homelessness, lack of medical care, a lack of leadership from the Japanese government, and a massive political transition from an authoritarian militaristic system to a democratic restructuring under the Allied Forces Occupation Authority. The Occupation Authority established the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima and Nagasaki following Japan’s surrender, but this commission was more focused on studying the effects of radiation from the bombs than treating the injured. There was also a widespread censorship effort to hide the suffering caused by the radiation following the blast. “The triumphant scientific and technological achievement in making the atomic bomb could freely be written, but the human suffering inflicted by the atomic bomb was not to be heard by the world. Following the massive trauma of the bombing, survivors had to repress themselves in silence and isolation, and were thus deprived of the normal process of grieving.”
Control of Information Following the Bombing
There was a concerted effort to downplay and even outright deny the effects of radiation on the survivors following the bombing. General Leslie R. Groves, military head of the wartime atomic bomb project, argued that the reports of delayed deaths were merely propaganda used to build sympathy for the Japanese. He even admitted that he was not concerned with the people that could have been afflicted, but with the political ramifications of the radiation symptoms emerging in the cities. Groves and Lt. Col. Charles E Rea, a surgeon and head of the base hospital at Oak Ridge, where the uranium was separated for the Hiroshima bomb, claimed that reports of delayed death were from “good old thermal burns” and that any other claims were false. Groves dispatched radiological teams to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to investigate the claims. These teams were able to refute claims that the radiation had made these cities unlivable, but they did confirm the longer-term effects of the radiation. Once he could no longer deny the effects of the radiation, groves began to downplay the number of radiation casualties, and even went so far as to claim that death from radiation exposure was “a very pleasant way to die.”
American Mindset Then and Now
An overwhelming majority of Americans agreed with the decision to use the atomic bomb to end the war in Japan in 1945. A Gallup poll taken that year showed that 85% of Americans approved of using the new weapon, but that support has decreased as time has gone on. By 1991 that number dropped to 63% and it fell even further to 56% by 2015. There is a massive generational gap in the approval of the weapon. Seven-in-ten people sixty-five and older say the weapon was justified, but less than half of people eighteen to twenty-nine feel the same.
MALLOY, SEAN L. “‘A Very Pleasant Way to Die’: Radiation Effects and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb against Japan.” Diplomatic History, vol. 36, no. 3, 2012, pp. 515–45. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44376188. Accessed 19 Sep. 2022.
Setsuko Thurlow. “Hiroshima: A Survivor’s Testimony.” Irish Studies in International Affairs, vol. 25, 2014, pp. 13–16. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.3318/isia.2014.25.4. Accessed 19 Sep. 2022.
Stokes, Bruce. “70 Years after Hiroshima, Opinions Have Shifted on Use of Atomic Bomb.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 30 May 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/08/04/70-years-after-hiroshima-opinions-have-shifted-on-use-of-atomic-bomb/.
Woodhead, Leslie, director. The Day the Bomb Dropped, Smithsonian Channel, 2015, https://www.amazon.com/Day-Bomb-Dropped-Leslie-Woodhead/dp/B07VCVFX7K.
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