The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, 68 years ago today, is an event whose history has become conflated with a lot of mythology and an unhealthy dose of anachronism–projecting modern issues back into history. Probably that was inevitable, but in the rash of stories and commemorations you may see today about this event, I fear that the real history of it will be lost or obscured.
The one thing that surprises many people about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs (Nagasaki was August 9) was that the decision to use them was widely supported and uncontroversial at the time. That doesn’t make it right, but it does put the debate about the morality of the bomb in a slightly different light. Harry Truman, who had been President for just four months, had the ultimate say, but his decision was more passive–a decision not to intervene to stop the use of the bomb–than it was an affirmative decision to go. U.S. military planners had been heading in the direction of using the atomic bomb since the beginning of the Manhattan Project, whose origins stretch back to 1942, or even to 1939, before the war began. There was never any serious debate within Truman’s inner circle about whether to use it or not.
There was debate about how best to use it. The objective was to convince Japan to surrender. How to do that? Would a demonstration bomb, say over an uninhabited atoll, do the trick? How about striking a Japanese city after dropping leaflets assiduously warning the populace to leave? Should it be used against a primarily military target, or a civilian one? Massive civilian casualties were common in World War II attacks; as most people know, Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo had already been leveled by conventional bombing before the atom bomb arrived at Tinian for its flight into history.
Obviously there are serious moral questions here. They truly began to creep into the public eye in the first few years after 1945. Scientists, surprisingly, were among the first to raise public doubts about the morality of nuclear weapons. Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the bomb, was a devoted environmentalist, and he tended to see the bomb as consistent with that view–a tool to save the world he loved, not a weapon to destroy a world he hated. Scientists have, I think, been unfairly portrayed as amoral drones who built nuclear technology unaware or unheeding of its moral implications. That’s simply false.
This is “Little Boy,” the actual weapon that was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
Where the debate over the propriety of the Hiroshima bomb really took off was in the early 1980s. The Cold War was then at its height, and one of the most divisive issues in Ronald Reagan’s first term was the deployment of American medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Easily the most contentious of the Hiroshima anniversaries was the 40th, in 1985. Many of the crew members of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb, were still alive in 1985. I recall reading that they would often get hate mail, with people blaming them for genocide, and the hate letters would reach a crescendo around August 6. But all of this reflects society struggling with the implications of Hiroshima in the years after the event–not the context of the event itself.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were undeniably horrendous and tragic events in the history of our world. In addition to the tens of thousands of innocent people who were killed outright by the blasts, the lingering effects–cancers, pollution, PTSD, crippling wounds, sterility, the emotional impact of the destruction of families–continue to ripple outward even today. War is inherently immoral; nuclear war the most immoral of all. The debate over the bomb will likely continue for as long as history exists.
For a fascinating and lucid account of the Hiroshima blast itself, I highly recommend John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, published in 1946, which is still one of the best books about the disaster. For a history of how humanity has tried to come to grips with the implications of the bombing, Paul Boyer’s By The Bomb’s Early Light is one of the best books on the subject.