Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History – Nagasaki and Hiroshima

May 9, 2016 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History – Nagasaki and Hiroshima

Michael F.Shaughnessy –

  1. While these are two disparate events, we will evaluate them as one: the dropping of the atomic bomb on cities in Japan. Set the stage for us. Where were we at in terms of the war, and who made the ultimate final decision to use the atomic bomb?

On December 10, 1941 the United States found itself at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan. By early May of 1945, both Germany and Italy had capitulated, but the conflict with the Japanese continued unabated. Although American forces had won numerous victories against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater, the Japanese seemed undeterred by their losses. If anything, it seemed to many, that the Japanese fought with greater ferocity as American forces came closer to their homeland.

The campaign to capture Okinawa, for example, had cost 100,000 American casualties. This contrasted sharply with the waning stages of the war against Germany. In that conflict, thousands of German soldiers surrendered as they recognized the inevitability of their nation’s defeat. At Okinawa, however, few Japanese soldiers chose to give themselves up. Not only did they not surrender: thousands of Japanese pilots flew suicide (kamikaze) missions against American naval vessels supporting the invasion.

Therefore, it appeared likely that the United States would have to forcibly conquer Japan to end the war. Some experts predicted that such a military operation would cost 50,000 American casualties, but considering that the Japanese had inflicted twice as many casualties at Okinawa, that estimate seemed far too optimistic. Most experts today believe that the Americans would have suffered between 250,000 and 500,000 casualties in the process of conquering Japan. But as we all know, such a campaign never took place.

While not the only factor involved, the use of atomic weapons on Japan clearly played a role in that nation’s decision to announce its surrender on August 15, 1945.

2. What events led up to the dropping of the bomb? Were there specific things that brought it about?

The history of the atomic bomb for all intents and purposes begins with a Hungarian physicist named Leo Szilard.

In a moment of astounding intuition, on September morning in 1934 he suddenly recognized that the principle of splitting an atom could be used to develop a weapon with an almost unimaginable destructive power.

Afraid that scientists in Germany might give Adolf Hitler such a device, Szilard moved to the United States and convinced Albert Einstein to warn President Franklin Roosevelt of that possibility. Roosevelt took action, ordering work to begin on developing an atomic bomb. This program, known as the Manhattan Project, had succeeded in this effort by the summer of 1945. Ironically, by then the surrender of Germany had ended the original need for the bomb.

A number of the scientists and technicians who had worked on the Manhattan Project therefore thought that work on the atomic bomb should cease at that point. By then, however, Franklin Roosevelt had passed away, and his successor Harry Truman ordered work to continue. He did so for a number of reasons, including the reality that the bomb could be used on the Japanese instead.

He also had another motivation: a distrust of the Soviet Union. To Truman and a number of his advisors, the Soviets seemed bent on an expansionist foreign policy, and they saw the atomic bomb as a potential check on the war-time ally of the United States. These two factors seem clearly to have directly led to Truman’s decision to see the Manhattan Project through to its conclusion.

3. Now, why Nagasaki and Hiroshima: what was it about those two cities?  And how many people died?

The United States had started a sustained campaign of aerially bombarding Japan using the newly-developed B-29 bomber in June of 1944 from bases on the Asian mainland. After capturing the Mariana Islands in the summer of that year, the US Army Air Force began flying missions against Japan from airfields based there.

For months, the B-29s dropped conventional fragmentation bombs on Japan, but starting in February of 1945 the USAAF switched to the use of incendiary devices designed to start fires. Soon, most Japanese cities had suffered almost utter destruction. Five major Japanese cities, however, avoided that fate: Kokura, Yokohama, Niigata, Hiroshima, and Kyoto. Perhaps the USAAF would have eventually bombed these cities, but fate intervened in May of 1945 to insure that they would remain untouched.

This reprieve stemmed from the fact that by the spring of 1945, those working on the Manhattan Project informed the War Department that they would soon have an atomic bomb ready for use against Japan. Since no one knew what type of devastation the bomb would cause, the War Department asked a panel of experts to recommend cities that should be kept untouched so that the government could gain a better appreciation of the bomb’s potential effect.

When given the list, however, Secretary of War Henry Stimson objected to the inclusion of Kyoto. As it turned out, Stimson had visited that city on his honeymoon, and knew its importance to the Japanese as a cultural center. The planners then removed Kyoto, and replaced it with Nagasaki. When it came time to drop the first atomic bomb, Hiroshima presented the most obvious target because it lay the closest of the five targeted cities to the base the B-29 carrying the weapon would take of from.

4. Was there a shock heard round the world (to paraphrase another stock phrase)?

Two countries had an immediate reaction to the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima: Japan and the Soviet Union. In Japan, individuals involved in the telecommunications industry immediately recognized that something had happened in Hiroshima, as contact with that city immediately ceased on the morning of August 6.

Within hours, the Japanese government began to receive reports from communities around Hiroshima that a tremendous explosion had happened in the city. Eventually, the government sent a military officer to inspect the city, and when he neared Hiroshima he saw the remnants of the cloud that the atomic bomb had created.

He reported the devastation to the government, and later they learned from an announcement by President Truman that the United States had used an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The government then discussed what action, if any, they should take in the wake of this revelation.

They decided to continue the war unabated, which led the United States to then use an atomic bomb against Nagasaki on August 9. For the Soviet Union, the existence of the atomic bomb did not come as a total surprise, as Truman had alerted him about the weapon at a conference in July of 1945. In addition, spies placed inside the Manhattan Project had passed along reports of work on the weapon to Stalin for months before then.

Reportedly, Stalin felt that Truman did not use the atomic bomb to end the war against Japan. Rather, he believed that dropping the atomic bombs was an attempt by Truman to make the Soviet leader more acquiescent in the post-war world. Instead, Stalin ordered his scientific community to build a Soviet atomic weapon as soon as possible. They would succeed in that effort in September of 1949.

5. Ramifications and repercussions from around the world: what did the various countries around the world have to say about this basically starting the beginning of atomic and nuclear war?

Initially, public opinion (except, of course, Japan) around the world was generally favorable to the use of the atomic bomb. This stemmed from the fact that many people thought that the weapon had clearly hastened the end of the war in the Pacific. In addition, the world had little knowledge of the type of destruction that the bombs had caused. When reports began to appear depicting the lethal effects of this new type of weapon, opinions began to change about the American action.

Later, others would come to believe—as Joseph Stalin did—that the United States had used the weapon more to cow the Soviet Union than to end the war against Japan.

As a result of this, opinions within the historical community differ widely today about why Truman used atomic bombs against Japan.

6. What have I neglected to ask?

A historian named Paul Walker wrote a famous examination of the use of the atomic bomb on Japan in 2005. He titled his book Shockwave. This one word title perfectly conveys the effects of the weapon, both literally and figuratively. We can only hope as a species that no book will ever depict the use of such a weapon in the future.

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