The Big Bang That Shook the World
70 years ago today, the United States dropped the first Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Here is John Hersey’s classic account of the explosion and its aftermath from the New Yorker.
by Saul DeGraw · August 6, 2015
70 years ago today, the United States dropped the first Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Here is John Hersey’s classic account of the explosion and its aftermath from the New Yorker.
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Dropping the atomic bombs, twice, might have been a tragic necessity that saved even more lives. The Japanese Imperial Army wanted to fight to the very last death. They were prepared to turn every Japanese civilian into a kamikaze soldier in the case of an Allied invasion. It took the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, two atomic bombings, and a last minute suppression of a last minute coup to get the Japanese Empire to agree to surrender.Report
That’s our story and we’re sticking to it!Report
Subject deserves better than snark.
Here’s an interesting artifact:
It’s a movie-like detail that on that first drawing of the flight/bombing plan, the blast is drawn and colored to resemble the Rising Sun.
ETA: Come to think of it, I can’t believe that the very words “Rising Sun” never struck me before, in their obvious parallel with the atomic blasts. If I were to write this symbolism into a story, it’d be seen as too on-the-nose.Report
Twas more a descending sun, or counter-sun – which’s even better in a way – and enveloping cloud beats rising sun, like a world-historical game of rock-paper-scissors.Report
Well, I was thinking more of the way the pillar of smoke and fire rises up into the sky. To use the sun as a war emblem, then be defeated by an enemy who has harnessed the power of the sun, is really striking.
A brief look on wikipedia suggests that the Rising Sun flag is still used in Japan but is controversial in some places (China/Korea), for similar reasons as Nazi or Confederate flags are.Report
“Rising sun? I gotcher rising sun right here. How do you like it? Oops! Dropped it.”Report
What was that you were saying about snark again?Report
That wasn’t snark. That was the voice of historical irony, the American mongrel taking retribution against that other would-be master race. It was the tone that’s missing – or repressed? – in most of the war letters I’ve ever seen, but bubbles up in the matter-of-fact national-racism – or from an American a counter-racism (according to the master races: this is before 70 years of Chris-ish revisionism) – that’s also a typical mark of the genre.Report
Yeah – that’s how I thought it was – my sense is that the Rising Sun has come back roughly in parallel to the way that the Japanese right has come back – still much more potential than kinetic, but a factor.Report
There is a not inconsiderate part of the Japanese population that thinks they were in the right during WWII. They do a lot of work to make sure that Japanese schools do not teach about Japanese war crimes during WWII especially the Rape on Nanking and the use of comfort women.Report
It certainly sounds inconsiderate. The question, though, is how pervasive that attitude is.Report
Pervasive enough to have strong political influence.Report
It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy.Report
The subject deserves better than decades-old, and long since tired to the point of death propaganda narratives, too.Report
Without quibbling over all details, the underlying argument isn’t propagandistic: It expresses an American decision to defeat the Japanese Imperial Way definitively (under unconditional surrender), in the least (on-balance) destructive way. I wonder what you imagine the alternatives to have been, or what your outline for the better narrative would be.Report
See below, though I suspect Japan wasn’t the main variable in the calculus that led to dropping the bomb.
And it is propaganda, used to justify deaths in the hundreds of thousands by politicians, not military leaders.Report
My reading of history is that the Japanese general staff were filled with true believers who did not want to surrender and those that did had very unrealistic ideas about what concessions they could get from the allies. What is your proof otherwise?
WWII was filled with way out there true believers. The Germans knew that the writing was on the wall. The Nazis still decided to march the Jews back into Germany so they could continue the Final Solution. Adolph Eichmann decided to accelerate the final solution even as his higher ups told him to hold back.
What is your evidence otherwise?Report
He has no evidence because none exists. It is based on a need that everybody deep down is secretly rational.Report
Absolutely none whatsoever?Report
I think that there is a enough evidence to show that nearly the entire Axis leadership was not operating with a full deck of cards. They really believed in their very evil ideology and acted accordingly. Axis leadership were idealists, not cynics.Report
“not operating with a full deck of cards. They really believed in their very evil ideology ”
There’s a disconnect there.
This is something I think we will always struggle with. Is it possible that (for ex.) Hitler was both a madman (possibly syphilitic, possibly drug-addicted, possibly suffering from narcissistic/ paranoid delusions and/or other untreated mental illnesses) AND also evil, which implies a conscious awareness of right and wrong, and intentionally-choosing wrong?
I say this not out of some wish to rehabilitate Hitler as a victim; but I think we will always have trouble distinguishing between “irrational”, and “rational, but evil (from our POV, though often not theirs)”.Report
Why, in the judgment of the likes of Hitler et al or Tojo et al would you expect to be relieved of the same contradiction – or antinomy – that applies to the judgment of the latest “everyday” murderer? From one necessary perspective, the accused is fully responsible for the choices he made. From another necessary perspective, he had no choice authentically, but he or the actions he took were the pure product of nature and nurture or all of history prior to the moment or moments of “sin.” The number of victims or the degree or directness of our involvement in or control over events has no bearing on the underlying logic.
As for the rest of this discussion, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which perhaps need to be treated as a single re-echoing event, constitute pure and, as we see, often gratefully received invitations to historical fallacy, since they were expressly intended to terminate, and for all intents and purposes succeeded in terminating, one historical epoch and initiating a new one. Even setting aside 1) all moral distinctions between the two sides, and 2) the impossibility of a modern mass-democratic leader sacrificing countless citizens in favor of the enemy, when an end to such sacrifice, probably (or even reasonably possibly) at lesser overall harm to both sides appeared available, the one-sided retrospective judgments written on this thread are possible only “after the war,” and “after the war” is synonymous with “after the A-Bombs.”
(That’s also what your too “on the nose” image in Lewis’ sketches should be telling you.)Report
Yeah, it’s a paradox that I believe each of us probably has in reality no choice, but we ALSO have no choice but to believe that we have choices, for there is no other conceivable (to me) way to order human society.Report
I see it more in terms of being evil and cynical or evil and an idealist rather than in terms of strict sanity. Many of the great dictators were cynics. Latin American dictators were like this. Their nationalist, anti-communist beliefs were usually just a clothing for something for venal. They might have spoused some ideology or another but what they really wanted were riches for themselves. A lot of people are also idealists. They sincerely believed in whatever nonsense they were spousing and acted accordingly. The Axis powers or modern modernly, the Taliban are of the evil idealist school of thought.Report
(“Spousing” is kind of cool, considering the shared etymology. To espouse an ideology is almost to “marry” it, or that’s very much the tendency, just as to “marry” someone means in some sense to “espouse” their cause, too. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=espouse )Report
So what would you suggest? A giant pity party for the Japanese? Maybe you can join their own pity party as they make themselves out to be the victims of the war and not the ones that started it.Report
@chris, the Japanese General Staff was really that nuts. Your talking about true believer levels of sincerity here, not coldly rational authoritarians. They were also still occupying large swathes of mainland Asia. Everything that I’ve read suggests that most of the Imperial Staff were willing to go to the very end and needed something spectacular to get them to surrender or an actual defeat in invasion of the Home Islands. A home invasion would have cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, millions of Japanese lives, and possibly some hundred of thousands of Soviet lives as well if the Soviets invaded from Hokkaido. The Japanese army left in Asia would still be wrecking havoc there and the Chinese army would have to put them down.
There were elements of the Japanese civilian government that were willing to surrender before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but they had to convince the army to go along with them and also had widely unrealistic ideas about what surrender would mean. They were thinking that it would just be a reset to the pre-war conditions with no Occupation. These were not mentally stable and logically people that the Allies were dealing with in the Axis Powers.Report
The Navy, the most militaristic of their armed forces, no longer existed in any effective capacity. Their armies in Manchuria were disintegrating in front of the Soviet advance, the northern islands of Japan were about to be invaded, and almost certainly occupied, by another large Soviet force, they had no air force, so we were bombing them into submission with impunity, and they were ready to surrender with a single major concession (which I’m sure you know). Our own military experts predicted casualties much lower than you or the bombing-defenders ever cite, and those were estimates without Soviet aid, so even those were overestimates in all likelihood.
The Japanese are not, nor were they crazed, violent maniacs, as you’d have to believe they were for your scenario, the scenario of the bomb defenders for 70 years now, to make any sense (and it makes no sense anyway, given how rapidly they capitulated after the bomb). It’s instant revisionism.Report
And yet there was an attempted coup after Japan admitted defeat:
I am honestly not sure that the dropping of the atomic bombs was a good or bad thing. I do think that the anti-bomb side doesn’t always have the best facts in mind and is working from a presentalist time-frame that speaks more of anti-American bias “because Imperialism” than anything based on the fanaticism of the Axis forces.Report
The attempted coup was just that.
See, e.g., this article, which is of the sort an historian writes every year around this time:
Just because the coup wasn’t successful, doesn’t mean that it can’t be used as evidence of how bat shit the Japanese army was at the time. You are severely underestimating how the Japanese saw their situation and giving them a rationality they did not have. Not everybody is rational and sometimes illogical people can get a great deal of power.Report
This link also contains more information on the Japanese refusal to surrender or at surrender realistically:
Chris’s preferred scenario also seems to expect us to treat the Soviet occupation or co-occupation of Japan as a (by WW2 standards – in which “100s of thousands” of casulties = <1% of the total) relatively bloodless affair leading to a relatively positive outcome for all concerned.Report
The Navy was not the most militaristic of the Japanese armed forces. People believe that they were because they pulled off Pearl Harbor and the kamikaze attacks but Japanese naval leadership was comparatively restrained ideologically compared to the army. It was the leadership pf the Japanese army that kept pulling off coups during the 1930s and encouraged the Japanese invasion of China and the rest of Asia. The Japanese navy followed the army but army leadership made all the decisions. “Junior officers” from the Japanese army were also prepared to do a coup right before surrender to prevent it.
Furthermore, estimates of fatalities widely differed. Some were low, in the tens of thousands for Americans and hundreds of thousands for the Japanese, but many were much higher in the millions for both.
You forgot to mention the fire bombings that killed moreReport
A lot of the anti-bomb side is based on the sheer power of the atomic bombs and it’s aftermath. While they also denounce the fire bombings, these seem less evil to many people because it takes a lot more effort to fire bomb than it does to drop an atomic bomb.Report
That’s true, however I’m only looking at the bottom line, number killed. I also think part of this is the fact that the bomb has gotten more publicity as the Japanese have thrown these yearly pity parties acting like the victims.Report
He has a point. Not only were the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a tiny fraction of deaths, even of civilian deaths, in World War II, but they were dwarfed even by some individual conventional bombing runs. War deaths are always a tragedy, and to be avoided whenever possible, but these two bombings were far from unique in that respect.
Edit: I just looked it up and the Hiroshima death toll was somewhat higher than I remembered. Scratch “dwarfed” and replace it with “exceeded.”Report
I was also bringing up the firebombing to point out that they had taken place with the associated consequences and the Japanese still didn’t want to surrender. They clearly weren’t going to surrender absent something game changing.Report
The Japanese leadership was not determined to fight to the last man in all circumstances; at the time of the atomic bombings, some of the leadership was already arguing for pursuing peace negotiations, and recognized that the war was lost.
A central sticking point was that they weren’t willing for the position of Emperor to be abolished. Since the US ended up not abolishing it anyway, that wasn’t an insuperable barrier to peace. But the US wanted an unconditional surrender, and they wanted to avoid having Russia get involved, and they weren’t concerned about killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese people to make a point and drive Japan to unconditional surrender, so they dropped the bombs. We can’t say for certain what would have happened without the bombs, but it was definitively not a situation where the only two possible outcomes were the atomic bombs or a massive full-scale land invasion.
And believing the atomic bombings were wrong doesn’t equate to believing firebombing was right. Deliberate murder of civlians in order to demoralize the enemy is terrorism, even if most people don’t like to call it so when it’s done by states rather than non-state actors.Report
The Japanese were negotiating with the Soviets for months in hopes they would act as a broker for a peace with us. Of course Stalin was more than happy to string them along when he had no desire for a peace. But the Japanese wanted a peace not only where the Emperor stayed in power but trying to keep as much of their gains and power as they could get away with. We had clearly stated that only an unconditional surrender was acceptable. I’m not really clear why anything but an unconditional surrender wasn’t the right choice. The Japanese shouldn’t have been allowed to keep any of the countries then took nor should a power that started such a war have been allowed to continue.Report
Demanding unconditional surrender usually prolongs war. Pledging to accept only unconditional surrender had a role in 1942 (or 1943, or whenever the allies pledged it) in that it signaled the allies had enough confidence to assert they were winning the war and that it reassured the USSR that the US and UK were in it to win it.
Of course, having pledged it, it’s hard to go back on it. Because you never know when you’ll have to fight militarist Japan or Nazi Germany in the 1940s again and if you do, then you’d have to be able to back up your threats.
But we’d have to balance the embarrassment that could come from turning back on the pledge with the scores of thousands of lives lost and with what would have been the likely outcome of a negotiated peace. If a negotiated peace would have led only to a figurehead emperor as the only condition of surrender, the embarrassment would have been worth it. If it had been left with the status quo ante–with Japan still in possession of all or most of its prior holdings, or with Japan still militarized–it probably wouldn’t have been worth it.Report
The Japanese wanted more than a guarantee that the Emperor would remain, most of those that were willing to surrender wanted a more conditional end to the war rather than to undergo and occupation and reconstruction. They even wanted to keep their pre-war possessions like Korea, Taiwan, Micronesia, and their other colonies.
During the Occupation, the United States government gave Japanese politicians the first go at writing a new constitution. They turned out a slightly more liberal version of the Meiji Constitution.
I know this goes against your political instincts, but the Japanese leadership, and it’s they who mattered, were delusional even if they knew they had to surrender.Report
I think it’s possible to see the bombings as justified, or at least understandable, without resorting to overblown projections of how many would have died or resorting to language that in other contexts might sound like facile race-baiting. (I’m referring to statements that strongly suggest the Japanese were almost preternaturally fanatical and violent. True, the statements in this thread are careful to qualify the fanaticism as the quality of the “Imperial army,” but there seems at least a hint that the civilians could be just as fanatical, especially in the implied claim that the army could really have convinced enough civilians to be Kamikaze drones. I’m not saying that’s Lee’s intention, but I suggest that his statements can read that way, and do read that way to me.)
Ca. July 1945, I understand the American casualties from an invasion were projected at 40,000 dead.* That’s a huge number, but far short of the 500,000 we sometimes hear today. (To be fair, I haven’t seen anyone cite that 500,000 figure in this thread so far.) Maybe even 5 Americans dead (say, from forebearing an atomic bomb attack for an extra week while waiting for a surrender) is too much to ask in a time of total war. I’m also aware that a credible argument can be made that Japan would have surrendered with a guarantee that its emperor would remain in power. If true–and to be clear, I don’t know how true that is or how conditional the guarantee had to be (status quo ante? emperor as figurehead only would also have been acceptable?)–one would still have to recognize that it would be a major policy reversal from the US’s prior unconditional surrender pledge. (However….could back channel, “informal” and plausibly deniable guarantees have been used? I don’t know.) There were likely proto-Cold War considerations, a la “we really gotta show the Russians what we can do and that we’re willing to use it and we hope they don’t get a sphere of influence in Japan.”
Was the bombing therefore unjustified? Is bombing civilians justified? Is bombing a military of draftees justified? Those are dicey questions. But it’s hard to sum it up by simple assertions.
*Most of the facts and interpretations I’ve learned come from the essays in Michael J. Hogan, ed., Hiroshima in History and Memory, 1996.Report
On some of the smaller islands we had already taken Japanese civilians in many cases committed suicide to prevent being captured but our troops. The indoctrination and propaganda was so strong that they preferred suicide. Would that have been all civilians, no, but some yes and some suicidal attacks: yeah probably.
Casualties in taking Okinawa were approximately 12000 US dead and a total of 80000. So 40000 dead might by over 200000 causalities total. That is pretty frickin significant even without going to the way over the top estimates.
Something not commonly known is that we were running low on infantry. Sure we could have kept drafting kids but it would have been a big ask and another 200000 causalities would have been horrific.
We asked Stalin to join in the attack on Japan once Germany was defeated. By the time Japan was crumbling the balance had changed from when FDR got Stalin’s promise to invade Japan. But the calculus with the Soviets was pretty complex.Report
I agree with most of the facts of what you say, Greginak. And one thing I didn’t discuss in my original comment is that people defending their own homes, especially in an unconditional surrender context, might very well be likely to fight to the death. So point taken.
Also, you’re right that the calculation with the Soviets was complicated, certainly much more than perhaps I suggested. But I still think it played a role.
For the record, if I had been slated to be on the invasion force, or even if I had been alive then (and an American), I probably would have rejoiced in the bomb being dropped.Report
Read my Wikipedia link above. American officials were really divided on how deadly a conventional invasion of Japan would be. They were about easily divided between a low casualty rate and a high one. The historian William Manchester, who was a grunt in the Pacific Theater, also thought that the casualty rate would be a really high one.Report
If those facts are true, then they put my claim in a different light. And a brief reading of the end notes suggests a lot of those accounts were published after 1996 (the date of the book from which I got most of my information).
Still, a few things.
First, from the Wikipedia article, it’s not clear, or at least not completely clear, that “casualties” always meant persons killed and not “killed and injured” in these projections. So it’s possible that some of the “250,000 casualties” projections were in fact consistent with my claim of 40,000 killed projections. Still, some places in that Wikipedia article switch to saying that it was the number of projected “killed.”
Second, a lot of the larger claims, even as recounted in that article, tend to have a post hoc quality to them, added years later. Not all the claims. So I’d really want to know what the working hypothesis was and not just the outliers. That said, I implied in my comment that 40,000 was “the” (only) projection, and I was either wrong or speaking without enough evidence.
Third, even “only” 40,000 dead is a huge number. It also doesn’t include the number of Japanese military or Japanese civilians who would have perished in a conventional and drawn out invasion. And as I said, even a few more deaths (from waiting a week or two for a surrender) could be argued to be “too many” from a certain point of view.
Fourth, as much as I respect the experiences of “the grunt” in WWII, he, by virtue of being “a grunt,” wouldn’t have privileged knowledge to the projections Truman & co. considered at the time. That’s not to say he couldn’t research them later, but he does so as a historian and not as someone who knows firsthand what the high command was thinking. That said, he certainly would know firsthand what the actual fighting was like and could extrapolate from that that a conventional invasion of the home islands would likely be comparably brutal. I never disputed that the Pacific campaigns were brutal and I don’t blame anyone who served in those campaigns from being happy that the bomb was dropped. As I just said to Greg above, if I had been in that situation, I probably would have rejoiced at the bomb being dropped.Report
By which I mean, it would therefore be understandable if new facts had been discovered.Report
I genuinely don’t know the answer to this one, but my experiences with project management and estimates on much more tractable problems lead me to ask: Is it more common for military casualty estimates to come in “ahead of schedule and under budget” than “behind schedule and over budget” like they do in other fields?
The wars in my lifetime, lopsided as they have been, have not vindicated the people on the “cheap and easy” side of the estimate spectrum. Going back to the years before my living memory, we have Vietnam, which we probably wouldn’t have gotten into if we’d known what a disaster it would have been. Not sure what the estimates were for Korea or the world wars as they unfolded, but I’d be surprised if the consensus among the military elite was that they’d go worse than they actually did.
By its nature, war usually requires one side’s estimate of how things will turn out to be totally wrong. If not, we’d have had a lot fewer wars. It seems pretty reasonable that the tendency toward wrongness and underestimating costs would at least be somewhat present on the winning side as well.Report
I’m actually on the latter with “behind schedule and over budget” like anything else. The closest we had to how Operation Olympia would have played out is the invasion of Okinawa. The invasion of Okinawa was grueling and with high casualties on both sides. It also showed that the Japanese army was made enough to use Japanese civilians as a sacrifice. If the invasion of the rest of Japan went as Okinawa did than using the atomic bombs was the right decision.
The atomic bomb debates are weird because the anti-bomb, who tend towards pacifism or at least anti-war, in other issues show an unusual optimism about a short and easy end to World War II. The pro-bomb side, usually not pacifists or anti-war, actively distrust the most optimistic of the generals when they are normally inclined to trust them.Report
The Bomb must have seemed like magic to senior US military staff. The firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo (from what I recall of reading about them many years ago) were hard and dangerous work, coordinating enormous fleets of planes, men and materiel.
Then on a fine summer morning, a single bomber carries a single payload working on a principal of physics understood only to a tiny handful of people — and a city is gone.
To me, arguing about civilian casualties and comparing Hiroshima with Tokyo is missing the point. The point is that ever since 1945 humanity has controlled magic. It’s the breathtaking ease (or so it must have appeared) that it took to wipe out a city that sets the pre-atomic age from everything that followed.
The crew of an Ohio class submarine is about 155, per wiki. Those 155 sailors on a single boat wield destructive power that is truly beyond my imagination. (24 missiles with 8 warheads each or 192 cities.)
The fact that 155 sailors can kill millions is what makes Hiroshima worth noting.Report
Apps like this one are an interesting way to conceptualize exactly what type of forces we’re playing with. The nuclear stalemate/MAD era does seem to have been a pretty peaceful one in terms of horrible large-scale wars. Hopefully we can keep that up long enough to amortize the cost of whatever terrible event ends that era.Report