On Aug. 6, 1945, an atomic bomb leveled Hiroshima. Three days later on Aug. 9, an atomic bomb destroyed the forgotten second city, Nagasaki. Atomic bombs shattered Japan 70 years ago at the end of World War II.
Perhaps 250,000 casualties perished as a result of the neutron bombardment of uranium 235 and plutonium 239 isotopes. The splitting of nuclei unlocked the mystery of the atom, unleashing heat, blast and radiation of unprecedented magnitude.
Several Scientists at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory (Metlab) signed the Franck Report on June 11, 1945, urging an A-bomb warning demonstration on a “desert or a barren island.” Ralph Bard, undersecretary of the navy, wrote a memorandum on June 27 to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson advocating the United States warn Japan, guarantee its emperor would not hang, and the institution preserved for Japanese national identity.
Admiral William D. Leahy, the highest ranking military officer in America during the war, denounced the use of the atomic bomb as “this barbarous weapon…of no material assistance in our war against Japan…I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and war cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
Japan had pursued an exit strategy with the Russians, with whom they were not at war until Aug. 8, 1945. They met secretly with American officials from the Office of Strategic Services in Switzerland. Japan had no navy by spring of 1945, and was vulnerable to a devastating blockade-bombing, siege strategy that pummeled Japan night and day.
President Harry Truman and defenders of the atomic bomb attacks argued it saved lives by preventing a bloody invasion with a million casualties. The pre-invasion estimates generated during the final months of the war were considerably lower. However, any invasion would have resulted in thousands of American and Japanese casualties.
The invasion would not begin until November 1 on Kyushu. A second larger offensive on the Tokyo Plain, would not begin until March 1, 1946. Why the rush to bomb in August when the invasion was months away? It seems likely that the combination of the siege strategy, the Russian entrance into the war and a guarantee that the emperor would be preserved, would have induced surrender under the terms of the Potsdam Declaration without using the A-bomb.
The United States Strategic Bombing Survey analyzed the impact of the atomic bomb, and concluded on June 19, 1946: “[I]n all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”
According to the Arms Control Association, there are currently over 9,000 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. This is an existential threat to global security and survival. The “Little Boy” Hiroshima and “Fat Man” Nagasaki bombs contributed to the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Just four years after the nuclear climax of World War II, the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb. There are now nine nations that have nuclear weapons: United States, Russia, United Kingdom, China, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea.
It is important that Iran not develop a nuclear deterrent. The Obama administration’s efforts to prevent a 10th nuclear-weapons state is in the national interest. Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 also obligates nuclear-weapons states to end the nuclear arms race and achieve “nuclear disarmament.” Our goal must be a world without nuclear weapons. For 70 years, the atomic age has cast a nuclear shadow that, absent new thinking, could result in the destruction of civilization.
Editor’s note: Peter N. Kirstein is professor of history at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. He has published articles on the nuclear age in The Historian, American Diplomacy, Art in America, Encyclopedia of Cultural Wars (Oppenheimer biogaphy), and Advances in Historical Studies. He is doing research on Ralph A. Bard, undersecretary of the navy during World War II and is one of the first to examine the Bard papers at the Washington Navy Yard archives. He has lectured twice before the US Army Russian Institute, Garmisch, Germany. He has taught courses on the nuclear age for 25 years.
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