I cannot help but take a break from the boredom of everyday life to think one of the most significant events in modern history. On August 6, 1945, President Harry S. Truman announced to the nation that the USA had dropped a single atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The decision to drop “the bomb” was Truman’s. He took responsibility for making the decision, and throughout the rest of his life, never indicated that he ever doubted that he made the right decision.
Historians and others have ever since debated whether dropping the atomic bomb was necessary in order to end the war in the Pacific, or at least avoid the immense loss of American lives that surely would have resulted from an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Some argue that it was meant to be a warning to our wartime ally, the Soviet Union.
Some ask why Hiroshima? After all, the city was of no military significance and the residence of numerous refugees from the war. The usual explanation given is that the military wanted a kind of “laboratory experiment.” And then there is the question of why the bombing of Hiroshima was followed only three days later by the dropping of a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
The debate will continue without end. What is not debatable is the horror produced by the bomb, so graphically portrayed by John Hersey’s little book, Hiroshima. Based upon eyewitness accounts, Hersey’s story was first published in the August, 1946 issue of The New Yorker. It filled up the entire issue. No other articles. No advertisements. The issue sold out in just four hours. The story was quickly put in print as a book, and mailed free to all members of The-Book-of-the-Month Club. It has never been out of print since, even in this present era of declining literacy in America.
Less known to Americans is Japanese artist, Keiji Makazawa’s Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no Gen), first published in serial form between 1973 and 1974, and then as an animated film in 1976. It is based on Makazawa’s experience as a survivor of Hiroshima. In cartoon art similar to Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986-1991), Nagazawa provides graphic images of the horrors described in John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Barefoot Gen does for Hiroshima what Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) does for the Holocaust.
Every year since August 6, 2010, the Japanese mark the exact time of day when the bomb fell on Hiroshima with a public observance. This year, for the first time in 65 years, the USA and its wartime allies (the United Kingdom and France) sent representatives. Why did it take so long for the USA, in particular, to join with the Japanese in remembering the tragedy? Did it take America becoming the victim of international terrorism for Americans to feel the suffering of those who experienced nuclear war first hand? Or, was it because we are the only nation to have actually used nuclear weapons, and even in recent years, threatened to use them again?
The atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ranks as one of the greatest war crimes of the twentieth century. Questions remain and ever will. If the war in Europe had continued, would we have used the atom bomb against Germany? Or, was there perhaps a bit of racism involved in the decision to use it against Japan? What is there to fear about international terrorism for those of us who grew up in the shade of the mushroom cloud?
My generation believed that someday the Cold War would become a nuclear holocaust. It was never if, but when? Perhaps one thing positive resulted from the nightmare of Hiroshima. Because the leaders of the super powers during the Cold War knew, really knew, what nuclear weapons could do, they never used them. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when nuclear war came within perhaps an hour of becoming reality, the example of Hiroshima kept the demon at bay.
Dr. Waibel – I look forward to visiting and reading your blog. There is often a discussion of the atomic bomb’s damage and cost in lives versus the firebombing in Japan and Europe. You wrote, “The atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ranks as one of the greatest war crimes of the twentieth century.” Do you consider the firebombing high on that list as well and do you think it as bad as the atomic bombing, or is the difference that one was a singular event and the other a series of attacks? I’m not trying to load the question (and have tried to avoid doing so), just curious of your thougths on that matter.
I thought that your question might be raised, because as I was writing the post, I was wondering if I should bring up the issue of other war crimes. I decided not to, because the post was really to comment on the anniversary of Hiroshima. I think the firebombing of cities in both Europe and Japan, an idea that originated with the British but carried out by both the British and Americans, was certainly a major war crime. In the introduction to chapter 11 of the 2nd edition of my textbook, Twentieth-Century Europe: A Brief History (2005), I comment on the firebombing of Dresden on the night of February 13-14, 1945. Except for the fact that old-fashioned incendiary bombs were used, instead of an atomic bomb, it was every bit as horrible. Dresden was also a refugee city, not to mention its great cultural value. There was no logical reason to bomb it. I think what makes Hiroshima stand out is that we apparently did it, not so much to attain a military advantage as to see what the new weapon would do. It was a kind of “laboratory experiment.” So, in trying to find some “good” that came out of it, I like to think that postwar leaders during the Cold War learned not to ever use nuclear weapons. Had there not been such a graphic example of what nuclear weapons could do, we might well have had a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis, if not sooner or later. I should also note that as far as war crimes of WW II are concerned, the Holocaust experienced by the Jews in Europe stands in a category by itself. But then, it is normally thought of as a crime against humanity, rather than a war crime.
Thanks, I appreciate your thoughtful insights.
“The atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ranks as one of the greatest war crimes of the twentieth century.”
Wow. That’s all I can say. That is such a ridiculous statement. Do you know how many marines would have died in a full-scale invasion of Japan? Every single marine would have been deployed. We may have not even won the war in the Pacific (at least not for a long time). There would have been hundreds of civilian deaths in a land invasion of Japan. Do I want to just flipantly use nuclear weapons? Of course not. The United States of America, however, did what they had to do to end the war. It is a shame that we had to use a weapon like that but we did.
Thank you for reading and then commenting on my essay. If I recall correctly, I think the US military estimated that the invasion of the Japanese home islands may have cost upwards of a million lives. War is by its very nature a horrible affair. I don’t think there is anything one could do to civilize it. The question is what is morally permissible in order to achieve a military victory? Until WW I, making war against the civilian population was considered immoral. All of those wonderful modern weapons available during the war–machine guns, flame throwers, tanks, gas, etc.–blurred the lines between what was permissible and what was not permissible. World War II erased those lines entirely. Mass murder, fire-bombing of cities and the atomic bomb, in a word, industrialized slaughter of human beings by fellow human beings, became acceptable, but not gas or chemical weapons. Even Hitler did not resort to that. Simply put, I believe that there is a point at which the price of military advantage and victory becomes too expensive, even when the cause may be a righteous one. The fire-bombing of civilian populations in Germany and Japan and the use of atomic bombs were clearly war crimes. Likewise, I believe that the use of napalm and herbicides in the Vietnam War, and use of torture in the so-called war on terrorism, are criminal acts.
Thank you for your insight. I understand what you are saying. However, Hitler did use gas. Hitler was a mass murderer. He did not use gas on enemy combatants- he tricked the innocent prisoners in the concentration camps into thinking they would be taking a shower and then gased them to death. So yes, Hitler did do that.
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