Your RDA of Irony

This Day in History

August 6, 1945:  Hiroshima


In early May 1945, the war in  Europe ended.  Hitler was dead, Berlin captured and the remnants of the Third Reich surrendered to the Allied Forces.  But the World War was not over.  Japan remained defiant.  Over the last two years, despite consistent defeats, the Japanese Empire continued to show fanatic resistance.  Its soldiers chose to fight to the death rather than capitulate.  They adhered to the ideas of Bushido–“the way of the warrior”.  This had been the code of the Samurai, but what once had the etiquette of the medieval nobility now was the national policy of Japan.  Every soldier was to abide by it.   

On Iwo Jima, the Japanese garrison of 18,000 fought to the last man; and 6800 Americans died taking the island.  At Okinawa, a force of 110,000 Japanese found themselves cut off, defenseless against allied air power and outnumbered five to one.  Their position was hopeless but they would not surrender.  Nearly all of them died, and so did 12,000 Americans.  Faced with this fanatic resolve, the Allies had to plan the invasion of the Home Islands of the Empire. 

Two million Japanese soldiers were stationed there. The Japanese government also had organized a militia to resist the Allied invasion.  Every Japanese man from 15 to 60, every unmarried woman from 15 to 40– a total of 28 million– received military training and weapons.  They, too, were expected to fight and die for the Empire.  The Japanese air force was training its pilots for suicide– “kamikazes”– missions “: to deliberately crash their explosive-laden planes into Allied ships.  Japan had 10,000 kamikaze pilots ready.  Furthermore, there were another two million Japanese soldiers stationed in China and Korea; they had to be prevented from reinforcing the Home Islands.

The anticipated invasion would be the hardest and bloodiest campaign the Americans had yet to fight.  In August, the Soviets would enter the war against Japan and attack the imperial forces in Korea and China.  Then in late October or early November, Americans and British Commonwealth forces would land on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s Home Islands.  There, the Allies would establish a base from which they launch the next phase of the attack: an attack in March, 1946 on the island of Honshu.  Its goal was to capture Tokyo. 

Of course, the Allies expected a ferocious resistance.  Once the capital fell, the Allied strategists predicted that the Japanese would be too exhausted and demoralized to continue the war.  One evaluation by the U.S. Department of War predicted that the entire campaign would take six months and cost the lives of 260,000 soldiers; however, that was the most optimistic estimate.  Another strategic study predicted 800,000 dead.  As for the number of wounded, the standard calculation would be 4 times the number of dead.  Enemy casualties were not the primary concerns of these reports, but it was estimated that the Japanese could suffer up to 10 million dead.  At the time, the Japanese population was 80 million.

But there was an alternative to this anticipated carnage, at least one that would save Allied lives.  Throughout the war, Allied scientists had been working on the development of a phenomenal weapon that possessed unimaginable power.  Physicists had theorized the military potential of nuclear fission.  Splitting an atom of a radioactive element like uranium or plutonium could release a considerable and very destructive amount of energy.  Ten of thousands of scientists, technicians, and soldiers were involved in this top secret operation, codenamed “The Manhattan Project:  But for all these efforts, there remained the basic question: would the atomic bomb actually work?  On July 16, 1945 at Los Alamos, New Mexico, the doubt was answered: the atomic bomb detonated.  A single bomb could destroy a city.

Now the Allies could use this new weapon to overwhelm and force the Japanese to surrender.  At the time of the Los Alamos detonation, the Allied Leaders– Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin–were conferring at Potsdam, Germany.  Threatening certain but unspecified destruction, the Allies demanded Japan’s unconditional surrender.  The Empire would be deprived of all its annexations and conquests, its forces must be disarmed and Allied forces would occupy and administer the Home Islands while Japan adapted to a democratic, civilian government.  Responding through diplomatic channels, the Japanese rejected any Allied occupation of their country.

On August 6, 1945, three American planes flew to Hiroshima, a Japanese port and troop center with a civilian population of 300,000.  Such a small sortie did not concern the Japanese authorities.  But one of the planes, the Enola Gay, contained the atomic bomb.  That bomb contained 130 pounds of enriched uranium.  When detonated over Hiroshima, it created a blast equivalent to 13,000 tons of T.N.T. and ignited a fire burning at 7000 degrees Fahrenheit, the same temperature as the sun.  The bomb destroyed 69 percent of the city’s buildings and killed immediately 70,000 people; as many as 140,000 were injured. 

That same day, President Harry Truman gave a radio address to the American people.  “Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima.”  He went on to describe the bomb and the Allied effort to create it.  The President then warned the Japanese of the further consequences if they now refused to surrender.  “Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war…If they do not accept our terms they make expect a rain of ruin from the air, the likes of which has never been seen on this earth.”

Yet the Japanese government did not respond.  On August 9, 1945, a second atomic bomb was detonated over Nagasaki.  At least 40,000 people died.  That day the Japanese cabinet met to discuss whether or not to surrender.   Half of the cabinet members were prepared to keep fighting;   the Bushido Code preferred death to the disgrace of surrender.  Others were not so proud when faced with the possible extermination of the Japanese people.  They were debating into the next morning when the Emperor Hirohito intervened.  The Emperor would not allow the further destruction of his people, no matter the humiliation of surrender.  “We must endure the unendurable” and he ordered the cabinet to acknowledge Japan’s defeat and capitulate to the allies.  Since the state religion of Japan revered the Emperor as a God, he had to be obeyed.

Through diplomatic channels, the Japanese approached the Allies on August 12th, acceding to the terms of an unconditional surrender.  The only Japanese request was that the monarchy be preserved.  In fact, Americans and British actually favored the existence of a modified, constitutional monarchy.  They thought that the Emperor could be a valuable intermediary in transforming a samurai culture into a peaceful, democratic one.  On August 15th, Japan surrendered to the Allies. The Emperor Hirohito gave his first radio address to his subjects, telling them that the war was over and Japan had lost.  “Should we continue to fight, it would only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but would also lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”

So the war ended.  The men who would have died on the beaches of Kyushu or the plains of Tokyo lived; many are still alive and their descendants number in the tens of millions.  The Allies occupied Japan until 1952.  The Emperor Hirohito reigned until his death in 1989; history honors him for his role in ending the war and presiding over Japan’s remarkable transformation to a prosperous and democratic society.  And now nine countries possess the atomic bomb and terrifying advancements of it.  Yet, none has risked to use the weapon; its power is its own deterrent.   The atomic bomb ended the Second World War; there dare not be a Third.

  1. Maura says:

    Thank you for a powerful review of our history.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Thank you.

      I know two veterans of the Pacific campaigns. One was a marine grunt and the other piloted a landing craft. They do not know each other, but they both said the same thing: “If it weren’t for the atomic bomb, I’d be dead.” From an actuarial perspective, they probably both would have survived: perhaps just a one in four chance of being killed. (Comforting odds, indeed.) But their foreboding reflects the deep and widespread dread of invading Japan.

      To change the mood, here is an anecdote from the marine. A survivor of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, he was among the first American troops to occupy Japan. His outfit had the assignment of taking control of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. It was said to be the most luxurious address in Tokyo and nothing less would do for General Douglas MacArthur. (Hirohito’s palace apparently didn’t meet the General’s demands.) The marine unit was fully armed and prepared for a fight; they were ready for any resistance. As they approached the hotel, out stepped the general manager, resplendent in his morning coat, and greeting the marines in perfect English. The hotel and its staff were at their service.


  2. Peg Pruitt says:

    Superb article, Eugene. I wish every “revisionist” historian could read it. I can’t count how many essays and op-ed pieces I’ve read around this date over the years. They condemn the use of the bomb on a defeated people. They claim (wishful thinking) that Japan was on the verge of surrending. To that I say, “bovine excrement!”

    I once watched a program about the bomb on the History Channel. There were many interviews, including some with Japanese people who lived at that time. More than one acknowledged that without the bomb attacks, Japan would never have surrendered – they were prepared to fight to the last man or woman.

    The bomb was a terrible weapon, but an invasion of Japan would have been far more terrible, for both the Allies AND Japan.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Peg,

      Perhaps those revisionists have confused the Italians with the Japanese. Those paisanos wanted to surrender; bless them, they knew Mussolini was a buffoon and preferred us to their alleged allies–the direct descendants of the barbarians who sacked Rome and brought about the Dark Ages.
      (In fact, Churchill spoke of the threat of “a new Dark Ages”.)

      But Japan was not ready to surrender–except on its own terms. The Empire would have withdrawn from mainland China, Indonesia and Indo-China; but not Korea or Taiwan. Even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Imperial War Council was evenly split between the die-hards (and the term is literal) and the pragmatists. The Emperor himself broke the tie.


  3. Mary Ann Jung says:

    Indeed, a very excellent summary of a difficult subject. Many forget that although horrible, the bombs did in fact save countless lives on both sides. My father was in the Pacific too- was sunk off Guadalcanal by the Japanese, but he harbored no animosity. Years later working on a film for the Navy photo center, he met the son of the Admiral who’d sunk him and was tickled to get Tanaka’s autograph!

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