Dawn of Nuclear Age: Bombing of Japan

In part 1 of this entry, I discussed the long-term impacts of the atom bomb and the science behind it. This week, I am discussing the short-term impacts of the two atom bombs used on Japan. It was the first time in history that nukes were used and hopefully the last. Regardless, it truly changed the landscape of warfare and the potency of large-scale weapons moving forward. If you have not read Part 1, I recommend reading that first: Manhattan Project. Both are stand-alone entries though.

Day that Humanity Defined Destruction

On August 6, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress bomber named ‘Enola Gay’ was launched from North Field on island of Tinian in the Pacific. It was commanded by Colonel Paul Tibbets Jr, who had named the bomber after his mother’s name. It had Little Boy, which used radioactive Uranium, attached in the bomb bay. Two other B-29s were launched with one carrying photography instruments for analysis by scientists and military officials. The other B-29 carried support instruments essential to the mission.

'Enola Gay' -- Plane that nuked Hiroshima

‘Enola Gay’ — Plane that nuked Hiroshima

At 8:15 am, Little Boy was released on target over Hiroshima from a height of 31,000 feet (9,400 meters). It detonated 1,800 feet over the city (NationalMuseum, 2014).

Little Boy, wikipedia

Little Boy

The direct destruction radius was 1-mile and fires spread 5 miles burning down buildings and houses. Approximately 80,000 people, or 30% of Hiroshima, died instantly from either direct bomb impact or indirectly from the massive fires that spread across the city (History, 2009). Another 70,000 were badly injured of which many died later from the impacts of radiation. 20,000 of those were Japanese soldiers and the rest were civilians (Wikipedia).


Direct Impact of Atomic Bombs

Everyone and everything within half a mile radius was instantly incinerated into smoke and ashes. People that were miles beyond had to deal with entire layers of skin melting off their bodies and radiation poisoning that many died from in subsequent days. Others got cancer, respiratory issues, etc and many of them died from it within days, months or years. By the end of 1945, 120,000 people were dead in Hiroshima. Countless more died over next few years (UCLA, 2007).

bombing of Japan

Hiroshima bombing on left, Nagasaki bombing on right

Below is one image of Hiroshima from a military plane before and after the bombings (the target depicts ground zero of the bomb with a river running through the middle). The dots you see are houses, buildings, and neighborhoods and the Ota River runs through the center. The city was mostly wiped out as you can see on the right.

Photo by Kingendai Photo Library/AFLO

Photo of Hiroshima by Kingendai Photo Library/AFLO

More images of the bombing here.

Japan refused to surrender after that first bomb because they did not believe USA had many more bombs in their arsenal.

Fat Man

Fat Man

After some discussion, Fat Man was launched next as a response on Nagasaki, which was a seaport. This time, the B-29 being used was called Bockscar being flown by a Major Sweeney on August 9. Kokura was the primary target and Nagasaki being secondary target. Some plane fuel tank issues forced them to end up going for the secondary target at Nagasaki. At 10:58 am, Fat Man was dropped over Nagasaki. 40,000 died quickly and many others died within days, weeks, and months.

Fat Man was a bigger and quite a bit more powerful bomb. The reason why significantly fewer people died was because Nagasaki was in a narrow valley with fewer people. If it had been dropped on Kokura as initially planned, significantly more people would have died than even Hiroshima because Kokura was much more open than Nagasaki.

Graphic by UCLA

Graphic by UCLA

Photo by wiki / cc

Photo by wiki / cc

Responses & Quotes


Tibbets later said, “I had no problem with it. I knew we did the right thing because when I knew we’d be doing that I thought, yes, we’re going to kill a lot of people, but by God we’re going to save a lot of lives. We won’t have to invade [Japan]” (Mentalfloss, 2010).

President Harry Truman released a statement saying: “We have spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history – and won.. What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history. It was done under high pressure and without failure…We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war… It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth” (American History About).

After the second bomb, Emperor Hirohito called for surrender even against the wishes of their military. He said “I do not desire any further destruction of cultures, nor any additional misfortune for the peoples of the world. On this occasion, we have to bear the unbearable.” He personally called for an imperial conference, and they surrendered.

The Debate behind Bombing of Japan

Historians and others have debated the use of nukes from the moment they were used. Some argued it had to be done to save more lives being ultimately lost. Some argued it was immoral. Some argued that the Nazis would have done exactly what the United States did except for different ideologies — Germany would have ended up doing it for fascism while USA did it to protect democracy. Some argued that the accelerated threat after seeing the nukes in action is what pushed the Cold War to the stages it later reached. I believe all of those arguments have merit.

While the intentions were good, I feel the USA could have approached it differently. Essentially, there were 3 main options that most people and historians bring up:

1) invasion using a plan called Operation Downfall, but invasion was too costly requiring millions of troops against an enemy that rarely surrendered.
2) complete naval blockade and continued air barrages, but that would extend the war out by couple more years, potentially killing more civilians in long run.
3) Use nuclear bombs – *this option was chosen*.

There was a 4th option, which not many bring up. That approach would have been to use a nuke on a nearby island close to a military base after telling the Japanese which island. They can see the explosion and destruction for themselves, and if they refused to surrender within 48 hours after seeing it in action, you can nuke them one city at a time. Leaflets were dropped warning the Japanese civilians, but nobody would believe at the time such a bomb was physically possible, making the leaflets useless. I believe you don’t start off with nuking 2 cities off the bat. That is not much better than what the Nazis would have done.

This is hardly a new option as it was proposed, but overruled. US officials felt it could backfire if the bomb failed to work or something went wrong with the plane (Bomb debate). It would also damage psychological warfare factor, which is very often used in wars. It could also be wasting resources when they could use that resource to end the war, test the weapon on a public city, and the fear of communism (Red scare) had begun at that time. Supposedly, Japan was on the verge of surrendering before the nukes were ever used (Globalresearch, 2014). Another thing not many mention is the Soviets invaded Manchuria to push the Japanese out of China the day before the first nuke on Hiroshima (Manchuria Surprise attack). That makes the 4th option even more powerful.

As for other long-term reasons as to why they didn’t seriously consider the 4th option, I would argue that US officials wanted the Soviets & the world to see the bomb in action first to showcase USA’s capability & strength on the big stage. With the Red Scare being on even before WW2 ended, the pressure rose further as people became paranoid. The Soviets didn’t help the situation as Stalin wanted to spread communism. For instance, Soviets could have gone straight to Berlin while pushing the Nazis back and ended the war months earlier. Instead, Stalin pushed South of Germany into Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. and North into Finland. Clearly, he was trying to expand Soviet Union’s borders under the guise of WW2. By mid 1944, Hitler had no chance as the Russians started rolling out 2,000 new tanks per month, dominated the skies in Eastern Europe, and had millions of Russian soldiers. Germany was finished, and USA was destroying the Japanese in the Pacific. WW2 was over in 1944 (formally ended in Europe in May 1945 & Pacific in August 1945). Soviets had no reason to enter Manchuria. I would argue the Cold War had begun in 1944 with both Soviet Union & USA already making moves against each other.

Often, people counter that option with the notion that USA had only two nukes -Little Boy, Fat man- so they didn’t want to waste either of them. That’s false because a third nuke was made & ready to go within days if ordered, perhaps directly onto Tokyo (Holman, 2009). In fact, they had material to manufacture few more nukes. By that time, the allies also had control over Uranium mines after Germany’s surrender so they could have kept rolling out new nukes. According to President Truman, they were going to continue nuking until Japan surrendered (Truman address, 1945).

All of these reasons mean that showcasing a nuclear bomb in action on a nearby Japanese island would have probably ended the war and if necessary, they could have nuked one city at a time afterwards, which would surely have been enough instead of nuking 2 separate cities with couple hundred thousand civilians to start off. USA simply did not want to risk Japan surrendering to the Soviets instead of USA.

The Transition

Of course, we can sit here in hindsight, and say that things went alright in the long-run for all of the parties involved. USA, Japan, Germany, Russia are all world-powers now. Soviet Union is gone, and it took communism with it to the graveyard. The Cold War ended almost 25 years ago. Very few people that fought in the war in 1945 almost 70 years ago are still living today – WW2 veterans would have to be in their 90’s today. Everybody has moved on from WW2. So using the bombs did work out in the long-run with no lingering impacts to this day.

The bomb did work in transitioning us from one age to another. We have more technology available today globally than ever before – some of it can be attributed to the atom bomb research that took place in the 40’s and later.

The most obvious technology is nuclear energy used to power homes & businesses. Coal & oil cannot provide nearly as much efficient or effective energy as nuclear energy (both fission & fusion – although fusion powerplant is work in progress). While nuclear fission power does leave radioactive rods behind as waste, there are techniques used to put them underground – I have no idea why there is no work behind done to send nuclear wastes into space into the sun or even away (Newton’s law of inertia states an object will stay in motion at same velocity & same direction unless acted upon by an opposing force – that means it will not return to Earth once it is out of the atmosphere and targeted in trajectory away from Earth). Both coal & oil have more long-term lingering impacts to the atmosphere as they release large amounts of CO2 and other dangerous substances when they’re burned. I blogged more about the dangers of coal & oil here: Energy Sources

Space technology regularly uses radioactive elements for electricity. The Voyager 1 that is traveling to the corners of our solar system is powered by radioactive plutonium, and as the plutonium atoms decay over time, they release heat. That heat is used to generate electricity to keep Voyager 1’s instruments working (Slate, 2003).

Certain medical technologies, such as those used for diagnosis, use radioactive substances. Many hospitals have machines that use these substances that would be dangerous if humans are directly exposed to them. There are many other uses of radioactive elements, such as uranium, for peaceful means. It’s not just for bombs.


We can see all the uses we can attribute to the nuclear research that started in the 40’s, but as far as using the nuke on Japan goes for that moment in time.. Overall, it’s difficult to say whether the bombing of Japan using the nukes was the right choice or not. Nuclear power was inevitable, but there are philosophical questions.

Clearly, it was not the moral decision, but lots of things the Axis powers did was immoral. Does the revenge factor justify using the nukes on civilians? Does it mean that the Allies should have been better than the Axis powers in how they approached things? If the nuke is what it took to end the war, would it be sensible to argue the point that using the nuke was essential? I believe the war would have ended whether the bomb was used or not, but it might have taken longer with more Japanese civilians dying ultimately. How would history judge things then if USA had a bomb that may have ended the war in 1945 but didn’t use it and let the war linger on until 1947 with 250,000 more civilians dying ultimately?

There are simply too many arguments and counter-arguments that I do not see the argument ending anytime soon. Things did work out in the end, but hindsight is 20/20.

All I can say is that we came very close to extinction multiple times from our own decisions since August 1945, and there is no doubt that humanity will be put in that precarious situation again and again with future weapons more powerful. How will humanity respond then? Will we push ourselves into extinction?

Harsh Shukla
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