The Bombing of Hiroshima

6 August 1945

Piloted by Paul Tibbets Jr, the US B-29 bomber Enola Gay approached the south-western Japanese city of Hiroshima. Six hours had passed since the plane’s take-off from the western Pacific island of Tinian – a base taken from the Japanese by US forces in the previous year and whose runways at the time were the world’s longest. On board was the bomb dubbed ‘Little Boy’ by the US military. The explosion occurred at 8.15 a.m. A flash of light, a wave of heat and then a profound roar preceded the rise of a ball of fire followed by a mushroom-shaped cloud. Explosive energy and heat released through nuclear fission reduced an entire city to dust and ashes. Fires spread over 4.4 square miles. One hundred thousand were killed immediately and more than 70,000 others were injured. Three days after Hiroshima’s destruction, Bock’s Car, another B-29 bomber, dropped ‘Fat Man’, another atomic bomb, on the city of Nagasaki, devastating an area of 1.8 square miles and causing an equivalent number of deaths and injuries. Women, children and elderly men comprised the overwhelming majority of the 200,000 killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the survivors suffered from varying degrees of burns and the effects of radiation sickness. Cancers and tumours would develop among the two cities’ inhabitants in the next fifty years. The New York Times on 7 August reported the new US president Harry S. Truman as saying: ‘We have spent 2 billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history – and won.’

US atomic bomb research started in February 1940 on a government budget of $6,000 allocated to a committee of scientists. But by 1942 the scale of the work required the direct involvement of the War Department and research was carried out in centres right across the US. The physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, of the University of California at Berkeley, had been committed to the democratic left ever since the Spanish Civil War. As soon as Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 he started work on separating uranium-235, the fissionable component of an atomic bomb, from natural uranium. Once given security clearance, Oppenheimer established a laboratory near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he led a team working on nuclear fission and the manufacture of an atomic bomb consisting of fissionable material. He demonstrated the results before a small number of observers at 5.30 a.m. on 16 July 1945 at Alamogordo air base, New Mexico, when the world’s first atomic bomb exploded and generated power equivalent to more than 15,000 tons of TNT. The surface of the desert surrounding the point of the bomb’s detonation was fused to glass for a radius of 800 yards.

On 17 July seventy scientists working on the atomic bomb’s development, alarmed by its power, petitioned Truman not to use the bomb on Japan unless the terms of surrender had been both published and refused. These were now crucial points in relation to the morality of atomic warfare. Japan, under the weight of intensive aerial bombardment and suffering the effects of naval blockade, was on the point of collapse. On 30 July Japan refused to surrender unconditionally after the Allied leaders meeting at Potsdam had called on it to do so. The US government and its allies justified the detonations on the basis that so unsurpassed a horror would enforce a surrender and prevent a long and costly territorial invasion. It was fundamental to the Japanese that any surrender would not upset the constitutional status of their emperor whom they considered divine. Even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese government, when suing for peace on 10 August, still sought a guarantee that the emperor’s sovereign position would be maintained. The surrender went ahead (14 August) after the Allies had given that assurance.

Both generals Eisenhower and MacArthur thought the bombings unjustified and harmful to the US’s moral standing. President Truman in his broadcast of 9 August described Hiroshima as ‘a military base’ and no more. This was false. His diary entry for 25 July recorded his view that atomic bombs should be used only on military targets, but the written order for the bombing, approved by him on the same day, made no such provision and specified the cities of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki as targets.

The 6th of August 1945 was in fact the planned culmination of a sustained US aerial bombardment. Some 124,000 civilians had been killed in Tokyo during the air attack of 9 March and from July the bombing of Japanese towns and cities intensified. The Allied bombing of Germany illustrated the same strategy of terror: Dresden was destroyed in one night and 135,000 civilians killed.

The main air attacks on Japan accompanied the progress of US land forces after the fall of Okinawa in June in a battle which claimed 50,000 American lives and 100,000 Japanese ones. The US military advances of the late winter and early spring in the Pacific also ran in parallel with the Allies’ thrust through both western and eastern Europe as they converged on a shattered Germany whose besieged army fought tenaciously throughout the last campaigns of 1944–45. Although the US won the race to develop an atomic bomb, Germany was ahead in the development of jet engines and rockets. A jet-powered Messerschmitt 262 first flew in 1942 and the Vergeltung or revenge rockets, the V-1 and V-2, were targeted on London from 1944 onwards.

By March troops of the US 5th Division had crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim and established a bridgehead on the river’s east bank. The Soviet army entered Austria at the beginning of April and occupied Vienna on 14 April. Nuremberg was taken by the US 7th Army on 21 April but by now the Soviets were on the outskirts of Berlin with many of their units running wild. The two invaders met on the River Elbe at a point just south of the German capital on 25 April and the final siege of Berlin was left to the Soviet army. Germany surrendered on 7–8 May. The true nature of Nazism also began to emerge in early 1945: in January the Soviets liberated Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where a million Jews had been killed in the gas chambers; General George Patton’s 3rd Army liberated Buchenwald north of Weimar on 11 April; Dachau in Bavaria was liberated on 24 April by the Allies. By the spring of 1945 the German regime had killed some fourteen million ‘racial inferiors’, about six million of whom were Jews. Other victims included Slavs and Gypsies. By November the Allies had started their trials of war criminals at Nuremberg but confined the indictments to crimes committed by German officers, politicians and other civilians.

At Yalta in the Crimea between 4 and 11 February 1945, Roosevelt, who would be dead in two months, and Churchill, who would be voted out of office within six months, negotiated with Stalin – who promised that the post-war nations of eastern Europe would be allowed to be democratic. It was agreed that Germany would be divided into four separate zones of Allied occupation and the USSR was allowed to enter the Pacific war at a date soon after the end of European hostilities. Stalin’s declaration of war on Japan came two days after the bombing of Hiroshima when he sent his troops into Manchuria – the Chinese province invaded by Japan in 1931. The defeat of Japan meant that the USSR was denied a pretext for Asian expansion through war, but it still got a good deal in the terms of Japanese surrender signed aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September. Outer Mongolia, the Kuril Islands and south Sakhalin were ceded to the USSR; Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Taiwan and Hainan were ceded to China. The US and USSR would occupy Korea pending the creation of democratic structures for the country; a US army of occupation under General Douglas MacArthur ruled Japan. The separate Japanese surrender to China at Nanking on 9 September ended a fourteen-year period of Sino-Japanese conflict. Five hundred and eighty-five thousand Japanese troops in south-east Asia surrendered to the British at Singapore on 12 September. This was the last formal surrender of a power involved in the global struggle and it marked the end of the Second World War.

Among the military personnel who served during the war, the USSR lost 7.5 million, Germany nearly 2.9 million, China 2.2 million, Japan 1.5 million, the UK 398,000, Italy 300,000, the USA 290,000, France 211,000, Canada 39,139, India 36,092, Australia 29,395, New Zealand 12,262, South Africa 8,681 and the remaining territories of the British empire 30,776. For the first time in armed warfare the combatant countries’ civilian populations had been attacked on a major scale and, although it proved impossible to produce a precise figure for civilian deaths, the total is unlikely to be less than forty million.

Nineteen fourteen to 1918 and 1939–45 were two phases of armed hostilities separated by a twenty-one-year armed truce during a thirty-one-year period of conflict whose origins were Asian as well as European and whose ramifications were global. Europe had annihilated itself. Britain, the only European country not to be invaded, was broke and war loans had turned it into the US’s debtor state. Across the corpse of old Europe two superpowers glowered at each other. Ideological communism met its match in an equally ideological anti-communism. Robert Oppenheimer became a victim of the new paranoia when, in 1954, he was accused of past associations with communists and had his security clearance revoked. In Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, the USSR had acquired client states run by puppet regimes answerable to the Soviet politburo. The USSR had also re-absorbed the Baltic states and reasserted its control over the Caucasus.

The build-up of military alliances in defence of democratic powers together with the expense of modern weaponry led to the consolidation of Washington DC’s military bureaucracy. On 24 July, while the leaders were at Potsdam, Truman told Stalin that the US had ‘a new weapon of unusual destructive force’. That evening back at Stalin’s quarters he and his foreign minister Molotov resolved that work on the Soviet equivalent had to be speeded up. After Hiroshima, international relations were plagued by the dilemma of ‘mutually assured destruction’: the nuclear power which deployed an atomic bomb against another such power was ensuring its own destruction through retaliation. This abolished traditional warfare between major states. In its place came surveillance and calculation – a time to test the nerves of the great powers. The armed truce had returned. Meanwhile, on 1 January 1946, emperor Hirohito made a gesture which, in the circumstances, proved helpful. He renounced his divinity.