Seventy-one years after the twin atomic attacks on Japan, historians continue to debate whether the first bombing, over Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945, was justified, and whether it was even the most important factor in the country's swift surrender. Many of those who still defend President Truman's decision on that assault, however, consider the bombing of Nagasaki three days later completely avoidable, even a crime of war.
By August 7, 1945, President Truman, while still at sea returning from Potsdam, had been fully briefed on the first atomic attack against a large city in Japan the day before. In announcing it, he had labeled Hiroshima simply a "military base," but he knew better, and within hours of the blast he had been fully informed about the likely massive toll on civilians (probably 100,000), mainly women and children, as we had planned. Despite this -- and news that the Soviets, as planned, were about to enter the war against Japan -- Truman did not order a delay in the use of the second atomic bomb to give Japan a chance to assess, reflect, and surrender.
After all, by this time, Truman (as recorded in his diary and by others) was well aware that the Japanese were hopelessly defeated and seeking terms of surrender -- and he had, just two weeks earlier, written "Fini Japs" in his diary when he learned that the Russians would indeed attack around August 7. Yet Truman, on this day, did nothing, and the second bomb rolled out, and would be used against Nagasaki, killing perhaps 90,000 more, only a couple hundred of them Japanese troops, on August 9.
Few journalists bother to visit Nagasaki, even though it is one of only two cities in the world to "meet the atomic bomb," as some of the elderly survivors of that experience, 71 years ago this week, put it. It remains the Second City, and "Fat Man" the forgotten bomb. No one in America ever wrote a bestselling book called Nagasaki, or made a film titled Nagasaki, Mon Amour. "We are an asterisk," Shinji Takahashi, a sociologist in Nagasaki, once told me, with a bitter smile. "The inferior A-Bomb city."
Yet in many ways, Nagasaki is the modern A-Bomb city, the city with perhaps the most meaning for us today. For one thing, when the plutonium bomb exploded above Nagasaki it made the uranium-type bomb dropped on Hiroshima obsolete.
And then there's this. "The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable," Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, once observed, "but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki" -- which he labeled a war crime. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who experienced the firebombing of Dresden at close hand, said much the same thing. "The most racist, nastiest act by this country, after human slavery, was the bombing of Nagasaki," he once said. "Not of Hiroshima, which might have had some military significance. But Nagasaki was purely blowing away yellow men, women and children. I'm glad I'm not a scientist because I'd feel so guilty now."
A beautiful city dotted with palms largely built on terraces surrounding a deep harbor -- the San Francisco of Japan -- Nagasaki has a rich, bloody history, as any reader of Shogun knows. Three centuries before Commodore Perry came to Japan, Nagasaki was the country's gateway to the west. The Portuguese and Dutch settled here in the 1500s. St. Francis Xavier established the first Catholic churches in the region in 1549, and Urakami, a suburb of Nagasaki, became the country's Catholic center. Thomas Glover, one of the first English traders here, supplied the modern rifles that helped defeat the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 19th century.
Glover's life served as a model for the story of Madame Butterfly, and Nagasaki is known in many parts of the world more for Butterfly than for the bomb. In Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly, standing on the veranda of Glover's home overlooking the harbor (see left), sings, "One fine day, we'll see a thread of smoke arising... " If she could have looked north from the Glover mansion, now Nagasaki's top tourist attraction, on August 9, 1945, she would have seen, two miles in the distance, a thread of smoke with a mushroom cap.
By 1945, Nagasaki had become a Mitsubishi company town, turning out ships and armaments for Japan's increasingly desperate war effort. Few Japanese soldiers were stationed here, and only about 250 of them would perish in the atomic bombing. It was still the Christian center in the country, with more than 10,000 Catholics among its 250,000 residents. Most of them lived in the outlying Urakami district, the poor part of town, where a magnificent cathedral seating 6000 had been built.
At 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, "Fat Man" was detonated more than a mile off target, almost directly over the Urakami Cathedral, which was nearly leveled, killing dozens of worshippers waiting for confession. Concrete roads in the valley literally melted.
While Urakami suffered, the rest of the city caught a break. The bomb's blast boomed up the valley destroying everything in its path but didn't quite reach the congested harbor or scale the high ridge to the Nakashima valley. Some 35,000 perished instantly, with another 50,000 or more fated to die afterwards. The plutonium bomb hit with the force of 22 kilotons, almost double the uranium bomb's blast in Hiroshima.
If the bomb had exploded as planned, directly over the Mitsubishi shipyards, the death toll in Nagasaki would have made Hiroshima, in at least one important sense, the Second City. Nothing would have escaped, perhaps not even the most untroubled conscience half a world away.
Hard evidence to support a popular theory that the chance to "experiment" with the plutonium bomb was the major reason for the bombing of Nagasaki remains sketchy but still one wonders about the overwhelming, and seemingly thoughtless, impulse to automatically use a second atomic bomb even more powerful than the first.
Criticism of the attack on Nagasaki has centered on the issue of why Truman did not step in and stop the second bomb after the success of the first to allow Japan a few more days to contemplate surrender before targeting another city for extinction. In addition, the U.S. knew that its ally, the Soviet Union, would join the war within hours, as previously agreed, and that the entrance of Japan's most hated enemy, as much as the Hiroshima bomb, would likely speed the surrender ("fini Japs" when the Russians declare war, Truman had predicted in his diary). If that happened, however, it might cost the U.S. in a wider Soviet claim on former Japanese conquests in Asia. So there was much to gain by getting the war over before the Russians advanced. Some historians have gone so far as state that the Nagasaki bomb was not the last shot of World War II but the first blow of the Cold War.
Whether this is true or not, there was no presidential directive specifically related to dropping the second bomb. The atomic weapons in the U.S. arsenal, according to the July 2, 1945 order, were to be used "as soon as made ready," and the second bomb was ready within three days of Hiroshima. Nagasaki was thus the first and only victim of automated atomic warfare.
In one further irony, Nagasaki was not even on the original target list for A-bombs but was added after Secretary of War Henry Stimson objected to Kyoto. He had visited Kyoto himself and felt that destroying Japan's cultural capital would turn the citizens against America in the aftermath. Just like that, tens of thousands in one city were spared and tens of thousands of others elsewhere were marked for death.
General Leslie Groves, upon learning of the Japanese surrender offer after the Nagasaki attack, decided that the "one-two" strategy had worked, but he was pleased to learn the second bomb had exploded off the mark, indicating "a smaller number of casualties than we had expected." But as historian Martin Sherwin has observed, "If Washington had maintained closer control over the scheduling of the atomic bomb raids the annihilation of Nagasaki could have been avoided." Truman and others simply did not care, or to be charitable, did not take care.
That's one reason the US suppressed all film footage shot in Nagasaki and Hiroshima for decades (which I probe in my book and ebook Atomic Cover-up). Also see my book on Hollywood's outrageous fictions in the same period, Hollywood Bomb.
After hearing of Nagasaki, however, Truman quickly ordered that no further bombs be used without his express permission, to give Japan a reasonable chance to surrender -- one bomb, one city, and seventy thousand deaths too late. When they'd learned of the Hiroshima attack, the scientists at Los Alamos generally expressed satisfaction that their work had paid off. But many of them took Nagasaki quite badly. Some would later use the words "sick" or "nausea" to describe their reaction.
As months and then years passed, few Americans denounced as a moral wrong the targeting of entire cities for extermination. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, declared that we never should have hit Japan "with that awful thing." To those who claim "you weren't there" or "you are military" the fact is a large number of high-ranking Americans expressed doubts about the need to use the Bomb at the time or later, including (besides Eisenhower), Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. Hap Arnold, and Truman's chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral William Leahy. And you can add to that the future hawkish Eisenhower secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, and John J. McCloy--among many others.
Conservative columnist and magazine editor David Lawrence lashed out at the "so-called civilized side" in the war for dropping bombs on cities that kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. However much we rejoice in victory, he wrote, "we shall not soon purge ourselves of the feeling of guilt which prevails among us... What a precedent for the future we have furnished to other nations even less concerned than we with scruples or ideals! Surely we cannot be proud of what we have done. If we state our inner thoughts honestly, we are ashamed of it."
Greg Mitchell's next book, The Tunnels, on escapes under the Berlin and JFK's suppression of NBC and CBS films about them, will be published in October.