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Posts Tagged ‘Hiroshima’

Nagasaki, Not Forgotten

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Today, Aug. 9, is the 65th anniversary of the atomic (plutonium) bombing of Nagasaki. (Hiroshima was bombed first, with a uranium bomb, on Aug. 6, 1945.) Some 60,000 to 80,000 civilians died, most of them instantly; others, like Sumiteru Taniguchi, pictured below, suffered lingering deaths from radiation burns. Among the casualties may have been American soldiers in a prisoner of war camp (possibly known by the military). Questions of why the U.S. used the atomic bombs when Japan was near defeat—or whether Japan was in fact the primary target; maybe the main audience was the USSR—have been analyzed by better informed and more rigorous intellects and are not likely to be settled here today.

Why did the U.S. have to use the bomb twice? Did we have to use it at all?

The legend, or conventional wisdom, is that if President Harry Truman (below) had not pulled the trigger, American forces would have had to launch a bloody, costly land invasion of Japan. This is possible, though no major U.S. military offensive was slated to begin before November 1, 1945, and the Soviets, our allies against Nazi Germany, had promised to help with a ground war. What was the hurry?

In hindsight, it is difficult to imagine the bomb not being used, after a $2 billion investment and six years’ work, even if Japan were not already seriously weakened and soon to collapse. When President Truman was first briefed about the existence of the atom project on April 24, 1945 (two weeks after FDR died), his first response was to sit down; he had received the generals standing up. He ordered a search for other options, with one committee composed of soldiers and civilians, and the other of scientists. Both panels met twice, on May 31 and June 1, and reached the same conclusion. A committee of scientists including J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi told Truman that they could devise “no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.” Meanwhile, Truman’s generals were pressing him to let them move forward with plans for a massive land invasion of the Japanese home islands.

One consideration was that the Soviet Union had promised at the Tehran conference in late 1943 and again at Yalta in February 1945 to join the fight against Japan within three months after the European war ended (May 8). Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall had pushed hard for Soviet help against Japan, knowing that the combined pressure of U.S. and Soviet forces would likely compel the Japanese to surrender. (Even among those who knew about the ultra-top-secret Manhattan Project, it was uncertain whether the new weapon would work until it was tested in mid July 1945.) Until the bomb was proven, the only way to crush the Japanese army was to fight it, and General Marshall preferred to let the Russians do a lot of the heavy lifting. There were reservations, however, about Soviet involvement: American officials did not want to have to share defeated Japan with the USSR the way the Allies were already sharing postwar Germany, divvied up into four military occupation zones: American, Soviet, British, and French.

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