Remembering Hiroshima: "My God, What Have We Done?"
Sixty years ago, US President Harry Truman ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was a weapon of unprecedented power, and one that changed the face of warfare and international politics forever.
Ultimate Destruction: Hiroshima was the first city in history to be attacked with a weapon of mass destruction.
In the fall of 1944, a 1,200-man special unit under the command of Colonel Paul Tibbets begins training exercises on a remote air base west of Salt Lake City. The men practice the precisely targeted dropping of bombs from the B-29 "Superfortress," which is intended for use in the Pacific only.
Tibbets' unit includes a murderer, three men convicted of manslaughter and a few other criminals who escaped from prison, assumed false names and were then recruited by the army. When their stories are revealed, the colonel promises them exemption from prosecution -- if all goes well, that is.
The unit's pilots stick out like sore thumbs in conservative Utah, especially because of their excessive drinking. They raise hell in nightclubs, fight with other soldiers and occasionally "borrow" planes for weekend trips.
In December 1944, Roosevelt considers for the last time the idea of dropping the new bomb over Germany. But Manhattan Project director Groves informs the president that Germany is no longer an option, because the powerful "Superfortress" is the only bomber big enough to carry the heavy atomic bomb, and there are no B-29s stationed in Europe.
By then it's been clear for some time that Hitler is losing the war. American troops have already crossed into the German Reich, and the Red Army is preparing to invade Pomerania and Silesia. US advance intelligence agents obtain documents that clearly indicate that German scientists are still a long way from producing an atom bomb.
But the Americans press ahead with the Manhattan Project as if none of this made any difference. To this day, historians still argue over the reasons.
Is it revenge for Pearl Harbor and Japan's brutal methods of waging war in the Pacific? Or does the new US President Harry Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt when he died on April 12, 1945, want to force an end to the war at any price, a war that has already cost the lives of so many GIs? Or is the bomb intended to intimidate Truman's future adversary, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin?
Many US strategists view the dropping of an atom bomb as merely an extension of conventional warfare, even though they already sense the new weapon's destructive potential. Chief scientist Robert Oppenheimer expects about 20,000 dead in Hiroshima. By comparison, the US Air Force's March 1945 firebombing of Tokyo -- a city then consisting mainly of wooden structures -- claims about 100,000 lives.
At this point, the only weapons Washington and the rest of the world consider taboo -- given the experiences of World War I -- are chemical weapons.
The accumulated costs of the Manhattan Project are undoubtedly fueling some of the dynamics behind continued development of the atom bomb. The top-secret program is funded through the president's special budget, bypassing the US Congress. But in 1944, suspicious members of Congress begin asking critical questions. An employee in the Department of War notes: "There will be no congressional investigations if the project is successful. But if it isn't, it'll be open to attack from all sides."
A Cold War on the horizon
One senator is especially critical and inquisitive. His name is James F. Byrnes, and Truman makes him his secretary of state soon after taking office. Byrnes, a native of South Carolina, already sees the Cold War and the arms race on the horizon. "How can you convince Congress to approve funds for atomic research if you have nothing to show for the money already spent?" he asks Leo Szilard, the Hungarian physicist and original champion of atomic bomb development, who has since been plagued by misgivings.
Szilard fears an arms race between the United States and the newly powerful Soviet Union. Project director Groves, clearly irritated, notes: "The Japanese haven't harmed the Jews, and Szilard couldn't give a crap about potential American losses in an invasion of Japan."
As he did six years earlier, Szilard turns to Albert Einstein, who by now deeply regrets the letter he sent to Roosevelt in 1939 -- in which he warned of German work on a new type of bomb -- calling it a "big mistake." Einstein manages to get Szilard into the White House, but his appeals fall on deaf ears.
The Truman administration sees the bomb as a tool to reinforce a Pax Americana worldwide. Secretary of State Byrnes rejects a proposal to share the atomic secret with Stalin, saying: "If we inform the Russians, Stalin will want to be part of it."
In contrast to Szilard, most Los Alamos researchers are in favor of using the bomb. Polish scientist Joseph Rotblatt later offers this explanation for his colleagues' behavior: "It was just plain curiosity. They wanted to know if their theoretical calculations and predictions would come to fruition." Rotblatt leaves the Manhattan Project when he discovers that the bomb's new target is Japan, not Hitler's Germany.
On April 25, 1945, the so-called Target Committee meets at the Pentagon to select possible targets from a bombing. The committee is looking for a city that hasn't been destroyed yet, so that the effects of the explosion can be recorded more precisely. An aircraft packed with measuring instruments will later accompany Colonel Tibbets during the atomic attack.
Of course, one of the Target Committee's criteria is military significance. Reinforcements for Japanese troops fighting in China are put on ships in Hiroshima. In addition, the Second Japanese Army has its headquarters in this industrial and port city, and this is where the Japanese defense strategy is being worked out for a possible American invasion of Japan's main island.
Truman despises the Japanese, calling them "savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic." Nevertheless, he instructs Secretary of War Henry Stimson to "only seek out military targets, soldiers and sailors, not women and children." He either doesn't know or refuses to admit that a bomb with the explosive force of about 15,000 tons of TNT will completely destroy an entire city.
- Part 1: "My God, What Have We Done?"
- Part 2: Next Page: The Hiroshima decision
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© DER SPIEGEL 31/2005
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