British Historian Frederick Taylor on Hiroshima The Countdown to Annihilation and the Legacy of the A-Bomb

On Aug. 6, 1945, a dark, horrible magic was unleashed on the unwitting citizens of Hiroshima -- the A-bomb. Was it necessary to end the war or not? Paradoxically, soon after, Japan, much of Germany and the US became allies in the fight against communism. What actually is the legacy of the bombings and how should they be remembered?

By Frederick Taylor


Survivors of the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare are seen as they await emergency medical treatment, on Aug. 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, Japan. The explosion instantly killed more than 60,000 people, with tens of thousands more dying later from effects of the radioactive fallout.
AP

Survivors of the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare are seen as they await emergency medical treatment, on Aug. 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, Japan. The explosion instantly killed more than 60,000 people, with tens of thousands more dying later from effects of the radioactive fallout.

It's been exactly 60 years since the first atomic bomb was dropped on a Japanese city. The final planning process, however, began on April 27, 1945, 11 days before the end of the war in Europe. This first meeting of the Target Committee clarified both the timetable for the use of the atomic bomb and the choice of target cities. What was discussed there between scientists, officials and the military in effect prescribed what would happen on those two fateful days in August. Officers present included General Leslie R. Groves, the powerful head of the Manhattan Project that had developed and manufactured the bomb. And, representing the US 20th Air Force -- which would drop it -- Brigadier-General Lauris Norstad (later NATO supreme commander during the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises).

Air Force Colonel Fisher, the briefing officer, was brutally frank in his summing-up of the existing air war against Japan: "The 20th Air Force is operating primarily to laying waste all the main Japanese cities ... Their existing procedure has been to bomb the hell out of Tokyo, bomb the aircraft, manufacturing and assembly plants, engine plants and in general paralyze the aircraft industry so as to eliminate opposition to the 20th Air Force operations. The 20th Air Force," he concluded chillingly, "is systematically bombing out the following cities with the prime purpose of not leaving one stone lying on another: Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Yawate and Nagasaki."

The 20th's operational plans -- excluding the atomic bomb -- foresaw dropping 100,000 tons of high explosives per month on Japan by the end of 1945 (the highest tonnage achieved by the US heavy bomber fleet throughout the European Theater of Operations was around 75,000, in March 1945). General Billy Mitchell, American World War I Air Ace and prophet of city bombing, had commented in the 1930s that Japan's population centers were ideal targets. These cities, he pointed out, "built largely of wood and paper, form the greatest aerial targets the world has ever seen ... Incendiary projectiles would burn the cities to the ground in short order."

The American fire-raid against Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945 involved 334 B-29 bombers that dropped 1,700 tons of bombs. The attack destroyed 16 square miles of the Japanese capital and probably killed about 100,000 human beings. The raid stands as the most destructive conventional air attack in history, dwarfing the Allied devastation of Hamburg and Dresden. In actual casualties inflicted, it equalled and perhaps exceeded the individual atomic attacks of August 1945.

So when Colonel Fisher spoke of plans "not to leave ... one stone lying on another," he was scarcely exaggerating. But US Secretary of War Henry Stimson shortly afterward abrogated the 20th Air Force's freedom of action. By his order, the cities of Kyoto, Hiroshima and Niigata were preserved from bombing until further notice. An undamaged area of around three miles across was required for the full effect of the atomic bomb, or "the gadget" as it was often called, to be realized. The citizens of these centers were to be preserved until required for atomic annihilation.

Picking among the targets

Nagasaki later joined this dubious list of "protected" cities, replacing Kyoto, which was removed at Stimson's insistence. The ancient Japanese capital, known for its temples and palaces and its artistic achievements, but also harboring factories and barracks, closely resembled in cultural status the German city of Dresden. There had been a hasty enquiry into the attack on Dresden soon after its destruction, following unfavorable press reports. Chief of Staff General Marshall had assured Stimson that the Dresden catastrophe was militarily justifiable. The secretary may or may not have been convinced. What is certain is that he subsequently insisted to General Groves that Kyoto be dropped from the A-bomb list. When Groves objected, the secretary summoned Marshall into the room and repeated his order, this time in front of the chief of staff. Later Stimson went even further in protecting Kyoto. Groves noted at the end of June: "Kyoto was ... eliminated as a possible target not only for the atomic fission bomb but for all bombing by direction of the secretary for war."

When Dresden was bombed in February 1945, the endgame of the war against Nazi Germany lay in sight. Likewise, even as the first atomic bomb was tested, in July 1945, Japan's defeat was clearly inevitable. The question was, how would this be achieved, and when? The same situation had applied in Europe early in 1945, after Hitler's Ardennes counter-attack. Pessimistic Allied intelligence estimates predicted Germany might hold out until the autumn, and advised against slackening the war effort. Thus the continuing fearful destruction visited on Dresden and other German cities. But the greatest block to the Allied advance in February 1945, at least in the West, was the Rhine. A considerable barrier, not crossed properly until late March, but never thought insuperable. An advance into the Japanese home islands, on the other hand, would require a series of vast, risky amphibious operations involving up to two million men.

Of the 70,000 or so American troops that landed in February 1945 on the island of Iwo Jima (administratively part of mainland Japan), almost ten percent were killed. The fiercely-defended island of Saipan fell in July, at the cost of 3,500 American dead and up to 30,000 Japanese. Enemy soldiers and civilians died in suicidal charges or committed mass suicide by jumping off Saipan's dizzying sea-cliffs.

Tallying the risk

An invasion of the Japanese homeland threatened unparalleled numbers of Allied dead and wounded - not to mention Japanese soldiers and civilians. Thus the justification for the use of atomic bombs against the undamaged city of Hiroshima on August 6 and then, three days later, Nagasaki. The attacks killed about 200,000 human beings, many of whom succumbed to horrible burns and radiation sickness. Historians are sharply divided in their judgement. Many view the atomic attacks as futile war crimes. For others, they saved many, many more Japanese and Allied lives that would have been lost in the course of the invasion, code-named "Downfall."

Every detail of the diplomatic shadowboxing in those final months -- as telegrams passed between the Japanese and the Allies through third parties -- is examined; every clue revealing how cliques within the Japanese military and the imperial court fought over whether to sue for peace, and when, is pored over and used as ammunition.

The rapidity of events after Hiroshima and Nagasaki led many to conclude that these attacks caused the Japanese surrender and so obviated the need for invasion. But would ruthless conventional fire-bombing have brought Japan to its knees in any case? Was not the Allied naval blockade also strangling the Japanese war effort beyond recovery? Would not Stalin's planned declaration of war against Japan have proved decisive, even without the atomic bomb? When the Soviets actually attacked the Imperial army in Manchuria, 48 hours after Hiroshima but before Nagasaki, Japanese resistance proved far from fanatical. It collapsed within days.

"I am become Death"

About one month after the bomb was dropped, an allied correspondent examines the landscape of destruction at Hiroshima.
AP

About one month after the bomb was dropped, an allied correspondent examines the landscape of destruction at Hiroshima.

There remains, of course, our suspicion that the use of the atomic bombs was not just a decisive element in ending World War II, but also a foreshadowing act of the East-West conflict. Similar arguments are used to explain the devastation of Dresden, though less convincingly. The enormity of what Allied bombers inflicted on Dresden could not have been fully predicted, whereas the use of atomic weapons was bound to be apocalyptically destructive. One airplane carrying one bomb wipes a city and its people from the face of the earth. The world witnesses the birth of an awesome, dark magic. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific head of the Manhattan Project, would famously declare: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

How could this not affect the post-war situation for all humanity? Which brings us to the final paradox. Japan and the western three-quarters of Germany soon became allies of the West against the Soviet Union. The anniversary of the American annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nevertheless continued to be commemorated, especially in Japan and Germany, by all shades of opinion. But even as they damned the use of nuclear weapons, both peoples took shelter behind the nuclear umbrella that America provided, its deterrent effect given force precisely by the unspeakable suffering of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

To citizens of the Federal Republic, American nuclear might was perceived to inhibit the Soviets from pouring through the Fulda Gap and laying waste to the Wirtschaftswunder. For this reason, the horrors of what Germany's (and Japan's) cities had undergone in World War II at the hands of America and Britain (now trusted Allies and protectors) had to be downplayed. To pursue these grievances undermined the united front against communism. Better to subsume them in the generalized, almost abstract rituals that often characterized mourning for the victims of the atomic bombs.

Frederick Taylor.

Frederick Taylor.

While in the 1960s we feared nuclear annihilation, we were also guiltily aware that, if the Soviets were deterred, Europe would continue to be spared the devastation it had suffered between 1939 and 1945. This queasy conflict was never resolved but, somehow, the deterrent worked. It was not tanks, aircraft or missiles that in the 1980s defeated communism, but its economic and social decay, and finally bankruptcy. Unlike the war against Japan, the Cold War ended, not with a bang but, to quote T.S. Eliot, with a whimper.

And now? With the nuclear threat removed, and the political situation normalized, Germans have been freed to examine and criticize (often passionately) conventional bombing by the Allies in World War II. As the recent public debate has shown, the victims of Allied bombing feel able at last to confront terrible memories head-on.

This week, many Germans will continue to mark an ominous anniversary. But they no longer need to mourn their own dead through the surrogate of International Hiroshima Day.

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