On August 6, 1945, lessons begin at the National Technical University on the outskirts of downtown Hiroshima, as always, at 8 a.m. Math is first up in the lesson-plan for the day, and Keijiro Matsushima is gazing out the window, bored. The lanky, fatherless 16 year-old is the only member of his family still in Hiroshima: His brothers are off with the Imperial Navy fighting the Americans and the British, and his mother is staying with her parents in the countryside. She is afraid of an air attack, because Hiroshima, a city built mainly of wood, is one of the few major Japanese cities that hasn't been bombed to smithereens by the American air force.
But Matsushima, who is studying mechanical engineering, must remain in the city. Like all young Japanese men, he is required to help out in the country's munitions factories when not in school. And so he's sitting in his chair by the stairwell wall, listening to the instructor discuss problems of differential calculus, when he suddenly sees the silvery-white bombers of the US Air Force appear in the clear blue summer sky.
The boy is surprised not to hear air-raid sirens. Suddenly, a gleaming light fills the classroom. A "reddish-orange flash" bright "as the sun" prompts him to dive beneath his desk. He places his hands over his eyes and his thumbs into his ears -- doing exactly what he has been told to do to protect himself in an air raid.
But nothing can protect him against what happens next.
"I had the feeling that the explosion happened right next to me," he says today of the deafening blast, an explosion so massive that it could be heard even 160 kilometers away. Hot air singes the skin on his face and the pressure from the blast presses his body against the floor.
The roof of the building collapses into the classroom, hurtling shards of glass through the room like bullets. The young man calls for help. After a while -- he can't recall how long -- he pulls himself from the wreckage and goes outside. It's as quiet as a graveyard.
Matsushima, bleeding from multiple wounds, drags himself into the schoolyard under swirling, thick, dark clouds of dust. Many of his classmates are already lying outside, some spitting up dark blood. He sees grayish burn wounds through their torn clothing.
Downtown Hiroshima is completely destroyed in the blast. Horribly disfigured people emerge from the direction of the city, clumps of skin hanging detached from their swollen bodies, their reddish muscle tissue exposed.
Many are covered by nothing but their underwear, and their hair -- made frizzy by the intense heat -- protrudes wildly from their heads. To keep their wounds from touching, the victims walk with their arms outstretched. When Matsushima recalls the gruesome scene, he calls it a "procession of ghosts."
Anyone still able to walk leaves Hiroshima, and Matsushima joins the exodus. The trains in a suburb of the city are still running, and he reaches his grandfather's house in the country by around midnight.
The teenager is tremendously fortunate, because he was only exposed to the radiation for a short time. After ten days of fever and diarrhea, he recovers sufficiently to return to Hiroshima to search for relatives. Upon arriving at the train station in the eastern section of the city, he's able to see houses sitting at the foot of the mountains rising up on the other side of Hiroshima. All that remains between is a "gray, ash-covered wasteland."
There were 76,000 houses in Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, and 70,000 were destroyed or damaged by the explosion of a single weapon. The Americans called the deadly monster "Little Boy," because the bomb, three meters long and weighing in at almost five tons, turned out to be substantially smaller than its designers had initially expected. It was the first atom bomb to be used as a weapon in the history of mankind.
The Atomic Plague
The devastation caused by "Little Boy" surpassed everything that American scientists, military personnel and politicians had expected. The nuclear explosion left behind death and destruction within an area of 13 square kilometers, or about five square miles. On August 6, there were about 350,000 people in the city, the country's eighth largest. Most were Japanese, but there were also tends of thousands of Korean and Chinese forced laborers, a few American prisoners of war and at least a dozen German Jesuits who had come to Hiroshima because they felt relatively safe there against US air attacks.
By the end of 1945, about 140,000 of those had died -- in horror-inspiring ways. The first victims were essentially vaporized in the epicenter of the fireball, at temperatures of more than a million degrees centigrade, or burned to death in a wave of heat hot enough to scorch trees a dozen kilometers away. Still others were crushed by the debris from buildings collapsing as a result of the massive wave of pressure. Those at a somewhat greater distance from ground zero were killed by direct exposure to radiation. Many were poisoned when they drank the radioactive rain -- turned black by dust and debris -- that began falling about 20 minutes after the explosion. An Australian journalist visiting Hiroshima in September 1945 dubbed the disease he observed -- hair falling out, bodies covered in reddish-purple spots, victims dying of internal bleeding -- the "atomic plague."
Three days after the inferno, the Americans dropped a second bomb -- "Fat Man" -- on Nagasaki, almost completely destroying the venerable commercial city.
The exact number of victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will never be known. What we do know is that thousands are still dying today from the delayed effects of malicious radiation. It's almost as if the punishment pronounced in the Second Commandment of the Old Testament, that of a jealous God punishing the unfaithful "to the third and the fourth generation," had been meted out by human hands. Even the children and grandchildren of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will suffer the consequences of their parents' and grandparents' exposure to radiation. In many cases, their genetic material has been so severely damaged that they now suffer from leukemia, breast cancer and neurological disorders.
The nuclear age began in the ruins of Hiroshima. The enormous destruction that nuclear energy can cause first became evident 60 years ago, in the delta of the Ota River on the southeastern coast of Japan's main island, Honshu. The co-pilot of the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the Hiroshima bomb, Robert L. Lewis, had gazed down on the burning city and watched as a mushroom cloud rose into the sky. He later wrote: "My God, what have we done."
No other military strike changed the history of mankind as much as the dropping of "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" on Japan. Until 1945, it was generally believed that advances in weapons technology would lead to exponential increases in the numbers of dead and wounded in a subsequent war. Whether these advances related to gunpowder, bombers, submarines or tanks -- progress in the military arena was always synonymous with ever-growing fatality counts and ever-increasing physical devastation.
More than 775,000 soldiers died in Napoleon's military campaigns between 1805 and 1815. One hundred years later, World War I claimed almost 15 million lives. Finally, Hitler's World War II sent 60 million people to their graves, including the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But it was the atom bomb, the biggest destructive force known to man, that ultimately put an end to this spiral of death and destruction. It was the cosmic destructive force of the new nuclear weapons that forced the world's superpowers, for the first time in history, to deal with their rivalries with primarily peaceful means. Despite the fact that Soviet communism and Western democracy were diametrically opposed to one another, World War II wasn't followed by a third world war, but by the Cold War, which in fact was -- as US historian John Lewis Gaddis calls it -- a "long peace."
It was precisely the ability to extinguish one another and, in the future, all of mankind, that deterred the Americans and the Russian from resorting to what US President Harry Truman called the "energy of the sun" to settle their rivalries.
Even the fathers of the Hiroshima bomb were fully conscious of crossing a boundary, and of there being no turning back. In the summer of 1945, US General Leslie Groves, who headed the project that culminated in the atomic bomb, wrote: "We dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved for the Almighty." Upon witnessing the first atomic test Groves, the son of a pastor, interpreted the "horrible roar" of the explosion as a "warning of the Last Judgment."
"Extremely powerful bombs of a new type"
The road to Hiroshima begins in Berlin in 1933. On January 30 of that year, Adolf Hitler becomes German chancellor, placing the Nazis dangerously at the helm of a country boasting some of the world's greatest scientific minds as its citizens. Prominent scientists, including physicist Albert Einstein, promptly leave Germany, either simply because they abhorred its inhuman political system or to protect themselves against anti-Semitism. But some, like Nobel-laureates Werner Heisenberg and Otto Hahn, continue to conduct research in Hitler's realm.
The burning topic on the minds of physicists at the time was the smallest chemical building block in the universe, the atom. Then, in December 1938, Hahn, a chemist, bombards uranium samples with neutrons, the electrically neutral elementary particles. To his astonishment, the reaction produces barium, whose atomic weight is less than that of uranium. The tiny particles are still considered indestructible, or "atomos," a Greek word meaning indivisible. But Hahn doesn't dare voice his suspicion that the barium atoms could be parts of the destroyed uranium nuclei.
He sends his observations to Lise Meitner, a former close associate at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. The 60-year-old Meitner, a Jew, has already fled to Stockholm to escape Nazi persecution. As soon as Hahn's letter arrives from Berlin, Meitner immediately begins running calculations, and her interpretation of the results is confirmed in subsequent experiments. Hahn has been the first to demonstrate "nuclear fission," the name these scientists give to the new reaction mechanism.
The scientific journals soon fill with speculations that this discovery could lead to the development of a "super bomb." These are no idle fantasies: Gigantic quantities of energy are tied up in the inconceivably tiny uranium atom, and this energy is released when the mass particles of the nucleus are converted into energy.
When Hitler's army marches into what the Nazis call the Rest-Tschechei (left-over Czechoslovakia) in March 1939 and freezes the export of uranium ore from mines near the town of Joachimstal, the move quickly sets off alarms in the scientific community. And when, a short time later, a young German scientist publishes an excellent article about a "uranium machine" in a scientific journal, many experts in America conclude that the Nazis must already have captured a significant lead in the field of atomic energy. Why else, they reason, would the Germans publish such an article, even though the research its describes relates to the peaceful use of atomic energy?
It's a serious mistake. Leading German physicist Heisenberg and his team are still a long way from developing the bomb, and will remain so until the war ends in 1945. Nevertheless, the Americans believe they are taking part in an arms race, despite the fact that the only scientists whose work on nuclear energy poses a serious threat are in the United States.
The emigrants who have fled to America to avoid persecution by the Hitler regime help fuel this miscalculation. A group of Hungarian-born scientists known among colleagues in Budapest as the "Hungarian conspiracy" -- physicists Leo Szilard, Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner -- are among the most vocal in warning the scientific community against what they perceive as the German dictator's mad rush to acquire dangerous weapons. The Hungarians, who had been conducting their research in Germany, have fled to New York to escape Hitler. Szilard is the first to point out the spectre of a bomb emblazoned with the Nazi swastika.
In the summer of 1939, Szilard writes to Einstein, already considered the scientific superstar of the century. In response, Einstein invites the three Hungarians to his summer home on Long Island.
Wigner is especially traumatized by the rise of the Nazis. Later, in 1942, he refuses to allow the FBI to take his fingerprints, fearing that the Germans could win the war and use the prints to track him down.
The four scientists speak German, and in the language of the enemy they write the first draft of a now-famous letter, signed by Einstein himself, to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the letter they describe "extremely powerful bombs of a new type" that could have devastating effects.
"We Must Act"
Historians have devoted a great deal of thought to the question of why the United States was the first to successfully build an atomic bomb. After all, in 1939 the United States is far behind other countries when it comes to military prowess. Most of its weapons and tanks are vintage World War I, and its relatively small armed forces are ranked only 17th in the world.
But the president sitting in the White House at the time reacts with vision and decisiveness. Roosevelt meets twice with one of Einstein's emissaries, who is sent to Washington to explain the science behind atomic energy to the president.
In the first meeting, the president has trouble understanding what the scientists are talking about. But in the second meeting, on October 12, 1939, he finally comprehends the enormity of their warnings. "What you are saying," he tells the scientists, "is that you want to make sure that the Nazis don't blow us up." "Exactly," the emissary says, to which Roosevelt responds: "Then we must act."
By this time, Hitler has already annexed Poland; in the following year, the Nazis conquer France within six weeks. But the German dictator thinks in Blitzkrieg scenarios. Both he and his armaments experts lack the patience for expensive, long-term arms projects.
But not Roosevelt. The Democrat is determined to stand up to German megalomania, even in the face of American voters' vehement opposition to entering the war. He convenes a meeting of advisors, and soon the government begins disbursing research funding to the country's top scientists.
The first reaction is one of skepticism -- among military officials, among the few politicians initiated into the project, and even among some physicists. Will a nuclear chain reaction actually work? How can large amounts of fissile material be obtained? What kind of triggering mechanism should be used?
Some Washington bureaucrats see the project as a waste of money in times of severely stretched public funds. But "whenever the US project was on the verge of failing, Hitler and his war machine came to the rescue," writes US historian Richard Rhodes in his classic "The Making of the Atomic Bomb."
Hitler declares war on the United States on December 11, 1941. A few days earlier, Germany's ally, Japan, had bombed the American Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the world's most important economic power begins mobilizing every available resource. While Hitler's minister for armaments, Albert Speer, approves two billion Reichsmark in funding for Germany's reluctant atomic scientists, Roosevelt decides to invest more than 4,000 times as much.
The "Manhattan Project," named after the pioneering "Manhattan District of Engineers" of the US Army Corps of Engineers, becomes what is until then the biggest armaments project in the history of mankind.
The US Army purchases or seizes large tracts of land in the states of Washington, Tennessee and New Mexico. Soon, 125,000 people, including six current or future Noble laureates, are working in the 37 major facilities of the country's top-secret atomic weapons program.
In 1943, the country's top scientists, half of them European emigrants, leave their posts at preeminent universities like the University of California at Berkeley and at the University of Chicago to settle on a barren high desert plateau in New Mexico's thinly populated Los Alamos region. It's an area in which the project's scientific director, Robert Oppenheimer, spent time as a child, recovering from a lung disorder. The remote location is chosen to make it easier for the US counterintelligence agency, the CIC, to conceal the project from Hitler's spies.
Within a few months, a small city of apartment buildings and prefabricated homes develops in the high desert of New Mexico, about 6,500 feet above sea level. Armed guards patrol a 10-foot barbed-wire fence surrounding the so-called technical area where laboratories and production buildings are housed. An alarm system detects any movement along the fence, while spotlights keep the area brightly lit at night. The CIC starts a rumor in the surrounding area that the facility is a hospital for pregnant US Army wives, which explains the plethora of doctors.
The military head of the project, Groves, whom President Roosevelt has instructed to maintain "absolute secrecy," has his agents tap the scientists' telephone conversations. The Americans, who are considering a plan to kidnap Hitler's top scientist, Heisenberg, fear that their German adversaries could be hatching similar plans, and the program's leading experts are constantly accompanied by bodyguards whenever they leave the Los Alamos facility.
A Bomb Too Secret to Drop on Germany
The only allies Roosevelt entrusts with the secret project are the British. The two countries' physicists operate hand-in-hand, and London carries a portion of the costs. In 1943, the US president and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agree not to "use the atom bomb against third parties without the other's consent." In keeping with the agreement, Churchill later consents to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
One of the biggest concerns among the luminaries at Los Alamos is the short supply of fissile material, and the search for a solution to this problem consumes almost three-quarters of the project's funding. Oppenheimer and his team initially focus on the uranium isotope 235, which can only be separated from a heavier isotope, uranium 238, with tremendous cost and effort.
In Oak Ridge, on the banks of the Tennessee River, chemical giant Dupont builds what at the time is the world's largest industrial plant. Together with its security zone, the facility covers an area as large as present-day Frankfurt. At the Oak Ridge facility, the uranium isotopes are separated by vaporizing uranium salt and then feeding it through giant gas centrifuges. Although the plant operates nonstop for one-and-a-half years, it ultimately produces only enough fissile uranium to make one bomb -- the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
But the Americans need more bombs to use this diabolical technology for political purposes. In the end, the scientists decide to use plutonium. The element, which its discoverers named after the god of the underworld in Roman mythology, can be produced from uranium 238 with relative ease. The world's first plutonium bomb was used in Nagasaki.
The emigree scientists from Germany have no idea that the fruits of their research are no longer intended for an explosion over the Third Reich. One of the most astonishing finds in recent years is a document containing the minutes of a May 5, 1943 meeting of the high-ranking Military Policy Committee, whose members decided that dropping the atomic bomb over Germany would be too risky. The explosive device could turn out to be a dud, thereby unintentionally providing the Nazis with valuable information to use in developing their own bomb.
Fear of the German bomb has prompted the Americans to build their own. But instead of Germany, they set their sights on Hitler's ally in Asia.
Read Part Two of this series on Friday.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan