On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. It was the beginning of the end of World War II.
It was a pivotal event. Truly, the world changed in an instant.
A few years ago, Warren Kozak, writing in The Wall Street Journal, provided some history and some perspective.
On this day 64 years ago, an American B-29 named the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima. We know that as many as 80,000 Japanese died instantly. We know the city was pulverized, and we know that an estimated 100,000 additional people died later from radiation poisoning. We also are aware that the Hiroshima bomb, and the Nagasaki bomb dropped three days later, ushered in the atomic era.
At the time of the event, 85% of the American public favored dropping the atomic bombs, according to a Gallup poll (10% disapproved). Over the years, that attitude has changed. By 2005, Gallup found only 57% of Americans thought the bomb was necessary, while 38% disapproved. Most of those polled were born after the event.
In August 1945, much of the world was exhausted after six long years of total war and tens of millions of deaths. Most people that summer didn’t quite understand the implications of Hiroshima. All they knew was that the atomic bomb was some sort of new, extremely powerful device that was the result of a top-secret project. It was a demonstration of the amazing technical superiority of the United States—not unlike the moon landing 24 years later.
But even before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, doubts about its use surfaced within the group of physicists who created it. Albert Einstein, who first brought the atomic bomb to FDR’s attention, along with Leo Szilard, who was instrumental in building it, were both opposed to using it against Japanese civilians.
As time has passed, the army of doubters has grown. These critics argue that Japan was all but defeated by August 1945 and the bombs were unnecessary. The incendiary bombing campaign had already destroyed most of Japan’s cities, they say, and the mining of the inland waterway brought its war production down to practically nothing. Its citizens were undernourished and there was practically no fuel or any other raw material left in the country. Japan, according to this school of thought, was a spent nation just waiting for the best possible deal from the Allies. Much of this is true.
On the other side, those who believe the bombing was necessary point out that unlike Nazi Germany, which collapsed during its final days, the Japanese fought more ferociously as the Americans drew closer to the mainland. Almost all were willing to die for their emperor, having demonstrated this in each island invasion leading up to what would have been the largest amphibious landing of all time.
...The debate over the bomb reached a crescendo 14 years ago when the Smithsonian Institution produced a retrospective that veteran groups objected to because they believed it focused too much on the victims and not on the reasons for the bomb’s use. The exhibit was ultimately cancelled. Then, this past spring, comedian Jon Stewart touched off his own firestorm when he labeled President Harry Truman a “war criminal” for ordering the bombs to be dropped. Mr. Stewart later apologized.
The fact that the quick end to the war allowed the U.S. to avoid a land invasion of the Japanese mainland, thus saving many more lives, is quickly tossed aside by some critics. They say there is no basis for the estimates of large numbers of casualties. But then there is the appalling number of Asians who were dying at the hands of the Japanese. Upwards of a quarter-of-a-million were dying each month. The fact that this orgy of death—17 million died in all—came to an abrupt halt when the Imperial Army was finally forced to go home is rarely mentioned.
Perhaps the simplest and most compelling argument for the bombs is the main reason President Truman decided to drop them in the first place: He hoped it would rattle Japan enough to force it to surrender. That is exactly what happened.
Today, Hiroshima has become a Rorschach test for Americans. We see the same pictures and we hear the same facts. But based on how we view our country, our government, and the world, we interpret these facts in very different ways.
A former G.I., now 90, who survived the war in Europe and was about to be sent to the Pacific understands quite clearly that the bomb saved his life. His grandchildren may see this event in a very different way.