[Repost of 2016 essay]
On August 6, 1945, the New York Times asked:
“What is this terrible new weapon?”
(Source, New York Times, August 6, 1945: “First Atomic Bomb Dropped on Japan”)
The story followed the announcement made by President Truman:
“SIXTEEN HOURS AGO an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese Army base. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British ‘Grand Slam’ which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.”
August 6, 1945
(“Statement by the President Announcing the Use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima”: Truman Library and Museum)
The first atomic bomb was exploded in a test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. President Truman, who had taken office upon the death of President Roosevelt on April 12 without knowledge of the Manhattan Project or the atomic bomb’s existence, was alerted to the success of this test at a meeting with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam, a city in defeated Germany. (See this recent post on Potsdam)
The atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. A second device, a plutonium bomb, was used against the city of Nagasaki on August 9. Japan surrendered on August 14.
Almost since the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, critics have second-guessed Truman’s decision and motives. A generation of historians have defended or repudiated the need for unleashing the atomic weapon.
What history has confirmed is that the men who made the bomb really didn’t understand how horrifying its capabilities were. Of course, they understood the destructive power of the bomb, but radiation’s dangers were far less understood. As author Peter Wyden tells it in Day One, an account of the making and dropping of the bomb, scientists involved in creating what they called “the gadget” believed that anyone who might be killed by radiation would die from falling bricks first.
In less than one second, the fireball had expanded to 900 feet. The blast wave shattered windows for a distance of ten miles and was felt as far away as 37 miles. Over two-thirds of Hiroshima’s buildings were demolished. The hundreds of fires, ignited by the thermal pulse, combined to produce a firestorm that had incinerated everything within about 4.4 miles of ground zero.
(Source: Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembered. Copyright © 2005 – 2013 AJ Software & Multimedia. All Rights Reserved. This project is part of the National Science Digital Library and was funded by the Division of Undergraduate Education, National Science Foundation Grant 0434253.)
The estimated death toll was eighty thousand people killed instantly in Hiroshima; as many as 90 percent of the city’s nurses and doctors also died instantly. By 1950, as many as 200,000 had died as a result of long-term effects of radiation.) The death toll in Nagasaki also reached 80,000 by the end of 1945.
Today should not be a day to argue about the politics of the bomb. It should be a day of solemn remembrance of these victims. And of contemplating the horrific power of the weapons we create.
The City of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum offers an English language website with a history of Hiroshima and the effects of the bombing.
You can read more about Hiroshima and the dropping of the atomic bombs in Don’t Know Much About History and more about President Truman in Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents and in The Hidden History of America At War.