In August 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. The first was detonated over Hiroshima on 6 August at approximately 8.15am. Then, just three days later, a second atomic strike laid waste to Nagasaki.
On the anniversary of the attacks – the first and last times that atomic bombs were deployed in warfare – we look back at the devastating bombings and consider their historical impact.
A uniquely destructive form of warfare
The shattering gravity of the two bombings is hard to overstate. Indeed, before the bombs were dropped, the American military knew full well what it was about to unleash – a new and uniquely destructive form of warfare that had the power to change the course of history.
Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the bomber that dropped the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima, recalled his thoughts in the moments after the detonation: “My God, what have we done?” Indeed, it’s clear that no one was under any illusions that this was anything but an unprecedented act of war and that its significance would resonate for decades to come.
Sure enough, just as US military planners expected, the two strikes shook the world, inflicting unprecedented and visually impactful annihilation on an obstinate enemy.
The lesser of two evils?
The decision to take nuclear action against Japan is widely justified as a measure designed to end World War Two and thus save countless lives that might otherwise have been lost in battle. In Imperial Japan, surrender was deemed to be dishonest, and both Emperor Hirohito and the army were adamant that they would fight on until the death rather than surrender. The atomic assaults were viewed by the US as a swift alternative to an ongoing Allied attempt to invade Japan, a plan that had so far proved unnervingly messy.
The battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa had been extremely costly for America and the tenacity of Japan’s military defence left little doubt that an invasion couldn’t be achieved without similarly bloody conflict.
On balance, the US decided that a demonstration of overwhelming destructive force (and the vast number of Japanese civilian casualties that would come with it) made sense as an alternative to prolonged warfare.
The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were shock and awe in extremis. After two monumentally destructive assaults, Japan would be left with little option but to surrender – or so the logic went. Crucially, the nuclear strikes on Japan also seemed to represent a route to victory that didn’t entail the loss of any more American lives.
On the face of it at least, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a success. Japanese surrender came less than a month after the strike on Nagasaki. But, while peace was undoubtedly established in the aftermath of the bombings, the question of whether or not such brutal force was really necessary has never gone away.
Many commentators contest that Japan was already on the cusp of surrender, and cite the Soviet Union’s invasion of Manchuria and declaration of war with Japan as the principal reason for the Japanese submission.
A deadly precedent
Whether or not the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be viewed as a horrific necessity or an ethically indefensible aberration, it’s impossible to deny the powerful historic precedent that they set. By granting the world a terrifying vision of the apocalyptic horror that nuclear warfare can inflict, the strikes on Japan have cast a long shadow over the last seven decades.
Nuclear armament quickly became a priority for countries that could afford to fund its development. This led to the tense, decades-long standoff that was the Cold War and to the ongoing political disputes over certain so-called “rogue” states – notably Iraq, Iran and North Korea – developing nuclear weaponry. Worryingly, as we saw with Iraq, such disputes have the capacity to escalate into all-out war.
More than seven decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the horrifying scenes that emerged from Japan in August 1945 undoubtedly continue to haunt international relations. The bombs that detonated on the two cities were – by modern standards at least – relatively modest, yet the devastation they inflicted was brutal enough to ensure that the whole world remains in fear of the next nuclear strike.