Seven decades ago, the US dropped one atomic bomb on Hiroshima and one on Nagasaki, Japan. The journalistic hook of that nice, big 7-0 means that mainstream outlets had an excuse to look back and consider the decision to use the nukes. The conclusion remains mixed. There’s some (vital) uncomfortableness with the idea that the grand old US remains the only nation to use such a weapon on human beings. But it never feels like a true black mark on the US, because, well, we won’t let it be one.
It is true some people – and some polls suggest – that the anti-nuke side of things wins out more and more when we look at the passage of time. Yet, it doesn’t feel that way when the subject is discussed. Perhaps if you directly ask whether nuking was justified (a surprisingly low 56 percent say yes in a 2015 Pew Research Center poll), you may get one type of answer. But even ostensibly neutral history books that most children use in most schools reaffirm this constant narrative of justification. The bombing ended World War II, and America did it, and Hitler lost, and so it must have been good and right. It’s easy to believe this, and easier still if you don’t spend too much time thinking about it. I read a great deal of history before I realized that some very war-friendly, establishment people like Gen. Dwight Eisenhower disputed the necessity of the bombing.
Another, narrower aspect of the question of justification lies with the second bombing. “Hiroshima” is historical shorthand for the use of atomic bombs on human beings, the way Waco is shorthand for the tragedy with the Branch Davidians, and Columbine means (what was once) the most horrifying school shooting. That’s how humans talk about things. But when we say Hiroshima, what do we mean? Do we mean the fact of both bombs? Or just the first one? The afterthought that is the bombing of Nagasaki rather brilliantly sums up the lack of care on the part of the defenders of the act. Let us say – though we are wrong – that the first bomb on August 6 is morally acceptable because because we have a crystal ball that proves a land invasion is otherwise necessary and it will kill one million people. (Presumably, our crystal ball also tell us unequivocally that horrifically punishing citizens for the crimes of their government is all right if you really feel like it. )
Given all of that, what makes the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9 acceptable? Nagasaki was the last minute replacement for Kokura, which had blessed smoke and haze cover preventing the dropping of the bomb. Kyoto had previously been suggested as a target, but was too beautiful. A dozen and a half other cities were on the list earlier that spring, and Nagasaki was taken off, and then later hand written on the draft strike order in late July. A decision this momentous and horrifying was borderline spur of the moment.
Now, the parody news site The Onion actually sums up the Nagasaki situation brilliantly (except for a predictable French joke). Their headline reads “Nagasaki Bombed ‘Just for the Hell of it.’” The sub: “second A-bomb would have just sat around anyway, say generals.” The entire faux article is worth a read. It’s painfully damning.
Three days is the patience that the US had for killing 40,000 or not. Three days for the Japanese government to surrender. Three days is how much the people of Nagasaki were worth. That speaks volumes about priorities. You cannot argue that this was some cold math problem that cannot be regretted or coo that the US was doing it to save everyone’s lives when you read about the bumbling, last minute journey to drop Fat Man on Nagasaki. This is brilliantly relayed in a recent New Yorker piece written by nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein. The whole piece is essential reading, but two details that stuck out to me were the following. The warning leaflets that hawks point to even in casual debate about the issue as proof the US meant to preserve some life? Those warnings of a terrible weapon to come? They came on August 10.
Also illuminating is a list of some of the closest targets to ground zero. Yes, Fat Man took out a torpedo factory and a Mitsubishi plant. Nearby were also: “Nagasaki Prison, Mitsubishi Hospital, Nagasaki Medical College, Chinzei High School, Shiroyama School, Urakami Cathedral, Blind and Dumb School, Yamazato School, Nagasaki University Hospital, Mitsubishi Boys’ School, Nagasaki Tuberculosis Clinic, Keiho Boys’ High School.”
Wellerstein also has a blog post from two years ago which asks “Why Nagasaki?” In it he goes over theories not as to why the city was picked, but why another nuke was dropped at all. “No really, we mean it” is the official version. But as Wellerstein wisely notes, this is silly. Did the US expect the Japanese to think this impossible new weapon had been a fluke? Some kind of magic incantation? That’s a terrifyingly weak excuse for killing so many people – making sure they EXTRA got the point. So indeed is one theory that both plutonium and uranium bombs needed to have proven they were worth the Manhattan project’s enormous cost. Wellerstein doubts that one, but it certainly has a ringing confirmation bias for those against the military industrial complex.
Wellerstein suggests that though Nagasaki almost escaped unscathed:
“To stop the atomic bombing would have been the unusual position. Go back to that original target order: the only distinction is between the “first special bomb” and the “additional bombs,” not a singular second special bomb.” And in his New Yorker Piece, he also notes that Truman appears to have been uncomfortable destroying another city full of “all those kids.”
So there you go. There were only two nukes dropped, and none since. It could have been worse. But this was not a country weighing competing interests like stopping Imperial Japan and not slaughtering people. This was “hit ‘em again to make sure they’re down.” A week would be too long to wait? Ten days? A month? It seems that even people willing to do something as horrific as nuke a city could wait a little bit to see if they must do it again. But, no. Because if it is on the table – if you have just done it – then you will do it again. The Onion wasn’t kidding.
And so they say two nukes ended the war, but what if the US had stopped at one? How do we know that wouldn’t have worked? Or they had needed five, or ten, or twenty nukes, all of Japan in a rubble? Would that have been just as necessary as two? That’s the margin of error war works with: scores of thousands of lives lost. Maybe we needed to do it once, maybe twice. One or two bombs. Three if we can finish that last one. The lack of specificity which doomed Nagasaki is haunting, and it proves that the hawks are guessing just as much as anyone else.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.