Pre-Primary Source Activity:
A Thought to Consider:
After an atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima in Japan and another atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, the Japanese government surrendered thus ending the Second World War in the Pacific. The unconditional surrender of Japan ended a tragic chapter in world history. Yet when the destruction wrought by the atomic bombs was revealed, many individuals began to question whether the United States government should have ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs. In the excerpt that follows from the BBC, an overview of historical debate about the dropping of the atomic bombs is presented. After reading this overview and answering questions, students will then read two primary sources to help students arrive at their own conclusions regarding the dropping of the atomic bombs.
“…On 6 August 1945 an American B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. In a split second 100,000 people ceased to exist. Three days later another B-29 dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 40,000.
In vain would later apologists point out that the number killed -140,000 - was about the same as the number killed in the conventional B-29-created firestorm that devastated Tokyo-Yokohama on the night of 9 March 1945. There were two differences. First, the Tokyo-Yokohama raid required hundreds of aircraft delivering thousands of incendiary bombs in wave upon wave in very particular weather conditions. Hiroshima-Nagasaki required just two aircraft and two bombs, a quantum leap in destructive capacity. Second, unlike those injured in conventional raids, about 100,000 of those people who had apparently survived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in fact suffered radiation poisoning as a result of the bombs, and thus were condemned to a painful and lingering death.
Japan surrendered on 15 August, obviously as a result of the bombs, it was generally believed, and for a few months Americans and their allies could tell themselves that though the bombs had been terrible, they had obviated the need for an invasion of Japan. This had been scheduled for December 1945, and in it many hundreds of thousands of Allied servicemen would have been killed and wounded. But very soon doubts arose in many quarters.
The writer and journalist John Hersey, one of the first to get to Hiroshima, wrote a powerful study of the plight of six of these survivors, and this was published in the New Yorker in 1946. Suddenly the talk of New York’s literati, Hersey followed this up with a monograph, Hiroshima, published the following year, which was immediately a best-seller, and was translated into Japanese three years later.
And then the State Department added its assessment. Joseph Grew - America’s last ambassador to Japan before the war started - claimed that Japanese diplomats had been trying to open surrender negotiations with the United States via the then still neutral Soviet Union. These were overtures that the Truman administration knew about, thanks to decrypts of Japanese diplomatic codes, but which they nevertheless chose to ignore…
[However] thanks to the work of Japanese historians, we now know much more about Japanese plans in the summer of 1945. Japan had no intention of surrendering. It had husbanded over 8,000 aircraft, many of them Kamikazes, hundreds of explosive-packed suicide boats, and over two million well equipped regular soldiers, backed by a huge citizen’s militia. When the Americans landed, the Japanese intended to hit them with everything they had, to impose on them casualties that might break their will. If this did not do it, then the remnants of the army and the militias would fight on as guerrillas, protected by the mountains and by the civilian population.
Japanese and American historians have also shown that at the centre of the military system was the Emperor Hirohito, not the hapless prisoner of militarist generals, the version promulgated by MacArthur in 1945 to save him from a war crimes trial, but an all-powerful warlord, who had guided Japan’s aggressive expansion at every turn. Hirohito’s will had not been broken by defeats at land or sea; it had not been broken by the firestorms or by the effects of the blockade, and it would certainly not have been broken by the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, something the Japanese had anticipated for months.
What broke Hirohito’s will was the terrible new weapon, a single bomb which could kill a hundred thousand at a time. Suddenly Japan was no longer fighting other men, but the very forces of the universe. The most important target the bombs hit was Hirohito’s mind - it shocked him into acknowledging that he could not win the final, climatic battle.
There is a growing consensus among modern historians that the views as to the utility of the bomb held in August 1945 were correct. We now know that if the bomb had not been used, the invasion of Japan would have gone ahead. The best indication we have of the casualties that might have occurred are the actual figures for the eight-week campaign on Okinawa, in which 12,500 Americans died, and 39,000 were wounded.
Fighting at the same intensity (it could not have been less) on Kyushu and Honshu, campaigns which would have lasted some 50 weeks, would have produced 80 to 100,000 American dead, and some 300 to 320,000 wounded. Are these casualties enough to justify Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
If morality is based on numbers, and in this case it must be, then perhaps not. But what is usually overlooked in this numbers game, is the number of Japanese killed on Okinawa, which amounts to a staggering 250,000 military and civilian, about 20 Japanese killed for every dead American. If we conduct the same calculation for an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands, we arrive at a figure of at least two million Japanese dead.
The losses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were terrible, but not as terrible as the number of Japanese who would have died as the result of an invasion. The revisionist historians of the 1960s - and their disciples - are quite wrong to depict the decision to use the bombs as immoral. It would have been immoral if they had not been used.”
General Vocabulary Checklist:
What happened after the atomic bombs were dropped? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Explain the debate that developed among historians regarding the atomic bombs. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
What did apologists argue about the differences in the bombings of Tokyo-Yokohama and Hiroshima-Nagasaki?
The following questions may help the student determine the individual’s point of view:
Who wrote the primary source?
What was the social class background of the author?
How did the author’s experiences influence his/her perspective of the event?
When was the source written?
What historical events were occurring when the source was written?
Remember: No two individuals experience the same event exactly the same.
A View – Harry Truman
From Harry S Truman, Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (New York: Harper and Row, 1986)
A Different View– Dr. Tatsuichiro Akizuki
From Tatsuichiro Akizuki, Nagasaki 1945, trans. Keiichi Nagata (New York: Quartet Books, 1981)
Diary: Potsdam 25 July 1945
“We met at eleven today. That is Stalin, Churchill, and the U.S. President. But I had a most important session with Lord Mountbatten and general Marshall before that. We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world…
Anyway we ‘think’ we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexican desert was startling – to put it mildly. Thirteen pounds of the explosive caused the complete disintegration of a steel tower 60 feet high…
This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.
He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.
[The following day, 26 July, the Allies called upon Japan to surrender. The alternative they said was ‘prompt and utter destruction. Japan did not surrender.]
“…After Mr. Tsujimoto came staggering up to me, another person who looked like him wandered into the yard. Who he was and where he had come from I had no idea. ‘Help me,’ he said, groaning, half-naked, holding his head between his hands. He sat down exhausted. ‘Water…Water…’ he whispered.
‘What’s the trouble? What’s wrong with you? What’s become of your shirt?’ I demanded.
“Hot-hot…Water…I’m burning.’ They were the only words that were articulate.
As time passed, more and more people in a similar plight came up to the hospital – ten minutes, twenty minutes, an hour after the explosion. All were of the same appearance, sounded the same. ‘I’m hurt, hurt! I’m burning! Water!’ They all moaned the same lament. I shuddered. Half-naked or stark naked, they walked with strange, slow steps, groaning from deep inside themselves as if they had travelled from the depths of hell. They looked whitish; their faces were like masks. I felt as if I were dreaming, watching pallid ghosts processing slowly in one direction – as in a dream I had once dreamt in my childhood…
One victim who managed to reach the hospital yard asked me, ‘Is this a hospital?’ before suddenly collapsing on the ground. There were those who lay stiffly where they fell by the roadside in front of the hospital; others lay in the sweet-potato fields. Many went down to the steep valley below the hospital where a stream rand down between the hill of Motohara and the next hill. ‘Water, water,’ they cried. They went instinctively down to the banks of the stream, because their bodies had been scorched and their throats were parched and inflamed; they were thirsty. I didn’t realize then that these were the symptoms of ‘flash-burn.’…
In the afternoon a change was noticeable in the appearance of the injured people who came up to the hospital. The crowd of ghosts which had looked whitish in the morning were now burned black. Their hair was burnt; their skin, which was charred and blackened, blistered and peeled…”
According to President Truman, what did the Americans “think” they had found? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
How did President Truman describe the destructive power of this new weapon? ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
What did President Truman tell the Secretary of War about how the weapon should be used?