Remembering the US’s atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Jumada' al-Akhirah 25, 1426 2005-08-01


by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Features, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 6, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1426)

August marks the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the nuclear era with the US;s use of atomic bombs against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. YUSUF AL-KHABBAZ, who was in Hiroshima for the commemorations, discusses those momentus events and their implications.

In this month are the 60th anniversaries of the American atom bombing of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings ushered in the "nuclear age," which saw the development of ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction; it also began the "cold war," in which the United States of America and the Soviet Union squared off with their massive nuclear arsenals, at times coming to the brink of nuclear warfare. Today, many states possess and test nuclear weapons, and others are attempting to develop them. Given the current turbulent military and political climate of the world, with Americans once again marching toward global warfare, perhaps it would be prudent for everyone to step back and join Japan's remembrance, not only as a national event but as a grave warning to humanity about the destructive power of nuclear weapons.

Radioactivity, the basis of nuclear weapons, was first discovered in the late nineteenth century by Antoine Henri Becquerel, a French physicist, who noticed that pitchblende, a mineral ore, was emitting a type of penetrating ray that was not easy to detect. Madame Marie Curie, a Polish scientist, followed up Becquerel's work and identified the source of this radioactivity as a previously unknown type of atom, which was later named uranium. Subsequent developments in the early twentieth century elucidated the structure of this atom in terms of electrical energy, with negatively charged "electrons" orbiting a positively charged nucleus; thus the term "nuclear" energy for the energy produced by changes within the nucleus. Scientists theorized that all matter consists of this same atomic structure, and found that in general various elements have distinct degrees of intensity of nuclear activity, depending on the mass of their nuclei. They also found that the stability of the atom could be disrupted, thus converting mass into energy. Usually the greater the mass of the nucleus, the more energy is released. Nuclear weapons unleash this energy in an uncontrolled explosion.

As this research went on, it brought some of the greatest scientific minds of the time together. It was also a time of tremendous strife in the Western world, with the main colonial powers embarking on the massively destructive first "world war." Witnessing that war at first hand, with much of Europe in ruins, many scientists and philosophers lamented the "decline of the West" and the "end of civilization." It was in this climate that H. G. Wells, a writer of science fiction, wrote and published The World Set Free, in which he suggested that humanity could be "set free" from war forever by the development of a weapon so terrible that it could destroy the planet earth, and that if every nation had such a weapon this "balance" would ensure world peace. This logic seems twisted today, yet at the time it made sense, and many scientists were avid readers of Wells, who in turn was an avid reader of scientific research. With The World Set Free, the justification for the development of nuclear weapons had begun.

By the end of the first "world war" Japan had also become a colonial power, vying with the European powers for control of the rich resources of what is now called the "Third World." AsEurope plunged again into a frenzy of death and destruction, and with various colonies drawn further into the global machinations of Western imperialism, the stage was set for the "second world war", which involved Europe, America and Japan competing with one another to control the resources of the world. By this time, research on nuclear physics had reached a phase in which nuclear weapons could be imagined and planned, if not yet fully realized. Germany led this phase of research, prompting a group of Jewish scientists to write an appeal to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American president, urging him to take the lead in developing nuclear weapons before Nazi Germany could do so. In 1939, on Roosevelt's orders, the President's Advisory Committee on Uranium began to test the feasibility of developing nuclear weapons.

By 1941 the President's committee had concluded that such a weapon could be developed in three or four years' time; in June 1941 Roosevelt initiated the Manhattan Project, which was charged with the development of both a uranium and a plutonium bomb. While uranium is the heaviest naturally-occurring radioactive element, scientists discovered a way to create a denser one from uranium, which became known as plutonium. The top-secret Manhattan Project was supervised by Major General Leslie R. Groves, who developed a method of managing the research, known as "compartmentalization," which prevented any one scientist from knowing the full extent and implications of the research to which he or she was contributing, making the big picture available only to a select few. This method of controlling research was considered necessary because of security, although it continued to be the preferred method of managing both university and business research after 1945. Scientists involved in the Manhattan Project knew they were contributing to the war effort, and because Nazi Germany, the main enemy of the time, was known to be developing a nuclear weapons programme they believed that they were giving their own country a military edge. What the scientists were not told, however, was that Germany had abandoned its nuclear weapons programme in 1942.

The weapon of mass destruction that was ostensibly developed to thwart Nazi Germany was instead used against Japan. Although the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 is generally regarded as the beginning of the Pacific phase of the second world war, and also as the justification for using nuclear weapons on Japan, the fact is that the Americans had been harassing, blockading and attacking Japanese shipping lanes for many years before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. It is only by seeing the two world wars as colonial wars that such facts make any sense, despite the pious moralizing of the US, which is still the only state to have used nuclear weapons. Racism must also have contributed to the decision to use the newly-developed weapons on Japan and not against the Germans, who were, after all, fellow white Europeans.

In 1943 Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, decided that the development of nuclear weapons would be kept secret from other world leaders, and in 1944 they decided that the new weapons would be used against Japan. At the time the Soviet Union was an ally of the Americans and British against Germany, although Stalin was not privy to this decision. Instead, he was persuaded to declare war on Japan after the surrender of Germany. Meanwhile, the development of nuclear weapons in America was proceeding apace, and scientists were ready to test the new weapon in the summer of 1945. Although Roosevelt had initiated the American nuclear-weapons programme, his untimely death in April 1945 put the American presidency in the hands of his vice-president, Harry S. Truman, who until then had not been aware of the Manhattan Project. Although he was in a sense "president by accident", and despite the American tradition of seeing vice-presidents as no more than inept figureheads, Truman presided over the decision to use the atom bomb on Japan. He also presided over the US's recognition of Israel in 1948.

Two weeks after Roosevelt's death, the first Target Committee developed criteria for selecting which Japanese cities would be bombed with the new weapon. The Committee considered a variety of factors, including selecting a densely populated city and also taking into account which type of topographical conditions would most concentrate the destructive capabilities of an atom bomb. By May 1946 four Japanese cities had been selected: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kokura and Yokohama. At that point all air raids against the selected cities were prohibited by the US Air Force because they wanted the targeted cities to be free from any prior destruction so that they could evaluate the destructive impact of their new weapon accurately. This was, incidentally, at a time when more than sixty other Japanese cities had been virtually destroyed by conventional bombing, including the notorious fire-bombing of Tokyo that incinerated more than 100,000 people.

During June 1945, a newly organized Interim Committee decided that the Americans should use the atom bomb on an industrial city involved in the war effort, that this industrial center should be surrounded by workers' homes, and that the bombing should be perpetrated without warning. This last decision prompted several scientists involved in the Manhattan Project to submit a paper to the Interim Committee opposing the use of the atom bomb without warning, urging the American government to institute an international committee to supervise the development and use of nuclear weapons, and also to make a public demonstration of the new weapon before using it in a real attack. The scientists believed that a surprise nuclear attack on Japan was inadvisable, reasoning that, "If the United States were to be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race for armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons." The American government, led by Truman, ignored this reasoning and proceeded with its plan to use atom bombs against Japanese cities, and to use them without warning.

Meanwhile, Japan had entered into negotiations with the Soviet Union and had indicated that it was ready to surrender if suitable conditions could be agreed. The Japanese by that time were war-weary. Dozens of cities had been destroyed by American bombing; years of embargoes and blockades had made food, medicines and manufactured goods scarce. The main condition of Japanese surrender was that they would be able to retain their emperor, who had an almost god-like stature in Japanese society. With this proviso, the Japanese were willing to surrender. The Americans intercepted these negotiations between Japan and the Soviet Union, and many historians now agree that the decision to use the atom bomb on Japan was motivated by the Americans' desire to dominate the world stage after the second world war, and to give a strong signal to the Soviet Union of who was in charge, and also to gain an edge in the post-war control of East Asia and Japan. Although many of the documents needed to support this conclusion were classified for several decades, in recent years a number of books have exposed this fact, despite the stubborn patriotic moralizing of most Americans that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary on military grounds. Many historians now agree that they were not, and that they were not the final acts of the second world war but the first acts of the cold war.

In mid-July 1945, the Americans had successfully tested the first atom bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico: this was a plutonium weapon, one of three that had been built. The other two, one uranium and one plutonium bomb, were intended for use against Japan. On July 25 Truman issued the order to drop the bombs. When the Japanese government rejected the demands for unconditional surrender, made by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Potsdam conference, they had no way of knowing that the consequence of this rejection would be the destruction of two cities. Some historians now agree that if the Americans had heeded the scientists' call for a public demonstration of the new weapon, the Japanese would have agreed to surrender without any conditions. But this could not happen because the Americans were determined to use the weapon, and to use it only on their own narrow terms.

Flight crews to man the planes that would drop bombs had been formed in September 1944, and had been training for the top-secret mission for almost a year. The Americans also decided to disguise the bombers used in the attacks as reconnaissance planes, to hide their intentions and ensure safe passage into Japan's air space. With their training completed and the new weapons ready, the order was given on August 2 to drop the first atom bomb on August 6. The list of cities had been narrowed down to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kokura, but the final decision about which to hit first was not made until weather conditions could be verified on the morning of the bombing. Departing from an American military base on Tinian Island, near Guam, the bomber and two real reconnaissance planes embarked on the six-hour flight to the Japanese mainland. When weather observations concluded that Hiroshima had the best visibility, the bomber zeroed in on its target.

The uranium bomb used on Hiroshima was designed to detonate about 600 meters above the ground, to ensure maximum dispersal of its stupendous destructive energy over the city. The bomb was estimated to have the destructive capacity of 15 thousand tons of TNT, although the amount of destruction this weapon actually inflicted on Hiroshima far outstripped the expectations of scientists and military planners. The fireball created by the bomb was described by observers as blazing like a small sun. Reaching a temperature of over one million degrees Celsius at its core, the fireball reached a diameter of almost 300 meters, with a surface temperature of an estimated 3-4000 degrees. Because of the nature of nuclear weapons, in addition to heat and shock another form of energy was released, namely radiation. The bomb had an instantly devastating effect on the city and its inhabitants, turning the site into a flaming graveyard of massive destruction, human slaughter and radiation poisoning. The radiation caused death and injury for decades after the initial event, with effects that are still not well understood.

Hiroshima was estimated to have had a population of 350,000 people, of whom more than 140,000 (40 percent) were killed immediately. While the majority of victims were civilians, the dead also included Japanese soldiers, foreign students from China and Southeast Asia, forced laborers from Korea, and a number of American prisoners of war. Many victims were completely vaporized by the incredible heat of the blast, and so an accurate count of those killed is not possible. Approximately 50 percent of people within 1.2 kilometers (three quarters of a mile) of the bomb's hypocenter died instantly, and most of the rest sustained massive and devastating injuries. The bomb destroyed the city, with virtually all the buildings within two kilometers (a mile and a quarter) totally collapsed and burned, and extensive damage reaching four kilometers from the epicenter of the explosion. According to estimates, of the 76,000 buildings in Hiroshima nearly 50,000 were totally collapsed and burned, over 20,000 were totally or partially collapsed and burned, and about 6,000 partially collapsed.

Although the terrible destruction was obvious to those living in and around Hiroshima, it was not immediately apparent that the weapon was an "atom bomb"; nor that others were ready for use, owing in part to the Americans' secrecy in developing the nuclear weapons. On August 7, the day after Hiroshima, Truman announced the atom bombing of a Japanese city to the world. The Japanese government admitted that Hiroshima had sustained significant damage, and dispatched a survey team to Hiroshima on August 8. They had concluded by August 10 that the weapon had indeed been an atom bomb, but by that time the Americans had dropped a second bomb. On the morning of August 9 the Japanese port-city of Nagasaki was destroyed by a plutonium bomb, killing an estimated 75,000 people and levelling most of the city. The Americans had built three nuclear weapons, and they had been determined to use all three: one as a test and two on especially selected Japanese cities. After the destruction of Nagasaki the Japanese surrendered to the Americans, although the emperor was allowed to remain in power because it was believed that he alone could persuade the Japanese people to agree to surrender. This single factor, which had prevented full Japanese surrender before the atom bombings, was waived by the Americans afterwards.

After the end of the war and in the ensuing American occupation of Japan, survey teams swarmed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, collecting data on the effects of atom bombs used against "virgin targets," which had not been hit by any prior bombing raids. This seems coldhearted and meanspirited (and indeed is), but the scientists and military advisors reasoned that this was a unique opportunity to observe and assess the impact of the new weapon on a densely populated city and its inhabitants. Research continued for months after the bombings, although the Americans did not permit the results to be published until after the end of the occupation of Japan in 1952. The full effects of the atom bombs on Japan were not released to the American public either: whatever scientific data was gathered was jealously guarded by the US government. In fact, general orders of censorship during the American occupation had prohibited all discussion of the atom bombings not only in journalism, but also in literature and film.

Those injured in the nuclear attacks often suffered a fate much worse than immediate death. The cities burned for several days after the bombs exploded above them, with firestorms engulfing most areas that had not been completely levelled by the blast. Because of the extremely high temperatures generated by the bombs most people suffered extensive burns, and because of the very strong blast-effect all windows were shattered: many people were riddled by shards of glass. In addition to these painful effects, many people suffered radiation sickness, and deaths and disease from its deadly effects continue to this day. Radiation is the characteristic mark of a nuclear weapon, and it can have a grotesquely devastating effect on human flesh. Radiation penetrates deep into the body and damages cells; it can also alter the structure of blood and internal organs. Some people whose fingertips were partly burned off began to grow distorted, blackened fingernails. Others grew painful and enormous scars over their entire bodies, while various skin disorders proliferated among survivors. Pregnant women who were exposed to the bombs' radiation gave birth to malformed children. Incidents of thyroid, breast, lung and other cancers increased among survivors, and the rate of leukemia and other blood diseases rose drastically. To this day scientists have not explained properly all the effects of exposure of human beings to nuclear radiation.

Despite certainty about the destructive impact of nuclear weapons and uncertainty about the consequences of radiation, the development of nuclear weapons went on apace after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in a mad arms race that in some ways fulfilled H.G. Wells' idea of world peace through the threat of total annihilation by ever more powerful weapons, which are by now more destructive than a thousand Hiroshima bombs. But even this insane perversion of world peace was not properly realized, as the Americans and Soviets monopolized development of nuclear weapons; the British, French and Chinese joined the exclusive club later, followed by South Africa and Israel, and recently by India and Pakistan. Several efforts have been made to regulate these weapons but, as the Manhattan Project scientists had warned would happen, the negotiations suffer from a lack of good faith, largely emanating from distrust of American intentions. The roots of this distrust are in the Americans’ stubborn and jealous guarding of their newly developed weapon, and their refusal to make its existence known to the rest of the world before deciding to use it. The fact remains that, whatever any government says or does, the Americans are the only people in the world to have used nuclear weapons against other humans beings.

Nuclear testing continues unabated, although atmospheric tests were banned after several incidents involving the uncontrolled spread of radioactive fallout. The first such incident was an American test in March 1954 of a hydrogen bomb on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, in which the cloud of radioactive fallout drifted over a Japanese fishing-boat and caused the death of one sailor and illness of others. The inhabitants of the Marshall Islands were also sickened by radiation, and a joint movement led to the First World Conference against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, which was held in Hiroshima in 1955. In 1963, under international pressure, the US, Britain and the USSR signed a treaty banning atmospheric testing, though testing still goes on underground and under the sea. Most progress towards eliminating nuclear weapons has been thwarted by the Americans, and recent American actions, such as their abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, coupled with US policy statements on using "tactical nuclear weapons," suggest that the Americans are still leading the world toward the possibility of nuclear war.

While the Americans seem incapable of admitting the horrors of nuclear weapons, or telling the truth about their use of those weapons against Japan, or acting to eliminate or control nuclear weapons by starting with their own bloated arsenal, a global anti-nuclear movement has gained momentum since the 1960s, when the extent of nuclear horrors became widely known. Each year in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on the anniversaries of their atom bombings, people from all over the world gather to share a dream of peace that is not based on the insane delusions of mutually assured destruction. But the dream is condemned to remain unfulfilled because few or none in any government, anywhere, share it.

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