Hiroshima and Nagasaki: could it happen again?

By Kerry Vernon

An estimated 80,000 were killed in a few seconds on August 6, 1945, when the first atom bomb, “Little Boy”, was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima from a US Army Air Force B-29 Superfortress bomber, the Enola Gay. About 13 square kilometres of the city were obliterated. Two days later, the second nuclear bomb, “Fat Man”, was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

By the end of 1945, the dropping of these two nuclear bombs had killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima and 80,000 in Nagasaki. The overwhelming majority were civilians. Since 1945, tens of thousands more in these two cities have suffered and died from radiation-induced cancers, genetic damage and still births. These are the only attacks with nuclear weapons in the history of warfare. Both bombs were developed in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The US government also considered dropping another six atomic bombs on Japan.

At the time, Washington claimed that the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to force Japan to quickly surrender, thus avoiding the deaths of large numbers of US soldiers in the face of Japanese military resistance to an invasion of the islands at the end of World War II. Since then, this explanation is trotted out on every anniversary of the bombings as the US rulers had no other choice. But the explanation is a lie. Japan was defeated, and seeking to surrender, before the bombs were dropped.


A strategic aerial bombardment of Japanese towns and industrial targets had begun on June 15, 1944, from US airbases in China. By late 1944, US bombers were raiding Japan from the recently captured Mariana islands. Under General Curtis Le May, the 21st US Bomber Command began to use a new strategy — bombing Japan with napalm incendiary bombs at low level at night. These attacks killed an estimated 1 million Japanese civilians in 67 cities between March and August 1945.

In a single raid, on March 9, 1945, Tokyo was devastated by 334 B-29s. Robert McNamara, US war secretary from 1961 to 1968, in an interview for the 2004 film The Fog of War, recounted the first incendiary bombing of Japan: “I was on the island of Guam in his [Le May’s] command in March of 1945. In that single night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo: men, women and children.”

Half a century after the event, McNamara had some doubts about the firebombings and nuclear bombings: “Proportionality should be a guideline in war. Killing 50% to 90% of the people of 67 Japanese cities and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve.” Citing Le May’s remarks at the time, McNamara said: “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.”

Having kept the atomic bomb project secret from his wartime ally, the Soviet Union, US President Harry Truman misled Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin in order to delay the Potsdam conference until the first A-bomb been successfully tested, on July 16, 1945. The Potsdam meeting began on July 17. Hoping to keep the Soviet Union out of any peace settlement with Japan, Truman tried to convince Stalin to delay Moscow’s entry into the war against Japan until August 15.

At the Yalta conference with then US president Franklin Roosevelt in February 1945, Stalin had agreed to enter the war against Japan three months after Nazi Germany was defeated. Unable to convince Stalin at Postdam to postpone Soviet entry into the war with Japan, Truman then ordered the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On August 8, exactly three months after Germany had surrendered, Moscow declared war on Japan and the next day 1.5 million Soviet troops invaded the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria), which was occupied by 1.2 million Japanese troops. The next day, the Japanese government announced its surrender, which US General Douglas Macarthur formally accepted in Tokyo on August 15. Japanese historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, in his 2006 book Racing the Enemy, concluded that the atomic bombings were not the principal reason for Japan’s capitulation. Instead, he contends, it was the Soviet declaration of war, and the prospect of Japan being occupied by the Soviet Army.

As early as February, Washington was aware that Japan was seeking to end the war. The Japanese government, via its ambassador in Moscow, had begun to seek peace negotiations. It’s only condition was that the Japanese emperor be allowed to remain on the throne. However, at the Postdam conference, Truman insisted that Japan make an unconditional surrender, thus blocking any peace talks.

No warning

To select the Japanese cities to be nuked, the Manhattan Project Target Committee met on May 10-11 in Los Alamos. It recommended Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama and an arsenal at Kokura as possible targets. The criteria were whether the cities were so far largely untouched by the nightly US bombing raids. The committee also recommended that the cities targeted be larger than 4km in diameter so that the blast would “create effective damage” and that they be unlikely to be attacked before August. The US Air Force was instructed to leave these cities out of its bombing raids so that an assessment could be made of the effects of the nuclear bombs. No warnings were given to the cities’ inhabitants prior to the atom bombings.

In his 1949 book, Great Mistakes of the War, New York Times military analyst Hanson Baldwin wrote: “Our only warning to a Japan already militarily defeated, and in a hopeless situation, was the Potsdam demand for unconditional surrender issued on July 26, when we knew the Japanese surrender attempt had started. Yet when the Japanese surrender was negotiated about two weeks later, after the bomb was dropped, our unconditional surrender demand was made conditional and we agreed, as [US war secretary Henry] Stimson had originally proposed we should do, to continuation of the Emperor upon his imperial throne.

“We were, therefore, twice guilty. We dropped the bomb at a time when Japan already was negotiating for an end of the war, but before these negotiations could come to fruition. We demanded unconditional surrender, then dropped the bomb and accepted conditional surrender, a sequence which indicates pretty clearly that the Japanese would have surrendered, even if the bomb had not been dropped, had the Potsdam Declaration included our promise to permit the Emperor to remain on his imperial throne.”

Global domination

Truman and a small group of US leaders decided to use the atomic bombs, not to end the war swiftly and save US soldiers’ lives, but to advance Washington’s plans for an “American century” of US global economic and political domination. The nuclear attack on Japan was to warn the leaders of the Soviet Union that their cities could expect the same fate if they stood in the way of US imperalism’s goals. This act began the nuclear arms race. According to McNamara, in The Fog of War, by the time of the Kennedy administration in 1961, the US had “a 17-to-one strategic advantage in nuclear numbers” over the USSR.

Truman’s secretary of state, James Byrnes, understood the real reason for avoiding or brushing off any suggestion that Japan was ready to surrender. Nuclear scientist Leo Szilard recounted to his biographers that Byrnes told him before the Hiroshima attack that “Russia might be more manageable if impressed by American military might and that a demonstration of the bomb may impress Russia”.

At the Potsdam meeting, Byrnes advised Truman that a combat display of the A-bomb might be used to bully Moscow into submission to US goals, and the bomb “might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war”. A diary entry by Walter Brown, an assistant to Byrnes, clearly suggests Truman and Byrnes saw the war-time use of the nuclear bomb as a way to reduce Soviet political influence in Asia. Brown noted that Byrnes was “hoping for time, believing that after [the] atomic bomb Japan will surrender and Russia will not get in so much on the kill, thereby being in a position to press for claims in China”.

Truman wrote in a now declassified diary entry that that he had ordered the atomic bombs dropped on a “purely military” target, so that “military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children”. But the order to drop the bombs stated specifically they were for use against cities on the list “Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki” that had not previously been bombed, precisely because they were of no military significance. Truman and Stimson approved the bombing order at Potsdam on July 25, 1945, adding that “additional bombs” could be dropped “as soon as made ready by the [Manhattan] project staff”.

US military opposition

A host of US military leaders urged Truman not to use nucleaer weapons against Japan. Most thought them unnecessary, according to Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, who wrote in his 1950 memoirs: “[T]he use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.”

Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the US Pacific Fleet, stated in a public address given at the Washington Monument on October 5, 1945: “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war”. He also stated: “The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan …”

Key scientific figures, such as Leo Szilard, who convinced Roosevelt to launch the nuclear bomb project, opposed the use of the bomb on Japan. Szilard and 69 co-signers at the Manhattan Project Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago petitioned Truman not to use the atomic bomb against Japan. A panel of seven nuclear scientists in that laboratory wrote a report on June 11, 1945, urging that the bomb be demonstrated “before the eyes of representatives of all United Nations, on the desert or a barren island”. Albert Einstein, whose 1905 theory of special relativity had paved the way for research into tapping nuclear energy, created headlines in the August 19, 1946, New York Times: “Einstein Deplores Use of Atom Bomb”. The story quoted Einstein as saying that, “A great majority of scientists were opposed to the sudden employment of the atom bomb”. In Einstein’s judgment, the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a political-diplomatic decision rather than a military or scientific one.

Myth debunked

The US ruling class was not happy about such public reminders of its willingness to commit mass murder to achieve its political goals. It became necessary to create a myth about wartime necessity requiring the use of the atomic bombs against Japanese cities. Stimson published a defence of the atomic bombings in the February 1947 Harper’s magazine. This was picked up by the New York Times, which claimed: “There can be no doubt that the president and Mr. Stimson are right when they mention that the bomb caused the Japanese to surrender.” Later, Truman began claiming that the bombs saved the lives of “a million” US soldiers. This myth has ever since been regularly reinforced by the Western capitalist news media.

In July 2005, however, the British New Scientist magazine reported that two historians had uncovered unmistakable evidence that “the US decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ... was meant to kick-start the Cold War rather than end the Second World War”. Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at the American University in Washington, concluded from his research that Truman’s decision “was not just a war crime, it was a crime against humanity”.

Kuznick studied the diplomatic archives of the US, Japan and the USSR together with Mark Selden, a historian from Cornell University in New York. They found that three days before the Hiroshima bombing, Truman agreed at a meeting that Japan was “looking for peace”. His senior generals and political advisers told him there was no need to use the bombs. But they were dropped anyway. “Impressing Russia was more important than ending the war”, Selden told New Scientist.

Ever since August 1945, it has been clear that any new world war will be a nuclear war, which would unleash horrors even greater than those of the first and second world wars. Later scientific research into a “nuclear winter” and other likely after-effects of a global nuclear war, has confirmed the view that humanity would not survive such a war. Despite this, the US rulers and their imperialist allies have been preparing for a third world war. Indeed, through the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki they began preparing for it even as World War II was ending.

Since 1946, Washington has planned or threatened to use nuclear weapons on at least 20 occasions — during the opening stages of the Cold War, during the US invasion of North Korea in 1950-51, during the Vietnamese people’s decisive battle against the French colonialists at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, during the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956, during the 1962 “missile crisis” in Cuba, and during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Rudd’s commission

This is the context in which to view Australian PM Kevin Rudd’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission, announced during his visit to Japan in June. Despite its name, it is certain that if this commission gets off the ground, its attention will be devoted to non-proliferation but not to disarmament.

While it is true that more nuclear-armed countries will not make the world a safer place, the real danger of a nuclear war comes from the imperialist states that already possess nuclear weapons — the US and its allies Britain, France and Israel. Rudd’s commission will be part of the ongoing US effort to use “non-proliferation” as a political weapon against Third World countries that won’t do its bidding, in the first place, oil-and-gas-rich Iran. Rudd’s commission will contribute nothing to getting rid of existing nuclear weapons.

For a time, the possession of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union and China were a necessary deterrent against the imperialists using nuclear weapons against them. But eventually, these two governments’ reliance on a purely military defence only provided the imperialist powers with a political pretext to maintain and expand their nuclear arsenal. This undermined attempts to build a mass movement for unilateral nuclear disarmament within the imperialist countries, particularly in the US.

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty, now 40 years old, has not brought the world any closer to nuclear disarmament. This is because the imperialists will not voluntarily surrender the power that nuclear weapons give them to terrorise the working people of the world. As long as nuclear weapons remain in the imperialist rulers’ hands, the danger exists that they will use them again, particularly if, as in 1945, they are confident there will be no nuclear retaliation, and if they judge that their gains will outweigh the price they will pay in horror and hatred by working people everywhere.

A mass campaign against imperialist militarism can limit the ability of the imperialists to wage war, but in the final analysis only a successful struggle for power by the working class in the imperialist countries, above all the victory of the US working class, can disarm the imperialists and thus free humanity forever from the threat of war and nuclear annihilation. The experience of the mass movement against the imperialist war in Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s showed that mass campaigns against such wars can contribute to the growth of consciously anti-capitalist forces in the imperialist countries. When linked to a general upsurge in the class struggle, such campaigns can enable such forces to mobilise the working class in a successful struggle for power, as was demonstrated by the Bolshevik party in Russia in 1917.

That is the only way to a certainty of the slogan: “Hiroshima, Nagasaki — never again!”