I Am Become Death

Robert Oppenheimer reflecting on the moments following the first successful detonation test of a nuclear bomb

Today is the 71st anniversary of the world's first nuclear strike on Hiroshima, Japan followed by the second attack on Nagasaki August 9, 1945.  There were actually three targets, the city of Konkura was meant to be bombed the same day as Nagasaki but was spared due to poor weather conditions. The unleashing of nuclear force was the moment that would give birth to the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction politics, and eventually, even the killing of Iranian scientists.

The teaching of WWII in our schools nearly always implies that the use of the atomic bomb was crucial to end the war.  That is, to stop Hitler and his allies, to subdue the Japanese and obtain  retribution for Pearl Harbour. The truth is that Germany and Japan were well and truly defeated before the atom bombs were dropped on Japan. In large part due to the merciless firebombing campaign the US had already been engaging in that killed more than the atomic bombs combined.  This is not to discount that Japan was a formidable and brutal adversary, another aspect of WWII that is rarely appropriately taught is the scale of death and crimes against humanity that were committed by the Japanese military across Asia.

Though Nazi Germany remains the symbol of the great enemy, the swatsika blazoned perpetrators of the Holocaust. The education generations of children in allied countries have received about Japan's participation focuses almost solely on Pearl Harbour and the Japanese hold out to surrender following Germany's defeat. Historical record, education, and therefore our entire popular culture, has been misinformed about the truth behind the 'good' war. With all the modern threats we face, it's often dismissed, and discussing the use of the atomic bomb in WWII is usually only left for history or military buffs and academics.

We should not allow this discussion to fall silent, it never stops being relevant to examine the moral implications of the first use of a nuclear bomb. We continue to live in the age of nuclear threat, and despite the great words of world leaders, the truth is they are maintaining and rebuilding nuclear armaments, reducing their number but rebuilding them into smaller, 'smarter' bombs. If we want to stand against these weapons, and demand complete disarmament we are obligated to confront all complex layers of that position.

Those who believe the bomb did end WWII often almost can't even consider the suggestion that the bomb should never have been used whatsoever.  They argue we cannot make that claim because we lack the intimate knowledge of all political and military intelligence available at that point in history. Since almost no one will ever be privy to all of those facts, we are all unqualified to say we would have made a different choice in President Truman's position. Yet with a bit of research it's easy to discover that the statements of key military figures and a former president (Dwight Eisenhower) who did have access to all that relevant intelligence in 1945, also support the conclusion that the bombings were essentially demonstrations of power, nothing more. (See Was Hiroshima Necessary? and The Bomb Didn't Beat Japan - Stalin did). 

The propaganda that has been infused in our collective historical education paints America as making a hard choice that they were loathe to do but that 'saved the world'. There is an obvious flipside perspective to that decision that is rarely considered. A key physicist, on the Manhattan Project, Leo Szilard (who also worked equally hard to convince two presidents not to use the bomb), pointed out that we would not have been so tolerant if that decision if the enemy had struck first:

"If the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them."

The allied propagandists and world media would have wasted no time condemning the use of such a weapon as further proof of the depravity and disregard of the Nazi regime to the wellbeing of everyone on earth.  It's not difficult to picture the headlines that could have been, and how offensive it is to consider how the heroism of America ending the war with the bomb is taught in the vast majority of education systems decade after decade. There is no heroism in mass execution. 

Hiroshima - Ground Zero

It seems obvious even if America needed to reveal the effectiveness of this ultimate weapon to intimidate the Japanese (and Russia) that a bomb exploded off the coast of Japan or on a sparsely populated, truly military target, with the intention of minimal to nil casualties would have been sufficient to cement a surrender. It would have been the only use of the weapon that showed mercy and reverence for this next step in human warfare, but still fulfilled the strategic purpose for Japan to accept all of America's terms of surrender.

Though holding that position begs the question; considering how tenacious the Japanese were and what they were capable of, what if a warning shot or lesser target had not been enough? Logically of course, there is no way to know the answer to this question, but we can consider the Japanese reaction to the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Part of Emperor Hirohito's statement of surrender on August 12th, 1945 read:

"Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of the human civilisation."

This statement could be used to argue that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary, and obviously the choice to attack a densely populated target (285,000 civilians) was instrumental in Japan's recognition of the need to surrender. I contend Hirohito's words equally convey that the absolute power of the bomb could have been demonstrated on a different, non-populated target to the same effect. The undeniably terrifying destructive power did not need an additional city of corpses and walking dead to convey the message that America would strike with this weapon if Japan refused to concede.

The civilians killed in the world's first nuclear attack were not only largely non-military, there were also an estimated 20,000 Korean and Chinese conscripts between both cities. The initial death toll was 210,000 and many more died soon after from radiation poisoning, burns, and high rates of cancer continued for decades following the attacks.

The total number of innocent lives affected will never be calculated with certainty. Images of the attacks were actively suppressed by the allied governments. Photographs of the victims and the devastation were deemed inflammatory and unnecessary for the allied civilian populations to witness.

This is hypocritical, considering allied soldiers forced German civilians to view the concentration camps near their towns and cities, so they could bear witness to hell that the Nazis had wrought. The gravity of using the power of atomic energy against human beings demands that every one of us be exposed to it's aftermath. Not through fictionalized accounts, (though there is a nuclear scare film from the UK that comes close), but by facing with the incomprehensible suffering of the victims.

The choice to use a nuclear bomb is fundamentally incompatible with justice. To engage in this type of nuclear strike is to be culpable for mass murder of innocent human beings almost solely due to their unfortunate circumstance of having been born of that particular place and time. Not only that, by not eradicating the use of nuclear weapons since that time, the world's population is perpetually at risk.

To stand and speak against war, nuclear war and nuclear proliferation we will have to be vigilant, but also objective, and prepared to be thought idealistic and foolish. As great as the strength of our convictions, if it happens that well-meant appeals for peace stop a nuclear strike that can be unequivocally proven to have been necessary to prevent a truly greater evil, then we will deserve to be judged harshly for our idealism. I am willing to be held accountable if that is the case.

If you intend to be a part of the movement for nuclear disarmament, let it bolster your confidence to know that far more reputable thinkers than you and I have come to the same conclusions. Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein's manifesto asks us to imagine renouncing war, and implores those in power to admit that our destructive capabilities have left every one of us in peril.

There is another truly unsung hero whose name you've probably never been taught, Sir. Joseph Rotblat, the only nuclear scientist who left Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project in 1944 for the sake of conscience. He entered the program initially because he believed in stopping the Hitler by ensuring the Allies built the bomb first. His wife had also been taken by Nazis in Poland.

"I tried for years to find out what had happened to her, but I never did," he said. "She died in one of the camps, I imagine."

There were no children of the marriage and Rotblat never remarried. He was a man who had every vengeful reason to work towards a nuclear bomb to be used to stop Hitler. However, when he discovered that the primary goal had become to intimidate Russia, and the Japanese and Germans were already subdued, he resigned from the project immediately. His name may not be familiar, yet he is a 1995 Nobel Prize winner and spent his life working with fellow scientists and academics to stop nuclear proliferation.

Unlike other scientists on the Manhattan Project, Rotblat believed that science has a moral obligation to speak out and to be held accountable when discoveries are used for immoral purposes. His own research was instrumental to the revelation that a nuclear reaction could be used as a bomb, and but he spent the rest of his life campaigning against it. As the Cold War continued Rotblat continued to fear for the future if nuclear weapons were not brought under some control:

"The most terrifying moment in my life was October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I did not know all the facts - we have only learned recently how close we were to war - but I knew enough to make me tremble."

Ironically enough, during the Cuban Missile Crisis at the height of the Cold War, it was a Russian who saved the world. Another little known hero of history, Vasili Arkhipov, much like Rotblat - made a solitary stand in the name of caution and conscience and was able to avert what may have become a worldwide disaster (see additional resources below for a short film onVasili Arkhipov). 

Today we mourn the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who were killed to more thoroughly demonstrate the destructive power of an ultimate weapon as part of a military rivalry. We must remain ever watchful, ever remembering that the nuclear threat and the Military Industrial Complex still exist. We have a responsibility to humanity, or more simply - to each other, to speak out against the use of these weapons regardless of the nature of the conflict. 

Likewise it is a day to remember, celebrate and thank Joseph Roblat, as well as Vasili Arkhipov, for their service to all of us.   

May many others follow their example.

Additional Resources

Excellent documentary on Joseph Rotblat: 

For your Facebook TimeLine Cover

The Man Who Saved The World 
Documentary short on the heroism of Vasili Arkhipov


  1. I read that one of the other factors in the Japanese surrender was the swift defeat of their army at the hands of the Soviets:


    1. Thanks for that - the more evidence the better.