In this first of a two-part article which forms the introduction to the memoir of a Nagasaki bombing victim, historian Peter Kuznick shows why the bombs were dropped and how some victims’ anger propelled the Japanese anti-nuclear movement
SUMITERU Taniguchi was one of the ‘lucky’ ones. He lived a long and productive life. He married and fathered two healthy children who gave him four grandchildren and two great grandchildren. He had a long career in Japan’s postal and telegraph services. As a leader in Japan’s anti-nuclear movement, he addressed thousands of audiences and hundreds of thousands of people. He travelled to at least 23 countries. The organisations in which he played a prominent role were nominated several times for the Nobel peace prize.
Many of the more than 250,000 who lived in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 were not so lucky. Tens of thousands were killed instantly by the plutonium core atomic bomb the US dropped that day from the B29 Bockscar, captained by Major Charles Sweeney.
The bomb, nicknamed ‘Fat Man,’ exploded with a force equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT and wiped out an area that covered three square miles, shattering windows eleven miles away. Some 74,000 were dead by the end of the year. The death toll reached 140,000 by 1950. Included among the victims were thousands of Korean slave labourers, who toiled in Japanese mines, fields, and factories. Since then, atomic bomb-related injuries and illnesses have claimed thousands more victims and caused immense suffering to many of the survivors.
The scene of death and destruction defied description. Corpses, many of which had been charred by the blast, lay everywhere. Susan Southard, in her groundbreaking book Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, describes the scene that US occupation troops encountered when they landed on September 23, 1945: ‘The Urakami Valley had vanished from existence, corpses were burning on cremation pyres, skulls and bones were piled on the ground, and people were walking through the ruins with beleaguered and empty expressions.’
Among the troops was Keith Lynch, a sailor from Nebraska. Lynch wrote to his parents that he had just seen ‘a sight I hope my children, if I am so fortunate, will never have to see, hear of, or ever think of. It was horrible and when you get to thinking, unbelieveable…. Such a thing as I saw yesterday cannot be described in words. You have to see it and I hope no one ever has to see such a thing again.’
The death toll was even higher and the destruction greater in Hiroshima, which the US had obliterated three days earlier with a uranium core atomic bomb. There, some 200,000 were dead by 1950. The Nagasaki bomb was more powerful than the one that levelled Hiroshima, but damage was limited by the fact that the bomb missed its target and that the mountains surrounding Nagasaki, which is located in a valley, contained the blast. However, in Urakami Valley, where the bomb landed, nearly 70 percent of the population perished.
QUESTIONS about the atomic bombings have persisted ever since those fateful days in August 1945. Renowned journalist Edward R Murrow asked president Truman in a 1958 television interview, ‘When the bomb was dropped, the war was near to ending anyway. Was this the result of a miscalculation of the Japanese potential? Was our intelligence faulty in this area?’ Truman correctly denied that he had miscalculated or that the intelligence had been faulty. He knew exactly what he was doing. For months, in fact, Allied intelligence had been accurately reporting Japan’s growing desire to quit and the fact that there were alternatives to using atomic bombs to end the war. On July 6, 1945, in preparation for the Potsdam Conference, the Combined Intelligence Committee of the Combined Chiefs of Staff issued a top secret ‘Estimate of the Enemy Situation.’ The section on the ‘Possibility of Surrender’ clearly stated: ‘The Japanese ruling groups are aware of the desperate military situation and are increasingly desirous of a compromise peace, but still find unconditional surrender unacceptable…. a considerable portion of the Japanese population now consider absolute military defeat to be probable….An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of complete defeat.’
Truman recognised the growing desperation of Japanese leaders, whose citizens were becoming increasingly demoralised. The US had firebombed and largely destroyed more than 100 Japanese cities, leaving millions homeless. With the food supply shrinking and the transportation system in tatters, starvation loomed. Energy supplies had run so low that new Japanese pilots could barely undertake the training flights needed to prepare for battle. US forces had decimated Japan’s air force and navy. And, as the July 6 report indicated, Japanese leaders were looking for a way out and American leaders knew it.
Truman described the intercepted July 18 cable between officials in Tokyo and Moscow as ‘the telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace.’ Based on other recently intercepted cables, his close advisors concurred. They knew that giving the Japanese assurances that they could keep the emperor would likely bring surrender. Secretary of War Henry Stimson pushed Truman and Secretary of State James Byrnes to drop the demand for unconditional surrender and inform the Japanese that the emperor could stay. Most of Truman’s top military and civilian advisors joined Stimson in that endeavour. General Douglas MacArthur, Southwest Pacific Supreme Commander, later declared, somewhat over-optimistically, that the Japanese would have happily surrendered in May if US leaders had changed the surrender terms.
But that was not the only way to induce surrender without use of the atomic bombs. US leaders could also have waited for the Soviets to declare war against Japan and begin the invasion of Japanese-occupied territories and perhaps Japan itself. Truman was confident that this would do the trick. When he got Stalin’s confirmation at Potsdam that the Soviets were coming in, he wrote in his diary on July 17, ‘He’ll be in the Jap War on August 15. Fini Japs when that comes about.’ He wrote to his wife the next day, exulting, ‘We’ll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won’t be killed!’
Opening path to ultimate destruction
BUT Truman’s crime goes beyond slaughtering innocent civilians. Making Truman’s actions totally indefensible was the fact that Truman knew that he was beginning a process that could end all life on the planet and said so on at least three occasions. While at Potsdam, most famously, he reacted to an in-depth briefing on the incredible power of the Alamogordo bomb test by shuddering, ‘It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.’
Many scientists knew he wasn’t exaggerating. Physicist Edward Teller had been pushing for immediate development of hydrogen bombs for years. Fellow Hungarian Leo Szilard warned that the destructive force in such bombs could be almost unlimited in size. Los Alamos scientific director J. Robert Oppenheimer had earlier warned top government and military leaders that within three years the US would likely have weapons between 700 and 7,000 times as powerful as the relatively primitive bomb that would flatten Hiroshima.
In less than a decade, scientists were indeed testifying before Congress about the feasibility of developing a thermonuclear explosive with the power of 700,000 Hiroshima bombs. Insanity was the order of the day. As Lewis Mumford wrote, ‘madmen,’
calmly, rationally planning annihilation, had seized the levers of power. As Sumiteru Taniguchi understood, they have not relinquished it since.
The question that plagues many historians is not whether the bombs needed to be used to prevent an invasion that was not even scheduled to begin for another three months against a foe that had clearly been defeated. Obviously, they did not. Seven of America’s eight five star officers in 1945 are on record saying as much.
Admiral William D Leahy, Truman’s personal chief of staff, said that in using the atomic bombs, the US ‘adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the dark ages.’ Even the National Museum of the US Navy in Washington, DC acknowledges that the vast death and destruction wreaked by atomic bombings ‘made little impact on the Japanese military. However, the Soviet invasion of Manchuria…changed their minds.’ The question is not whether the atomic bombs were militarily or morally justifiable — they clearly were not. The question is why Truman chose to use them when he knew the end of the war was imminent and said so repeatedly and knew they were putting humanity on a glide path to annihilation.
As historians have increasingly come to realise, Truman had been obsessed with the Soviet Union since April 13, 1945 — his first full day in office. His close advisors, most of whom had little if any influence upon Roosevelt, pushed him to act firmly to challenge Soviet actions in Europe. Truman’s confrontation with Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov on April 23, in which he erroneously accused the Soviets of having broken their Yalta promises, marked how dramatically the wartime alliance between the US and the USSR had deteriorated in the 11 days since Roosevelt’s death.
The real target
JAMES Byrnes, who became Truman’s Secretary of State in early July but had been his most trusted advisor since his first day in office, and Gen. Leslie Groves, the driving force behind the Manhattan Project, both asserted that the Soviet Union loomed as the real target behind the bomb project. Byrnes told three visiting scientists in late May that the bomb was needed to reverse Soviet gains in Eastern Europe.
Groves appalled physicist Joseph Rotblat, the future Nobel laureate who quit the project a few months later, when he said in
March 1944, ‘You realise of course that the main purpose of this project is to subdue the Russians.’ Groves stated on another occasion, ‘There was never from about two weeks
from the time I took charge of the Project any illusion on my part that Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis.’
Sumiteru Taniguchi concurred with that assessment. In his moving memoir, he writes, ‘Some studies point out that the US wanted to test the uranium and plutonium-type bombs to show off their military muscle and take the advantage in the post-World War II diplomacy. I agree with this perspective.’ He understood fully and says directly that ‘nuclear weapons are weapons of annihilation.’ When he died in August 2017, 72 years after the atomic bombings, his anger had not abated. Those who work closely with Hibakusha (atomic bomb-affected persons) have often heard them say that they don’t condemn US leaders; they condemn war.
In Akira Kurosawa’s moving 1991 film Rhapsody in August, when the 80-year old grandmother Kane, whose husband had been killed in the Nagasaki bombing, learns of her four grandchildren’s concern about her suffering at US hands, she explains, ‘it was a long time ago that I felt bitter about America. It’s been 45 years since grandpa died. Now I neither like nor dislike America. It was because of the war. The war was to blame.’ This sentiment was especially pervasive in Nagasaki where the response to the bombings was deliberately depoliticised by a form of Christian apologetics.
Some Forgave the US
Visitors to Nagasaki quickly discover that the bomb missed its intended downtown target near the Mitsubishi shipbuilding and munitions manufacturing headquarters by two miles. It exploded instead above the Urakami Cathedral, East Asia’s largest, in the center of the biggest Catholic community in Japan. Nagasaki’s Catholic community dates back to the 16th century, but, after flourishing briefly, its members were persecuted and
driven underground. The community didn’t reemerge until the Meiji government lifted the ban against Christianity in 1873. There were approximately 14,000 Catholics in Urakami at the time of the atomic bombing. The one who did the most to shape the city’s postwar narrative was Catholic doctor Takashi Nagai.
Nagai converted to Catholicism in 1934 after a one-year stint as a Japanese imperial army surgeon in Manchuria. During his second military tour from 1937 to 1940, he served in Nanjing at the time Japanese troops were carrying out the brutal massacre, commonly known as the ‘Rape of Nanjing.’ Upon his return to Japan, Nagai was decorated with the Order of the Rising Sun for his ‘bravery.’ Back in Japan, he served as Dean of the Department of Radiology at Nagasaki Medical University where he was diagnosed with leukaemia in June 1945. He suffered another major blow two months later when his wife was killed in the atomic bombing, leaving him to raise his two young children.
Nagai worked tirelessly and heroically to help the victims of the bombing at a time when doctors and medical facilities were in desperately short supply. But, as Yuki Miyamoto has explained, it was his Biblical interpretation of the bombing that proved his most enduring, and controversial, legacy. This was best captured in a lecture he gave during a mass on November 23, 1945 in which he stated,
‘It was the providence of God that carried the bomb to that destination…Was Nagasaki, the only holy place in all Japan, not chosen as a victim, a pure lamb, to be slaughtered and burned on the altar of sacrifice to expiate the sins committed by humanity in the Second World War? Only when Nagasaki was burned did God accept the sacrifice. Hearing the cry of the human family. He inspired the emperor to issue the sacred decree by which the war was brought to an end.’
Nagai called upon Nagasaki’s Catholics to ‘give thanks that Nagasaki had been chosen for the sacrifice.’
Living in a tiny 43 square foot hut with his two young children, the charismatic Nagai, his health rapidly deteriorating, wrote fifteen books before his death in 1951. His classic work, The Bells of Nagasaki, was published in 1949 with the blessing of the occupation authorities and turned into a popular movie. Publication had been delayed for more than two years due to the strict censorship US authorities imposed on discussions of the atomic bombs. GHQ, the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers, insisted he change the title from his original choice The Curtain Rises on the Atomic Age. With its new title, the book quickly became a bestseller and helped popularise the idea that the bombing was ‘God’s Providence’ and the Nagasaki Catholics were deliberately chosen for this ‘redemptive sacrifice.’
In other writings, Nagai shifted the blame for the atomic bombing from the Americans to the Japanese themselves: ‘It is not the atomic bomb that gouged this huge hole in the Urakami basin. We dug it ourselves to the rhythm of military marches…. We turned the beautiful city of Nagasaki into a heap of ashes…. It is we the people who busily made warships and torpedoes.’
As Tomoe Otsuki has shown in her dissertation and articles, Nagai’s message of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation’ was one that US occupation authorities were more than happy to propagate. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, had sought to replace Shinto influence in Japan with Christianity. Shinto, he believed, abetted militarism, while Christianity undergirded democracy. ‘Democracy and Christianity have much in common,’ he averred, ‘as practice of the former is impossible without giving faithful service to the fundamental concepts underlying the latter.’
To be continued.
Consortiumnews.com, August 3. Peter Kuznick is professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University and is co-author (with Akira Kimura) of Rethinking the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Japanese and American Perspectives. This article forms the Introduction to the English language translation of The Atomic Bomb on My Back: A Life Story of Survival and Activism by Taniguchi Sumiteru, to be released on August 9 by Rootstock Publishing.
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