On the calm, cloudless morning of Aug. 6, 1945, 29-year-old Tsutoma Yamaguchi arrived in the city of Hiroshima to meet a business associate. He remembers hearing the buzz of the aircraft above right before a blinding flash and a shattering, deafening boom changed his world and the world around him.
Shocked and uncomprehending, Yamaguchi awoke to a shattered, ruined landscape which just minutes before had been a thriving Japanese city. The towering fireball that arose from Hiroshima that morning had, at its core, heat three times greater than the surface of the sun, vaporizing everything within a mile radius. Within minutes, some 80,000 people (including 20 U.S. airmen who were being held prisoner) were dead; some 100,000 more would later die of their wounds and radiation poisoning.
With the writhing screams and cries of the wounded pounding in his ears, Yamaguchi’s burns were swathed in bandages in an air raid shelter where he spent the night. The next morning, he left the smoldering ruins of Hiroshima and headed home 180 miles west to be reunited with his family in Nagasaki.
Then, shortly after his arrival, there was another terrible blinding flash and a mushroom cloud soaring high above the city. Instantaneously, people below and birds flying nearby burst into flames. Amid the rubble and tens of thousands of charred bodies, Yamaguchi, incredibly, survived a second atomic blast. In a paradox of fate, the Japanese businessman became both the unluckiest and luckiest person on the face of the earth. Today, Yamaguchi is 93 years old, hard of hearing and semi-ambulatory, but otherwise in reasonably good health. He is the only person known to have survived both atomic bombs.
Aside from being a compelling human story, it also underscores the Empire of Japan’s stubbornness. It never considered surrendering after Hiroshima and it took another five days after the second atomic blast (amid the resistance of many in their Supreme War Council) before Japan’s Emperor overruled them and capitulated. At the time of the event, only 10 percent of the American public disapproved the use of the atomic bombs; today almost 40 percent (most of whom were born after the war) think the U.S. was wrong to use the bomb.
This recent poll demonstrates, quite naturally, that time is a winnower, as a struggle surmounted always seems less calamitous in retrospect. But in August 1945 this was hardly the case. The world was exhausted by six terrible years of war and 55 million deaths. America didn’t enter the war until December of 1941, but the death toll of American soldiers had reached 407,000. After the blood baths of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, it was brutally clear that the Japanese would fight for every inch of soil on their homeland. An invasion of Japan would add hundreds of thousands of American casualties to the already grim total.
There is a tendency to forget how savage the war in the Pacific had become. It was no accident that the fewest numbers of POWs of any country belonged to Japan; their code of honor compelled them to fight to the death. After weeks of severe pounding at Okinawa, Japanese soldiers by the thousands retreated deep into the limestone caverns and killed themselves with grenades and cyanide injections to avoid capture.
U.S. Air Force General, Curtis LeMay, was a brutally frank man whose philosophy of war was adopted right out of the playbook of William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union Civil War general who vowed to make the South so sick of war that they wouldn’t rebel for another thousand years. LeMay used the same heartwarming language in his interviews: “I’ll tell you what war is about,” he would grouse. “You’ve got to kill people, and when you’ve killed enough of them, they stop fighting.”
That is exactly what Curtis LeMay did. The technology did not exist for surgical precision bombing, and since military targets were frequently nestled in civilian populations, LeMay’s B-29 bombers went about their business wholesale and indiscriminately. Every other day LeMay was sending 500 bombers on fire raids over Japan. Chemical incendiaries that strafed Japanese cities had the effect of thermal hurricanes that killed by suffocation as well as by scorching heat. LeMay’s bombers had attacked 66 cities killing 900,000 people and injuring up to 1.3 million more. Some 8 million Japanese were left homeless. Only Hiroshima and Nagasaki were spared because LeMay’s superiors removed them from his target list to be atomic bombed if the B-29s failed to bring the Japanese to their knees.
It barely staggered them. The Japanese never relented, as Asian countries became their killing fields. Almost 250,000 Asians a month were being killed and ultimately some 17 million Asians had died at the hands of the Japanese armed forces. Meanwhile, Japanese kamikazes flew bomb-ladened planes, not single kamikazes but flights of hundreds at a time diving from the sky and into American naval ships or any exposed target for their suicidal missions.
Weighing the cost of an invasion of Japan, President Harry (the buck stops here) Truman lived up to his reputation. President for barely four months, Truman unhesitatingly ordered the bomb to be used on Hiroshima and then, in his own words, went to bed and slept like a baby. Every intimate of Truman swore that he never once second-guessed himself or had even a momentary pang of conscience for doing what he believed was the right thing. Quite a contrast from the scientist, Robert Oppenheimer, who helped develop the bomb and who tearfully lamented to anyone in earshot that he was, in a line from an ancient poem, “A Destroyer of Worlds.”
Whatever the gamut of emotions, with the dawn of the atomic age the world had changed dramatically and the United States changed with it. The only nation that had opposed the League of Nations now became the champion of the United Nations; the country that had fiercely embraced isolationism now went about forging powerful peacetime alliances under NATO in Europe and SEATO in Asia; a country that during the Great Depression clothed itself in Protectionism now reached outward to connect the world with global trade and international markets; a power that just 20 years earlier refused to cancel wartime debts had now become the architect of the Marshall Plan that poured in billions of U.S. dollars to rebuild a war-torn Europe.
Finally, a country that habitually disarmed and demobilized after every war now became the “arsenal of democracy.” This included a nuclear deterrent that remains indispensable to an effective American Foreign Policy. When Winston Churchill predicted that nuclear weapons would be the most pacific development in the history of warfare he was, as usual, right. The 45-year Cold War with the Soviet Union would have quickly become red-hot if not for the existence of nuclear weapons. These weapons continue to deter the enemies of the United States and provide reassurance to our allies.
The U.S. nuclear umbrella has restrained nuclear proliferation and reduced regional arms races that would beget a much more dangerous world. Japan, for example, has the strategic capability to make hundreds of nuclear warheads but doesn’t only because of U.S. security guarantees. Nuclear exchanges become far less likely because a U.S. nuclear presence gives America a stare-down capability. Dreamy rhetoric about a nuclear-free world in the foreseeable future is, just that, pure fantasy reflecting an unsophisticated utopianism that has no bearing on geo-political realities.
As counter-intuitive as it might seem, the U.S. having a reliable and modern nuclear stockpile is a force for peace. So is a missile defense system that should be developed to protect our citizens and allies since it is better to avert a nuclear attack than to avenge it. The same sober judgments must likewise be exercised in protecting the homeland against nuclear terrorism, which now looms as an even greater threat.
The great destructive power of these weapons compels us to treat these matters with the utmost seriousness and attention. With the stakes so frighteningly high, our choices must be guided and girded by hard-earned experience rather than swayed by an unspecified and untutored idealism.