The Long Shadow Of the Mushroom Cloud

As America marks the 70th anniversary of the end of Worls War II, it is a time to contemplate the historic events leading up to the unconditional surrender of Japan, and how the decision made by then-President Harry Truman seven decades ago continues to have an enormous impact on our lives.

On August 6, 1945, the White House released a three-page press release that began with startling news:

“Sixteen hours ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It had more than two thousand times the blast power of the British ‘Grand Slam,’ which is the largest bomb ever yet used in the history of warfare.”

Hiroshima was a key military target. It was home to the 2nd Army Headquarters, which oversaw the defense of southern Japan. The city was also a communications center and assembly area for troops. Yet, the overwhelming majority of the victims were actually civilians.

Three days later, on August 9, a B-29 bomber set off to drop a second atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Kokura, which contained a major military arsenal. When the bomber carrying the atomic weapon arrived over the city, along with a companion observation B-29, it discovered that the target was completely obscured by smoke and haze. Three times the pilot unsuccessfully attempted bombing runs before giving up and heading to the secondary target, the industrial city of Nagasaki.

“The bomb burst with a blinding flash and a huge column of black smoke swirled up toward us,” recalled the mission’s weaponeer, Capt. F. L. Ashworth. “Out of this column of smoke there boiled a great swirling mushroom of gray smoke, luminous with red, flashing flame, that reached to 40,000 feet in less than eight minutes. Below, through the clouds, we could see the pall of black smoke ringed with fire that covered what had been the industrial area of Nagasaki.”

The world would never be the same.

The precise number of dead and injured from these two attacks will never be known. It is thought that at least 150,000 were killed and wounded in Hiroshima and as many as 75,000 in Nagasaki; the real number may be much higher.

According to author Susan Southard — who spent years interviewing survivors and researching the physical, emotional and social challenges of post-atomic life — within a week of each nuclear attack, thousands who had escaped death began to experience inexplicable combinations of horrific physical symptoms and infections ravaged their internal organs. Within a few days of the onset of symptoms, many people lost consciousness, mumbled deliriously and died in extreme pain; others languished for weeks before either dying or slowly recovering. Even those who had suffered no external injuries fell sick and died, she says.

For years, tens of thousands of hibakusha (“atomic bomb-affected people”) suffered agonizing radiation-related illnesses. Mortality rates remained high, and 30 years after the war, high rates of leukemia as well as stomach and colon cancer persisted. From the survivors’ perspective, the atomic bomb had burned their bodies from the inside out.

Immediately after the attack on Nagasaki, and for years to come, Truman tried to defend his actions by insisting that “[w]e have used [the bomb] in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”

With the hindsight afforded by 70 years, many contemporary historians disagree with that statement. They argue that the Soviets’ declaration of war on Japan and their invasion of Manchuria — which occurred only a day before the attack on Nagasaki — were what convinced the Japanese to surrender. Furthermore, it is now believed that the attack on Nagasaki was intended more as a message to Stalin about American power than a tactic to pressure Japan.

Within days, V-J Day had arrived and World War II was finally over. Japan had paid a terrible price, and the moral standing of America had been tarnished forever. The leader of the free world had done the unthinkable. Not only did the dropping of the two atomic bombs unleash a desperate nuclear arms race among the nations, but it sent a message that when it came to winning wars, even the most civilized of nations could resort to obliterating masses of civilians.

Japan was a formidable and ruthless enemy, and was doubtlessly the evil aggressor in this conflict. Its surprise deadly attack on Pearl Harbor was unprovoked; its use of kamikaze pilots flying suicide missions unprecedented; and its treatment of enemies, including prisoners of war, shockingly brutal. Despite these atrocities, the use of nuclear force was a line that should never have been crossed, a painful turning point in history.

We will never know for certain what would have happened had these bombs not been dropped. What we do know is that seven decades later, the world is grappling with the very real threat of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands. It is widely feared that the deal that has been struck with Iran, if approved, will clear the way for that unabashedly belligerent, anti-West and anti-Israel country to reach nuclear warfare capability. Meanwhile, Teheran continues to support terrorist organizations, and with its help, the massacre of civilians in Syria continues unabated.

It isn’t up to us to judge the motivations and intentions behind the decisions made so many years ago. It is up to us, however, to learn from the twists and turns of history and try our best to draw the right conclusions.