Moral Rationalizing 75 Years Later: The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki


We’ve reached the 75-year anniversary of one of the worst atrocities in modern life (I’m looking at this week as a continuum of one overall atrocity), where thousands of people were vaporized in seconds, and more still, poisoned slowly and agonizingly. Mostly women and children. The bombings were so destructive and devastating, it’s difficult all these years later to even ascertain an accurate death assessment, both in the immediacy and in the long-term. The long-range estimate is that 210,000 people died (about 140,000 at Hiroshima and 70,000 at Nagasaki). The short-range estimate comes from the United States military, which puts the overall number at 110,000. To put that into perspective, that latter number is how many the United States military say died in bombings they believe were justified.

One of these bombings would have been enough, but to think two happened in the span of three days is hard to fathom. The bombing of Hiroshima occurred on Aug. 6, 1945 and then Nagasaki on Aug. 9.

I previously wrote about the bombings on the 69-year anniversary of the bombings. I planned to mark the grisly anniversary each year thereafter — because it deserves that kind of attention and reminder — but not keeping up with my blog meant a six-year gap. Gah.

Harry Truman in 1963 defends his decision on Hiroshima 75 years ago this week.

Robert McNamara, a person involved in the nukes dropping, and who would later become Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, said this about WWII, “We were behaving like war criminals, but what is immoral if you lose, but not if you win?”

As I’ve previously said, we won the language of history, but in so doing, we’ve lost the moral ground.

There is nothing that can justify these bombings. In a letter, pictured above, nearly 20 years later, Harry S. Truman certainly tried with the usual arguments: It would prevent thousands from perishing (and probably half a million) in a land invasion, and hey, what about Pearl Harbor?

Neither justifies vaporizing thousands of people, again, mostly women and children.

“I have no regrets, and under the circumstances, I would do it again -, ” Truman said.

This is why Truman will always be the worst president in American history in my view. Other presidents did awful, awful things, too, but not much compares to dropping two nuclear bombs, defending such usage, and unbelievably saying you have no regrets and would do it again.

Although, it’s worth pointing out, Truman doesn’t seem to have known about the Nagasaki bombing, which is all the more troubling and frightening to consider.

Tibbets and Enola Gay_0
Paul Tibbets and the Enola Gay. Courtesy of the Joseph Papalia Collection.

And again, let me establish what we’re talking about. I’m already getting chills reading about what I’m about to detail from the Atomic Heritage Foundation:

Little Boy (the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima) exploded 1,968 feet above a clinic. Nuclear fission began in .15 microseconds with a single neutron, initiating a chain reaction that increased the temperature to several million degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the surface of the sun at the time the bomb casing blows apart with a yield of 12.5-18 Kt. [emphasis mine]

That’s about the equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT.

This also happened at the peak in the morning rush hour in Hiroshima.

A woman sitting on steps on the bank of the Ota river, a half mile away from ground zero, instantly vaporizes.

One of the most horrifying images is that of the “nuclear shadow” that appears as a result of the extreme thermal radiation outlining humans and objects that blocked the thermal radiation. That woman who was vaporized? All that remained of her was the nuclear shadow on the concrete where she sat.

The shadow of a man pulling a cart across the street is all that remains in the asphalt.

More from Atomic Heritage:

The blast wave spreads fire outward in all directions at 984 miles per hour and tears and scores the clothing off every person in its path.

In the course of that blast wave, 60,000 out of the city’s 90,000 buildings are demolished by the wind and firestorm.

All of us watched with amazement at that blast in Beirut because none of us had seen such a well-documented blast like that, where you can see the blast wave roll from the port where the original explosion started. In that one, which wasn’t a nuclear bomb, 135 people were killed and 5,000 injured, and it could be felt 150 miles away in Cyprus.

That helps gives us an idea of what happened on Aug. 6, 1945 and Aug. 9, 1945, and even then, it’s still hard to fathom.

Worse to fathom and contemplate is that all these years later, there are still people who defend these twin atrocities.

You know who isn’t defending the bombings? The survivors. That’s right, 75 years later, there are still survivors of the first (and thankfully only) use of atomic bombings in human history. People like to think this stuff is in the distant past, but it’s really our present when we’re talking about survivors.

One survivor, Masaaki Takano, 82, told NBC News said he was mentally trying hard to pretend he was OK.

I thought nuclear shadows was horrifying, but Takano is one of 83 people recognized by Japanese courts as having been exposed to dangerous radiation known as “black rain,” the nuclear fallout that poured from the skies in the aftermath of the explosion.

Everything about the nuclear bombings is pure nightmare fuel. Good grief.

Only 7-years-old, Takano was at school 12 miles from the bomb’s detonation point. In the days that followed, NBC News said he had a high fever and diarrhea, and would endure other illnesses later in life, and the death of his mother to cancer 19 years after the fact.

More from NBC News:

Tetsushi Yonezawa, who turns 86 on Sunday, was traveling on a busy train just 820 yards from the bomb.

Once on the military truck that rescued him and his mother, he recalls seeing people with broken bones protruding from their flesh and blood flowing from their ears.

One elderly woman “held an eyeball with her hand to avoid it falling out completely.”

Fortunately, in the time since I wrote my previous pieces on the bombings, opinion seems to be turning on the use of the bombings in the American imagination. In 1945, Gallup found 85 percent of Americans supported the bombings. In 1991, 63 percent of Americans thought so. By 2015, Pew Research found 56 percent believed the bombings justified.

We’re moving in the morally right direction, but 56 percent is still too damn high.

Worse still is to realize there are nearly 14,000 nuclear warheads in the world as of 2019, weapons that could vaporize millions in seconds due to negligence or malice or misunderstanding.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years later continue to serve as a lesson in how dangerous and immoral these weapons are, if only we are willing to bear witness.

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