Witnessing the first ever nuclear explosion on July 16th, 1945, in the New Mexico desert, Robert Oppenheimer claims to have thought to himself "Now I am become Death [sic], the destroyer of worlds”. He was not only misspeaking, but also misquoting from the Hindu scripture,Bhagavad Gita. Less than a month later on August 6th, 70 years ago this week, the testing phase was over and Oppenheimer’s creation was being used to decimate the Japanese city of Hiroshima – nuclear history had begun, yet occasionally history lets us all down.
Hiroshima was followed three days later by a second nuclear attack on Nagasaki and, as the story goes, it was this demonstration of nuclear capability that forced Japan into surrender and thereby brought an end to the Second World War. This is, however, emblematic of nuclear history – the place it holds in our imagination is simply not matched by its material impact.
Aesthetically, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – a week before the Japanese surrender – seems in retrospect like a timely motivator. However, Japan had long since consigned themselves to both losing the war, and to suffering toward defeat. In a difficult, yet not hopeless situation, the Japanese government re-evaluated their definition of victory so that it meant avoiding the costs associated with ‘unconditional’ surrender – Japan was hoping that in defeat it could still keep its structure of government, retain some of its conquered territory, and evade a war crimes tribunal.
At this point, despite the poverty and suffering of the general population, Japan was still reasonably well equipped militarily with four million troops and heavily fortified coastlines. And it was these two opposing conditions that Japan was trying to leverage: by showing itself to be both willing to endure immense suffering, and able to prolong the fighting indefinitely – thereby creating a war of attrition that would hopefully drag the allied forces into an eventual compromise.
In a year of sustained bombing, after 500,000 civilians were killed (2 million soldiers were killed in the broader conflict), with a million people injured, 2 million people made homeless, and the majority of the population living in poverty, the Japanese government remained committed to this strategy. Yet we are made to believe that in the depths of all this suffering, the 70,000 killed in Hiroshima and the 50,000 in Nagasaki (the after-effects of radiation would more than double these numbers, yet this could not have been known at the time) changed everything.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were 2 of 68 cities targeted as part of the American-led air assault on the Japanese islands. And we now know that just as with the firebombing of Tokyo that levelled the heart of the then wooden city and killed 100,000 people, the Japanese leadership were unmoved. It was the shadow of Stalinism that made the difference.
In April 1941, Japan had signed a five year neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, and after it had become obvious that the war had been lost, Japanese Prime Minister Koiso Kuniaki (who had replaced Tojo Hideki in 1944) hoped that through this treaty Stalin might be convinced to negotiate on their behalf with the United States. On August 8th, a day before the Nagasaki bombing, Stalin reneged on this agreement and invaded the Japanese-held territory of Manchuria with over a million Soviet troops.
With it increasingly apparent that Stalin would not be restrained by the spirit of the Yalta Conference, and that he would seek to retain control over any territory that the Red Army conquered, Japan were confronted by a new dynamic: not just of how they would surrender, but to whom they would surrender. The speed of the Russian invasion, quickly occupying Manchuria and pushing into Sakhalin Island, destroyed all hope of a negotiated surrender. Japan were out of options: the spectre of Soviet occupation forced their hand where nuclear warfare could not – unconditional surrender to the American forces was suddenly their best way out of the war.
The narrative that was left behind, however, was unacceptable:
The Empire of Japan brought to its knees by Russian forces who were so short on supplies that they were invading on horseback, and the United States winning the final battle of the Second World War only by default – this would not do. It was simply more prudent for both sides to champion the importance of the nuclear blasts, particularly so for the Truman administration who were only too aware that their decision to approve the bombings would sit better in history if it had a neat and matching justification.
That such a significant breakthrough in weaponry might have such an insignificant impact on the act of warfare itself, is an assault on the senses. The nuclear bomb uniquely captures our imagination, it seems to represent such an absolute break with all that came before, that it is hard not to impose our own meaning upon the material events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and nuclear history in general.
Thus the sole legacy of nuclear warfare was anxiety. American journalist Edward R. Murrow said at the time, "Seldom, if ever, has a war ended leaving the victors with such a sense of uncertainty and fear -- with such a realization that the future is obscure and that survival is not assured". Fulfilling this forethought, generations grew up on a knife edge of constant panic, waiting for the seemingly inevitable moment when a nuclear winter would bring an end to humanity.