IT may be an exaggeration to say the world lost its innocence on July 16, 1945. On the other hand, it would probably be an understatement merely to claim that something changed that day when, at 5.29am local time, a device containing about 6kg of plutonium exploded in a desert in New Mexico.
It has been claimed that the flash of light generated by the explosion, equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT, would have been visible from Mars. The reactions among the Manhattan Project scientists witnessing the Trinity test varied from euphoria to panic.
A few people laughed and a few people cried but most of them were silent, the director of the project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, recalled 20 years later. Oppenheimer was well-versed in Sanskrit, and the phrase that flashed through his mind came from the Bhagavad Gita, where Vishnu informs Arjuna: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” More prosaically, test director Kenneth T. Bainbridge reputedly muttered a profanity: “Now we are all sons of b——.”
It wasn’t years or months but just weeks before the destructive power of the deadly discovery was demonstrated in very different circumstances. Fat Man, the device dropped on Nagasaki on Aug 9, was a replica of the test weapon. Three days earlier — 75 years ago tomorrow — the uranium-based Little Boy had devastated Hiroshima.
On the day after the Trinity test, a petition signed by 70 scientists had been sent to president Harry Truman, imploring him to give Japan another chance to surrender instead of immediately authorising the use of atomic weapons. “A nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale,” it said.
In the event, the US not only used the weapons but has worn the responsibility lightly ever since, insisting (despite evidence to the contrary) that the nuclear carnage was necessary for the conclusion of World War II. In fact, Japan was already willing to surrender; the only condition its military hierarchy insisted on was that the emperor, Hirohito, potentially culpable as a war criminal, remain on the Chrysanthemum Throne.
The US insisted on an unconditional surrender — but left Hirohito in place anyhow. The bombing of Nagasaki coincided with the Soviet Union’s declaration of war against Japan, in keeping with Stalin’s promise to his American and British allies that Moscow would rescind its neutrality on the Pacific front three months after victory in Europe.
Japan threw up its hands on Aug 15, and historians remain divided over whether it was the atomic apocalypse or fear of invasion by Uncle Joe that proved to be the last straw. The more than 200,000 mostly civilian deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a consequence of Fat Man and Little Boy also tend to obscure other Allied war crimes in 1945, including the destruction of Dresden in February and the fire-bombing of Tokyo in March. The latter is estimated to have killed up to 100,000 people in one go, and involved the sprinkling of napalm, which acquired far greater notoriety after its widespread use in Vietnam.
In a sound bite relayed on the BBC World Service earlier this year, a British prisoner of war who witnessed the annihilation of Dresden spoke of seeing women, children and anonymous body parts being tossed about as the bombs landed. Such dreadful sights cannot be unseen, he remarked, adding that in his opinion the terror tactics were intended to send a message — not to the by then retreating Nazis, but to the advancing Soviets.
The Cold War still lay ahead, but the pieces were falling into place before World War II ground to a halt after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even the dastardly atomic bombings are viewed by some as partly, if not primarily, demonstrations of US technological supremacy intended to deter any overreach by Moscow.
It’s impossible to say with any certainty whether the strategically unwarranted mass murder in Japan would have gone ahead had Franklin Roosevelt not been replaced by Truman in April 1945. And it’s important to acknowledge — as German leaders often do, although Japanese politicians are more reticent about it — that most of the war’s worst atrocities were perpetrated by the Axis powers rather than the Allies.
And one must be grateful to the Western ‘traitors’ — including several associated with the Manhattan Project — who shared their atomic knowledge with the Soviets. It’s dreadful imagining the possible consequences of an American monopoly over nuclear weaponry. However, while deterrence might have worked, it remains an imperfect solution, and proliferation has made matters much worse.
The mainly Western popular movement for nuclear disarmament has steadily receded since the 1980s, but the state of world today provides plenty of cause to reflect afresh on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and renew the tattered vow: Never again.