oppenheimer’s anxiety

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At 2.45am on 6th August 1945, a B-29 bomber, named Enola Gay after the mother of the pilot, left the Mariana Islands. Once airborne it was confirmed that Hiroshima, home to 300,000 residents and a large naval base, would be the target for the codenamed ‘Little Boy’ bomb of 64kg uranium. Six hours later it was dropped from 32,000 feet over the city where, precisely 44.4 seconds later and exactly 1,968 feet above ground level, it detonated and sent the now-infamous mushroom cloud billowing 50,000 feet into the atmosphere.

Nuclear fission – the splitting of a ‘heavy element’ atom, releasing vast amount of energy was first discovered, somewhat ironically, in 1938 Berlin. Refugee German physicists warned that a ‘super-bomb’ would be vital to the defeat of Nazism and saw the US’s Manhattan Project, based at their Los Alamos facility in New Mexico, eventually grow to over 125,000 employees at a cost equivalent of $23bn.

Conventional wisdom had it that the bomb’s use was to end the World War II quickly and with the minimum of lives lost. However, by July 1945, the bomb’s intended target, Nazi Germany, had surrendered but Japan was fighting on. The Pacific war had taken the lives of more than 100,000 US soldiers and the recent battle of Okinawa witnessed almost the entire defending Japanese force of 90,000 perish, along with 100,000 civilians. The widespread and extensive use of Kamikaze pilots saw 34 US ships sunk. Consequently, it was understandable Allied policy, specifically that of US, Great Britain, Russia and China, to demand unconditional surrender but Japan would not accept this. Their military leaders felt this too ‘dishonourable’ and were overly concerned about the future status of Emperor Hirohito, who was regarded as an incarnate God.

The subsequent blast, equivalent to that of 15,000 tonnes of TNT, sent an atomic shockwave through the city, incinerating everything within a 1.5 mile radius and leading to an immediate firestorm that did for everything else within 4.5 miles. The death tolls remain contested but somewhere between 90,000 and 160,000 people died in Hiroshima – about half on the first day, the remainder from radiation sickness, burns and trauma within the year. And still Japan would not surrender. Ramping-up traditional bombing saw 100,000 die in the subsequent firebombing of Tokyo.

On 9th August, another B-29 was loaded with ‘Fat Man’, a plutonium atomic bomb, and took to the air. Its initial target, the city of Kokura, was mercifully obscured by smoke so nearby Nagasaki was chosen instead. The second, and final, atomic bomb ever to be dropped on humans exploded at 11.02am and somewhere approaching 80,000 people were killed. Six days later Hirohito made his first ever radio broadcast and the country’s surrender was finally announced.

In the 1960s revisionist historians began to question aspects of Truman’s account. Had the bombs really ended the war or had the Soviet Union’s declaration of war against Japan on only the 9th August 1945 played a bigger role? Did the concrete assurances that Hirohito would not be punished come into play? It was also suggested that the decision to use the bomb was more of a future threat to the Soviets and Chinese than it was direct action against Japan – atomic blackmail in reality. It was argued that the Allies had more humane alternatives available such as the blockading of all Japan’s major ports, using the bomb on purely military targets or offering more acceptable surrender terms. Bottom-line we’ll never truly know and those in-the-know now largely accept the justification of the bombs use. A dark-day for mankind no less.