American president at the time Harry Truman described it as “the greatest thing in history”, while his counterpart, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, rather dryly understated the case on national radio when he proclaimed that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”. They were reacting to the events of 8:15 a.m August 6th 1945, a date and time seared on a global conscious; despite recent distinctively televisual atrocities and perpetual conflicts everywhere, the deaths of 100,000 Japanese in such an instantaneous, brilliant flash, is still quite overwhelming.
Black and white photographs taken after the blast depict a wasteland of almost pre-civilizational magnitude, of an horrific silence and (what appears to be) annihilation (John Hersey’s book ‘Hiroshima’ is perhaps the most vivid, and famous, account of what the Japanese experienced that day).
In a war littered with numerous vivid episodes and iconic moments, from the role of the Hitler Youth to the D-Day Landings, the bombing of Hiroshima (and of course Nagasaki), stands amongst the most chilling.
This month sees the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bombs to be dropped, another excuse for commentators to wheel out their reminiscences and condemnations. However, as time passes it appears to be increasingly okay to say that, on balance, maybe it was actually the right thing to do. It is hard to grasp this side of the argument as for years, quite rightly, the mention of Hiroshima has been greeted with a disbelieving shudder.
Historian Max Hastings recently outlined one of the more articulate defences of Hiroshima. In a war that had already seen the deaths of 50 million people, “the use of a “total” weapon reflected the inexorable logic of total war”. Estimates of a million allied casualties (owing to the Japanese’s suicidal tactics) were an invasion of Japan to take place, no doubt also played heavily into the arms of the pro-bomb lobby. This is without mentioning the Japanese occupation of, and brutality towards China, where almost 20 million Chinese were killed.
“For millions of people in East Asia, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however beastly it sounds to Western sensibilities, was actually greeted with relief. For us it meant that four years of genocide, rape and torture was coming to an end” read a letter in last week’s ‘Observer’ from Steven Fung, whose view was that “the real tragedy of Hiroshima was that it transformed Japan from aggressor to victim” by shifting the focus from Japan’s war crimes to the destruction of the country.
It may sound glib and patronising but war creates victims of us all, and nothing reflects that better than the dilemmas, arguments and historical tapestry that still surrounds Hiroshima; a perfect metaphor for the shock and brutalisation that extreme conflict creates.
Perhaps one thing is clear though: Hiroshima had to happen. Wars have been waged since, genocide has occurred again on at least one occasion, and fear from ‘the other’ is still prevalent in both comfortable Western middle-class societies and in occupied Middle Eastern countries. None of this would ever change with the one bomb, and no one ever pretended it would. But with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whether right or wrong, the world quite simply realised the enormous, devastating impact that the atomic bomb could have. One needed to be used to truly grasp it’s power; Japan, a weak and faltering opponent in the latter stages of the war, was essentially an un-willing testing ground, however un-sentimental that may sound in light of the wreckage left behind (One of the factors tilting towards the U.S’s decision was surely that these attacks were the ‘knockout blow’, as Japan was never going to recover, or indeed retaliate). 100,000 plus deaths and radiation-derived disease over many decades after was the price that at least ensured that the Cold War remained just that throughout the 60s and 70s. No one will ever forget hearing about Hiroshima, and the city’s name will forever be associated with the bomb; a reminder of the horror of war.