On May 27, President Obama visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and delivered an impassioned plea for “a world without nuclear weapons.” From the moment the first nuclear bomb was detonated over Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, followed by a second one over Nagasaki on Aug. 9, his plea has echoed throughout the chambers of the history. In fact, even at the outset, the two American military commanders, General Eisenhower and Admiral Nimitz, morally opposed using these bombs. Nevertheless, President Truman overruled his military advisers and ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on, as we shall see, solid military grounds.After the war was over, the Baruch Plan sought to put all nuclear weapons in an international agency removed from the controls of any nation. The nations demurred. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower championed “Atoms for Peace” in such global engineering projects as a new Panama Canal, sadly unaware of the radiological effects of nuclear explosions. In 1986, at a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Soviet Premier Gorbachev and President Reagan, briefly free from their advisers, agreed to eliminate nuclear weapons from both their arsenals, until their advisers set them straight, and these arsenals continue to this day.
In actual number of casualties, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were no greater than some of the larger conventional fire bombings of World War II. Hiroshima’s immediate deaths were 80,000 and Nagasaki’s, 40,000, compared to about 150,000 deaths in Tokyo during the bombing raids of early March 1945, and the over 100,000 deaths in Dresden, Germany earlier. But it was the cataclysmic and instantaneous devastation of these atomic bombs that set them apart in this new demonic marriage of science and war.
One of the bomb’s creators, Robert Oppenheimer, intoned after these explosions: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” More prosaically, the political scientist, Bernard Brodie, called them “absolute weapons;” and, under the threat of their explosive power, the new goal of the major powers had to be “war avoidance” to honor what was called “the nuclear firebreak.” This firebreak required all national differences to be resolved in “sub-crisis maneuvering” beneath this threshold. Thankfully, what made the Cold War, from 1946 to 1989, cold was that, though there was a plethora of Third World Wars, there was no nuclear World War III.
Back in August 1945, nevertheless, Truman had solid military — and even moral — grounds for planning and authorizing these strikes. After seizing Okinawa in fierce fighting, American plans to invade the home islands of Japan divided into two operations: OLYMPIC and CORONET. OLYMPIC’S goal was to seize the home island of Kyushu as a staging area for a full assault on the main island of Honshu by CORONET via the largest amphibious landings in history. The U.S. had marshaled a force of 5 million troops, and assumed a combat death toll of 500,000. This figure would be greater than all U.S. casualties suffered thus far in the war. These same planners projected a combined civilian and military Japanese death rate between 5 million and 10 million people.
Japanese planning for their homeland defense called for an all-out campaign on the island of Kyushu that would inflict such devastating losses on the American invaders that Washington would agree to settle rather than endure meat-grinder battles in the Japanese home islands. If Kyushu were overcome, the Japanese main strategy was to withdraw their military forces to join up with the large Japanese Army in China, and suck the Americans into a protracted, unwinnable war in China. The main Japanese Army Group Headquarters in Kyushu was in Hiroshima.
The second part of the Japanese plan involved staging the withdrawal of its army from their major western port and ship-building yard (with 30,000 shipyard workers) — which, of course, was Nagasaki. Both pivotal military targets were vaporized. In effect, the two nuclear bombs dropped in August 1945 utterly destroyed Japan’s plans for the defense of its homeland. The result, of course, was the unconditional surrender of Tokyo, and the descending on the world of a “peace that passes all understanding.”