This is an important week in history because on August 6th, and August 9th, it commemorates the day the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan during World War Two.
This happened 74 years ago, so I think it’s important to realize that this terrible war has begun to pass from living memory. Most World war two vets still alive are now in their 80s and 90s, and their numbers are falling. Many of us who were born in the 80s or earlier got to grow up knowing at least one World War two vet, but later generations won’t have that privilege.
I think it’s important to understand the toll this war had on everyone involved and not just who you might perceive as ‘the good guys’ and ‘the bad guys.’
Before I talk about the war and its impact on the world, I wanted to tell a story that I learned in one of my history classes about the USS Indianapolis.
The parts of ‘Little Boy’ were compiled in various parts of the country, transported in unmarked trucks across the country, then loaded onto the USS Indianapolis in July of 1945. In a top-secret mission, the ship departed the Hunter’s Point shipyard in San Francisco carrying highly enriched uranium and various parts needed for assembly. It traveled across the pacific to deliver the parts to the naval base on Tinian Island.
After delivering the parts for the bomb, the Indianapolis departed for other missions, but on July 30th, it was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese. Many of the crew went down with the ship, but many were left adrift in the ocean where they spent the next nearly four hours. The navy wasn’t aware of the sinking right away, so survivors were left to succumb to exhaustion, dehydration, exposure to the elements, and shark attacks.
I learned about this story when I was in college, and it’s something that’s always stuck with me. If the ship had been sunk just a few days earlier, the bomb would have gone down with it. It was one of those historical near misses that could have changed everything.
Getting back to the bomb itself, it’s always been a question in my mind as to whether or not the bomb was really necessary. In grade school, at least when I was going to school, we were taught that the bomb was a grim necessity because the Japanese would have fought to the last man and an invasion would have cost more lives than the bombs did. And many of us had parents or grandparents who have confirmed this speculation.
And that is the theory that has always been taught. And perhaps there was some truth to it; we’ll never truly know because the invasion never happened. It’s easy to look in hindsight and make assumptions about what could have happened, and what should have happened; but no one can know for sure because there is only one choice: the one you chose. You can’t go back and do it over again.
One suggestion I’ve heard is that this ‘fight or die’ mentality of the Japanese wasn’t as accurate as initially thought. The military was running the country; it was an ultra-nationalistic military state. And like many totalitarian regimes and dictatorships throughout history, the government-controlled the media. The Japanese people weren’t told the truth about what was going on in the war.
Everyone makes use of propaganda to rally support against the enemy and for your cause; the United States was no different. But the totalitarian government in Japan at the time controlled what the people heard through strict censorship of the media.
The other thing to note is that even in this last part of World War Two, the Cold War was beginning. After Hitler’s defeat and victory in Europe in May 1945, the USSR soon turned it’s attention to the Pacific. It entered the war on August 9th- the same day that we dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. One theory is that the bombs were the first shots of the Cold War and the United States’ chance to demonstrate it’s newfound dominance of the world to the Soviet Union.
No matter what information the Japanese military might have been providing to their public, it’s reasonable to assume that they knew they were finished. The US had taken everything all the way to Okinawa, and they knew an invasion was imminent. They were defeated, and the USSR entering the war and invading Manchuria meant that now Japan was surrounded. So, knowing those facts, it’s hard to say that the bombs were justified. Maybe Japan was just a convenient way to show our new toys off to Russia and to warn them how powerful we were.
Whatever the reason, the bombs were dropped, and Japan became the first casualty of the new Nuclear age. It’s something we should never forget, and we should always remember the human cost of war. The bombs killed almost a quarter of a million Japanese civilians; and who knows how many people still suffer from things like cancer as a result of exposure.
If there is anything to be learned from this terrible loss of life is that we need to take steps to make sure it never happens again. Nuclear weapons and their development have changed Humanity from being dependent on the Earth and the environment to a species that now has the power to destroy the entire planet. The United States alone has enough nuclear weapons to cause a nuclear winter and bring about the end of all civilization on Earth. We are just as dangerous to the Earth as an asteroid or a supervolcano, and it all started with World War Two.
It’s essential to take steps to never get to this point again. We, as a species, are vulnerable to many natural disasters — volcanoes, asteroids, earthquakes, etc. But nuclear war is entirely preventable if we take steps to work together as people instead of stay divided and continue to fight each other. If another bomb ever drops again, anywhere in the world, it would be a dishonor to the memory of everyone who died in World War Two.