Hiroshima’s identity as the place where the atomic bomb first was used in war is permanent. But Nagasaki’s legacy is less sure, the reasons for destroying the city 50 years ago less clear-cut.
“A lot of people in the world know about Hiroshima but not about Nagasaki,” says Sumiteru Taniguchi of the Nagasaki A-Bomb Sufferers Council. “Nagasaki has always been in Hiroshima’s shadow.”
Throughout this 50th-anniversary summer, debate has roiled about Hiroshima: Was its bombing necessary to accomplish Japan’s surrender in World War II?
About Nagasaki - bombed 50 years ago today on Aug. 9, 1945 - the questions are different:
If Hiroshima was necessary to end the war without a terrible increased loss of American and Japanese lives, can the same be said of Nagasaki?
Should more than three days’ time have been permitted to pass between the destruction of Hiroshima and the bombing of Nagasaki to let the lesson sink in of how the bomb had changed everything?
Was Nagasaki conclusive, the event that persuaded Japan’s die-hard military leaders (whose slogans were “We will fight until we eat stone” and “100 million die together”) that their cause was lost?
The decision to drop bomb No. 2 “was sort of mechanical,” says John Mueller, a University of Rochester political scientist. And Nagasaki, the center of Christianity in Japan and the site of that country’s largest Roman Catholic church, was almost an accidental target.
The city of Kokura had been selected for the second bomb, but the weather there was bad, so the B-29 - named Bock’s Car after its usual commander, Frederick Bock - flew on to Nagasaki.
Clouds almost saved Nagasaki, too, according to Richard Rhodes’ book, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” Navy Cmdr. Frederick L. Ashworth had to decide whether to bomb by radar or jettison the bomb, worth several million dollars, in the sea.
Then the clouds parted enough to give the bombardier a 20-second glance of the target city. The bomb was dropped through the cloud hole.
It is estimated that 140,000 people died at Hiroshima by the end of the year and that 70,000 died at Nagasaki, a smaller city, shielded some by steep slopes.
After Hiroshima, Japan’s military leaders resisted surrender, insisting that Japan’s suicide forces, in one final homeland battle, could inflict horrible damage on the Americans and win better terms for ending the war.
According to Rutgers University historian Warren Kimball, when Hiroshima was hit, Japan’s warlords assumed the Americans had only one bomb and argued for fighting on; after Nagasaki, they assumed the Americans had a stockpile and bowed to the emperor’s entreaties to spare his people from annihilation.
The generals were twice wrong. No stockpile existed, but more bombs were in the pipeline and a bombing schedule stretched into December.
President Harry S. Truman stopped the bombing. Henry Wallace, his secretary of commerce, wrote in his diary, “He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, “all those kids.”’
Many historians say the Soviet Union’s entrance into the war, two days after Hiroshima and one day before Nagasaki, influenced Tokyo more than the bombings did.
And many say Washington stepped up the bombing timetable once it saw this new weapon’s devastating impact. The Americans also did not want a great Soviet advance and the postwar communization of parts of Japan.
“I don’t think Nagasaki had any effect in terms of Japan’s decision-making,” Mueller said. “The key (to the Japanese surrender) was the Russians coming in. But there was no way the Americans could know that.
“The strongest case you can make for the Nagasaki bomb having an effect was that it pushed the emperor in the direction he was going anyway and undercut the army’s pretensions for one last glorious battle.”
The late Edwin O. Reischauer, former ambassador to Japan, wrote in his memoirs that he could accept Hiroshima but not Nagasaki.
He said the Hiroshima bomb avoided hundreds of thousands of American casualties and the deaths of millions of Japanese by starvation and combat. It also prevented a Soviet-dominated Japan. And it showed the horror of nuclear warfare, keeping the bomb bottled up during the entire Cold War.
“If there were some possible justification for the first atomic bomb, however,” he added, “there was none for the second. … The top American authorities did agonize over the decision to use the first bomb but seem to have given the second little, if any, thought, snuffing out some 70,000 lives almost inadvertently.”