“My god, what have we done?”

Hiroshima after the bomb (Getty Images)

So wrote Robert Lewis, American co-pilot of the B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, in the plane’s log book. Were it not for this one act it is unlikely that Hiroshima would be a must-do for most people visiting Japan on holiday. As it is the devastating effect of the explosion that occurred 640 metres above the centre of the city at 8.15 am on Monday 6th August 1945 means that millions of people now visit the city, joining in that rather macabre tourist phenomenon of paying homage at the sites of major human atrocities.

There is no doubting the emotional impact of visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum. The statistics are stark. By the end of 1945 it is estimated that 145,000 people had died as a direct result of the bombing. Many more would die in future years as a result of the long-term effects of injuries, burns and radiation sickness.

Memorial to the victims of the Hiroshima bomb

Over 60% of the buildings in the city were destroyed and a further 30% badly damaged. The remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, now known simply as the Atomic Dome, the only building left standing in the centre of the city and which were almost directly underneath the epicentre of the blast, stand as a stark symbol of the destructive power of the single bomb that was dropped that day.

The atomic dome

The Museum contains testimony of many people who were in the city at the time which make for harrowing viewing and reading. The intensity was heightened by the presence of large groups of schoolchildren not just learning about the impact of the bombing

Learning about the Hiroshima bombing

but standing at the Children’s Peace Memorial, heads bowed, praying for a world without nuclear weapons.

Schoolchildren at the Children’s PeaceMemorial

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the second city to be subject to an atomic bombing just three days later, are at the forefront of international efforts to ban nuclear weapons. Every 6th August the Mayor of Hiroshima delivers a Peace Declaration which since 1958 has explicitly called for a complete ban on all atomic weapons. Because of course, the impact of the bombing of Hiroshima was not simply physical. It was also hugely symbolic demonstrating that for the first time ever humans had developed a weapon so powerful that it could threaten the existence of humanity itself.

Campaigning to get nuclear weapons banned

But the accounts in the museum are not just about pain and suffering. They are also about resilience and the ability of people to overcome even the worst events. Even though 90 per cent of doctors and nurses were killed or injured and 42 of 45 hospitals were rendered non-functional those that did survive tried their best to provide care to the thousands of surviving victims most of whom had combined injuries including, in most cases, severe burns and quickly began to display the symptoms of strange new illnesses that would eventually be recognised as those of radiation sickness. (Responding to this was not helped by the American’s refusal for many years to allow Japanese scientists and doctors to carry out research into radiation sickness. It was not until 1952 that the plight of the ‘hibakusha’, literally “atomic bomb-affected people”, was officially acknowledged.) The trams, which still today are a prominent feature of the city, were back in operation after only three days. The struggles of individual people to survive against the odds are well-documented in a book, Hiroshima, by the American journalist John Hersey, written just a year after the bombing. Today Hiroshima has been literally reborn from the ashes and is an attractive and prosperous city.

Hiroshima today (image downloaded from the internet)

The effects of this single weapon were so dramatic that they sparked a debate which continues about the justification for their use. The conventional narrative is that  by dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Americans forced the Japanese to surrender thus shortening the war and saving many thousands of lives that would have been lost had the allies attempted a land invasion of Japan.  However there are several reasons to question the received wisdom.

Firstly the Americans had already decided that a land invasion would be too costly in military terms. Instead they planned to continue and intensify the naval blockade that was already in place and which was steadily starving Japan of essential supplies of fuel and food.

Secondly there is evidence that the decisive factor in leading to the Japanese surrender, formally announced on 15th August, was not the two atomic bombs but the declaration of war by the Soviet Union and its invasion of Manchuria which took place in the same week as the bombings.

One interesting fact is that prior to the 6th August Hiroshima had been spared the sustained bombing that had been inflicted on almost all other major Japanese cities. John Hersey reports that there was a rumour going around the city that the reason for this was that the Americans had something special in store for the city. Potential targets were certainly chosen on the basis that they needed to be relatively undamaged so they could demonstrate the destructive effect of the new weapon. Furthermore it has been suggested that the primary reason for dropping a second bomb on Nagasaki was not because the Japanese had not immediately surrendered after the Hiroshima bomb. Rather it was to demonstrate, as much to the Soviet Union as anyone else, that the Americans had the power to produce multiple bombs and also to compare the effectiveness of the two different type of bombs that had been manufactured (the Hiroshima bomb used uranium as its explosive whereas the Nagasaki one utilised plutonium).

The truth is that probably there were multiple factors in play in the process that led up to the decision to use atomic weapons in the war against Japan. But once they were used then the world changed forever. The world-wide campaign against nuclear weapons may be less visible today that, say, twenty years ago, but Hiroshima reminds us that the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons has increased, to now stand at nine and that the threat of nuclear war is probably as great if not greater than ever.

When President Obama visited Hiroshima in 2016 he met with survivors and talked of the possibility of ridding the world of nuclear weapons (unfortunately his deeds did not live up to his words). Ironically President Trump is in Japan now but he will not visit Hiroshima and even if he did he would be more likely to call for the USA to increase its nuclear capability, as he has done on several occasions. Who would bet against him being the second US president to authorise their use?

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