Hiroshima Atomic Bombing Raising New Questions 75 Years Later | KGOU
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Hiroshima Atomic Bombing Raising New Questions 75 Years Later

Aug 6, 2020
Originally published on August 6, 2020 11:51 am

The dawn of the nuclear age began with a blinding, flesh-melting blast directly above the Japanese city of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. It was 8:16 a.m. on a Monday, the start of another workday in a city of nearly 300,000 inhabitants. An estimated two-thirds of that population — nearly all civilians — would soon be dead.

The dropping by American warplanes of that first atomic bomb, code-named Little Boy -- and another, code-named Fat Man, three days later in Nagasaki — led to Japan's surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, and the end of World War II.

At the time, the morality and legality of those nuclear attacks were hardly the subject of public debate.

"Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan's power to make war," President Harry Truman, who ordered the attacks, declared in a speech to the nation hours after the bombing of Hiroshima.

"... If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth."

The last surviving member of the crew that flew over Hiroshima that day died in November. Before then, he recalled what he thought while aboard a B-29 named Necessary Evil as the bomb dropped from another warplane, the Enola Gay.

"We had to go out and kill every one of them," former Army 2nd Lt. Russell Gackenbach, who flew as a navigator on both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions, told the Voices of the Manhattan Project in 2016.

In a 2018 NPR interview, Gackenbach expressed no second thoughts about the annihilation of most of Hiroshima's inhabitants.

"I do not regret what we did that day," he said. "All war is hell. The Japanese started the war. It was our turn to finish it."

But another witness to the 900-foot-wide fireball that heated the air above Hiroshima to 500,000 degrees Fahrenheit has made it her life's mission to eliminate nuclear weapons.

"We atomic bomb survivors are greatly disturbed by the continued modernization of nuclear weapons by the United States and other countries, and your stated willingness to use these instruments of genocide," 88-year-old Setsuko Thurlow wrote to President Trump in a letter published Monday in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. "... Nuclear weapons are not a necessary evil, they are the ultimate evil. It is unacceptable for any state to possess them."

Thurlow was a 13-year-old a mile from ground zero in Hiroshima the day the bomb fell there.

"Although that happened in the morning, it was already very dark, like twilight," she told NPR's Kelly McEvers in 2016. "I could see some dark moving object approaching to me. They happened to be human beings. They just didn't look like human beings. I called them ghosts."

"They were covered with blood and burned and blackened and swollen, and the flesh was hanging from the bones," the atomic blast survivor recalled. "Parts of their bodies were missing, and some were carrying their own eyeballs in their hands. And as they collapsed, their stomach burst open."

Four years ago, President Barack Obama became the first American head of state to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. He offered condolences, but pointedly did not offer apologies.

"The morning of Aug. 6, 1945, must never fade," Obama told a crowd gathered near the shell of the sole building left standing where the bomb exploded. "That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change."

Pope Francis took a more critical stance during a November visit to that same memorial in Hiroshima.

"Using nuclear power to wage war is today, more than ever, a crime," the pontiff declared, adding it was immoral even to possess nuclear weapons.

Some prominent experts in the law of war are also reexamining the Hiroshima attack.

"There is no question that a dropping of a large nuclear weapon amongst the civilian population is a war crime," Harvard Law School professor Gabriella Blum says. "Under the current laws of war, if you know you are going to impact civilians, you must provide warning, and you must take precautions to avoid harming civilians to the extent possible. There is no doubt none of that was considered, and none of that was seriously weighed in reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

In a similar critical vein, the cover story for the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is titled "Why the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima Would Be Illegal Today."

"We know that one of the main objectives was to cause as much civilian harm as possible, to create a shock among the civilians," says Stanford Law School professor Allen Weiner, one of the cover story's three authors.

"The bomb in Hiroshima was dropped quite far away from the edge of town where the factories and worker housing was located," Weiner notes, "and one of the great ironies is that those factories and worker housing that were [cited by U.S. officials] in selecting Hiroshima as a target survived the atomic bombing. They were not destroyed."

But Weiner also points out that in 1945 no nations had signed a treaty barring the kind of aerial bombardment of civilians that the U.S. carried out in Hiroshima.

"I'm prepared to really give a quite hardcore hedge and say that in 1945, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not clearly illegal," Weiner says. "Today, it would clearly be illegal."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Seventy-five years ago today, an American warplane dropped the world's first atomic weapon. It exploded directly above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, instantly killing tens of thousands of civilians. That nuclear airstrike and a second one three days later in Nagasaki led to the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II. NPR's David Welna reports that what was justified by some then is being sharply questioned today. And a note - this story includes graphic accounts of the aftermath of the attack.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: President Harry Truman was returning from an Allied Nations conference in Potsdam, Germany, where a demand for Japan's unconditional surrender had been refused when he recorded this message to the American people on August 6, 1945.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY TRUMAN: A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy.

WELNA: Truman then described the terrible new weapon that had obliterated two-thirds of Hiroshima.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMAN: It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.

WELNA: Its explosion at 8:16 on a Monday morning created a gigantic 900-foot-wide fireball 500,000 degrees hot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SETSUKO THURLOW: In that moment, I saw that bluish-white flash in the windows.

WELNA: Setsuko Thurlow was a 13-year-old in Hiroshima that fateful day. Three years ago, she told NPR how she crawled out of a collapsed building to find dark objects approaching her. It was human beings fried by the blast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

THURLOW: They were covered with blood and burned and blackened and swollen, and the flesh were hanging from the bones. Parts of their bodies were missing. And some were carrying their own eyeballs in their hands. And as they collapsed, their stomach burst open.

WELNA: Thurlow's campaigned for decades against nuclear weapons. Earlier this week, she sent President Trump a letter. Nuclear weapons, she wrote, are not a necessary evil. They are the ultimate evil. Russell Gackenbach witnessed the Hiroshima bombing from a very different perspective. Before his death in November, he'd been the last surviving member of the U.S. crew on that mission. Asked four years ago what his thoughts were as he rode on a warplane named Necessary Evil, Gackenbach told Voices of the Manhattan Project we had to go out and kill every one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSSELL GACKENBACH: We were at war. They started it. It was our turn to finish it. And we did. And we saved lots of lives, both in our military and in their military.

WELNA: Four years ago, Barack Obama became the first American head of state to visit Hiroshima's Peace Memorial. He offered condolences but pointedly did not apologize.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.

WELNA: Standing in the very same spot in November, Pope Francis suggested a great crime had occurred in Hiroshima.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

WELNA: Using atomic energy to wage war, the pope said, is today now more than ever a crime.

GABRIELLA BLUM: There is no question that a dropping of a large nuclear weapon amongst the civilian population is a war crime.

WELNA: Gabriella Blum is a Harvard Law School professor specializing in the law of war. Although there was no clear treaty law 75 years ago outlawing atomic bombings, Blum says that's changed.

BLUM: Under the current laws of war, if you know you're going to impact civilians, you must provide warning. And you must take precautions to avoid harming civilians to the extent possible. There is no doubt none of that was considered. None of that was seriously weighed in reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

ALLEN WEINER: There was a lot of invocation of the military nature of the target, but I think that was really a rationalization to help people feel more comfortable with what they were doing.

WELNA: That's Stanford Law School professor Allen Weiner. He co-authored "Why The Atomic Bombing Of Hiroshima Would Be Illegal Today." It's the cover story for the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. He says while the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not clearly illegal at the time...

WEINER: It seems to me quite indefensible to claim that the atomic bombing of those cities, which was intended to cause widespread civilian casualties, could be legally justified.

WELNA: Still, Weiner worries that after 75 years, memories of such horrific bombings may be fading. They may now be clearly illegal, but that's no guarantee that can't happen again. David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.