The U.S. dropped Little Boy, a uranium atomic bomb, on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, followed by Fat Man, a plutonium bomb, on Nagasaki on Aug. 9.
Within several months of the bombings, the acute effects killed more than 100,000 people in Hiroshima and close to 50,000 in Nagasaki, roughly half in each city on the first day. Most of the dead were civilians. On Aug. 14, just days after the Soviet Union’s entry to the war in the Pacific, Japan announced its surrender. Those two bombs remain the only use of nuclear weapons for warfare.
In early May, I visited Nagasaki for the first time. Although I’d lived in and visited Japan many times, I’d never before gone to Nagasaki, which is on the southern island of Kyushu, far from the population centers of Tokyo and Osaka. I’d introduced eight student and faculty groups to Hiroshima but had long wanted also to explore Nagasaki for its history. Nagasaki was the only Japanese port open first to the Portuguese and later only to Dutch traders during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868). In 1549, St. Francis Xavier introduced Christianity to Japan but by 1597 the government saw the colonizing result of the church’s threat in India, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China, banned Christianity, and crucified 26 Japanese Christians. For 250 years, Nagasaki was the only port even partially open to European foreigners.
Nagasaki is a beautiful city of under a half million. I met extremely helpful people and explored the historic sites, the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, and the beautiful and serene Peace Park, filled with beautiful sculptures donated for peace by cities and countries around the world.
Each time I had visited Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Museum, I was horrified at the suffering inflicted on the civilian population. Students and faculty to whom I introduced Japan and placed in Japanese homestay families were upset as well. I remember one university student who was very angry at me after we’d had a presentation led by the retired director of the museum, himself an atomic bomb survivor, who stood at the door as students left the room and held out his atomic bomb misshapen hand to shake. “That man’s story made me cry,” the student complained. He got over it, but I’m sure he remembers the horror of war he had witnessed.
In Nagasaki I was appalled once again at the U.S. culpability in killing so many civilians. President Truman’s diary reveals that he considered the Japanese “savages, ruthless, merciless,” views that reflected those of the general American population, which is why Truman could decide – over moral reservations of Secretary of War Stimson, General Eisenhower, commander of the European Theater during World War II, and a number of Manhattan Project scientists – to use the atomic bomb to bring the war to a quick end and unconditional surrender. Eisenhower and the scientists believed Japan was already defeated, that the U.S. should not shock world opinion by using a weapon no longer needed to save American lives, and they wanted the U.S. to offer Japan a way to save face.
Truman determined that use of the atomic bombs would end the war before the Soviet Union had a chance to occupy more of Japan. He also wanted to display the success of the Manhattan Project, which had developed the bombs at a taxpayer cost of $2 billion, and to test how the uranium and plutonium bombs compared. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first strategic move in the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Only meteorological chance determined that Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. Bockscar, the bomber that carried the bomb, circled its primary target of Kokura, but visibility was obscured by smoke and it proceeded to Nagasaki, where cloud cover interfered and the crew considered returning to base until the clouds broke.
Average Japanese have never blamed the U.S. for the bombs. In general, they view the bombs as a manmade disaster caused by the war Japan had entered. My friend Haruyoshi Fujimoto was still a young boy living on the edge of Hiroshima when the bomb fell. He lost a brother and a sister who worked in the center of the city. Mr. Fujimoto and many other Japanese, who suffered and lost loved ones during the war, have never blamed the U.S., but have worked and continue to work tirelessly for peace. They are examples for all of us to follow.
Dwight Call, a 1968 graduate of Oberlin College, holds a doctorate degree from Drew University where his focus was the intersection between religion and anthropology. Call worked in community development on the Sioux reservations and in international education both in the U.S. and abroad in Japan, Cameroon, and Australia. He lives at Kendal at Oberlin but continues to explore the world.