Seventy years ago, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first nuclear weapon used in warfare ever, on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. The development and use of the atomic bomb changed the course of history forever. The United States’ victory in the race to build it and use it still has profound impacts on our role as a global superpower and the responsibility it bears.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, a lead researcher of the Manhattan Project which produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II, recalled in a 1965 NBC documentary after witnessing the first test of the atomic bomb July 16, 1945, “we knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
Once the test was successful, President Harry S. Truman, faced with a decision of unprecedented gravity, ordered the weapon be used on Japan as a catalyst to end the war and limit further American casualties. His decision would ultimately become one of the most destructive decisions in human history, and was also one that could easily have been avoided. “The United States is still reaping the bitter fruit of its failure to accept repeated Japanese peace overtures for more than a year before the capitulation was signed aboard the battleship Missouri,” Walter Trohan of the Chicago Tribune reported in 1965. “If Japan’s peace overtures had been accepted, the implication is clear that nuclear bombs would not have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Twenty years earlier, Trohan published one of the biggest World War II stories on August 19,1945, which appeared on the front pages of both the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Times-Herald. Trohan revealed that seven months before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Roosevelt received a 40-page memo from General Douglas MacArthur, which outlined five surrender overtures from high ranking Japanese officials offering surrender under terms. Trohan reported, “the terms were identical with those subsequently concluded by Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman.” Trohan also argues that if peace were not delayed, it would have kept the Soviet Union out of the war with Japan and possibly avoided the Cold War, which would consume foreign affairs for the several decades thereafter. The use of the new weapon sent a message to the rest of the world that the United States was now the most powerful country in the world. For subsequent decades, the Soviet Union would protest to that notion as both nations maneuvered for diplomatic leverage over the other while both sides steadily increased their nuclear armaments.
President Truman defended his use of the atomic bomb in a letter to Samuel Calvert, saying,
“The only language the Japanese seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast, you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable, but nevertheless true.”
This callous attitude towards the Japanese was most evident by the existence of internment camps in the United States that incarcerated thousands of Japanese-Americans during the war under allegations based purely on racism, as no such acts were committed on Germans or Italians during the war. Propaganda throughout US popular culture during the war reaffirmed sentiments of bigotry towards the Japanese.
“Curtis LeMay, who was the general in charge of the bombing campaign in Japan, said that if we’d lost the war we certainly would have been brought before an international tribunal. In that sense, he was admitting it was a war crime,” explained Pulitzer Prize winning author of the book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes in a 2005 interview with the German publication Spiegel. “Of course one is revolted by the idea of killing civilians. We killed almost 2 million Japanese civilians with bombing campaigns.” Rhodes added, “these weapons still have lots of prestige as a symbol of national power.
This attitude follows very directly from the continuing insistence on the part of the United States to this day that other nations shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, but we should, because it’s important to our national security. If we can make that claim, then so can any other nation or any other entity. And they have. A country like North Korea knows – especially after the invasion of Iraq – that being part of the “Axis of Evil” is a dangerous place to be. Because we insist on our primary right to be a nuclear power, they have no other option but to do the same.”