05 August 2020

Three quarters of century since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings

Niculae Iancu

In the morning of August 6th 1945, the B-29 „Enola Gay” bomber of the US Army forces was launching the first atomic bomb in the history, „Little Boy” over the Japanese city Hiroshima. The „Little” produced a huge explosion, as no one has ever seen before, which immediately killed 70.000 people, and left other tens of thousands of people to live only until the radiation level to which they were exposed took their lives. Three days later, a second bomb, „Fat Man”, was launched by the „Bocksar” over Nagasaki. 40.000 people were going to die, and many others to be mutilated and slowly killed by the new weapon. It was an unprecedented and hard to handle disaster, even by the Japanese people. The attacks were going to lead to the unconditioned capitulation of Japan. The announcement was brought to people’s attention by Emperor Hirohito, in a radio message broadcasted on 15th of August. This is how it was taken down the curtain on the last scene of the biggest and most devastating global conflagration in the humankind’s history. The human society was at a landmark point. The bad were to be left behind. The new global order, the new international system with its institutions, treaties and rules were about to make impossible the emergence of a new global war. The tragic demonstration of the destructive power of a nuclear weapon implemented in world’s leaders mind the belief that a new global conflagration will lead to the extinction of the humankind and even to life’s disappearance from Earth.

Image source: Profimedia

Japan, between dishonor and survival

After more than five years and a half of devastating conflict, the war was finally ending in Europe, with Germany’s unconditioned capitulation on 8 and then 9th of May, 1945. Japan was, however, continuing the fight on the Pacific front, even if all the developments from the biggest military theater of operations in humankind’s history was signaling Allies’ victory since the first half of 1944. The more the Japaneses’ defeat was clearer the more the imperial armed forces were fighting. The strait they were caught in was merging their last military resources, which were quite large, on the big island of the Japanese archipelago. Hereof their capacity to continue to provoke important loses for the American forces. In fact, since President Harry Truman took the Oval Office’s of the White House, in April 1945, the allies’ loses on the Pacific front reached concerning values for the military commanders, which were unacceptable for the new president.

Therefore, through the Potsdam Proclamation from July 26th 1945, Truman, together with the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek and the British prime-minister Winston Churchill, were about to “offer Japan the opportunity to put an end to this war”. The useless loss of lives had to stop. In the last of the 13 checkpoints of the ultimatum, the allies were asking the Tokyo government to “immediately state the unconditioned surrender of all the Japanese armed forces and to offer concrete and proper assurances that they will surrender”. The alternative for Japan is the immediate and total destruction”.

Although the emperor Hirohito considered allies’ demand “mostly acceptable”, the Defence Minister and the military commanders of the land and naval forces have said, within the Supreme Council for War Leadership, a mini war government  which included also the Foreign Affairs Minister and was controlled by Japan’s prime-minister, that the Proclamation is “too dishonorable” and must be rejected. Prime-minister Kantaro Suzuki, admiral (r) of the imperial naval forces, who took the leadership of the government in April 1045, has ignored the ultimatum, waiting for support from Stalin to mediate the peace. This last glimmer of hope was also the result of the fact that the Soviets did not sign the Proclamation, although they were present at the Potsdam Conference.

At this point of the story, we must outline two things that are contouring the grey tones the huge complexity of the security studies’ practice and theory can be caught in.

The first one draws the conclusions of some researches revealing that the translation of the Japanese term mokusatsu, meaning “ignorance” is, in fact, a huge linguistic error. This exact error seems to have been the one to make possible the nuclear disasters from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The supporters of this idea think that the proper translation of the terms mokusatsu would be “no comment”, considering also the context wherein it was used by the Japanese prime-minister. Three days after receiving the proclamation, Suzuki held a press conference in front of the journalists in Tokyo. On this occasion, the prime minister mentioned that “(the Postdam Proclamation) is basically similar to previous statements. The Japan’s Government does not think this has a significant value. It is simple, we mokusatsu suru (we can either translate it we ignore, or we do not comment). The only option we have is the determination to continue the fight until the end”.

The attractiveness of the wrong translation premises increased after the declassification of an essay called “Mokusatsu: A word, two lessons”, published in 1968, in the Technical Journal of the US National Security Agency. However, the author’s conclusion, whose name it still classified, is more than obvious: “Some years ago I recall hearing a statement known as "Murphy's Law" which says that "If it can be misunderstood, it will be." Mokusatsu supplies adequate proof of that statement. After all, if Kantaro Suzuki had said something specific like "I will have a statement after the cabinet meeting," or "We have not reached any decision yet," he could have avoided the problem of how to translate the ambiguous word mokusatsu and the two horrible consequences of its inauspicious translation: the atomic bombs and this essay”.

The second one, a lot bigger than the first one, is the naivety of the expectations the Japanese government had from the Soviet Union to mediate more favorable terms in the peace negotiations with the Western allies. Despite the expected support, the Soviets started a war against Japan on August 8th, immediately after the US nuclear attack from Hiroshima. The Red Army invaded the territories occupied by the Japaneses in Manchuria and occupied the Sahalin Island and the Kurile Islands, where the fights between the Soviets and the local resistance forces continued even after the Emperor accepted the capitulation, until September 3rd 1945. The URSS’s war with Japan was agreed by Stalin and the Western allies since November 1943, at the Tehran Conference and reconfirmed by the Soviets at the Yalta Conference from February 1945, when they committed to go to war with Japan, in three months since Germany’s surrender. These three months were going to be accomplished at August 8th.

The Manhattan project

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration founded the US nuclear program in 1940, with Canada and Great Britain’s support. The US was still neuter, but there were serious concerns in Washington regarding the development of an atomic weapon by Nazi Germany. The number of German research people who took refuge in the US was increasing and the news they brought were not good at all. After the mostly theoretical progresses obtained during 1940, the US nuclear program was placed under the authority of the Office for Scientific Research and Development, especially founded though a presidential order, issued on June 28th 1941.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with building facilities to house the top secret program, which was to be called "Project Manhattan," after the location of the Engineer Corps garrison in the New York metropolitan area.

In the early years, scientists worked to produce the essential raw material for the nuclear fusion effect, Uranium-235 and Plutonium-239. The first research was conducted by Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard at Columbia University in order to enrich uranium and stabilize the nuclear reaction chain. After the United States went to war, their research continued under the military command of Colonel Leslie R. Groves at the University of Chicago where they succeeded in producing Uranium-235.

The radioactive materials were sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where most of the Manhattan Project took place under the coordination of the exceptional physicist Robert Oppenheimer. His team managed to turn the idea into a functional solution, so that at the dawn of July 16, 1945, to successfully complete the first test in the history of a nuclear device incorporated in a plutonium bomb. In the end, scientists developed two types of bombs. One based on uranium, which they named "Little Boy" and another based on plutonium, which they named "Fat Man". They were to be used in a battle soon.

The nuclear solution

Several high-ranking US military commanders, including General Douglas MacArthur, have supported the continuation of the military campaign against Japan with conventional forces in Operation Downfall, which would culminate in a massive ground invasion supported by airstrikes to occupy the main islands. The large number of casualties estimated by them among their own troops - up to 1 million soldiers - led Truman to make the decision to resort to the nuclear solution. In making such a decision, the president overcame the "moral fears" of War Secretary Henry Stimson, General Dwight Eisenhower, or some of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. In fact, Truman would note in his diary that "the targets of the nuclear attack will be military targets, soldiers and sailors, not women and children". The tilt of the balance towards the nuclear solution was also influenced by the vision of the supporters of atomic bomb se who believed that the results of the nuclear attack will not only be the immediate capitulation of Japan, but also will make United States the only nuclear power, the global order that was to be established after the end of World War II.

Given this context, the military involved in the Manhattan Project identified Hiroshima as the ideal target for the use of the new weapon. The industrial city with 350,000 inhabitants was located less than 1,000 kilometers from Tokyo. At the same time, there were no data to confirm that American prisoners were detained in the area.

Given the Japanese government's "refusal to surrender by ignoring the Potsdam Proclamation", in the early hours of August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay bomber having the Little Boy on board took off from the American base on Tinian Island under Colonel Paul Tibbets . The enriched uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m., without this technical solution ever being tested in the landfill. The initiation of the nuclear charge occurred at a height of about 600 meters from the ground producing an explosion equivalent to the explosion of 12-15,000 tons of trotyl and wiping from the surface of the earth an urban area of ​​over ten square kilometers.

However, the Hiroshima disaster did not push the Japanese to surrender. So, three days later, on August 9, a new attack was to take place. The Fat Man plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki at 11:02 a.m. local time by Bockscar bomber under the command of Major Charles Sweeney. The first target was the city of Kokura, but the low visibility caused by the thickness of the cloud ceiling made Sweeney to head to the secondary target, Nagasaki. The explosion of the bomb with an equivalent of 22,000 tons of trotyl, much larger than the first, caused less damage due to the mountainous terrain that limited the effect to an area of ​​about 6 square kilometers.

It is worth mentioning that Nagasaki was not on the initial list of possible targets for nuclear attacks. The first on this list was Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years, until 1868. The committee for setting targets that could be targeted in an attack with the new weapon was made up of military and civilians. The former considered Kyoto a suitable target because "it had not been bombed at all and many industrial facilities had been relocated to the region". The latter preferred Kyoto because it was a cultural city that "hosted many universities, and the people there would have understood better that the atomic bomb is not just another bomb, but a turning point in human history". The Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, is the one who convinced Truman to remove Kyoto from the list in order to preserve the huge cultural heritage of the town.

The end of war

Ahead of the cumulative effects of the nuclear attacks and the Soviet invasion, the Government of Japan adopted a declaration, on August 10th, announcing that it will accept the terms of surrender from the Potsdam Declaration, understanding that the emperor's sovereign position would not be prejudiced. Based on guarantees provided by the Allies, Japan accepted the surrender on August 14, 1945. Despite the huge humanitarian disaster facing the Japanese population, the unconditional acceptance of the surrender was hardly accepted by the military members of the imperial house to be sent to China and Korea to directly communicate the decision of the Emperor to the commanders of the forces deployed in these regions.

Accepting the surrender was broadcast in a recorded radio message from Emperor Hirohito on 15 August. The news spread quickly inside the allied states, the population celebrating on the streets what would become "V-J Day" or "Victory Day over Japan".

The formal capitulation ceremony took place on September 2nd aboard the flagship USS Missouri, anchored in the Gulf of Tokyo. The document was signed by Japanese Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru on behalf of the Japanese Emperor and Government and General Umezu Yoshijiro on behalf of the General Military Command of the Imperial Forces. The Americans were represented at the ceremony by General MacArthur, the supreme commander of the Pacific Allied forces, and Admiral Chester William Nimitz, the commander of the United States Pacific Fleet. A separate capitulation ceremony of Japan to China, in Nanjing, was to take place on September 9th, which marked the end of World War II.

Learned and apparently forgotten lessons

After the end of the Cold War, when the zero-sum game between the USA and the USSR led to the establishment of the nuclear status quo, the concerns regarding an atomic apocalypse disappeared. It has begun the era of military surgical operations conducted following the logic of eliminating specific objectives to the detriment of mass destruction. Special Forces flourished to the detriment of conventional ones, and the nuclear arsenal was significantly reduced. At the end of the last decade of the last century, it seemed that the theory of conflict must be rewritten by bringing into security debates new and new areas of analysis, considered non-traditional and soft, but relevant enough to generate coercion and discouragement on the international stage. However, from the first years of the new millennium, things would change at an accelerated pace, from a world of decision-making cooperation and multilateralism to a world of transactional competition and decision-making pragmatism.

Therefore, today, three quarters of a century after the use of the terrible atomic weapon, the world order is under unprecedented tensions. The international system has exhausted its resources for regulating and controlling military arsenals. The use of nuclear power has once again become an option. The competition between the great powers divides and hampers the internal and external parts of alliances or traditional cooperation formats. The security scenarios are again written following the "when" and not "if" the power is to be used again in its raw form. Mankind is preparing for the next great war. Military spending is growing exponentially, mistrust is hovering among allies, and security incidents are increasing every day.

Is a new Hiroshima next? The answer to this question depends on the wisdom of world leaders. Unfortunately, in the post-truth era, such a dilemma no longer has a binary representation. In a world of diluted and ambiguous rules, the good can no longer by dissociated from the bad, and the difficult security decisions are taken under the huge pressure of nowadays’ world’s subjectivism.

Translated by Andreea Soare