70 years since the bombing of Hiroshima

THURSDAY, AUGUST 6—In a related story, we are reporting on the many emotions summoned by the end of World War II in the summer of 1945 as we pass through 70th-anniversary milestones of the end of the Holocaust, the first use of nuclear weapons in conflict and the end of the war. ReadTheSpirit magazine also is publishing stories on:

We also are recalling AUGUST 9, 1945, when a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.

These two bombings remain the only uses of nuclear weapons in the history of warfare.

Estimates of the death tolls vary widely. At least 80,000 people were killed in the Hiroshima blast and another 70,000 were injured and many of those died later, historians agree. Nagasaki casualty estimates range from 30,000 to 80,000 people in the initial blast. The vast majority of the people killed were not serving in the military. That includes nearly 8,000 children who were clearing fire breaks in the center of Hiroshima when the bomb hit; they were vaporized without a trace.

Historian Paul Ham’s widely praised new book, Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and their Aftermath, which arrives in paperback on August 4, says the numbers were higher if victims who died later are added:

A total of more than 100,000 people were killed instantly by the atomic bombs, mostly women, children and the elderly. Many hundreds of thousands more succumbed to their horrific injuries later, or slowly perished of radiation-related sickness.

A third American atomic bomb was ready for an attack later in August, if Japanese leaders had not surrendered. A fourth bomb was being prepared, as well.

One historical study after another of American attitudes and popular media from that era remind us, today, that Americans fully supported all-out war against all Japanese.

In 1945, Americans widely regarded the attacks as justified and a major relief. Families across the U.S. knew service men and women who likely would have been involved in an invasion of Japan, which was expected to cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Five years of war, touched off by the Japanese bombings of Pearl Harbor, also had fueled American fury against the Japanese and depictions of Japanese as evil creatures. As Paul Ham points out in his new book:

Revilement of Japan was rife in Allied countries. By 1945, U.S. authorities and the public knew of the brutal treatment by the Japanese of local populations (including in Japan’s Chinese invasion) as well as POWs and Japan’s biological warfare plans. The apparently demented fighting by Japanese troops, typified by the kamikaze suicide raids, signified to Allied soldiers they were fighting a different kind of enemy, who glorified death, while the attack on Pearl Harbor and news of the Bataan Death March left the US public extremely vengeful.

For years after the atomic bombings, strong American support for using nuclear weapons was fostered by U.S. officials’ decisions to censor photographic images or films of the actual devastation, especially human victims. American officials preferred to focus on imagery of the mushroom clouds. During the American occupation, many records of the devastation were confiscated. Strict U.S. censorship on media covering victims of the atomic bombs continued for seven years until the signing of the post-war Treaty of San Francisco in which Japan took further responsibility for its role in the war. After that, early gruesome accounts of the bombs’ effects finally began appearing in American media.

Of course, some films, photos and journalists’ reports did circulate around the world in the first couple of years after the bombings. According to the Wikipedia history of the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Hersey, one landmark was Hersey’s nonfiction account Hiroshima, which covers the lives of six bomb survivors before and in the months after the explosion.

Hersey already was famous as a war correspondent, having reported on Allied invasions of Italy and Sicily. He also reported from the Pacific, including stories about John F. Kennedy in the Solomon Islands. Then, he was among the first journalists to reach Hiroshima, where he began interviewing survivors. Originally commissioned by The New Yorker, Hersey’s shocking story took up the entire August 31, 1946 edition of the magazine. In a jarring juxtaposition, the issue arrived with a cheery scene on the cover of Americans enjoying themselves in a park.

Within months, the story appeared as a book, remains a classic of journalism and has sold more than 3 million copies. It was one of the first books available in Japan about the bombings, reaching Japan by January 1947. However, U.S. occupation forces did not allow free distribution of the book.

In the August 2, 2015, New York Times Book Review section, historian Ian Buruma writes about that American censorship, which also slowed Japanese doctors in their ability to treat victims:

What made things worse for Japanese doctors who tried to ease the suffering of atom-bomb victims is that information about the bomb and its effects was censored by the American administration occupying Japan until the early 1950s. Even as readers here were shocked in 1946 by John Hersey’s description of the Hiroshima bomb in The New Yorker, the ensuing book was banned in Japan. Films and photographs of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as medical data, were confiscated by American authorities.

Hersey’s book famously opens with a minute-by-minute account. It’s first sentence:

At exactly 15 minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.

For the 70th anniversary, Britain’s The Mail published this minute-by-minute overview of what happened on August 6, 1945.


CHECK LOCALLY for anniversary events in your region. Many universities and peace groups are hosting special observances. Here is just a sample of events to give you an idea of the range you may find …


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