THE ATOMIC BOMB: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
On August 6, 1945, after 44 months of increasingly brutal fighting in the Pacific, an American B-29 bomber loaded with a devastating new weapon appeared in the sky over Hiroshima, Japan. Minutes later, that new weapon—a bomb that released its enormous destructive energy by splitting uranium atoms to create a chain reaction—detonated in the sky, killing some 70,000 Japanese civilians instantly and leveling the city. Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb over the city of Nagasaki, with similarly devastating results. The following week, Japan’s emperor addressed his country over the radio to announce the decision to surrender. World War II had finally come to its dramatic conclusion. The decision to employ atomic weapons against Japan remains a controversial chapter in American history. Even before the new President Harry S. Truman finalized his decision to use the bombs, members of the President’s inner circle grappled with the specifics of the decision to drop the new weapon. Their concerns revolved around a cluster of related issues: whether the use of the technology was necessary to defeat an already crippled Japan; whether a similar outcome could be effected without using the bomb against civilian targets; whether the detonation of a second bomb days after the first, before Japan had time to formulate its response, was justified; and what effect the demonstration of the bomb’s devastating power would have on postwar diplomacy, particularly on America’s uneasy wartime alliance with the Soviet Union.
Controversy is Alive and Well
The ongoing struggle to present the history of the atomic bombings in a balanced and accurate manner is an interesting story in its own right, and one that has occasionally generated an enormous amount of controversy. In 1995, anticipating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum planned a display around the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the first bomb, for its museum on the National Mall. That exhibit would place the invention of atomic weapons and the decision to use them against civilian targets in the context of World War II and the Cold War, provoking broader questions about the morality of strategic bombing and nuclear arms in general.
The design for the exhibit quickly triggered an avalanche of controversy. Critics charged that it offered a too-sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese enemy, and that its focus on the children and elderly victims of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki encouraged visitors to question the necessity and morality of the weapons. As originally written, those critics alleged, the exhibit forwarded an anti-American interpretation of events surrounding the bombs’ use. That such a message was to appear in a national museum amplified the frustrations of critics (especially veterans’ groups), who believed that the exhibit should not lead museumgoers to question the decision to drop the bomb or to portray the Pacific war in morally neutral terms. In place of the original exhibit, veterans’ organizations offered a replacement exhibit with a very different message. Their proposed exhibit portrayed the development of the atomic weapons as a triumph of American technical ingenuity, and the use of both bombs as an act that saved lives—the lives of American soldiers who would otherwise have had to invade the Japanese home islands, and the lives of thousands of Japanese who would, it was assumed, have fought and died with fanatic determination opposing such an invasion. The revised exhibit removed the questioning tone of the original, replacing it with more certainty: the use of the bombs, it argued, was both necessary and justified.
The historians who produced the original exhibit stood accused of historical revisionism by their critics, of needlessly complicating patriotic consensus with moral...
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