Hiroshima Essay

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In the closing days of World War II, President Harry Truman made the decision to approve the release of atomic bombs over two Japanese cities to force Japan to surrender after Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. In addition to the 115,000 deaths that occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there have been major long-term environmental consequences that continue to be assessed. Cities with large civilian populations were specifically chosen for the attacks to increase the impact of the action so that Japan would be left with no choice but to end the war that caused the deaths of some 62 million people. The decision was effective; within a week, Japan surrendered unconditionally. Nevertheless, the use of atomic weapons has remained one of the most controversial actions in American history. Critics argue that the war would have ended shortly without the use of atomic bombs. Others insist that the blame for the bombing lies not with Truman but with Emperor Hirohito, who delayed surrender, hoping that the Soviet Union would come to Japan’s aid.

Truman insisted that his decision was based on a desire to save American lives, and there is strong evidence that the Japanese had pledged to take out another 1 million Americans if Japan were invaded. In addition to millions of casualties, Japan committed horrific atrocities on prisoners of war, civilians, and internees that included starvation, beatings, torture, rape, and burns. Because the Japanese destroyed most records in the days before the surrender, accurate tallies of atrocities and fatalities are not available, but it is estimated that some 130,000 Chinese were killed by the Japanese.

President Truman and his advisors had chosen the Japanese cities of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Kokura as possible targets for the bombs, depending on the weather. On the morning of August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped a 10,000-pound uranium-fueled bomb, designated “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima, a city of 250,000 people. Immediately, there was a flash of brilliant purple light. The resulting fireball covered a radius of 230 miles (370 kilometers) and raised the temperature immediately below it to 3,000 to 4,000 degrees C. Dust covered the city, where 90 percent of buildings were destroyed. Within minutes, half the population was dead or dying. Initially, deaths occurred as a result of the explosion, fires, and falling debris. Because there was no precedent for dealing with radiation, nothing was done to prevent others from entering Hiroshima in the days following the attack. For up to two weeks, radiation levels remained lethal and were present in the air and soil for an unspecified period.

After the attack, the Japanese and American governments began collecting data on hibakusha (“explosion-affected persons”). Because the data was classified, it was not until seven years later when the Americans pulled out of Japan that the full consequences of the bombs became known to the general population. Scientists identified what came to be called “atom bomb disease” because people were dying with no clear reason for their illnesses. Most of these victims died within four months of the attack.

By 1948, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) had been designated as the major American research arm of the Hiroshima followup, and scientists began conducting genetic testing on 70,000 children who had survived the attack. Tests revealed higher than normal incidences of conditions that included “radiation cataracts,” certain cancers, blood disorders, and birth defects. Incidences of leukemia were particularly persistent, revealing that those who had been within two-thirds of a mile (one kilometer) of the blast were 150 times more likely to develop the disease than were those in the general population. In 1975, the United States and Japan formed the Radiation Effects Research Foundation to replace the ABCC and charged it with continuing the study of long-term effects of radiation on hibakusha and their descendants.


  1. Hannah Brown, “Hiroshima: How Much Have We Learned?” The Lancet (v.6/August);
  2. Shuntaro Hida, “The Day Hiroshima Disappeared,” in Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, eds., Hiroshima’s Shadow (Pamphleteers Press, 1998);
  3. Michael J. Hogan, Hiroshima in History and Memory (Cambridge University Press, 1996);
  4. Rachel Linner, City of Silence: Listening to Hiroshima (Orbis Books, 1995);
  5. Robert P. Newman, Enola Gay and the Court of History (Peter Lang, 2004);
  6. Diana Preston, Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima (Walker, 2005).

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