An allied correspondent stands in a sea of rubble before the shell of a building in Hiroshima, September 8, 1945. (AP Photo/Stanley Troutman)
Sixty-eight years ago last week the Nuclear Age began with the first successful test of an atomic weapon at the Trinity site in the New Mexico desert. The test and what surrounded it set the standard for much of what followed in the decades to come: radiation dangers, official secrecy and cover-ups, a nearly endless nuclear arms race, and the triumph of the national security state.
Two years ago, as the annual anniversary of the August 6 atomic bombing of Hiroshima approached, I wrote daily posts here, a Countdown to Hiroshima, relating what happened on the corresponding day in 1945. You can find them archived, beginning on July 25, 2011. I won’t do it again here this year, but you’ll find new versions every day over at my Pressing Issues blog—and I started earlier this year, with nearly two weeks already covered.
Every summer for the past thirty years I’ve written numerous artilces about this and related subjects—because the US media, with the exception of the fiftieth anniversary in 1995, fail to raise new, or even longstanding, questions. I’ve written three books on the subject: Hiroshima in America (with Robert Jay Lifton), Atomic Cover-Up (on the decades-long suppression of shocking film shot in the atomic cities by the US military) and Hollywood Bomb (the wild story of how an MGM 1947 drama was censored by the military and Truman himself).
For now, here’s a kind of summary of the debate of the use of the bomb in August 1945.
One of the persistent—and certainly the most influential—arguments in the media for dropping the bomb over two highly populated Japanese cities is that it saved hundreds of thousands, even millions, of American lives that would have been lost in the “inevitable” US invasion of Japan. Those numbers were grossly inflated from the start, many historians have shown, but any invasion would have been bloody enough. The significance of the Trinity success—which was by no means a slam dunk beforehand—was that it rendered any invasion extremely unlikely.
Why? There is no way any American president, and certainly not Harry Truman, would have gone ahead with an invasion—scheduled for several long months after the Trinity test—knowing that he had an A-bomb in his pocket. This helps account for why his surly mood at the Potsdam summit was transformed overnight by the news of the Trinity success.
The question—on the day after Trinity—was not use bomb or invade (which defenders of the bomb still emphasize), but rather how to use the bomb.
Truman’s choices were: (1) inform Japan’s leadership that the United States now had such a device (the Japanese knew what that meant, having tried and failed in its own atomic program), (2) set up a dramatic demonstration shot, (3) drop a bomb or bombs over a sparsely populated part of Japan or a military base or (4) target large cities.