Nagasaki, and the futility of history’s only nuclear weapons attacks

With thanks to Medact Trustee Frank Boulton

Nagasaki: a catalogue of errors

Seventy one years ago in the early hours of August 9, the mission to drop a second atomic bomb on a Japanese city was launched. Three days previously, the first ever nuclear bomb attack had destroyed the city of Hiroshima, killing one Hiroshimahundred thousand people. 65% of these casualties were nine years of age or younger.

The Hiroshima bomb killed and injured nearly twice as many as the Nagasaki bomb, and destroyed three times as much land area. The Nagasaki attack was a series of complications, errors, and near-misses.

The strike plane, Bocksar, crashed on takeoff, causing extensive fuel fires. After a six hour flight to the island of Yukushima, the plane waited for a camera plane that never showed, and proceeded after fifty minutes to the primary target, which was the city of Kokura.

When Bockscar arrived over Kokura, the crew found that the arsenal was ‘obscured by heavy ground haze and smoke.’ They could not carry out the bombing, and so after forty-five minutes and with approaching anti-aircraft fire, the crew decided to try for the secondary target, Nagasaki.

The choice of Nagasaki was haphazard, or unsystematic at best. It was eliminated from an initial list of seventeen potential targets. Although Nagasaki was an important port and manufactured engines and torpedoes, it was also home to an Allied prisoner-of-war camp, and was a complicated target since it was divided by mountains and had no large center. Nagasaki was only added to the list of targets one day before it was finalized – scribbled in as if as an afterthought. Ironically, Nagasaki was the most Christian city in Japan (and the largest Cathedral in the east stood at Ground Zero.)

When Bockscar arrived at Nagasaki shortly before midday, it had been in the air for almost eight hours and had so many mechanical problems and so little fuel left that the crew were almost at the point of turning back or else risk having to ditch the bomb – they would have had to drop the Fat Man into the ocean.

The attack

In what was a reportedly a brief opening in the clouds over Nagasaki, the bombardier released the Fat Man, which detonated at two minutes after noon. Its specific altitude was chosen to maximize civilian deaths due to the destruction done to the light wooden buildings in which they lived.

NagasakiThe bomb went off over a mostly civilian district. The U.S. military’s official damage map, produced in 1946, labels the structures within three thousand feet of the detonation point. These included a prison, hospitals, clinics, a medical college, and several schools including one for blind and mute children. Forty thousand people died, and another forty thousand were injured, according to the American government’s postwar estimates.

After Hiroshima, the nuclear bomb was no longer a secret – and the US Air Forces had written propaganda leaflets to inform the people of Nagasaki about the possible attack. This was as much an act of psychological warfare as a humanitarian warning. However, internal coordination with the bombing crews was so poor that the leaflets were delivered late, and fluttered down over the city the day after it was destroyed.


The Hiroshima and Nagasaki film they didn't want us to see



Did the bombings end the war?

American newspapers ran headlines in the days following Nagasaki like: ‘Peace in the Pacific: Our Bomb Did it!’ Although it is a widespread belief that the atomic bombings directly led to the surrender of Japan, which for some is justification for their use, this belief doesn’t stand up to investigation.

The Supreme Council met, for the first time, to discuss unconditional surrender on August 9. They had already begun to discuss surrender before the bombing of Nagasaki occurred later that day.

Although this meeting occurred after the Hiroshima bombing,  it is unlikely that Hiroshima was the trigger – for if it were, the leaders would not have waited for three days to meet. A meeting could have taken place within a few hours of the Hiroshima attack if this was deemed catalytic enough.

Moreover, it wasn’t until August 10 that information about the full devastation of the Hiroshima bombing reached Tokyo, -one day after the decision to surrender had already been taken.

Japan surrendersOn August 8, the leaders even declined a meeting to discuss the bombing of Hiroshima, -as it was not considered to be important enough. This is easier to understand in the context of the summer of 1945 in which the U.S Army Air Force carried out one of the most intense campaigns of city destruction in all of history, attacking and destroying 68 Japanese cities. The first of these raids, the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9 -10, burned 16 square miles of the city, and killed an estimated 120, 000 Japanese people. This is the single highest death toll of any bombing attack on a city. Survivors’ accounts tell of women running through the streets carrying burning babies, and of people jumping into rivers and swimming pools only to be boiled alive.

In fact, the bombing of Hiroshima was second in terms of civilian deaths compared to all 68 cities bombed in Japan that summer. (Of course, the extensive long-term health effects of the nuclear attack were not known to the leaders at the time.) Historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argues that the step to the use of atomic weapons was an incremental one, – Hiroshima was simply another city leveled, only in a different way. He writes: “Once we had accepted strategic bombing as an acceptable weapon of war, the atomic bomb was a very small step.” This rather undermines the idea that Hiroshima was the trigger for Japanese surrender.

On August 13, Japanese War Minister General Anami said that the atomic bombings were no more menacing than the fire-bombing that Japan had endured for months.


The atomic bombings were no more menacing than the fire-bombing that Japan had endured for months.


Rather than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki coercing Japan into surrendering, it seems far more probable that the invasion and declaration of war by the Soviet Union was the key turning point.

That summer, even the most hard-line leaders in Japan’s government knew that the war could not go on. The question was only how to bring it to a close under the best terms possible. The Allies were demanding “unconditional surrender” but the Japanese leaders wanted to avoid war crimes trials, keep their form of government, and keep some of the territories they’d conquered. They had two strategic options: diplomacy with the Soviet Union, as they hoped that Stalin might mediate a settlement between the Allies and Japan. The second option was military – using Imperial Army ground troops to inflict high casualties on U.S. forces when they invaded, and therefore pushing the United States to offer better terms.

After Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, both of these options were still viable – diary entries show that leaders were still thinking about how to get Stalin to mediate, and the military strength of the troops on the beaches of Japan’s home islands had not been diminished in any way.

However, the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island was entirely different. It meant that Stalin could no longer act as a mediator – the diplomatic option no longer existed. Moreover, the Russian invasion meant that the Japanese military would have to fight two great powers from two different directions if the U.S. forces invaded. It was also far preferable to surrender to the U.S than to the Soviet Union -Japan’s imperial system was unlikely to be allowed to continue under communist occupation.

The Soviet invasion therefore shut down both of Japan’s strategic options, unlike the bombing of Hiroshima. The Soviet declaration of war also made Japanese decisions on ending the war far more time sensitive – they had predicted that U.S. forces might not invade for months, but the Soviet forces, released by the surrender of Germany three months earlier, could be in mainland Japan within ten days.

Indeed, some months earlier in a meeting of the Supreme Court in June 1945, Japan’s leaders said that Soviet entry into the war “would determine the fate of the Empire” and that ‘“the absolute maintenance of peace in our relations with the Soviet Union is imperative for the continuation of the war.”

The myth that began the nuclear age

The belief that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war is emotionally convenient for both Japan and the United States. For Japan, to blame the loss of the war on an unpredictable scientific breakthrough helped the leaders to save face and deflect blame, thereby preserving the legitimacy of the emperor. It also appealed to international sympathy and pandered to the American victors, which was essential after the aggressive war Japan had waged and due to the considerable fear of war crimes trials.


newspaper HiroshimaUS interests were also served by the ‘bomb winning the war’ narrative – this enhanced perception of US military power, increased their diplomatic influence around the world and strengthened their security. It also gave justification to the $2 billion spent to build the atomic bomb. On the other hand, any suggestion that Soviet entry into the war led to Japanese surrender would have been tantamount to giving over power to the Soviet Union, especially once the Cold War was underway.

It may be worth noting that the Nagasaki bomb was based on plutonium, which is much more difficult to fire than the uranium used over Hiroshima, as it requires a complicated imploding sphere of conventional explosives. The Nagasaki bomb was the second to be detonated – the first being the test in the New Mexico desert in July. The Nagasaki bomb was, as much as anything else, an experiment to prove that it could be detonated in combat conditions – a decision motivated by cynicism as much as military strategy.


The Nagasaki bomb was, as much as anything else, an experiment


The recognition that Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not win the war is significant for two main reasons. One, it undermines the idea that nuclear weapons are strategically necessary. Two, it adds a cruel and unavoidable layer of futility to the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


How can we respond to the anniversary of Nagasaki?

Nuclear weapons are the most indiscriminate and destructive weapon ever created. Today, the potential for nuclear destruction is astronomically higher than it was at the end of WW2. Britain’s own nuclear weapons system has up to 40 nuclear warheads, each of which is eight times more powerful than the atomic bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima.

On this anniversary of the futile bombing of Nagasaki, Medact as an organisation of individuals concerned about protecting global health, calls for a wider recognition that nuclear weapons do not make our world safer. The lives obliterated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not part of a necessary attempt to end the war – even if this could ever be considered as a just motivation for the use of a genocidal weapon. The fact that the atomic bombings did not push Japan to surrender undermines the whole concept of deterrence. History does not show that leveling population centers leads to surrender – the firebombing of Dresden did not lead to Germany’s surrender, nor did the bombing of London lead to Britain’s surrender.

However, what the atomic bombings did do was to usher in a nuclear age in which we still live, and which now threatens the entire existence of the human race. Hiroshima and Nagasaki show us that nuclear bombs do not halt the escalation of violent conflict; they do not prevent further death and destruction, they simply add to it.

It is imperative that health professionals act now to pursue disarmament and promote nonviolent responses to conflict instead – for in the wake of a nuclear attack we as a community would be incapable of responding effectively. We need to work positively towards the achievable aim of ending this nuclear age. One important step towards this is the imminent adoption of an international treaty banning nuclear weapons – negotiations are expected to begin as early as 2017.

Medact is working hard to mobilise the health community to promote peacebuilding, sustainable security and human rights over the arms trade, violent responses to conflict and the continued existence of nuclear weapons. There is much work to be done, and we need your help. Please support our Hiroshima appeal, and please get in touch at [email protected] if you would like to join us.

Dr Ira Helfand (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War)