Lethal, overwhelming force

The world has gotten a little more dangerous and scarier with the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests by the North Koreans with the capability to reach the mainland United States. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 have we been exposed to such a potential threat of nuclear annihilation. Already, U.S. Pacific Air Force commander Terrence O’Shaughnessy has talked of being “ready to respond (to the North Korean threat) with rapid, lethal and overwhelming force at a time and place of our choosing.”

Only twice in the history of the world has a nuclear device been used by one nation against another and that was during the Second World War. In 1945, the scientists involved in the first A-bomb detonation knew that what they had opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box and feared even “hope” had escaped. When the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, physicist and leader of the Allied team that built the device, Robert Oppenheimer, expressed the gravity of what had occurred by quoting scripture from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Later, he would comment that, with the creation of the earth-shattering weapon, atomic scientists now “know sin.”

On the morning of August 6, 1945,  just before 8:15, Col. Tibbetts spied a break in the clouds over his target, leveled the B-29 bomber Enola Gay and released the bomb code-named Little Boy. Fifty seconds after its release over Hiroshima, the 20-kiloton A-bomb exploded, outright killing 80,000 people. Three days later, the citizens of Nagasaki suffered a similar fate. For the first and only time, nuclear weapons had been used to obliterate two cities and their inhabitants.

The A-Bomb could be “a means for World Peace,” wrote U.S. Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, in his diary. Or, it may be “Frankenstein.”

The release of the nuclear bombs did bring about a temporary “world peace.” Just as 24,000 Canadians were being shipped to the Pacific Theatre of Operations (PTO), Emperor Hirohito, facing more destruction, announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies, ending the Second World War on August 14, 1945.

In hindsight, many have argued that dropping the “bomb” was unnecessary. But at the time, it was welcomed by those expecting to continue the fight to the Japanese homeland — an invasion that was predicted to result in the death or the infliction of at least 250,000 casualties.

Years ago, I talked to a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot, who had been stationed in the Pacific Theatre of Operations during the war. He was adamant in his belief that dropping the bomb saved thousands of Allies lives and brought the war to a quick end. It is a belief I have heard expressed by other veterans.

Six years into the war, it wasn’t only fighting men and women who were weary of war, but also politicians and the public. The top policy-makers in the U.S. were worried about ending the war quickly, not the morality of their decision to drop the bomb. Canadians, who experienced the horrors of Japanese prisoner of war camps, following the December 1941 debacle at Hong Kong, and then were freed from sure death in the camps with the A-bombs’ release, also didn’t consider the morality of the decision. The 42,000 Canadians expected to take part in the invasion of the Japanese homeland, were also grateful that their services were no longer required.

Today, historians have access to documents that the fighting troops would never have seen, nor, for that matter, cared about. They were more interested in their survival than the thoughts and actions of their political masters, although they did recognize the overall strength of their cause was the ultimate defeat of the tyranny posed by the Axis powers.

The historical record seems to indicate that the dropping of the bomb may have been unnecessary. A strategic bombing survey conducted by the American war department immediately following the war concluded that Japan would have surrendered before November 1 without the use of the bomb. Japanese cities were being shattered by conventional bombing. General Curtis LeMay of the 20th USAF ordered the methodical destruction of the cities with fire bombing raids. During 10 days in March 1945, B-29 sorties had wiped out massive sections of Japan’s four largest cities, killing at least 150,000 people and made another million homeless. Yet, the Kamikaze attacks on American ships and the fight to the death battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa clearly showed that the Japanese will to fight had not deteriorated. In addition, the lesson learned from Nazi Germany was that the destruction of cities by conventional air attacks did not destroy the will to continue fighting.

The morality of dropping the A-bomb on civilians did play on the minds of a handful of policy-makers. Some of U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s advisors even argued for a demonstration of the bomb’s destructive power. “It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisors knew it ... (it) is certain that the very claim the bomb prevented half a million deaths is unsupportable,” wrote J. Samuel Walker, a U.S. government historian with the nuclear regulatory agency in 1990.

In 1978, historians found confirmation in Truman’s diary that surrender had been discussed before the bombing of Hiroshima. In an entry, Truman wrote of a “telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace.” The only stipulation was that Hirohito be allowed to continue as emperor after the war. “This was a condition, of course, that Truman gave to Japan — after he dropped the bomb,” diplomatic historian and author Kai Bird told a reporter for the Globe and Mail, following the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima.

The reality, at the time, was that Truman would have been pilloried by the Russians — even the American people — if he tried to make a separate peace with the Japanese. The possibility of peace was so remote that it didn’t come up for discussion during the Potsdam Conference, where the Allied Big-Three (U.S, U.K and Russia) met to divide up Europe into spheres of influence.

Following the successful testing of the bomb in New Mexico, Truman’s spirits were reported to have picked up. But Stalin simply shrugged when told of the test. Of course, he had spies in New Mexico keeping him informed about any progress made. And when Russia tested its own bomb in 1948, it was the precursor for other nations — stable or otherwise (North Korea is far from a stable regime) — to join the nuclear club. Since 1945, the threat of nuclear destruction looms like Damocle’s sword over the head of everyone living on this fragile planet.

The Second World War ended abruptly with the use of the bomb, but to this day, its impact reverberates around the globe. The ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still haunt the world, although “hope” might not have left Pandora’s Box and sanity may still reign supreme.