The Work Continues

Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Struggle against Nuclear Weapons

Hiroshima Peace Memorial, commonly called the Atomic Bomb Dome or Genbaku Domu, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Photo © M. Choco.

Over seven decades, members of the Religious Society of Friends have worked to protest, commemorate, and educate about the U.S. nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some would say that this work began with Albert S. Bigelow, who, though he did not actually become a Quaker until 1955, resigned his captain’s appointment in the U.S. Navy soon after hearing of the bombings and a month before qualifying for his pension. Then, in 1958, Bigelow and three other Quakers set sail from San Pedro, California, in a 30-foot ketch named the Golden Rule for the Marshall Islands in an attempt to halt nuclear tests scheduled there.

Before the U.S. Coast Guard prevented them from completing their action, Bigelow and his shipmates encountered Earle L. Reynolds, an expert on the radiation effects of the Hiroshima bombing, and his wife, Barbara. The Reynoldses were so inspired by Bigelow et al that they became members of the Society of Friends. Soon after, they sailed their yacht, the Phoenix (now known as the Phoenix of Hiroshima) into the off-limits Marshall Islands testing ground, where Earle was arrested. Throughout the rest of his life, he and others sailed the Phoenix into various national waters to protest the testing of nuclear weapons.

In addition to those direct actions, in the late 1940s and early 1950s Seattle Quaker Floyd Schmoe started and led Houses for Hiroshima, a project that rebuilt houses for 100 Japanese families made homeless by the bombing. Funds for the project were raised by Pacific Yearly Meeting in California and Japan Yearly Meeting. And in the mid-1950s, some Friends housed a number of the Hiroshima Maidens, a group of 25 young Japanese women severely disfigured by the effects of the atomic bomb who were brought to the United States to undergo plastic surgery. Then, in 1975, Quaker-­affiliated Wilmington College in Ohio established the Hiroshima Nagasaki Memorial Collection to house the 3,000 books and documents in both Japanese and English that Barbara Reynolds had gathered in the years following those in which she and her husband, Earle, were in Hiroshima for his radiation research. This is still the largest collection of materials outside of Japan related to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And in the decades since then, Friends groups in the United States and around the world have commemorated and mourned the horrific nuclear attacks of 1945; for example, young Quakers at the 2005 annual session for Britain Yearly Meeting launched hundreds of floating candles to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the nuclear attacks.

Yet despite the many protests, commemorations, and educational efforts about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Quakers and other peace advocates still have their work cut out for them. A majority of Americans still favor the bombings. A 2009 poll conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute of registered voters across the country suggests that about 61 percent of the American people think that the United States did the right thing in August of 1945; 22 percent think the United States did the wrong thing; and about 16 percent are unsure or undecided.

We believe it crucial that these percentages be shifted, massively and soon. For the United States to be a moral nation, its citizens must acknowledge the harm and injustice of what our government did. The history of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki informs (or fails to inform) contemporary life-and-death conversations about nuclear weapons. We believe that the first step toward helping Americans confront the reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is to communicate to them the real story of the first and only (so far) nuclear attacks in human history.

August 1945

Mushroom cloud from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki at 11:02 a.m., August 9, 1945. Photo taken from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack.

On August 6, 1945, with no clear prior warning to Japanese civilians, the U.S. government dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. When the bombing was announced, the United States warned that unless the government of Japan surrendered and unless that surrender was completely unconditional, the United States would continue dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Japan. On August 9 another atomic bomb was dropped, this one on Nagasaki. Although it is impossible to determine precisely how many people were killed by the atomic bombs that were dropped in August of 1945, it does seem clear that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed about 60 times more people than were killed by the attacks of September 11, 2001. Most of the Japanese killed were, of course, children, women, and old men.

The comforting story

As we have mentioned, the vast majority of Americans approved of the bombings in 1945, and many continue to do so today. But why? A major reason is that they have heard again and again what we are going to call the “comforting story” about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The comforting story goes like this. In July and August of 1945, President Harry S. Truman was faced with a stark choice. He could either use the atomic bomb or he could order an invasion of Japan that would cost at least 500,000 American casualties. Truman and his advisers did not want to use the atomic bomb for they realized that using it was a terrible thing to do. But in the end they realized that they had no choice. Doing so enabled them to save the lives of hundreds of thousands—and perhaps millions—of American lives. Doing so also enabled them to treat the Japanese people with compassion. In order to save Japanese lives, Japanese people had to be killed. This story, which was invented in the fall of 1945 by people like Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, has been repeated over and over again for nearly seven decades. It is a good story. Americans have grown very attached to it. People who question it are often accused of being un-American. People who question it sometimes lose their jobs. Alas, the comforting story is simply not true.

Problems with the comforting story

There are many reasons why the comforting story cannot be true. To begin with, evidence suggests that there was actually very little debate over whether or not to use the atomic bomb. It seems clear that General Leslie Groves, who played a leading role in the discussions, never even considered the possibility of not using the weapon he had helped create. Furthermore, in August of 1945, no invasion was imminent. No invasion could have been mounted until the fall. In any case, in August of 1945 American leaders did not believe that an invasion would produce half a million American casualties. All of the estimates Truman had at his disposal were far lower than that. And by August of 1945, everyone knew that Japan was already defeated. If the United States had pulled back from its demand that surrender be unconditional, then it is quite possible that Japan would have surrendered immediately.

Alternatively, the United States could have simply waited until the Soviets entered the war against Japan. (The Soviets had promised to do so on the ninth of August.) Soviet entry into the war would very likely have led to Japanese capitulation. Then, too, the United States did not have to drop a bomb on a city such as Hiroshima. It could have demonstrated the power of the new weapon by dropping the bomb on a true military target or even on a place in which very few people lived. And of course the United States certainly did not have to drop a bomb on Nagasaki. Bombing Nagasaki seems to have served no real purpose whatsoever.

In summary, there are many different reasons to believe that the comforting story is untrue. Nearly all historians who have written about Hiroshima and Nagasaki agree on this.

So what were the real reasons the bombs were dropped?

This is not a question that historians can answer definitively. When they try to answer that question, they almost always rely on a combination of observations: the men who decided to use the bombs had run out of patience; they were determined to end the war as quickly as possible. Also, the decision makers had come to believe that killing large numbers of civilians was often completely justifiable. They wanted to be sure that not one more drop of American blood would be spilled than was absolutely necessary.

Historians also believe that some of the men who decided to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki suspected that God had given atomic weapons to the United States so that America could carry out His wishes. They longed to see a demonstration of the amazing things that atomic bombs can do. In addition, they wanted to intimidate the leaders of the Soviet Union and to create a sense of terror and hopelessness among the people of Japan. Some U.S. leaders felt that the Japanese people were not human beings in the fullest sense of that term. And finally, they longed to exact vengeance for Pearl Harbor.

Nearly all historians would say that there was no single reason that atomic bombs were used against the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were many different reasons the bombs were exploded.

Lessons learned

In summarizing this material, we do not suggest that making more widely known what most historians say happened at Hiroshima and why these things happened will solve the problem of nuclear weapons. As with civil rights, climate change, and other life-threatening issues, action is required, action which Quakers and other peace activists must lead or participate in.

Nevertheless, we believe that certain lessons can be drawn from historians’ accounts of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One lesson is that stories that are comforting, widely accepted, and supported by the prestige of important governmental officials are sometimes completely untrue. Indeed, citizens have an obligation to view stories that are comforting, widely accepted, and supported by the prestige of important governmental officials with particular skepticism.

The second lesson we want to offer is this: Americans often say that the leaders of countries such as North Korea and Iran are not wise enough or virtuous enough to be trusted with nuclear weapons. We think that people are right to say that. We also believe, however, that the leaders of the U.S. government are not wise enough or virtuous enough to be trusted with nuclear weapons. When it comes to nuclear weapons, there are no grounds for U.S. self-righteousness. As we communicate this message widely and emphatically, we trust that many more Americans will be moved to action.

Author chat with David:

David Harrington Watt and Marian Ronan

David Harrington Watt is a member of Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. Marian Ronan is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

5 thoughts on “The Work Continues

  1. Sir Max Hastings, in his harrowing book, Retribution, is fairly neutral on the right or wrong of the atomic bombings, he leaves that difficult, ultimate judgment up to the reader,

    He makes a persuasive case for the fact that the Japanese, already on their knees, would have succumbed to the effects of the strangulating blockade. And surrendered.

    But without the all important unconditional surrender.

    The Nazis also surrendered unconditionally.

    Had the Bomb been ready in December 1944, would we have used it on white, albeit bestial, Nazis?

    There is the racial aspect.

    His description of the firebombing of Tokyo is sickening. Arguably far more helpless civilians died in Tokyo than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

    And more excruciatingly, in my view, in Tokyo than those cities. Degrees of pain are impossible to gauge, aren’t they?

    What would you prefer, turning to ash instantly versus combusting consciously and not so instantly?

    I was born in 1948 and there was no thought of questioning the right or wrong of it in my home.

    My father, in B-17s for four years over Germany, said of the fire-bombings, “They deserved it,”

    I began attending Locust Valley Friends Academy in 1960.

  2. Re: “Decision makers had come to believe that killing large numbers of civilians was often completely justifiable.” On Dec. 13, 1937, the Japanese took the city of Nanking in China, and “plunged into the biggest slaughter ever known in human history. Civilians were roped together and mowed down by Japanese machine-gun fire for sport.” Almost women were raped and a great many were ruthlessly butchered after they had been raped. An estimated 300,000 Chinese were killed. -Chen Pu-lai, Editor, China Times; Ency Brit, 1960
    In 1940 Germany launched its Blitz against cities in England. In 1942, the British government adopted a directive to the RAF to bomb the civilian population of Germany to break its morale. Because day bombing resulted in huge loss of planes and airmen,the U.S. went over to the British tactics of night bombing which indiscriminately hit cities and burnt out the population. Germany bombed civilians in England; Britain and the U.S. bombed civilians in Germany.Japan killed both civilians and military on December 7, 1941, when it attacked Pearl Harbour. At the time, the U.S. was not at war with Japan. Over 100,000 Japanese were burned to death in a fire raid over Tokyo with incendiary bombs.
    Morality had been shed years before by Germany, England, the U.S. and Japan.

    Re: “In August, 1945, no invasion was imminent.” Invasions are planned months if not years in advance. “The invasion schedule contemplated an assault at southern Kyushu in Nov. 1945 and a major effort in the Tokyo plain area of Honshu in March 1956…What would obviously have been a most costly assault on Japan never had to be undertaken.”–Robert Ross Smith, formerHistorian, Office oft he Chief of Military History, U.S.Department of the Army. Ency Brit 1960.
    Re: “The United States could have simply waited until the Soviets entered the war against Japan [which] would very likely have led to Japanese capitulation.”
    In August, my brother was scheduled to go to the Pacific to help invade Japan as a signal corps specialist. Flying on his way to the west coast, he slept at the YMCA in Oklahoma City and in the morning heard the newsboys yelling, “Atom bomb dropped on Japan!” He was very glad to hear that and not have to go. David Watt and Marian Ronan may have been happy to sacrifice other people’s brothers, fathers, sons and neighbours – considering their own safety was not at risk! But families of servicemen and women did not want their loved ones on the firing line a day longer than necessary.
    Nor could the civilians in Japanese concentration camps in Indonesia, and the military prisoners in China and Hong Kong have survived for long, underfed and abused as they were.
    Re: “If the United States had pulled back from its demand that surrender be unconditional….”
    Would you have allowed Japan to keep rule of Indonesia, Burma, Malaya, eastern China, and Korea? Keep their arms to fight again another day? What Ally would you throw to the aggressors in exchange for Conditional Peace?
    Your efforts should be aimed at Preventing War, rather than trying to assign blame for actions in the previous war. What about supporting the treaty with Iran to reduce their nuclear program? Let’s look ahead, rather than trying to revise history on paper.
    Maida Barton Follini, Nova Scotia

  3. I understand that the value of Nuclear Weapons today is for threat because bombs can’t stop terrorists. For this America is spending billions of dollars to update our bombs and delivery systems INSTEAD of for education, health, roads & bridges; in short for healthier life for Americans.

  4. Prior to the bombing millions of leaflets were dropped warning civilians to evacuate 20+ targeted cities. Hiroshima bomb was dropped on the military parade ground of the 30,000 man defense force which would oppose the initial US invasion. This was a military target. Japanese casualties at Okinowa and Iwo Jima were over 90%. They weren’t surrendering then and would fanaticaly oppose an invasion of Japan with the millions of civilians (children included) they were training to use suicide attacks and bamboo spears to fight the US invasion. 40% of major cities had been destroyed by conventional bombing killing hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands more would have been killed as this bombing continued until Japan surrendered at some future date. Abomb prevented those civilian deaths even though it still took more than a week to surrender despite 2 bombs being dropped. Japan was not going to surrender without extensive bombing and invasion. Abomb saved thousands if not millions of Japanese lives.

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