I’m far from the first commentator to note the central irony to America’s prominent past and present role in those debates: that the United States remains the only nation to have dropped a nuclear bomb on another country. Indeed, 70 years ago this past week, the U.S. dropped not one but two nuclear bombs on Japan, bombing Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. While Hiroshima has understandably received most of the attention and coverage, from its own moment down through our own, I would argue that it is Nagasaki that lays particularly bare the fundamental truths of both nuclear weapons and war itself.
On August 9, the U.S. aircraft Bockscar dropped a plutonium implosion-type bomb, nicknamed Fat Man, on the coastal city of Nagasaki, killing between 20,000 and 40,000 citizens immediately and roughly the same number over the next few months (and many thousands more in the months and years that followed). While the Nagasaki bomb itself differed from Little Boy, the uranium gun-type atomic bomb dropped by the Enola Gay on Hiroshima, the implication and effects were different too.
For one thing, the Nagasaki attack followed too closely upon the heels of the Hiroshima bombing to allow Hiroshima to serve its purpose as a deterrent. After the Hiroshima bombing, President Truman issued a statement, warning Japan that “if they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Precisely because the atomic bomb and its effects were so completely new and unfamiliar, however, it stands to reason that it would take the Japanese government some time to determine and assess what had taken place, and then respond accordingly. Emperor Hirohito and his government immediately began taking those steps, but the U.S. gave them only two days (August 7 and 8) before the Nagasaki bombing; indeed, a dress rehearsal took place on August 8, leaving even less of a window for response. In short, it’s almost impossible to argue that the U.S. ever intended not to drop the second bomb.
Moreover, Nagasaki represented a much more fully civilian target from Hiroshima. While the latter was indeed a civilian city, it also housed two significant army headquarters and other military depots and facilities; in Nagasaki, on the other hand, soldiers comprised an estimated 3 percent of the city’s 1945 population. Although Nagasaki was a backup choice after the mission’s initial target was too obscured by clouds produced by another U.S. firebombing, that initial target, the historic Kokura section of the city of Kitakyushu, was just as fully a civilian one. Which is to say, while it could be argued that Hiroshima comprised both a civilian and a military target (although it was at least as much the former as the latter), this hastily executed second bombing was always intended to impact and destroy a much more overtly and thoroughly civilian population.
Again and again and again, American history reveals the centrality of such civilian destruction to war. From the English burning of Mystic village in the 1630s Pequot War to the English burning of Washington in the War of 1812, from Sherman’s strategy of total warfare during his Civil War march to the infamous smallpox blankets handed out to Native American communities during the Indian Wars, from the Allied firebombing of Dresden in World War II to the massacres at My Lai in the Vietnam War and Fallujah in the Iraq War, civilian populations have been consistently targeted in our military conflicts.
Some of these acts were deemed legal and some illegal under the labyrinthine rules of war. On some, history has looked back with understanding and acceptance and on some with horror and condemnation. But those distinctions should not obscure the basic similarity here. Targeting and killing civilians is not just an inevitable side effect of war, but a fundamental element of its existence and execution.
Seen in that light, the nuclear bomb represents the extreme but logical endpoint of war, the most overt and effective illustration of this fundamental destructiveness. What any and every nuclear weapon exemplifies, that is, is the human horrors to which war will always bring us, developed into a tool that has the possibility to destroy not just particular civilian communities but all of them. In its bombings of Hiroshima and, especially, Nagasaki, the United States ushered in and made plain these truths. And it seems unavoidable to me that once we recognize and engage with those histories and the truths they convey, we will not only remain committed to denying nuclear weapons to individual nations such as Iran, but also and most importantly will dedicate ourselves to eliminating every nuclear bomb, here in the U.S. as well as around the world.
Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.