On the 6th and 9th of August 1945, the USA destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons. This was done to:
- Efficiently destroy two of the four remaining industrial cities (of a pre-war total of more than sixty) which climatic conditions had made difficult to raze with firebombing, as had been accomplished upon all other cities and most large towns.
- Show that Japan's conventional defense of the Home Islands against a possible Allied land invasion in October 1946 (Operation Downfall) was untenable given the power and number of the Western Allies' nuclear weapons. This point was particularly important given that the Japanese Army and Navy were aware that President Truman and the US military had reservations about the monetary and human costs of a ground invasion. All parties knew that this reservation was strengthened by the possibility that an invasion might be unnecessary, as domestic rebellion or even revolution might topple the Japanese regime after widespread famine began in earnest (sometime in autumn 1945).
- In addition, some (particularly critics of the bombings) believe that the bombings were done as a show of force by the Americans to intimidate the Soviet Union in the early stages of the Cold War. While some in the American administration no doubt hoped it would have this effect, it was not the primary reason for their use.
In August 1945 the war in Europe was over. Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8th 1945. Imperial Japan however was still standing, despite most of Japan's cities being smoking ruins - the result of a sustained campaign of firebombing by the American air force. The half-million men of the China Expeditionary Force had been largely cut off from supplies and were forced to scour the countryside for food and grain, even as Generalissimo Chiang's Guomindang moved to crush them one by one. Despite all this, the Japanese government remained outwardly defiant. As the Allied forces in the Pacific finally drew near, it seemed an invasion would be necessary to force Japan to surrender.
The Allied plan was Operation Downfall. It was to consist of two parts. The first part entailed the capture of Kyushu, Japan's southernmost major island. Once this was secure, it would be used as a staging area to support an invasion of Honshu, with Allied forces sailing straight into Tokyo Bay and landing forces on the Kanto Plain. The scale of the Operation was enormous. Had it gone ahead, it would have been the largest amphibious assault in military history. The current record holder for that title is the Normandy Landings in Europe, involving 150,000 Allied troops from bases 100 miles away. Downfall called for seven times that number, with almost a million personnel, and supply lines stretching thousands of miles across the Pacific. The largest and most powerful battle-fleet ever assembled would support them. At the heart of this fleet would be 42 aircraft carriers, with over ten thousand carrier-based aircraft.
The United States was not enthusiastic about the prospects for Operation Downfall. Everything the United States had seen up to this point in the war pointed to a fanatical, even suicidal, hostile population that would continue to resist at almost any cost. Thus far only small islands had been taken. The Home Islands were projected to be much harder. Casualty estimates, both historical and contemporary, vary wildly but almost all reckon on hundreds of thousands of American casualties and possibly up to 10 million Japanese.
With hindsight it is easy to forget, but nobody at the time knew the war was about to end. By the best estimates, the war against Japan was expected to continue 18 months after the German surrender, with Operation Downfall scheduled to not even begin until November 1945, with fighting expected to continue until 1947. Therefore the Allies made their decisions not in a context of, "This is almost over," but rather in the face of what promised to be an escalation of the Pacific War unlike anything they had yet seen. In fact, the U.S. Government ordered so many Purple Heart medals* minted in preparation for the expected casualties of the invasion, that they are still using that surplus stock to this day. The American public was becoming restless at the cost of the war already. It would have been inconceivable, when tens of millions of Europeans and Asians had already died, as well as hundreds of thousands of Americans, to refuse to use a bomb that could end the war for fear of "killing too many people."
The Japanese answer to Downfall was Operation Ketsugō. It wasn't hard to guess where the invasion would take place, and Japan began moving more and more troops to southern Kyushu. While the Japanese knew they had no hope of winning the war, they hoped that they could make invasion of the Home Islands too costly for the Allies to attempt. Even at this late stage, Japan retained around 10,000 aircraft. Most would be used as Kamikazes, what the Japanese military then called "Special Attacks" - if for no other reason than their inexperienced pilots weren't good for much else. All Japan's aces had already been killed. Attempting to dog-fight with the Americans was useless. During the Battle of Okinawa, the Japanese Navy had launched 1500 Special Attacks, achieving a hit-rate of around 11% and wounding or killing more than 10,000 U.S. Navy personnel. At Kyushu, due to more favorable terrain, the Japanese hoped for a hit rate of 17%. Furthermore, they would target troop carriers as they ferried men to the beaches, rather than the heavy navy ships, increasing casualties even further. Some Japanese planners optimistically hoped that the Kamikaze forces alone could destroy 1/3 or more of the invasion force en route to the beaches. note
In addition to this, the Japanese had built over 1000 suicide submarines of various types, and thousands of suicide boats (simply motorboats filled with explosives). The Navy further hoped to employ thousands of "human mines"—men in diving gear who would swim out from shore and detonate bombs as the American transports passed over. On land, the Japanese had roughly a million soldiers to oppose an invasion (of varying quality). Japanese civilians were also trained to fight to the death, using centuries-old muskets, longbows, bamboo spears—whatever they had. One Japanese schoolgirl related how she was handed a simple metal spike and told, "Even killing one American soldier will do. Aim for the abdomen." Another schoolboy related how he was trained to dive under an American tank with a satchel of explosives and set it off.
Unofficially, this policy of arming civilians was called ichioku gyokusai (一億玉砕) literally meaning "100 million shattered jewels," referring to the total population of Japan sacrificing themselves in the coming battle. Japanese War Minister, General Anami, expressed during a meeting, "Would it not be wondrous for this whole nation to be destroyed, like a beautiful flower?"
Though they never made the deliberate decision to stake everything on the outcome of the defense of Kyushu, their allocation of resources was such that there would be little in reserve for defending the rest of the Home Islands if the defense of Kyushu failed. The Army hoped, however, that they wouldn't have to.
Knowing very well how close they were to total defeat, the Cabinet was split between those who wanted to surrender and those who wanted to fight to the death. The latter were a smaller group, but the former faction was evenly split between those who wanted to surrender now and those who wanted to "negotiate an end to the war." In any case, peace negotiations were ongoing throughout 1945, but they followed a familiar pattern, with the Japanese insisting on totally unrealistic conditions while the Americans continually refused anything less than unconditional surrender. The Japanese insisted upon the retention of the Emperor as Supreme Head of State and the retention of his political power, that there would be no occupation, that Japanese disarmament would not be controlled by the Allies, and that it would try its own war criminals. The Americans saw no reason to give Japan any leeway. Germany had already surrendered unconditionally - so must Japan.
Japan and the Soviet Union had shared an uneasy peace throughout the majority of the war. The Japanese had attacked Soviet forces in Mongolia in 1939 at the Battle of Nomonhan/Khalkhyn Gol, in which the Japanese army was defeated. This led to the signing of a Neutrality Pact between them and the termination of Soviet funding and arms-deliveries to the Guomindang. This suited both sides, as it left the Soviets free to concentrate on their own armament and Japan free to concentrate on destroying the Guomindang. Later, engaged against Germany and the USA, neither side could truly afford to fight a full-scale war and despite constant skirmishes to test one another's strength there was a conscious effort to prevent them from escalating.
Because of Japanese-Soviet neutrality, the Japanese government hoped that perhaps the Soviet Union could act as a neutral party and mediate an end to the war between Japan and the United States, though these hopes were misplaced and ultimately came to nothing. Towards the end of the war in Europe, the Americans convinced the Soviets to enter the war against Japan with the promise of continued Lend-Lease deliveries - specifically, they promised to deliver some of the rations and trucks that the invasion force would need directly to Vladivostok, to reduce the numbers which would have to be driven there or transported by rail from western Europe (more than 10,000km). At the Yalta Conference Stalin finally agreed to join the war against Japan three months after the capitulation of Germany.
At the same time, the United States was aware that this would mean increased Soviet influence in the Pacific theater, possibly even involving joint occupation of the Japanese home islands if the Americans tarried too long. In light of this, the Americans knew the best possible outcome was the Japanese surrendering as soon as possible, which would allow them to march in and disarm the remaining Japanese where they could (the British, for instance, dispatching a task force from Sydney at full speed to accept the surrender of Hong Kong before Guomindang troops could get there).
The choosing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as the targets was almost a chance event, as there were four potential cities that could be targeted. In particular, Kokura was the intended target for the second bomb (and had been the backup target for the first), but Nagasaki was attacked instead because of poor visibility over Kokura. The Enola Gay dropped the first nuclear device, "Little Boy", on Hiroshima at 8:15 am on the 6th of August, on a hot summer day. Air raid sirens initially went off, but seeing the small flight of American planes (a weather plane, two fighter escorts, and the Enola Gay) and taking it for a scouting mission, the all clear was sounded. People had just emerged from their air raid shelters when the bomb went off. It killed 70,000-80,000 people, including 20,000 Japanese military personnel and 20,000 Koreans, and destroyed nearly 48,000 buildings (including the headquarters of the 2nd General Army and Fifth Division).
Japan's main broadcasting corporation's radio control operator soon noticed the signal to the Hiroshima station was as dead as something that has had an atomic bomb dropped on it. At military headquarters, many thought it the result of some technical error or meteorological phenomenon, despite the total loss of contact with all stations in and around Hiroshima. It wasn't until August the 8th that Radio Tokyo reported that "Practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death" and people realized it was neither an error, a natural phenomenon, nor just another run-of-the-mill strategic bombing.
On the 9th of August the Soviet Red Army launched its Far Eastern Strategic Offensive Operation, with Soviet formations smashing through Japanese army positions in Manchuria, ending Japan's hopes that the Soviet Union might mediate a peace treaty with the United States. That same day, another atomic bomb ("Fat Man") was detonated over Nagasaki at 11:01 a.m. Nagasaki was a rather hilly city, and the bomb fell into a valley, meaning most of the city was merely demolished rather than vaporized and resulted in fewer casualties. An estimated 35k-40k people were killed including 150 Japanese military personnel, 27,778 Japanese munitions workers, and 2k Korean slaves. Total death toll from both bombings: 120k.
Though the true figures weren't published until much later, the suddenness and scale of the destruction still shocked the American public. A Vocal Minority was pleased, advocating simply wiping out the Japanese in an atomic genocide. However many Americans were still against killing civilians for killing's sake. Despite hundreds of thousands of Japanese already killed by conventional strategic bombing, many Americans could still pretend that they were conducting a "precision" campaign targeting Japanese industrynote . The Atomic Bombs were something different.
Plans were made to use atomic bombs to destroy Japanese defenses and command-and-control centers during the invasion of Kyushu. However later studies showed that their usefulness in this regard would have been limited. While extremely destructive when used against densely packed cities, the much more spread out nature of the battlefield meant that atomic bombs were too heavy to be delivered to targets of opportunity in a timely manner and yet too weak to obliterate an entire battlefield as later thermonuclear weapons could. If they had been used in this manner, lack of knowledge in those days about radiation would have likely lead to widespread radiation poisoning on both sides.
The bombing of Hiroshima did not immediately change the Japanese position. It was still unknown whether America had more bombs in reserve. If they had not, then the Army's defense of the Home Islands would still be semi-tenable and they still had some bargaining power. If they had, then the Army's defense of the Home Islands was pointless and Japan would have to surrender. In fact, during a cabinet meeting General Anami was right in the middle of suggesting America had only one atomic bomb when news reached them of the bombing of Nagasaki.
When Nagasaki was hit, it became clear that Japan had no bargaining power. For the peace faction in the government, the bombings were a dark sort of blessing. It was easier to justify surrender in the face of atomic annihilation, rather than simply military defeat. The Japanese government dropped all conditions to surrender save one - the retention of the Emperor's powers. When the Americans rejected even this final offer, the Japanese realized they had no choice. They would surrender - unconditionally. The Emperor composed a surrender message, to be broadcast the next day.
Even this did not stop the faction of hardliners in the Japanese government. That night, a cadre of senior Japanese officers attempted to launch a coup d'etat, storming the Imperial palace in an attempt to secure (i.e. arrest) the Emperor and destroy the surrender message. At the same time, General Anami, one of the hard-liners that the conspirators had attempted to enlist in support, committed suicide. Without his support and the support of the Japanese army, the coup quickly collapsed, with all the conspirators committing suicide the morning of the 15th of August. The surrender message was broadcast the same day as planned.
The address is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly it was the first public speech ever made by the Emperor, and the first time a majority of his subjects had heard his voice. In extraordinary understatement, he states, "The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage." The word "surrender" does not appear once in the Emperor's address. Rather, he states that he has directed his government to, "... accept the provisions of the Joint Declaration." The address is further full of self-justifications, claiming Japan never infringed on the sovereignty of other nations, and that Japan was striving to free East Asia from European imperialism. He also specifically mentions the Atomic Bomb as a reason to accept the Allied provisions, claiming the loss of innocent life would be incalculable otherwise.
Apart from the text of the address, the Emperor gave his speech in a formal register of Japanese difficult to understand by the common people. It was furthermore played on a phonograph record and broadcast over loud-speakers, limiting comprehension further. By the end of the speech many people were confused what it all actually meant. An NHK announcer had to come on afterwards and confirm that Japan was really surrendering.
The Allies accepted, and so a truce was concluded on the 15th of August until the representatives of both countries' governments could meet (on September the 2nd) to sign the peace treaty. The surrender even allowed the Allies to give large quantities of food aid to Japan, preventing a massive famine from occurring in the autumn of 1945. In the meantime, the Japanese began destroying all records they could of everything even remotely related to war crimes before the Americans arrived two weeks later. To this day, many details of the crimes of the Japanese Empire remain unknown.
Depictions in fiction:
- The debate around the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki underpine Alan Moore's Watchmen. The fan-favourite Sociopathic Hero Rorschach completely glorifies Harry Truman's decisiveness in ending the war by destroying two cities. Later, Ozymandias, for very similar reasons, drops an alien entity in the middle of New York, killing millions under the exact same justification, so as to end the increasingly tense American-Russian Nuke standoff. On confronting this reality face to face, Rorschach takes the completely opposite track and denounces this action, willing to die for his refusal to enable this lie.
- Barefoot Gen A semiautobiographical account of the author's own experiences surviving Hiroshima. Everyone in Gen's family but Gen himself and his mother Kimie kick it either during the bombing or few afterwards.
- Both 1989 films titled Black Rain. The Japanese film is an account of the bombing of Hiroshima, while the American film, directed by Ridley Scott, uses Hiroshima as the villain's motivation. Both films take their title from the kuroi ame, or black rain, a rain that was heavy with soot, ash and nuclear fallout, that fell on Hiroshima for days after the bombing.
- In The Twilight Zone episode "No Time Like The Past", a man goes back in time to Hiroshima right before the bomb drops to warn the military, but they don't listen to him, thinking he's crazy.
- In Obasan by Joy Kogawa, Naomi's mother dies in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, although she doesn't find out until years later.
- The bombing of Nagasaki is featured at the start of The Wolverine. Wolverine is shown as a POW held in a camp across the bay, and both he and a Japanese soldier survive but everyone else in the camp kicks it, including some military leaders who choose seppuku over dying in the explosion. Said soldier is Ichirō Yashida, Mariko's grandfather.
- The song Enola Gay by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Sung to a rather upbeat, poppy, almost cute New Wave-like tune.
- The song Enola Gay by Sugizo is a lament of nuclear war.
- The song Black Rain by Astral Doors, featuring some pretty nightmarish lyrics about the effects of the bombing.
- On Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, a recorded speech from a nuclear warfare game theory symposium (and the closest the audience gets to a Motive Rant from the Big Bad) mentions him having gone to the cities and him noticing that they have become major monuments against nuclear warfare after their reconstruction, incredibly peaceful and pretty and then mentions that if everything was destroyed by nuclear warfare, the survivors would build similar monuments everywhere else, to showcase their desire for lasting peace.
- Nuclear Attack by Swedish Power Metal band Sabaton.
- The 1986 Infocom Interactive Fiction game Trinity was a Magical Realism exploration of the history of nuclear weapons; the player character is sent to Nagasaki at one point shortly before the Fat Man exploded, to complete a Stable Time Loop by giving a little girl an umbrella.
- In And Shine Heaven Now it's implied that the only reason Nagasaki got bombed was to take out a government research facility studying vampires. And the one who made it happen was Oliver Warbucks.
- Hiroshima Mon Amour is a love story between a Japanese man and a French actress who is shooting a film about peace in the eponymous city. The after-effects of the bombing, as well as those of World War II in general, are a central theme.
- In the backstory of Arachnid, the atomic bombings were a secret agreement between Japan and the United States. A literal Depopulation Bomb was more preferable than letting Japan get overrun and divided between the Allied Forces.
- Alluded to in the Mickey Mouse Comic Universe story "The Delta Dimension", where professor Einmug, whose own nuclear technology gave him a floating island (among other things) in 1936, uses the bombings as evidence he had been right to drop from the radar without sharing his inventions at the end of his first appearance.
- As Transformers: Go! has a character named Hiroshima Prime, the TFWiki.net page for the character has a Preemptive "Shut Up" greeting editors when editing the page about making jokes related to this.
- In Heroes Reborn, a controversial Captain America story called "Ice", and as part of Original Sin, the Marvel Universe version of the events are touched upon.
- In Heroes Reborn, an LMD of Nick Fury controlled by the Sons of the Serpents spun a series of lies to Steve and Bill Clinton that involved Steve having objected to this and Truman decided to put Steve in suspended animation, with the government reviving him briefly and brainwashing him to serve in The Korean War and The Vietnam War (and the real Fury to later say that this was bull). In "Ice", it attempted to retcon the same thing was actually the case for Steve's mainline backstory: that the government put Steve on ice and falsified the memories of the encounter with Heinrich Zemo because he objected to the use of the atomic bombs. "Ice" was so reviled, it's since been subjected to Canon Discontinuity.
- In the Original Sin tie-in for All-New Invaders, it was revealed that the original Invaders refused to create a tsunami to take out Japan's navy, hence why the government decided to use the bombs without the team knowing.
- The Oregon Files book Typhoon Fury has a mention of the bombings, implying Hiroshima was chosen in order to destroy a secret Japanese research facility that was trying to reverse-engineer a stolen American super soldier serum for mass production in preparation for Operation Ketsugō.