By August 7, 1945, President Truman, while still at sea returning from Potsdam, had been fully briefed on the first atomic attack against a large city in Japan the day before. In announcing it, he had labeled Hiroshima simply a "military base," but he knew better, and within hours of the blast he had been fully informed about the likely massive toll on civilians (probably 100,000), mainly women and children, as we had planned. Despite this--and news that the Soviets, as planned, were about to enter the war against Japan--Truman did not order a delay in the use of the second atomic bomb to give Japan a chance to assess, reflect, and surrender.
After all, by this time, Truman (as recorded in his diary and by others) was well aware that the Japanese were hopelessly defeated and seeking terms of surrender--and he had, just two weeks earlier, written "Fini Japs" in his diary when he learned that the Russians would indeed attack around August 7. Yet Truman, on this day, did nothing, and the second bomb rolled out, and would be used against Nagasaki, killing perhaps 90,000 more, only a couple hundred of them Japanese troops, on August 9. That's why many who reluctantly support or at least are divided about the use of the bomb against Hiroshima consider Nagasaki a war crime--in fact, the worst one-day war crime in human history.
Below, a piece I wrote not long ago. One of my books on the atomic bombings describes my visit to Nagasaki at length.
Few journalists bother to visit Nagasaki, even though it is one of
only two cities in the world to "meet the atomic bomb," as some of the
survivors of that experience, 68 years ago this week, put it. It remains the
Second City, and "Fat Man" the forgotten bomb. No one in America ever
wrote a bestselling book called Nagasaki, or made a film titled Nagasaki, Mon Amour.
"We are an asterisk," Shinji Takahashi, a sociologist in Nagasaki, once
told me, with a bitter smile. "The inferior A-Bomb city."
Yet in many ways, Nagasaki is the modern A-Bomb city, the city with
perhaps the most meaning for us today. For one thing, when the plutonium
bomb exploded above Nagasaki it made the uranium-type bomb dropped on
And then there's this. "The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are
debatable," Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg
trials, once observed, "but I have never heard a plausible justification
of Nagasaki" -- which he labeled a war crime. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who
experienced the firebombing of Dresden at close hand, said much the same
thing. "The most racist, nastiest act by this country, after human
slavery, was the bombing of Nagasaki," he once said. "Not of Hiroshima,
which might have had some military significance. But Nagasaki was purely
blowing away yellow men, women, and children. I'm glad I'm not a
scientist because I'd feel so guilty now."
A beautiful city dotted with palms largely built on terraces
surrounding a deep harbor--the San Francisco of Japan -- Nagasaki has a
rich, bloody history, as any reader of Shogun knows. Three
centuries before Commodore Perry came to Japan, Nagasaki was the
country's gateway to the west. The Portuguese and Dutch settled here in
the 1500s. St. Francis Xavier established the first Catholic churches in
the region in 1549, and Urakami, a suburb of Nagasaki, became the
country's Catholic center. Thomas Glover, one of the first English
traders here, supplied the modern rifles that helped defeat the Tokugawa
Shogunate in the 19th century.
Glover's life served as a model for the story of Madame Butterfly,
and Nagasaki is known in many parts of the world more for Butterfly
than for the bomb. In Puccini's opera, Madame Butterfly, standing on the
veranda of Glover's home overlooking the harbor (see left), sings, "One
fine day, we'll see a thread of smoke arising.... " If she could have
looked north from the Glover mansion, now Nagasaki's top tourist
attraction, on August 9, 1945, she would have seen, two miles in the
distance, a thread of smoke with a mushroom cap.
By 1945, Nagasaki had become a Mitsubishi company town, turning out
ships and armaments for Japan's increasingly desperate war effort. Few
Japanese soldiers were stationed here, and only about 250 of them would
perish in the atomic bombing. It was still the Christian center in the
country, with more than 10,000 Catholics among its 250,000 residents.
Most of them lived in the outlying Urakami district, the poor part of
town, where a magnificent cathedral seating 6000 had been built.
At 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 1945, "Fat Man" was detonated more than a
mile off target, almost directly over the Urakami Cathedral, which was
nearly leveled, killing dozens of worshippers waiting for confession.
Concrete roads in the valley literally melted.
While Urakami suffered, the rest of the city caught a break. The
bomb's blast boomed up the valley destroying everything in its path but
didn't quite reach the congested harbor or scale the high ridge to the
Nakashima valley. Some 35,000 perished instantly, with another 50,000 or
more fated to die afterwards. The plutonium bomb hit with the force of
22 kilotons, almost double the uranium bomb's blast in Hiroshima.
If the bomb had exploded as planned, directly over the Mitsubishi
shipyards, the death toll in Nagasaki would have made Hiroshima, in at
least one important sense, the Second City. Nothing would have escaped,
perhaps not even the most untroubled conscience half a world away.
Hard evidence to support a popular theory that the chance to
"experiment" with the plutonium bomb was the major reason for the
bombing of Nagasaki remains sketchy but still one wonders (especially
when visiting the city, as I recount in my new book)
about the overwhelming, and seemingly thoughtless, impulse to
automatically use a second atomic bomb even more powerful than the
Criticism of the attack on Nagasaki has centered on the issue of why
Truman did not step in and stop the second bomb after the success of the
first to allow Japan a few more days to contemplate surrender before
targeting another city for extinction. In addition, the U.S. knew that
its ally, the Soviet Union, would join the war within hours, as
previously agreed, and that the entrance of Japan's most hated enemy, as
much as the Hiroshima bomb, would likely speed the surrender ("fini Japs"
when the Russians declare war, Truman had predicted in his diary). If
that happened, however, it might cost the U.S. in a wider Soviet claim
on former Japanese conquests in Asia. So there was much to gain by
getting the war over before the Russians advanced. Some historians have
gone so far as state that the Nagasaki bomb was not the last shot of
World War II but the first blow of the Cold War.
Whether this is true or not, there was no presidential directive
specifically related to dropping the second bomb. The atomic weapons in
the U.S. arsenal, according to the July 2, 1945 order, were to be used
"as soon as made ready," and the second bomb was ready within three days
of Hiroshima. Nagasaki was thus the first and only victim of automated
In one further irony, Nagasaki was not even on the original target
list for A-bombs but was added after Secretary of War Henry Stimson
objected to Kyoto. He had visited Kyoto himself and felt that destroying
Japan's cultural capital would turn the citizens against America in the
aftermath. Just like that, tens of thousands in one city were spared
and tens of thousands of others elsewhere were marked for death.
General Leslie Groves, upon learning of the Japanese surrender offer
after the Nagasaki attack, decided that the "one-two" strategy had
worked, but he was pleased to learn the second bomb had exploded off the
mark, indicating "a smaller number of casualties than we had expected."
But as historian Martin Sherwin has observed, "If Washington had
maintained closer control over the scheduling of the atomic bomb raids
the annihilation of Nagasaki could have been avoided." Truman and others
simply did not care, or to be charitable, did not take care.
That's one reason the US suppressed all film footage shot in Nagasaki and Hiroshima for decades (which I probe in my book and ebook Atomic Cover-up).
After hearing of Nagasaki, however, Truman quickly ordered that no
further bombs be used without his express permission, to give Japan a
reasonable chance to surrender--one bomb, one city, and seventy thousand
deaths too late. When they'd learned of the Hiroshima attack, the
scientists at Los Alamos generally expressed satisfaction that their
work had paid off. But many of them took Nagasaki quite badly. Some
would later use the words "sick" or "nausea" to describe their reaction.
As months and then years passed, few Americans denounced as a moral
wrong the targeting of entire cities for extermination. General Dwight
D. Eisenhower, however, declared that we never should have hit Japan
"with that awful thing." The left-wing writer Dwight MacDonald cited
America's "decline to barbarism" for dropping "half-understood poisons"
on a civilian population. His conservative counterpart, columnist and
magazine editor David Lawrence, lashed out at the "so-called civilized
side" in the war for dropping bombs on cities that kill hundreds of
thousands of civilians.
However much we rejoice in victory, he wrote,
"we shall not soon purge ourselves of the feeling of guilt which
prevails among us.... What a precedent for the future we have furnished
to other nations even less concerned than we with scruples or ideals!
Surely we cannot be proud of what we have done. If we state our inner
thoughts honestly, we are ashamed of it."
Greg Mitchell's books and ebooks include "Hollywood Bomb" and "Atomic Cover-Up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made." Email: firstname.lastname@example.org