Thursday, August 7, 2008

Remembering Fat Man & Little Boy

In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.--J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb and head of the Manhattan Project.

In the predawn morning of August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets flew past the Tinian Island in the Marianas toward the city of Hiroshima in the Empire of Japan. In its bay the Boeing carried a secret cargo dubbed "Little Boy." Though innocently named, "Little Boy" was actually a weapon of mass destruction unseen before in human history. And when released upon the citizens of Hiroshima at 8:15 that morning, it unleashed an explosive force equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT and plunged the world into a new era.

Three days later on August 9th, 1945 a second B-29 called the Bock's Car took off for the Kokura Arsenal on the southwest Japanese island of Kyushu. Due to harsh weather the pilot of the Bock's Car decided to divert to a secondary target, Nagasaki. A second and larger weapon of mass destruction code-named "Fat Man" was dropped on the military manufacturing and civilian populace.

Some 230,000 Japanese--mostly civilians--died instantly from the blasts, while tens of thousands more were fatally injured. Over the years, radioactive fallout would claim even more lives.

By August 14, a psychologically traumatized Japan accepted the terms of surrender. By Sept. 2, 1945 the last major event of WWII was officially as the last of Axis powers signed a surrender agreement. But the legacy of August 6th and 9th still trouble and haunt the world.

This week marks the 63rd anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States, and marks as well the yearl debate on whether the action was necessary.

Those who supported and still defend the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki often claim that had it not been carried out, over 1 million American soldiers (an near equal an amount of Japanese) would have died in any possible invation of the island nation. This has bolstered veterans groups and those who steadfastly refuse to apologize for what the most remorseful see as a regretful but necessary act.

Yet these statistics remain in question.

It actually began in 1947 when former Secretary of War Henry Stinson, trying to defend the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, claimed there would have been over 1 million American "casualties." President Harry Truman later claimed a half million lives were at "risk." As can be seen the number problems begin instantly, and were hardly in agreement. Even more noteworthy, both were postwar estimates used to rebut critics. These discrepancies haven't stopped both the popular media and many WWII veterans groups from repeating the "1 million dead" hypothesis as literal fact.

So what are the real numbers according to the best known evidence?

Wartime statements by US generals like Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall and joint chiefs of staffs show that postwar projected estimates of the loss of a half million American deaths was much too high. One million was simply out of the question. The real numbers many believe probably lay around many tens of thousands of dead, perhaps 30 to 50 thousand on the high end.

It may be argued that tens of thousands of American lives is a high number. Still, tens of thousands is a very long and winding road from a half million. One million isn't even on the ma. And it bears comparing such a number to the hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians killed in the bombings.

In fact, not everyone in the American defense department was equally "gung-ho" about dropping Fat Man and Little Boy. In the summer of 1945 leading US military figures argued that a combination of blockade and consistent bombing campaigns had already heavily weakened Japan. With the other Axis powers defeated and Japan on its own, they argued that the island nation's meager forces could not hold out much longer. Its armies were in constant retreat and its once large air and naval fleet had been decimated. Top navy admirals at the time believed a continued blockade would force Japan to stop fighting, while army and air force generals said conventional bombing would do the job. All estimated that the war would be over by November of 1945 as Japan was literally pounded, exhausted and starved into surrender.

Truman's chief of staff Admiral William D. Leahy was skeptical the bomb would even work. By 1950 he had denounced the acts upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki as approaching "ethical standards common to barbarians in the dark ages." More than a few have asked, in Leahy's lead, whether the use of atomic weapons violated rules of warfare. Throughout WWII the Allies had denounced the Axis powers of terror-tactics against civilian populations. The Germans had done it in everywhere, from Barcelona to the Blitz of London. The Italians had done it years earlier in Ethiopia. Japan had committed such acts upon China. Generals from Eisenhower to Marshall, though later closing ranks to support the atomic bombings, had reservations about targeting civilians in a way similar to their enemies.

Though a later supporter of the atomic bombings, in May of 1945 Marshall had argued the bomb should only be dropped on a definite massive military target. If it was going to be a civilian target he said, a warning should be given beforehand so the populace could flee. Postwar defenders of the atomic bombings have argued that a warning would have endangered Allied servicemen and a mere demonstration would have not worked. In their estimate only the first hand lethal force of the weapons would convey the correct message.

The use of atomic bombs, and the choice made to do so, inevitably brings up race. 1940s America was hardly some bastion of racial tolerance. While the Germans were debased with ethnic slurs such as "Krauts" throughout WWII, full blown racial caricatures and claims of sinister "Japs" out to steal white women were all part of the wartime US propaganda. Japanese-Americans would find themselves stripped of their belongings and moved into internment camps, a shameful act for which the US has since apologized.

But perhaps we only need compare Europe to Japan. In Europe US air power kept up precision attacks on military targets, or at least claimed to try. Even the infamous Dresden bombing was disavowed by US military leaders. Yet only days after this denouncement of the use of such tactics in Europe, US forces under General Curtis E. LeMay began a consistent campaign of napalm bombardment on Tokyo. More Japanese civilians were killed in these firebombings in five months than were killed by the Allied bombings in Germany in five years. That most white Americans held Asian lives less valuable than European lives is hardly surprising. What role this may have played in the decision to use atomic weapons remains in question.

Some have postulated another reason for the bombings, one based on shrewd politics. Signed agreements by the US with the Soviet Union called for the invasion of Japan by Russian forces in the waning days of WWII. The Soviets in fact, sticking to the script, officially declared war on Japan two days after the destruction of Hiroshima on August 8. Some have suggested that the rush to use atomic weapons on Japan was meant to intimidate Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Even during the war, the US had watched warily as their ally of convenience pushed into Eastern Europe, with no intentions on leaving. Is it possible that Truman, fearing the possibility of Soviet dominance in postwar Asia, ordered the atomic bombings in part as a lightly veiled threat to Stalin? Most historians do not accept this as a primary reason, but have not ruled it out as part of the puzzle.

Supporters of America's tragic decision often point out that Empire of Japan was no innocent. And there is little argument to be made against that. Japan willingly joined the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Japanese bombings of cities in China resulted in the deaths of thousands. The use of mass rape and sex slaves by those deemed to be "lesser Asians" was practiced by the Japanese military. There were massacres of civilians, the use of biological weapons on some Chinese cities and reports of bizarre medical experiments upon non-Japanese, hauntingly familiar to those a continent away at Dachau and Buchenwald.

Yet whatever crimes the Empire of Japan committed, they were not ordered or carried out by its civilian population. And it was everyday civilians---men, women and children---who paid the greatest price. Nagasaki for instance targeted in part because of a Mitsubishi plant that manufactured torpedoes. Yet by August of 1945 the Japanese navy was for all intents and purposes null and void, having been crippled at battles like Midway and utterly destroyed at Leyte. By the time Fat Man was dropped on the naval weapons manufacturing complex, the Japanese fleet had been relegated to last ditch kamikaze attacks. Most of its ships sat in harbors devoid of fuel and waiting to be picked off by US air power that dominated the skies. Thus an atomic bomb was dropped on a plant in the midst of a larger civilian population, even though the building was manufacturing weapons that couldn't be used by the Japanese navy. If Nagasaki was indeed chosen because it offered a "military target," it would be a tragically stunning case of using a hammer to crush a fly.

In reality, Hiroshima and Nagasaki offered little military value to the US. What it did offer however was a showcase of power--the shock and awe strategy of its time. Its purpose was to induce terror, to plant such fear in America's adversary that they would either surrender or fall beneath the weight of a stunned and frightful populace. Whether it was meant only for the Japanese, or also for the USSR, the fires unleashed that August announced to the world that a superpower had been born.

So here we are on the 63rd anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since the US first dropped Fat Man and Little Boy, it has fiercely guarded membership to the nuclear club. The effort has been less than successful as the weapons have proliferated around the world, leaving the fate of humanity always in doubt and worry. The Soviet Union would be the first to join, helping launch the already burgeoning Cold War and taking us a few steps away from Armageddon with incidents such as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today membership has extended to the UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and N. Korea. Others that have flirted with membership have included Libya, Iraq, and Iran. A few like Algeria, Argentina, Belarus and Brazil gave up on joining. Libya too took its hat out of the ring, seeing little incentive in the quest. And though Iraq had long since lost interest in entering the club, a manufactured war was concocted to "allegedly" bar them from entrance. In 2006 former Soviet Republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan left the club altogether, giving up their nukes. Opting for sanity, or perhaps fearful of the weapons inevitably ending up in black hands, apartheid South Africa also returned its membership card.

Today the US is equipped with about 11,000 nuclear warheads, all trained on someone. The current US administration has pushed a belligerent nuclear strategy, threatening pre-emptive strikes on its enemies and pushing for a new generation of weapons. Russia's massive and crumbling arsenal stands at 22,000---that is if none have been sold on the black market yet---equally all trained on someone. Altogether there are probably over 33,000 nuclear weapons in the world. The remaining nuclear powers make up the rest, at much smaller numbers. Yet in this game numbers are illusionary because it really doesn't take much to do the job. The US Navy's 18 Trident Missile Submarines alone have enough nuclear firepower to end near all human life on the planet - twice.

Each year since 1945, on Aug. 6th and continuing on to Aug. 9th, Hiroshima and Nagasaki mourn the dead of the atomic bombings as well as what has been termed "the end of human innocence"---if we ever had any to begin with. Names are added to the register of dead who were found to have died from the fallout in later years. Paper Lanterns are lit and doves fly over Peace Memorial Park. Japan has disavowed its move towards Empire, militarily anyway, opting for non-nuclear principles after having witnessed the horror first hand. The US, who now hunts the world to make sure its creations aren't unleashed by others but at the same time seems ready to abandon set principles to stop proliferation, yet remains the only nation ever to use atomic based weapons of mass destruction against another. Sixty-three years later many would argue whatever the reasoning behind the decision, the price was too great.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists keeps a clock that records the current political climate to determine how close the world is to a nuclear holocaust. Noon is the furthest away from such a disaster. Each second past noon indicates the possibility of an approaching nuclear nightmare. In case you're wondering, the hands on the current clock are set at 5 minutes to midnight.

Sleep tight.

"...uneasy is the peace that wears a nuclear crown. And we cannot be satisfied with a situation in which the world is capable of extinction in a moment of error, or madness, or anger." -- President Lyndon B. Johnson


Mr. Chardon said...

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