70 years on: Was America right to drop the bomb?

On this day, 70 years ago, the people of Hiroshima saw a white flash that threw them to the ground like a vengeful ghost. A split second later, the explosion reached them, razing buildings to the ground and setting everything alight.

Those who didn’t die instantly poured onto the streets in shock, desperate to get away from the fires; running towards the river and the temple on the hill past neighbours whose skin peeled away from their bodies.

They ran despite their injuries, they saw things they could never forget. They absorbed radiation that would randomly kill even more than the initial 70,000 that already lay on the ground.

We’re all familiar with the tale of Hiroshima and, three days later, Nagasaki. It ended the war, after all.

But did it?

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Seven decades later, the clean, simple notion that “America dropped the A-bomb and ended the war” is being questioned. Was it the “bombs that had to happen”? What would have happened if America hadn’t done so? Would we all be eating sashimi today?

America believed the shock and awe of the devastating power of the new bombs would force Japan into surrender, but experts say inside Japan it was viewed differently.

The Americans had already destroyed 66 Japanese cities with a massive fire bombing campaign.

In just one night, 100,000 civilians were killed in Tokyo.

Speaking on the ABC’s Lateline, Tokyo’s Temple University director of Asian Studies Jeffery Kingston pointed out that the atomic bombs were part of a bombing strategy that was already taking place in Japan.

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America had already fire-bombed Tokyo, resulting in 100,000 deaths.

“If you look at it from the perspective of the Japanese military, it doesn’t really make a big difference whether people are dying from fire bombing or atomic bombs … it is [just] two additional city centres that are destroyed,” said Dr Kingston.

And while the atomic bombings probably prevented a bloody ground invasion, saving thousands of US lives, historians like Dr Kinston say the bombs were also about sending a message to the Soviets: “We have this incredible new weapon, we have a monopoly on it and we are going to emerge as the strongest superpower.”

Some historians argue that the end to World War II was not the bombings, but the Soviet Union declaring war on Japan, which came as a greater shock.

It’s impossible to know what would have happened had the crew of the Enola Gay not released the A-bomb over Hiroshima.

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In today’s world, an act like that is unthinkable – and terrifying considering the nuclear capacity of the world these days. Between the two bombs and the radiation victims that followed, it’s believed the US killed 1 million Japanese civilians. And, remember, they were civilians. The bomb was detonated 500 metres above ground to have maximum blast efficiency. And the target was the town centre, not some military base or port.

For at least three decades, the atomic bombings were viewed as heroes. Today, some survivors would like them to be known as war crimes.

Speaking to the BBC, survivor Keiko Ogura, who was eight at the time, describes travelling to Washington to see the unveiling of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Museum.

“Many American people said to me, ‘Congratulations, you could come here thanks to the bombing! Without the bombing you would have to do hara-kiri, you know, commit suicide’.

“That is a very awful excuse. We do not blame the Americans, but they should not say that thanks to the bomb so many people could survive,” she says.

Seventy years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, do you think America did the right thing?