“Sixteen hours ago an American plane dropped one bomb on the city of Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy”.
President Harry S. Truman, 6 August, 1945
Alphen, Netherlands. 6 August. At 0245 hours local time, 6 August, 1945 Colonel Paul Tibbets and his crew of seven took off in their modified B-29 Superfortress bomber from the tiny Pacific island of Tinian some 1500 miles (2400 kms) south of Japan. Six and a half hours later at 0815 hours local time at an altitude of 31,060 ft (c11,000m) Tibbins ordered the bomb doors opened and the squashed torpedo-like 10 feet (3m), 9700lb (4400kg) ‘Little Boy’ bomb dropped from hooks in the bomb bay. 44.4 seconds later at a height of 1900ft (625m) the world’s first atomic bomb detonated in a blinding white flash unleashing in an atomic instant the equivalent explosive power of 20,000 tons of TNT. What had been one moment a bustling Japanese city of 350,000 souls was reduced the next to hell on earth. Seventy thousand people died in an instant. Over the next five years seventy thousand more would succumb to the poisonous radiation Little Boy unleashed.
Ever since that blinding flash of death and destruction burnt Hiroshima to the ground a debate has raged as to the ‘morality’ of a democracy using such power to kill huge numbers of enemy civilians. To some extent the debate is like many that take place today in which the morals of this age are imposed on the past. Still, given that nuclear weapons remain such a debate is entirely legitimate. However, perhaps a more searching question on this day of remembrance is this; what brought the United States and its partner Britain (the British were well ahead of the Americans in the development of the ‘bomb’ until they shared their research in 1942) to use atomic weaponry?
In 1832 Karl von Clausewitz wrote in Vom Kriege, “We see…that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means”. In most English translations of On War Clausewitz’s dictum has been reduced to war being the continuation of policy by other means.
The most pressing concern of the Americans in August 1945 was to reduce the casualties amongst its own citizens that they would doubtless have suffered if the US had invaded the Japanese homeland. Indeed, during the attack on Okinawa between April and June 1945 the Americans had suffered over 50,000 casualties. Rather, Washington believed that the dropping of the two atomic bombs would convince Emperor Hirohito to overrule the militarists and sue for peace. Some believed a mere demonstration of American atomic power would suffice, others not. In the end the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did of course convince the Japanese to sue for peace.
However, there is a more compelling reason why the United States had little compunction in unleashing such force against the civilian Japanese population. By 1945 the drift to total war in which all rules and norms are abandoned in the pursuit of the enemy’s destruction was complete. In 1939 the Germans had unleashed the power of the Luftwaffe against Polish civilians in Warsaw. In May 1940 the Luftwaffe attacked Rotterdam which even today bears the scars of that attack. Between September 1940 and November 1941 the Luftwaffe attacked over 30 British cities killing and wounding well over 100,000 civilians.
In 1942 the head of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris said, “The Nazis entered the war under the childish delusion they were going to bomb everybody else, but nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, Warsaw, London and half a hundred other places they put that rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind”. The Luftwaffe’s bombers were not designed to attack and destroy cities. However, the RAF’s Wellington, Stirling and Lancaster bombers were. By May 1945 the RAF and the United States Army Air Force had attacked 61 German cities, including massive raids on Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden in an effort to destroy the Nazi war effort. After the war the US Strategic Bombing Survey suggested that the bombing had killed 305,000 civilians and injured a further 786,000.
In the Pacific Theatre between 1942 and 1945 the US attacked 67 Japanese cities killing an estimated 500,000 civilians and rendering over 5 million people homeless. These include the Tokyo Fire Raids which took place between November 1944 and August 1945 and which may have killed up to 200,000 civilians.
It is against that backdrop that the 6 August dropping of the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and its ‘brother’ Fat Man on Nagasaki on 9 August, must be seen. It was total war and by 1945 total war had come to mean precisely that – total destruction of the enemy. As such Hiroshima was not simply the continuation of policy by other means, but the total ending of total war by other means.
Critically, both atomic attacks changed the relationship between war and policy forever in a way that Clausewitz himself may actually have glimpsed. In Vom Kriege he wrote, “war is an act of violence which in its application knows no bonds”. That is why major war once started is rarely controllable and why the best way to ‘fight’ total war is to prevent it and deter it.
This blog is written out of respect for the people of Japan on this painful day of remembrance and in honour of the victims in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.