76 years ago today

9 Aug

Nagasaki bound: bomb No. 2, “Fat Man”

Seventy-six years and three days ago Hiroshima was incinerated. Three days later, on August 9, it was Nagasaki’s turn. Estimates of the immediate consequences – not attempting to reckon those in the months, years and indeed decades to come – are given at atomicarchive.com

The next page of that linked document (advance button at foot of page) tells us:

The most striking difference between the explosion of an atomic bomb and that of an ordinary T.N.T. bomb is of course in magnitude. As the President announced after the Hiroshima attack, the explosive energy of each of the atomic bombs was equivalent to about 20,000 tons of T.N.T.

But as well as greater power, an atomic explosion has other characteristics. Ordinary explosion is a chemical reaction whose energy is released by rearrangement of atoms in the explosive material. In an atomic explosion the identity of the atoms, not simply their arrangement, is changed. A considerable fraction of the mass of the uranium 235 or plutonium is transformed into energy. Einstein’s E=MC2 shows that matter transformed into energy may yield energy equivalent to mass times the square of light speed – 186,000 miles per second. Energy released when a pound of T.N.T. explodes would, if converted entirely into heat, raise 36 lbs. of water from freezing to boiling point. The nuclear fission of a pound of uranium would do the same to 200 million pounds of water.

The explosive effect of T.N.T. is derived from its rapid conversion to gas, which occupies initially the same volume as the solid. This exerts intense pressures on the surrounding air and expands rapidly to many times its initial volume. A wave of high pressure, moving rapidly outward from the center of the explosion, is the major cause of damage from ordinary high explosive. An atomic bomb also generates such a wave, but of much higher pressure; and this too is the major cause of damage to buildings and other structures. It differs from that of a block buster in the greater area over which high pressures are generated. And in the duration of the pressure at any given point. The pressure from a blockbuster lasts a few milliseconds; that from the atomic bomb close to a full second. It was felt by observers both in Japan and in New Mexico as a very strong wind going by. 1


But why those two cities, medium sized by the standards of the day? One answer is that, with Tokyo and most other big cities already fire-bombed into smoking graveyards, the vaporising of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would more effectively focus the minds of a defiant Japanese High Command.

Conventional wisdom – tapping as many successful myths do the idealism of racial stereotype – has it that a fanatical martial tradition had to be overcome by something quite extraordinary. Flowing from this comes the argument that the events of August 1945 were net savers of lives. In short, to borrow anachronistically from Madeleine Albright, the annihilation of two middling cities in Asia was a price worth paying.

Belgian-Canadian historian Jacques Pauwels, writing in CounterPunch on the anniversary of the first of the two bombs – linked here and well worth reading in full – sets out three reasons why this explanation does not stand up to scrutiny.

One, the ability of Japan to fight on was dependent on its large army in China. (Bringing these forces back could not prevent ultimate defeat but would exact a high price from the victors. That gave Tokyo a bargaining counter.) But Stalin had given his pledge, reiterated at Potsdam a month earlier, that the Red Army would attack and pin down the battalions in China, thereby negating that leverage.

(This was not what the Americans wanted. Indeed, the desire to avoid such an eventuality had informed not just the events of August 1945 but, earlier, Allied refusal, bitterly decried by the Soviets, to open a second front in Europe. Rather, to keep the USSR – at cost of 20 million dead – locked into a life and death struggle for the survival not just of its political system but of a Slavic race staring into the abyss of annihilation by a genocidal invader – one thirsting for lebensraum.)

Stalin – not known for starry eyed esprit de corps – had good reason to make good on his word. As the Americans had shown in Italy, being at the endgame gave the winners a say in shaping the post-war order. The last thing Uncle Sam wanted was any dilution of his unilateral power to remake the far east to his advantage. With the old colonial powers down for the count, why would he want a new partner claiming her dues? Least of all one representing systemic anathema. Victory over Japan with zero obligation to the Reds was a key motivator of the war crimes of August 1945.

Two, though lacking the speed advantage, America could still defeat Japan, with few GI lives lost, without the Soviets. Absolute naval control of the South Pacific would allow a blockade to (a) prevent those China based forces ever coming home and, in the unlikely event this alone did not suffice, (b) starve Japan into submission.

Three, the cold war had begun. Says Pauwels:

It was [at Potsdam, July 1945] that Truman received the long-awaited message that the bomb had been tested successfully in New Mexico. The president now felt strong enough to make his move. He no longer bothered to present proposals to Stalin but made all sorts of non-negotiable demands; at the same time, he rejected out of hand all proposals emanating from the Soviet side, for example proposals concerning German reparation payments. But Stalin did not capitulate, not even when Truman attempted to intimidate him by whispering into his ear that America had an incredibly powerful new weapon. The Soviet leader, who had certainly been informed already about the Manhattan Project by his spies, listened in stony silence. Truman concluded that only an actual demonstration of the atomic bomb could persuade the Soviets to give way.


I urge those sceptical of such reasoning, and still attached to the notion that the only power ever to use nuclear weapons for real did so out of harsh necessity and for the Greater Good, to do two things. One is a little research. Ten minutes online will throw up many results showing politicians and senior soldiers – including Truman’s successor in waiting, General Eisenhower 2 – declaring that Hiroshima and Nagasaki lacked the legitimacy of military necessity.

The other is to reflect on the moral authority of the USA to police the world. The biggest driver of its economy is what that same Eisenhower called its military industrial complex. Its arms spend exceeds that of the next sixteen nations combined. In the 242 years since its birth, it has been at war for 222 of them. Now it is seeing the rise, much faster than expected, of the first global challenge to its economic supremacy since it dropped those two bombs.

We should be concerned, no?

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  1. Japan and New Mexico? I first read this as those atomic gusts in Japan being felt as far away as America’s south-west. But Pauwels speaks of separate events: Hiroshima and, some three weeks earlier, the first successful test on America’s home turf.
  2. To be strictly accurate, the only evidence of “Ike” having opposed use of the bomb on Japan are his own subsequent claims to that effect. Whatever the truth, from the Oval Office he was swift to seal the fate of the Rosenbergs. In denying the pair clemency he said: “Their crime far exceeds taking the life of another citizen; it could well result in the death of many, many thousands of innocent citizens. These two have betrayed the cause of freedom for which free men are fighting and dying at this very hour in Korea.”  (Slightly abridged.) I beg to differ. One, I regard the Rosenbergs as martyrs and do not doubt that, had the US retained its nuclear monopoly, Pyongyang, Hanoi and/or other ‘enemy’ cities would have gone the way of Hiroshima. Two, those “free men” fighting and dying in Korea – as aerial genocide was being perpetrated on the north – were doing so not for freedom but, as ever, for Wall Street.

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