Why the Atomic Bombing Still Matters 70 Years Later

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo]. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one.

–Diary entry from President Truman, July 25, 1945

August 6th and August 8th mark the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. It’s not something I’ve posted about for a long while (last post in 2012), but I was motivated to write about it for two reasons.1

The first reason was the childish reaction by American fans during the Women’s World Cup. The callous way people joked about the atomic bombing and compared it to a soccer match told me that such people did not appreciate the sheer destruction that resulted, and the tragedy of the incident. I was furious.

The second reason happened a few weeks ago. At our local Buddhist temple, we had a guest lecture by a reverend from one of our sister temples in Oregon. He told us a moving story, which he had heard from a minister in Nagasaki, Japan. But I’ll get back to that story in a minute.

As many of us know from history, the Empire of Japan still controlled large parts of Asia as late as July 1945:

A map of East Asia and the Western Pacific during World War II

…and that Japan and refused to even acknowledge the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945 which ordered them to surrender. After fighting in Europe for so long, we were ready to finally defeat the Empire of Japan:

But the enemy was not to be taken lightly:

18-0855a

The military reasoned that the only way to get Japan to finally surrender was to shock them. From the minutes of the second meeting of the Target Committee Los Alamos which took place on May 10-11, 19452 the committee reasoned:

It was agreed that psychological factors in the target selection were of great importance. Two aspects of this are (1) obtaining the greatest psychological effect against Japan and (2) making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized when publicity on it is released.

and:

It was agreed that for the initial use of the weapon any small and strictly military objective should be located in a much larger area subject to blast damage in order to avoid undue risks of the weapon being lost due to bad placing of the bomb.

A small, narrow target wasn’t enough because it would lack shock-value, but also because the atomic bomb cost billions of dollars in 1945 and if it failed due to bad placement, it would be a military disaster. Ultimately Hiroshima was selected:

This is an important army depot and port of embarkation in the middle of an urban industrial area. It is a good radar target and it is such a size that a large part of the city could be extensively damaged. There are adjacent hills which are likely to produce a focussing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage. Due to rivers it is not a good incendiary target. (Classified as an AA Target)

The rest, as we know, is history. Nagasaki was later added to the list, and became the second target.

Anyhow, back to the guest lecture from a few weeks ago. The visiting minister told us about another minister in Nagasaki. At that time, the minister was young and fresh from seminary, and was visiting a woman’s home to take part in a memorial service some time after the War.

The minister observed that the grieving woman had placed the rice in her Buddhist home altar incorrectly. Normally it’s placed in a small, raised bowl generically called a buppanki (仏飯器)3 which is intended to be an offering to the Buddha, and gesture of respect. You can see illustrations here. However, this woman had placed four rice balls (onigiri) placed in a dish in front. The priest was somewhat perplexed by this, and decided to gently correct her on etiquette for Buddhist altars.

He indirectly brought up the subject after the memorial service, and asked about the rice balls.

The woman explained that during World War II, she had been a mother of four little children. On August 8th, she had to go to the neighboring town to get some groceries, and she told the children they could go out and play, but they had to come back for lunch. She had made them onigiri rice-balls which they could enjoy when they came back home.

While she away in the next town, the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. By the time she returned home, the house had been destroyed and all four of her children were dead. They were sitting around the table together eating the onigiri she had prepared for them when they died.

…. and that’s why I think the atomic bombing still matters.

The military strategy and decision making that went into the atomic bombing wasn’t trivial. The war between Japan and the West was long, bitter and many people wanted to end it soon, but at the same time, a lot of careful analysis went into determining the targets, weighing the necessity of the atomic bomb, etc. In other words, it wasn’t an irrational decision.

However, military strategic planning cannot forsee everything. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were valuable military targets, but a lot of civilians lived there too, and many of them were not involved. The four children who died in Nagasaki had no military value. They were not the cartoonish “Japs” in propaganda posters; they were obedient children, enjoying a homemade lunch their mom had made, who died in nuclear fire.

The consequences of the decision to drop the atomic bomb were not limited to military-strategic ones; the consequences were much more broad and still felt many years later. The limits of such planning were true then, as much as it is now.

P.S. These World War II propaganda posters and many others are available at the National Archives, which is a great resource for historians. Some of the propaganda posters are pretty crass though. :-/

1 Didn’t want to detract from the other nuclear disaster, though: Castle Bravo and Bikini Atoll.

2 U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, TS Manhattan Project File ’42-’46, folder 5D Selection of Targets, 2 Notes on Target Committee Meetings.

3 In Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, specifically the Nishi-Honganji branch (which covers much of the US temples), it may also be called a kuhandai (供飯台), but I need to verify that.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Why the Atomic Bombing Still Matters 70 Years Later”

  1. Doug…. I just stumbled across your YouTube Channel and Web Page. I’ve been a closet Buddhist for years and am really enjoying your lessons. In regards to this essay, just as there is controversy as to whether the United States had adequate warning to prevent Pearl Harbor, there will always be controversy as to whether the United States had to use the atomic bomb against Japan. Those against will argue that over 200,000 civilians were killed in cold blood. Those for it’s use will claim that the use of atomic warfare save 10’s of millions of Japanese lives and millions of American lives had the Allies been forced to invade the home islands. You and I can not judge that decision based on the values and ideologies of today. Things in Japan and America were much different back then. Personally, I have very mixed feelings. I was born on VJ Day and my Dad took part in the initial occupation of Japan. He didn’t come home until a year after the war but at least he came home and I had a father when I grew up. My Wife and I have visited the Atomic War Memorial a Nagasaki twice. It is a place that everyone should see but no one will enjoy. Anyone with a conscience will walk away with the belief that nuclear weapons should never be used on this planet again. The horrors are almost beyond comprehension.

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  2. I wrote al long comment but it got erased since I was not logged in/registered. couldn’t get the automatic email to reset. I found the article wyou wrote here very moving, similarly BBC had an interview with one of the last survivors and a scientist who worked on the Manhattan project. If you haven’t listened, I urge you to do so. It is really late here. I should stop. I will return,

    Like

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