Hiroshima—nuclear attack launched to demonstrate US power

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago was not necessary to end the Second World War, it was designed to establish US control of the world, writes Matilda Fay

The US’s use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is one of the greatest war crimes in history. The cities were flattened. Within a few months, around 140,000 people died in Hiroshima and around 80,000 in Nagasaki, with about half those deaths on the first day.

But less well remembered is the US strategy behind the bombings. Since 1945 the US ruling class has maintained a farce that the use of nuclear weapons was the final blow that ended the war, forcing Japan to surrender and saving hundreds of thousands of lives that could have been lost in combat.

Otherwise, the US claimed, a bloody ground invasion of Japan would have been necessary to force its surrender.

US President Harry Truman claimed in 1945, “We have used the bomb in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save thousands and thousands of young Americans.” This narrative has served to justify monstrosities committed for the sake of imperialist interest.

In reality, Japan was already defeated before the bomb was dropped.

Its surrender was imminent. But as the Second World War was drawing to a close, with Germany defeated, the US was jostling with Russia for power.

It needed to demonstrate its military might, and the atomic bombs were a grotesque means to this end. 

This August marks 75 years since the bombings, and the threat of nuclear weapons persists.

There are 13,000 nuclear warheads across the world, held by nine different nations.

This continued threat speaks to the absurd logic of global capitalism. Despite the consequences, competing imperialist powers refuse to relinquish their nuclear arsenals, and continue to expand their nuclear capabilities.

The events that took place at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a tragic reminder of capitalism’s destructive force.

The impact

On the morning of 6 August the US dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima.

Sixty per cent of the city was wiped out instantly, first by the blast itself and by the shockwave and firestorms that followed within seconds. Within 45 minutes a black rain began to fall—a mixture of nuclear fallout and the fire and smoke from the firestorms. Those who survived the initial blast were drenched in radioactive material.

Three days later, the US dropped a second atom bomb on Nagasaki.

The particularly horrific impact of nuclear weapons can’t be overstated. American journalist John Hersey reported on the experience of one survivor, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto:

“Mr. Tanimoto found about twenty men and women on the sandspit… he realized that they were too weak to lift themselves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces.”

 These scenes were so sickening that in the years after the bombings, the US censored photos taken of civilians in the aftermath. As information about radiation sickness began to emerge, US officials went to great lengths to suppress it.

Visiting Hiroshima just weeks after the bomb was dropped, Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett penned what he described as a “warning to the world”.

He wrote of a mysterious “atomic plague” that was causing the death toll to climb:

“Many people had suffered only a slight cut from a falling splinter of brick or steel. They should have recovered quickly. But they did not. They developed an acute sickness. Their gums began to bleed. And then they vomited blood. And finally they died.”

For months afterwards, survivors of the initial blast continued to fall ill and die of radiation sickness. They suffered bleeding, hair loss, purple spots on the skin, and extreme pain. Rates of cancers remain elevated among survivors to this day.

Ending the war?

Brutal as the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, this brutality was not isolated. Japan had been thoroughly beaten on every front.

The atomic bombs came after a relentless campaign of air raids on urban areas, indiscriminately bombing civilians.

In March 1945, Tokyo was firebombed in the most destructive air raid of the war so far. The city was burned, leaving over 80,000 dead and major damage to munitions production.

In the summer of 1945 alone, the US carried out 66 air raids with non-nuclear bombs. Every city that was bombed was at least partially destroyed.

Estimates point to 1.7 million people made homeless, 300,000 killed, and 750,000 wounded.

The bombing had shattered Japanese war production, destroying 600 major factories and practically eliminating its capacity to produce an airforce.

This assault was compounded by the loss of Japanese shipping routes. US submarines disrupted supply of food and munitions, creating scarcity issues, with prices of food and consumer goods soaring.

 The US knew that surrender was imminent.

Admiral William Leahy, the US military Chief of Staff, later revealed, “By the beginning of September [1944], Japan was almost completely defeated through a practically complete sea and air blockade.”

Japanese codes had also been broken, allowing US President Truman to read all important Japanese cables. He knew that Japan had continually pleaded with Russia, which was not yet at war with Japan, to help negotiate a surrender.

The US Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote privately on 6 June 1945:

“I was a little fearful that before we could get ready the Air Force might have Japan so thoroughly bombed out that the new weapon would not have a fair background to show its strength”.

The show of strength Stimson wrote about was directed at Russia.

With Germany defeated, the allied powers were in the midst of dividing up territory.

At the Potsdam conference in July, Truman, Churchill and Stalin convened to carve up the post-war world. Truman dropped hints to Stalin at that conference about “a new weapon of unusual destructive force”.

He wrote in his private journal that, “the bomb might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.”

The US’s Target Committee, in determining which Japanese city might form an ideal backdrop for this show of force, wrote of the need to make, “the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognised”.

On 6 August, and again on 9 August, the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became the victims of this ruthless strategy.

The US still wanted Russia to enter the Pacific War by invading Japanese territory in China. But it was also anxious to check Russia’s ability to take control of vast new areas for itself.

Far from ushering in an era of peace, the atomic bomb marked the beginning of the cold war, and the threat of nuclear conflict that continues to this day.

Nuclear threat today

The estimate at the start of 2020 by the Federation of American Scientists is that there are about 13,400 nuclear warheads worldwide.

About 3720 are deployed with operational forces, and about 1800 are on high alert—ready for use on short notice.

These numbers are significantly lower than at the height of the cold war, but the situation is hardly stable.

Nuclear weapons are now held by China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the UK, in addition to US and Russia.

And the destructive power of each nuclear warhead is far greater than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the US funding research to “modernise” its nuclear arsenal.

Donald Trump’s presidency has been marked by multiple withdrawals from arms control deals: the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty in 2019, and in 2020 the Open Skies Treaty, which allows for observation flights between Russia and Western nations.

In February next year the New Start treaty between the US and Russia will also expire. This will be the last formal constraint on the two major powers, limiting strategic nuclear warheads deployed by the US and Russia to 1550 each. It remains to be seen whether Trump will let this treaty lapse.

Of course, intertwined with the threat of nuclear conflict is the threat posed by nuclear testing and accidents.

No amount of nuclear stockpile is safe. And in a world of increasingly unpredictable fires, floods and storms, these arms are more dangerous than ever.

In August 2016, President Obama spoke in Hiroshima of the task of nuclear disarmament, calling for: “a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening.”

But no amount of “moral awakening” can stop the imperialist appetite for nuclear weapons.

Competition drives a continuing arms race that simply cannot not stop to weigh up the risks. The obscene logic of capitalism hurtles humanity and the natural world towards destruction. 

The need to rid the world of nuclear weapons seems obvious, but to the system it is impossible.

Much like climate change, nuclear weapons present an existential threat that capitalism simply cannot solve. The fight for a world where the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are never repeated must be a fight for socialism.


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