Seventy years ago, today, the world saw the first use of a nuclear weapon in the conduct of hostilities. At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, a uranium fission bomb with the explosive power of 15,000 tonnes of TNT detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The ensuing destruction was nearly total. The U.S. Army reported that over 66,000 people died as a result of the attack. Nearly 70,000 others suffered injuries from the blast. Tens of thousands of survivors suffered the effects of radiation. Three days later another United States Army Air Force B-29 dropped a more powerful Plutonium bomb over the town of Nagasaki with similar results. A few days later Japan surrendered and World War II came to an end.
Today, as survivors of the attack age, the memory of Hiroshima has begun to fade. With it, it has become harder to imagine what it must have been like to be on the ground that day. Especially for those sufficiently far away to survive. To get a sense of it, however, nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein put together a website called NUKEMAP. It shows what different nuclear weapons would do on to a modern day city, provides an estimate of how many people would die and how many would survive with injuries. To further quantify the humanitarian impact, it also lists the number of hospitals, fire stations and other emergency services that would be destroyed. Check it out.
The reality is that the fire bombing of Japanese cities that year produced far more casualties than these attacks. As former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara put it in the documentary The Fog of War: “killing 50 to 90 percent of the people of sixty-seven Japanese cities – and then bombing them with two nuclear bombs – is not proportional, in the minds of some people, to the objectives we were trying to achieve.”
Similarly, the use of nuclear weapons today would be, most likely, a violation of international humanitarian law – though a rather equivocal opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of their use certainly obscures matters. The use of these weapons in 1945 remains controversial; however, some credit their use with accelerating the end of World War II.
Just as well. In the aftermath of the attacks, Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s rescript of surrender stated:
“[T]he enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should We continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”
The emperor’s sense of the gravity still rings true today in the world’s collective consciousness. A nuclear weapon can achieve in a single instant a level of horror that no other weapon known to man can.