News analysis: Judging atomic bomb today needs perspective of history

HARLINGEN — The bomb, nicknamed “Little Boy,” was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, 75 years ago Thursday by the B-29 Superfortress the Enola Gay.

Components of the 15-kiloton atomic bomb were delivered by the ill-fated heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, and it marked only the second man-made nuclear explosion in history, the first being the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert.

The air-burst detonated 1,900 feet above the ground, and the fireball it created and the radioactive fallout that followed, claimed the lives of between 90,000 and 166,000 Hiroshima residents.

Three days later, a second bomb was detonated over the city of Nagasaki, and the Imperial Japanese government quickly surrendered.

World War II was over.

The debate over the morality of using atomic weapons on civilian populations, even if it meant quickly ending the costliest war in modern history, continues long after Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been rebuilt.

What follows is some of the thinking among Allied civilian and military leaders, and their perceptions at the time, on which they based their decision.

Casualty factor

As the end of World War II approached, and with just the Japanese homeland left as a significant military objective, the United States had already suffered more than 400,000 military deaths in the European and Pacific theaters combined.

According to a study commissioned by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, invading Japan could double or even triple that number.

The consensus that formed among U.S. political and military leaders was in large part extrapolated from the vicious fighting Allied forces encountered in the Battle of Okinawa which commenced April 1, 1945. There, over the course of 82 days, the Allies suffered 14,009 killed and around 58,000 wounded in taking the Japanese island regarded as a stepping stone to Japan itself.

Even if casualties during an invasion of Japan were just 5 percent of the rate of losses that occurred on Okinawa, Allied military leaders noted it would mean an additional 297,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded.

Suicide factor

Perhaps another factor weighing upon the decision to use the atomic bombs was that 149,425 Okinawa civilians, about half the island’s population, were killed after being drafted into military service or who committed mass suicide at the direction of Japanese officers.

Japan’s government about 15 years ago ordered reports of mass suicide on Okinawa scrubbed from school history textbooks, a decision condemned by many Japanese historians.

Nevertheless, the first-person reports of mass suicides on Okinawa were a chilling event which was known to the Allied military and political leadership, and they may have seen this as a harbinger of the intensity of civilian resistance they could expect to meet in an Allied invasion of the Japanese homeland.