An Invitation to Hesitate: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ at 70

August 31, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 17 5 min read


Seventy years ago, The New Yorker devoted its entire contents to a single article for the first and only time in its history. With no prior announcement or warning, the August 31st, 1946 issue eschewed the magazine’s trademark cartoons and “Talk of the Town” section in favor of something less frivolous: a 30,000-word article on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

coverThe article appeared just over a year after the bombing, and became a surprise sensation: the issue sold out almost as soon as it hit the stands, was reprinted as a special edition giveaway for U.S. Book of the Month Club subscribers, and went on to sell more than three million copies in book form.

The piece’s title — Hiroshima — represented the intentions of its author, John Hersey; that it is to say, it suggested an air of neutrality. Hersey’s article was not to be a clear-cut damnation of the bombing quoting facts and figures about casualties and the decimation of infrastructure. Rather it would be a simple declaration of the human aspect, somehow so often ignored in the nuclear debate, deferring judgment to the reader.

In a style that would later be recognised as a highly influential precursor to the New Journalism movement, Hersey’s article combines the narrative conventions of fiction with intensive research, creating a nonfiction account of the aftermath of the bombing following the intertwined stories of six survivors, all of them ordinary civilians.

There is Miss Sasaki, a 20-year-old clerk whose leg is broken when the building she is in collapses. She is rescued, but, unable to walk, she is forced to spend three days under a makeshift corrugated iron shack with no food and water. Her companions are “a woman with a whole breast sheared off and a man whose face was all raw from a burn.” None of them speak once for the duration of the three days.

There is also Father Kleinsorge, a German priest who seems to come away from the blast relatively unscathed, but suffers for months afterwards from a terrible undiagnosed sickness and finds the cuts he sustains never seem to heal, continually opening up again. Likewise, Mrs. Nakamura and her children suffer from a lingering illness, with her hair falling out in clumps until she is completely bald. Like so many other survivors she also finds herself destitute — everything she has ever owned is destroyed in the blast.

And yet, Hersey reminds us that these are “among the luckiest in Hiroshima” — the survivors — and in doing so, he highlights the absurd nature of this kind of indiscriminate weaponry. He tells us that Dr. Sasaki, one of the six protagonists, “calculated that if he had taken his customary train that morning, and if he had had to wait a few minutes for the streetcar, as often happened, he would have been close to the center at the time of the explosion and would surely have perished.” With this realization, every moment of Dr Sasaki’s life gains a sudden significance, because every small factor — every pause, every moment of chance — becomes an element leading him to the pure luck of his survival. And what did he do to make him any more worthy of living than anyone else?

Hersey suggests all of these themes in a voice of absolute detachment and neutrality. His voice is clearly not aligned to “the Americans,” nor is it to the Japanese. In a way this voice of calm seems almost to emanate from the bomb itself: describing the horrors wrought in a neutral tone that knows nothing can be done to change the reality of what has happened.

Although Hersey’s voice is characterized by its impartiality, it is important to emphasize that part of the popular success of Hiroshima stemmed from its ability to truly put American readers into the perspective of the victims for the very first time. When people speak of the atomic bombings as a justified preventative action, or, indeed, when anyone speaks of nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent, it is always from the perspective of the aggressor. Hersey’s narrative put readers on the ground, amid the confusion and the fear and the suffering, reminding us that the 100,000 lives sacrificed to potentially save 1,000,000 others included hospital patients, schoolchildren, doctors, mothers, priests, and all manner of ordinary people.

Hersey showed the readers of The New Yorker that the victims were people just like them, and it was his gifts as a storyteller (just the year before he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) combined with his journalistic skills that gave the piece its resonance and humane power.

Hiroshima ends with the voice of the child — Hersey quotes from a school essay written by one of Mrs. Nakamura’s children. The child recalls the bombing and aftermath with a sense of excitement, and even fondness. Perhaps the child is still too young to understand the full impact of everything he has seen, but by ending with this voice, Hersey suggests a sense of dread for the next generation; a generation normalized to violence and mass destruction.

The structure of Hiroshima reinforces this, with each of the four parts covering a longer period of time: the first narrates the moment of impact, the second the next few hours, the third the next few days, and the final part the following months. This expansion of time moves the reader exponentially further and further from the moment of destruction, highlighting the speed with which a tragedy of this magnitude can become ordinary to us and be forgotten. Indeed, one of the most horrifying things about Hiroshima is the speed with which the survivors, and the city, return to a state of routine and normality.

In our current age, in which every refresh of the Web browser brings a new story of tragedy, to be forgotten as quickly as it appeared, it seems that Hiroshima is as relevant as ever. Drone warfare is now a simple fact of life, and the nuclear threat still very much exists.

Indeed, just a few weeks ago the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was asked whether she would be “prepared to authorize the nuclear strike that could kill 100,000 innocent men, women and children,” to which she answered, without hesitation or preceding clarification: “Yes.”

Perhaps such a sense of assurance is considered a necessary component of leadership, and perhaps any sign of hesitation would be construed as a weakness and a political shot in the foot. However, if Hersey’s Hiroshima teaches us anything it is that there is no such thing as assurance when it comes to nuclear weapons. On the contrary, it suggests that we need leaders who will hesitate; who will consider the woman who puts out her arm for help, only for her skin to slip “off in huge, glove-like pieces.” We need leaders who will stop for a moment to think about the men with empty eye sockets, “the fluid from their melted eyes” pouring down their faces, and remember that the world cannot be so easily divided into “friend” and “enemy.” Hesitation is, in fact, what gives us our humanity, and blind assurance is what robs us of it.

So consider this anniversary an invitation to hesitate. As is only proper, The New Yorker has made an exception to its subscribers-only policy for access to their archives. You can read John Hersey’s timeless article here. You can read it now, and imagine the many lives that might have been.

is a freelance writer and heritage fundraiser, with degrees in English from Durham University (UK) and Northwestern University. He has lived in Saudi Arabia, England, the United States, and Scotland, where he currently works at Abbotsford, the historic home of Sir Walter Scott.


  1. Do only old(er) people like me still worry about nuclear weapons? Do kids and teens and young adults even know about Hiroshima? Is it taught in schools? I brought it up in a group of people the other day and the immediate response was that dropping those bombs saved lives!!! I mean, I know that was what Truman told the American public at the time, but I guess some still believe that. Incredible, scary, and sad.

  2. Brilliant essay. Hersey’s book deserves its status as a must read because its impartiality can only remind of we are one people, one planet. Our leaders today have learned nothing from history, it is absolutely mind boggling how intellectually vacant they are that one wonders how we let it happen. Regarding Japan in 1945, when we look at the total disregard of humanity in the POW death camps and the horrific treatment of civilians in the expat camps, it is a tough one. What a world we live in!

  3. Judy Krueger – Your age places no weight on the validity of your opinion to not have used the atomic bomb. A group of predominantly men determined the need for the bomb, design of the bomb, and the ideal dropping route for the bomb so that the war could be ended in the quickest manner, not the least emotional. The war against the Japanese ended not a week after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, destroying important war factories and manufacturing machinery. I am thankful these men chose the path of the bomb that would end the war in the quickest manner and not relied on the emotions of the women that expressed their opinions from the comfort of their husband’s home who never experienced kamakazi pilots, machine gun fire, artillery fire, mortar fire, hand to hand combat, field mines, booby traps, disease, amputations, mass casualty, etc.

  4. Stallman: the litany of excuses for the dropping of this bomb doesn’t interest me at all.

    The fact that it was a deeply immoral act of mass slaughter is the only thing that matters,.

    Manufacture all of the horse manure you wish, it won’t change the fact that in an instant hundreds of thousands of perfectly innocent human beings were erased.

    We need to call the leaders of nations on the carpet when a failure of this kind occurs. We need to take those leaders, and remove their positions, and remove their fortunes, and remove their security, and imprison them, when their failures lead to this kind of massive death and destruction.

    Please, don’t waste your breath speaking of ‘the war,’ The war is a phony construction of peril, MEN who presume to rule over such things make these decisions that *sigh*, we MUST send our young children out to be destroyed because there is no other way to do it.

    Understand that the future is going to view ALL war as a complete moral failure, and ALL leaders who submitted to war as COMPLETE moral failures.

    There was never a valid excuse for dropping this bomb that didn’t include disgusting self-gratification.

  5. To be clear…

    “The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey group, assigned by President Truman to study the air attacks on Japan, produced a report in July of 1946 that concluded (52-56):

    Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945 and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.

    General (and later president) Dwight Eisenhower – then Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces, and the officer who created most of America’s WWII military plans for Europe and Japan – said:

    The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.

    Newsweek, 11/11/63, Ike on Ike

    Eisenhower also noted (pg. 380):

    In [July] 1945… Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent.

    During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude….

    Admiral William Leahy – the highest ranking member of the U.S. military from 1942 until retiring in 1949, who was the first de facto Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and who was at the center of all major American military decisions in World War II – wrote (pg. 441):

    It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.

    The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.

    General Douglas MacArthur agreed (pg. 65, 70-71):

    MacArthur’s views about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were starkly different from what the general public supposed …. When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb. The war might have ended weeks earlier, he said, if the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the emperor.”
    Moreover (pg. 512):

    The Potsdam declaration in July, demand[ed] that Japan surrender unconditionally or face ‘prompt and utter destruction.’ MacArthur was appalled. He knew that the Japanese would never renounce their emperor, and that without him an orderly transition to peace would be impossible anyhow, because his people would never submit to Allied occupation unless he ordered it. Ironically, when the surrender did come, it was conditional, and the condition was a continuation of the imperial reign. Had the General’s advice been followed, the resort to atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have been unnecessary.

    Similarly, Assistant Secretary of War John McLoy noted (pg. 500):

    I have always felt that if, in our ultimatum to the Japanese government issued from Potsdam [in July 1945], we had referred to the retention of the emperor as a constitutional monarch and had made some reference to the reasonable accessibility of raw materials to the future Japanese government, it would have been accepted. Indeed, I believe that even in the form it was delivered, there was some disposition on the part of the Japanese to give it favorable consideration. When the war was over I arrived at this conclusion after talking with a number of Japanese officials who had been closely associated with the decision of the then Japanese government, to reject the ultimatum, as it was presented. I believe we missed the opportunity of effecting a Japanese surrender, completely satisfactory to us, without the necessity of dropping the bombs.

    Under Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bird said:

    I think that the Japanese were ready for peace, and they already had approached the Russians and, I think, the Swiss. And that suggestion of [giving] a warning [of the atomic bomb] was a face-saving proposition for them, and one that they could have readily accepted.


    In my opinion, the Japanese war was really won before we ever used the atom bomb. Thus, it wouldn’t have been necessary for us to disclose our nuclear position and stimulate the Russians to develop the same thing much more rapidly than they would have if we had not dropped the bomb.

    War Was Really Won Before We Used A-Bomb, U.S. News and World Report, 8/15/60, pg. 73-75.

    He also noted (pg. 144-145, 324):

    It definitely seemed to me that the Japanese were becoming weaker and weaker. They were surrounded by the Navy. They couldn’t get any imports and they couldn’t export anything. Naturally, as time went on and the war developed in our favor it was quite logical to hope and expect that with the proper kind of a warning the Japanese would then be in a position to make peace, which would have made it unnecessary for us to drop the bomb and have had to bring Russia in.

    General Curtis LeMay, the tough cigar-smoking Army Air Force “hawk,” stated publicly shortly before the nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan:

    The war would have been over in two weeks. . . . The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.

    The Vice Chairman of the U.S. Bombing Survey Paul Nitze wrote (pg. 36-37, 44-45):

    [I] concluded that even without the atomic bomb, Japan was likely to surrender in a matter of months. My own view was that Japan would capitulate by November 1945.


    Even without the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it seemed highly unlikely, given what we found to have been the mood of the Japanese government, that a U.S. invasion of the islands [scheduled for November 1, 1945] would have been necessary.

    Deputy Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence Ellis Zacharias wrote:

    Just when the Japanese were ready to capitulate, we went ahead and introduced to the world the most devastating weapon it had ever seen and, in effect, gave the go-ahead to Russia to swarm over Eastern Asia.

    Washington decided that Japan had been given its chance and now it was time to use the A-bomb.

    I submit that it was the wrong decision. It was wrong on strategic grounds. And it was wrong on humanitarian grounds.

    Ellis Zacharias, How We Bungled the Japanese Surrender, Look, 6/6/50, pg. 19-21.

    Brigadier General Carter Clarke – the military intelligence officer in charge of preparing summaries of intercepted Japanese cables for President Truman and his advisors – said (pg. 359):

    When we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew that we knew we didn’t need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs.

    Many other high-level military officers concurred. For example:

    The commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet and Chief of Naval Operations, Ernest J. King, stated that the naval blockade and prior bombing of Japan in March of 1945, had rendered the Japanese helpless and that the use of the atomic bomb was both unnecessary and immoral. Also, the opinion of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was reported to have said in a press conference on September 22, 1945, that “The Admiral took the opportunity of adding his voice to those insisting that Japan had been defeated before the atomic bombing and Russia’s entry into the war.” In a subsequent speech at the Washington Monument on October 5, 1945, Admiral Nimitz stated “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and before the Russian entry into the war.” It was learned also that on or about July 20, 1945, General Eisenhower had urged Truman, in a personal visit, not to use the atomic bomb. Eisenhower’s assessment was “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing . . . to use the atomic bomb, to kill and terrorize civilians, without even attempting [negotiations], was a double crime.” Eisenhower also stated that it wasn’t necessary for Truman to “succumb” to [the tiny handful of people putting pressure on the president to drop atom bombs on Japan.]

    British officers were of the same mind. For example, General Sir Hastings Ismay, Chief of Staff to the British Minister of Defence, said to Prime Minister Churchill that “when Russia came into the war against Japan, the Japanese would probably wish to get out on almost any terms short of the dethronement of the Emperor.”

    On hearing that the atomic test was successful, Ismay’s private reaction was one of “revulsion.”

    Why Were Bombs Dropped on Populated Cities Without Military Value?

    Even military officers who favored use of nuclear weapons mainly favored using them on unpopulated areas or Japanese military targets … not cities.

    For example, Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Navy Lewis Strauss proposed to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal that a non-lethal demonstration of atomic weapons would be enough to convince the Japanese to surrender … and the Navy Secretary agreed (pg. 145, 325):

    I proposed to Secretary Forrestal that the weapon should be demonstrated before it was used. Primarily it was because it was clear to a number of people, myself among them, that the war was very nearly over. The Japanese were nearly ready to capitulate… My proposal to the Secretary was that the weapon should be demonstrated over some area accessible to Japanese observers and where its effects would be dramatic. I remember suggesting that a satisfactory place for such a demonstration would be a large forest of cryptomeria trees not far from Tokyo. The cryptomeria tree is the Japanese version of our redwood… I anticipated that a bomb detonated at a suitable height above such a forest… would lay the trees out in windrows from the center of the explosion in all directions as though they were matchsticks, and, of course, set them afire in the center. It seemed to me that a demonstration of this sort would prove to the Japanese that we could destroy any of their cities at will… Secretary Forrestal agreed wholeheartedly with the recommendation…

    It seemed to me that such a weapon was not necessary to bring the war to a successful conclusion, that once used it would find its way into the armaments of the world…

    General George Marshall agreed:

    Contemporary documents show that Marshall felt “these weapons might first be used against straight military objectives such as a large naval installation and then if no complete result was derived from the effect of that, he thought we ought to designate a number of large manufacturing areas from which the people would be warned to leave–telling the Japanese that we intend to destroy such centers….”

    As the document concerning Marshall’s views suggests, the question of whether the use of the atomic bomb was justified turns … on whether the bombs had to be used against a largely civilian target rather than a strictly military target—which, in fact, was the explicit choice since although there were Japanese troops in the cities, neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki was deemed militarily vital by U.S. planners. (This is one of the reasons neither had been heavily bombed up to this point in the war.) Moreover, targeting [at Hiroshima and Nagasaki] was aimed explicitly on non-military facilities surrounded by workers’ homes.

    Historians Agree that the Bomb Wasn’t Needed

    Historians agree that nuclear weapons did not need to be used to stop the war or save lives.

    As historian Doug Long notes:

    U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission historian J. Samuel Walker has studied the history of research on the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan. In his conclusion he writes, “The consensus among scholars is that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war within a relatively short time. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisors knew it.” (J. Samuel Walker, The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update, Diplomatic History, Winter 1990, pg. 110).

    Politicians Agreed

    Many high-level politicians agreed. For example, Herbert Hoover said (pg. 142):

    The Japanese were prepared to negotiate all the way from February 1945…up to and before the time the atomic bombs were dropped; …if such leads had been followed up, there would have been no occasion to drop the [atomic] bombs.

    Under Secretary of State Joseph Grew noted (pg. 29-32):

    In the light of available evidence I myself and others felt that if such a categorical statement about the [retention of the] dynasty had been issued in May, 1945, the surrender-minded elements in the [Japanese] Government might well have been afforded by such a statement a valid reason and the necessary strength to come to an early clearcut decision.

    If surrender could have been brought about in May, 1945, or even in June or July, before the entrance of Soviet Russia into the [Pacific] war and the use of the atomic bomb, the world would have been the gainer.

    Why Then Were Atom Bombs Dropped on Japan?

    If dropping nuclear bombs was unnecessary to end the war or to save lives, why was the decision to drop them made? Especially over the objections of so many top military and political figures?

    One theory is that scientists like to play with their toys:

    On September 9, 1945, Admiral William F. Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet, was publicly quoted extensively as stating that the atomic bomb was used because the scientists had a “toy and they wanted to try it out . . . .” He further stated, “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment . . . . It was a mistake to ever drop it.”

    However, most of the Manhattan Project scientists who developed the atom bomb were opposed to using it on Japan.

    Albert Einstein – an important catalyst for the development of the atom bomb (but not directly connected with the Manhattan Project) – said differently:

    “A great majority of scientists were opposed to the sudden employment of the atom bomb.” In Einstein’s judgment, the dropping of the bomb was a political – diplomatic decision rather than a military or scientific decision.

    Indeed, some of the Manhattan Project scientists wrote directly to the secretary of defense in 1945 to try to dissuade him from dropping the bomb:

    We believe that these considerations make the use of nuclear bombs for an early, unannounced attack against Japan inadvisable. If the United States would be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race of armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons.

    Political and Social Problems, Manhattan Engineer District Records, Harrison-Bundy files, folder # 76, National Archives (also contained in: Martin Sherwin, A World Destroyed, 1987 edition, pg. 323-333).

    The scientists questioned the ability of destroying Japanese cities with atomic bombs to bring surrender when destroying Japanese cities with conventional bombs had not done so, and – like some of the military officers quoted above – recommended a demonstration of the atomic bomb for Japan in an unpopulated area.

    The Real Explanation? notes:

    In the years since the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, a number of historians have suggested that the weapons had a two-pronged objective …. It has been suggested that the second objective was to demonstrate the new weapon of mass destruction to the Soviet Union. By August 1945, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States had deteriorated badly. The Potsdam Conference between U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Russian leader Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill (before being replaced by Clement Attlee) ended just four days before the bombing of Hiroshima. The meeting was marked by recriminations and suspicion between the Americans and Soviets. Russian armies were occupying most of Eastern Europe. Truman and many of his advisers hoped that the U.S. atomic monopoly might offer diplomatic leverage with the Soviets. In this fashion, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan can be seen as the first shot of the Cold War.

    New Scientist reported in 2005:

    The US decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was meant to kick-start the Cold War rather than end the Second World War, according to two nuclear historians who say they have new evidence backing the controversial theory.

    Causing a fission reaction in several kilograms of uranium and plutonium and killing over 200,000 people 60 years ago was done more to impress the Soviet Union than to cow Japan, they say. And the US President who took the decision, Harry Truman, was culpable, they add.

    “He knew he was beginning the process of annihilation of the species,” says Peter Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington DC, US. “It was not just a war crime; it was a crime against humanity.”


    [The conventional explanation of using the bombs to end the war and save lives] is disputed by Kuznick and Mark Selden, a historian from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, US.


    New studies of the US, Japanese and Soviet diplomatic archives suggest that Truman’s main motive was to limit Soviet expansion in Asia, Kuznick claims. Japan surrendered because the Soviet Union began an invasion a few days after the Hiroshima bombing, not because of the atomic bombs themselves, he says.

    According to an account by Walter Brown, assistant to then-US secretary of state James Byrnes, Truman agreed at a meeting three days before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima that Japan was “looking for peace”. Truman was told by his army generals, Douglas Macarthur and Dwight Eisenhower, and his naval chief of staff, William Leahy, that there was no military need to use the bomb.

    “Impressing Russia was more important than ending the war in Japan,” says Selden.

    John Pilger points out:

    The US secretary of war, Henry Stimson, told President Truman he was “fearful” that the US air force would have Japan so “bombed out” that the new weapon would not be able “to show its strength”. He later admitted that “no effort was made, and none was seriously considered, to achieve surrender merely in order not to have to use the bomb”. His foreign policy colleagues were eager “to browbeat the Russians with the bomb held rather ostentatiously on our hip”. General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project that made the bomb, testified: “There was never any illusion on my part that Russia was our enemy, and that the project was conducted on that basis.” The day after Hiroshima was obliterated, President Truman voiced his satisfaction with the “overwhelming success” of “the experiment”.

    We’ll give the last word to University of Maryland professor of political economy – and former Legislative Director in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, and Special Assistant in the Department of State – Gar Alperovitz:

    Though most Americans are unaware of the fact, increasing numbers of historians now recognize the United States did not need to use the atomic bomb to end the war against Japan in 1945. Moreover, this essential judgment was expressed by the vast majority of top American military leaders in all three services in the years after the war ended: Army, Navy and Army Air Force. Nor was this the judgment of “liberals,” as is sometimes thought today. In fact, leading conservatives were far more outspoken in challenging the decision as unjustified and immoral than American liberals in the years following World War II.


    Instead [of allowing other options to end the war, such as letting the Soviets attack Japan with ground forces], the United States rushed to use two atomic bombs at almost exactly the time that an August 8 Soviet attack had originally been scheduled: Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. The timing itself has obviously raised questions among many historians. The available evidence, though not conclusive, strongly suggests that the atomic bombs may well have been used in part because American leaders “preferred”—as Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Martin Sherwin has put it—to end the war with the bombs rather than the Soviet attack. Impressing the Soviets during the early diplomatic sparring that ultimately became the Cold War also appears likely to have been a significant factor.


    The most illuminating perspective, however, comes from top World War II American military leaders. The conventional wisdom that the atomic bomb saved a million lives is so widespread that … most Americans haven’t paused to ponder something rather striking to anyone seriously concerned with the issue: Not only did most top U.S. military leaders think the bombings were unnecessary and unjustified, many were morally offended by what they regarded as the unnecessary destruction of Japanese cities and what were essentially noncombat populations. Moreover, they spoke about it quite openly and publicly.


    Shortly before his death General George C. Marshall quietly defended the decision, but for the most part he is on record as repeatedly saying that it was not a military decision, but rather a political one.”

  6. Or, in a nutshell:

    “Shortly before his death General George C. Marshall quietly defended the decision, but for the most part he is on record as repeatedly saying that it was not a military decision, but rather a political one.”

  7. Stallman-I bet those innocent citizens of Japan would of opted for a different path that would end the war in the quickest manner and not relied on the emotions of the men that expressed their opinions from the safe oval office who never experienced fighter pilots, machine gun fire, artillery fire, mortar fire, hand to hand combat, field mines, booby traps, disease, amputations, nuclear radiation.Raining molten metal.
    Having your entire family and friends vaporized instantly and watch the rest nearby die slowly in agonizing horror.

  8. Then tell them it was all done to avoid “Mass harm” ???

    Something tells me you are not the sharpest tool in the shed.

  9. “Have I not reason to lament, what man has made of man”. (Wordsworth, I think). Surely if we cannot be courteous, even in a comment section on a literary website, and cease laying blame or scorn it is little wonder war continues. Sadly, there has always been war and there will always be war. Human beings are deeply, deeply flawed, which Hersey makes apparent in his book Hiroshima. To blame men is not the way to achieve resolution.

  10. @Heather

    We should most definitely remain courteous with one another when chatting about this stuff, but if we can’t heap blame and scorn (if not life sentences) on mass murderers, who use hundreds of thousands (or millions) of human lives as disposable units to be balanced against the pros and cons of various political or financial calculations… who *can* we heap blame and scorn upon? I think we’ve been rather effectively blinded to the culpability of the Master-Trigger-Pullers up there.

    You and I may or may not be deeply flawed, but I’m fairly sure neither of us is a cold-blooded killer… we have to honor the distinction between these vastly different categories of The Flawed in order to maintain some sense of justice in this world, I think. There will always be War as long as the people who maintain the institution of War (for profit and power) not only go unpunished but remain sort of Above It All. And they are Above It All only because we’ve been conditioned from birth to see them that way.

  11. 9/11 was the appetizer. A city nuked live on TV is the 21st century’s main course. And anyone who thinks Hiroshima and Nagasaki were for anything but show does not understand history in the least and is nothing more than a living funnel for the ton o’-bullshit that is fed to them daily. The US was going to use those fuckers on someone, anyone, and so they did.

  12. Steven, Anon i do agree with you. Culpability is sorely lacking for war crimes. I sure as hell don’t have the intellect to come up with a solution, it is why I always try to “be nice” in comments to kind of balance out for me the importance of being kind to other commenters after an essay of this type. Hersey’s wisdom and empathy (I know, an overused word) could serve as an example for treating one another with the greatest respect even in comment sections. Differing ideology causes wars. We must always be cautious, war can happen anywhere. BTW Steven, your exhaustive and comprehensive details of the thoughts of politicians and military after the bombing was something I was only vaguely familiar with. So thanks for that. Meanwhile in Syria…

  13. Oh and Judy Kreuger, if you are still following this, get this: it’s not just kids who don’t know their history. In my part of the world we had a school trustee running for NDP for Hamilton (Ontario). Her name is Alex Johnstone, and she had never heard of Auschwitz. A school trustee!!!

  14. @Judy Krueger
    of course people younger than you know about the atomic bombings of japan. and while it is impossible to weigh the value of one life against another, it undeniable saved lives. I suggest you read about “operation ketsugo”, the Japanese plan for defense of Kyushu from our conventional weapons invasion – Operation Downfall. projected casualties for Downfall were conservatively 300,000 americans, though just to be sure, the DoD printed 500,000 purple hearts.

    the Japanese had begun moving civilians to coastal regions and arming them with spears. they had drafted anyone capable of flying a plane and planned to use not only their remaining war aircraft but any civilian craft they could to kamikaze incoming transports; they were trained to specifically target troop transports.

    the total cost of life between both sides could have easily climbed to 1,000,000 casualties.

  15. @Ryan

    Your arithmetic is morally faulty: you’re weighing the hypothetical deaths of soldiers (armed, coordinated, prepared for battle and acquainted with the notion of the high probability of imminent Death) against the slaughter of men, women and children who were unarmed, unprotected and taken absolutely by surprise (ie, a “Sneak Attack”… like Pearl Harbor, only astronomically more violent) by the bombs.

    These people were reading or sleeping or bathing or shopping or kissing or learning to walk when they were variously incinerated, melted, boiled, crushed, dismembered, skinned, vaporized… or killed hours or minutes after the impact by fatal doses of radiation… with no warning. This is not to mention the details of the decades-lingering effects of the two radioactive blasts (deformities, birth defects, et al… which dovetails nicely with any discussion we might one day care to have regarding the use of Depleted Uranium in Iraq; Google images for “depleted uranium babies”… but not if you have a weak stomach).

    Conservative estimates of the counts for slaughtered civilians: Hiroshima (150,000) and Nagasaki (75,000).

    Has our civilized sense of the sacrosanct distinction between soldiers and civilians, when deciding what constitutes “War”, vs what constitutes “Murder”, faded so quickly?

    I think you might want to reconsider your calculations.

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