Among the more bizarre artefacts of the atomic age is a 1950s song titled Fujiyama Mama by Wanda Jackson, which begins: “I’ve been to Nagasaki, Hiroshima too, the same I did to them baby I can do to you/’Cause I’m a Fujiyama mama and I’m just about to blow my top/ … And when I start erupting, ain’t nobody gonna make me stop.”
It’s only one of innumerable examples illustrating the extent to which the first use of nuclear weapons 70 years ago this week was back in the day viewed as a positive, necessary demonstration of American military power that spelt the end of the most destructive war in human history.
This interpretation was facilitated by all-out efforts on the part of the US to prevent a clear picture of the aftermath of the unprecedented destruction wreaked in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from emerging. Film footage shot by American and Japanese film crews remained classified for decades.
Images of skin falling off children, of eyes dislodged from their sockets, of shadows seared into walls where human beings had effectively evaporated would, after all, have led too many people to question the morality and necessity of the experimental attacks.
Yes, there were reports that dwelt at length on the consequences. “Hiroshima does not look like a bombed city,” the Australian-born journalist Wilfred Burchett, the first Western correspondent to witness the devastation wreaked in that city, noted in his despatch to the Daily Express in Britain. “It looks as if a monster steamroller had passed over it and squashed it out of existence.”
In 1946, The New Yorker devoted an entire issue to an eyewitness account by John Hersey. Those who read it may have been shocked, but the publication was hardly a household staple in the US, and when Hersey’s reportage appeared in book form it was banned in Japan — unlike Wanda Jackson’s song, which soared to number one on the Japanese hit parade.
In the decades that have ensued, knowledge of what occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki on, respectively, Aug 6 and 9, 1945, has exponentially expanded, yet the myth that this was a relatively small price to pay for bringing the conflict to an end continues to resonate.
This view of events ignores the fact that the Japanese were willing to surrender long before the atomic bombardment, under two conditions: national sovereignty and royal continuity. The Allies insisted on an unconditional surrender. When it was eventually achieved in mid-August, though, both of the Japanese concerns were effectively addressed.
Such an outcome could in all probability have been achieved considerably earlier. The US had invested heavily in the Manhattan Project, though, and the investment could not be allowed to go waste. Besides, although the weapon had been tested, its actual effects on populations could not be determined without picking guinea pigs. Uranium was the key component of the weapon of mass destruction tested on Hiroshima. In Nagasaki just three days later it was plutonium.
It probably wasn’t purely revenge for Pearl Harbour, although that aspect is very likely to have played a role in the decision. Among other questions that continue to rise up 70 years later is whether an administration presided over by Franklin Roosevelt would have gone as far as the one led by Harry Truman. Truman had a very different conception of America’s ally the Soviet Union than his predecessor, and it is not difficult to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the first shots in the forthcoming Cold War.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki no doubt propelled Soviet pursuit of nuclear power, assisted by a surprisingly large number of Western scientists who deemed it potentially disastrous for the US to be the sole possessor of nuclear weapons.
The arms race followed, and the concept of mutually assured destruction is believed to have prevented a nuclear conflagration over the decades. The logic remains questionable, though. If nuclear weapons substantially more destructive than the ones used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki are never to be used, why should they exist in the first place?
There have been several close calls since 1945, notably in the context of the Korea and Vietnam wars and the Cuban Missile Crisis, not to mention the perennially fraught India-Pakistan context, but also because of technical flaws.
Ultimately, this risk can be reduced to zero only if nuclear weapons cease to exist. Unfortunately, that is not a realistic prospect in the foreseeable future. The best one can hope for is that Hiroshima-Nagasaki will not be overshadowed by an even more grotesque catastrophe. Arguably, that can only be guaranteed by following the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to its logical consequences.
Seventy years ago, Burchett noted: “I write these … as a warning to the world.” His words have at best partially served that purpose. As long as nuclear weapons remain, and other nations continue aspiring to them, the warning cannot be said to have been adequately heeded.