The Unsettling Truth About America’s Attack On Nagasaki

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The first GOP presidential debate and Senator Chuck Schumer’s concurrent announcement that he will oppose the proposed deal with Iran are only the latest of many factors that have kept the Iran proposal atop the national and international headlines for weeks now. While the debate includes differing attitudes toward Iran, toward the prospect of further war in the Middle East, and toward the Obama administration’s foreign policies, it also reflects longstanding arguments about whether and how to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, along with who should be entrusted with regulating and inspecting them.

I’m far from the first commentator to note the central irony to America’s prominent past and present role in those debates: that the United States remains the only nation to have dropped a nuclear bomb on another country. Indeed, 70 years ago this past week, the U.S. dropped not one but two nuclear bombs on Japan, bombing Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9. While Hiroshima has understandably received most of the attention and coverage, from its own moment down through our own, I would argue that it is Nagasaki that lays particularly bare the fundamental truths of both nuclear weapons and war itself.

On August 9, the U.S. aircraft Bockscar dropped a plutonium implosion-type bomb, nicknamed Fat Man, on the coastal city of Nagasaki, killing between 20,000 and 40,000 citizens immediately and roughly the same number over the next few months (and many thousands more in the months and years that followed). While the Nagasaki bomb itself differed from Little Boy, the uranium gun-type atomic bomb dropped by the Enola Gay on Hiroshima, the implication and effects were different too.

For one thing, the Nagasaki attack followed too closely upon the heels of the Hiroshima bombing to allow Hiroshima to serve its purpose as a deterrent. After the Hiroshima bombing, President Truman issued a statement, warning Japan that “if they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Precisely because the atomic bomb and its effects were so completely new and unfamiliar, however, it stands to reason that it would take the Japanese government some time to determine and assess what had taken place, and then respond accordingly. Emperor Hirohito and his government immediately began taking those steps, but the U.S. gave them only two days (August 7 and 8) before the Nagasaki bombing; indeed, a dress rehearsal took place on August 8, leaving even less of a window for response. In short, it’s almost impossible to argue that the U.S. ever intended not to drop the second bomb.

Moreover, Nagasaki represented a much more fully civilian target from Hiroshima. While the latter was indeed a civilian city, it also housed two significant army headquarters and other military depots and facilities; in Nagasaki, on the other hand, soldiers comprised an estimated 3 percent of the city’s 1945 population. Although Nagasaki was a backup choice after the mission’s initial target was too obscured by clouds produced by another U.S. firebombing, that initial target, the historic Kokura section of the city of Kitakyushu, was just as fully a civilian one. Which is to say, while it could be argued that Hiroshima comprised both a civilian and a military target (although it was at least as much the former as the latter), this hastily executed second bombing was always intended to impact and destroy a much more overtly and thoroughly civilian population.

Again and again and again, American history reveals the centrality of such civilian destruction to war. From the English burning of Mystic village in the 1630s Pequot War to the English burning of Washington in the War of 1812, from Sherman’s strategy of total warfare during his Civil War march to the infamous smallpox blankets handed out to Native American communities during the Indian Wars, from the Allied firebombing of Dresden in World War II to the massacres at My Lai in the Vietnam War and Fallujah in the Iraq War, civilian populations have been consistently targeted in our military conflicts.

Some of these acts were deemed legal and some illegal under the labyrinthine rules of war. On some, history has looked back with understanding and acceptance and on some with horror and condemnation. But those distinctions should not obscure the basic similarity here. Targeting and killing civilians is not just an inevitable side effect of war, but a fundamental element of its existence and execution.

Seen in that light, the nuclear bomb represents the extreme but logical endpoint of war, the most overt and effective illustration of this fundamental destructiveness. What any and every nuclear weapon exemplifies, that is, is the human horrors to which war will always bring us, developed into a tool that has the possibility to destroy not just particular civilian communities but all of them. In its bombings of Hiroshima and, especially, Nagasaki, the United States ushered in and made plain these truths. And it seems unavoidable to me that once we recognize and engage with those histories and the truths they convey, we will not only remain committed to denying nuclear weapons to individual nations such as Iran, but also and most importantly will dedicate ourselves to eliminating every nuclear bomb, here in the U.S. as well as around the world.

Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

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  1. Perhaps they should have surrendered after Hiroshima then.

    Hell for that matter, maybe they shouldn’t have brought this end upon their nation with Pearl Harbor, Baatan, Palawan, Unit 731, Shinyo Maru, Nanking, etc…

    They started it. They had it coming. We finished it.

  2. I’ve always had questions about the dropping of the second bomb and suspect it was done more for the benefit of the Soviet Union–“see, Stalin, we can do this repeatedly”–than for any sort of strategic reason vis a vis Japan. And if that was the case, it would be a stain on our country indeed.
    That said, this essay–from Iran to smallpox blankets to Big Boy in a couple of paragraphs, with no real exploration of the geopolitical context or the nominal rationale that the Truman Admin gave for its actions–is shite. Let’'s hope the professor is never awarded awarded tenure if this is representative of his intelect and scholarship.

  3. There are conversations among historians and linguists that Japan indeed did attempt to reach out to surrender immediately after Hiroshima, but that mistranslations and misunderstanding made the effort futile. I no longer no the source of this information, which was presented in my linguistics class in college; I would be interested if there is some reliable source for this idea.

  4. Thanks for the comment–600 word op eds can only touch on topics to be sure, and I appreciate additions to the conversation in comments.

    And that’s despite already being tenured! We never stop learning, y’know.


  5. Whatever or however America justifies the nuking of another nation, the fact remains that we did and that we now try to appear as the voice of reason to the rest of the world.
    Without ridding ourselves of the bombs of mass destruction, I’ve never understood how we can even begin to preach to anyone else about not acquiring nuclear capability.
    Anyone that thinks that Israel is in the right in its arguments for a heavily sanctioned Iran due to fear of nuclear attack are engaging in the same backwards thinking. Israel has a much larger nuclear arsenal than they admit and aren’t about to give it up either and yet they deflect to the almost comical thought that it is justified because their enemy, that has not one nuke, and is very limited in their ability to produce any at all is somehow justification for their unnecessary arsenal.

    Rational people don’t talk nuclear war where all lose, rational people talk peace and diplomacy and use reasonable methods to achieve goals. Rational people see the loss of nuclear war as what it is, not worth any gain that might be wrongly foreseen.

    The fear that creates the build up of nuclear bombs should not be greater than the fear of the reality of actually using nuclear weapons.

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