Why do we pay so much attention to Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

There have been countless articles, protests and commemorations in recent days on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But why is there so much focus on these events?

This may seem an odd question to ask, especially at the time of their 70th anniversaries, but it is not as flippant as it sounds. True, at least 200,000 people died – an appalling waste of human life and the source of countless personal and family tragedies. But such horrors were anything but unique at that time – the bombing of Hiroshima took place in the context of a war in which, on a reasonable estimate, some 60m people were killed.

A high proportion of these were innocent civilians, meaning that the mass murder of non-combatants was already commonplace by the time that this blight reached the unsuspecting and essentially defenceless citizens of Hiroshima.

The city, spared until that point, certainly suffered badly, but it was not the only – let alone the first – metropolis to be struck from the air. Coventry, Hamburg and Berlin, to name but three, were also scenes of aerial devastation. Admittedly, they were wrecked in different fashion. Fleets of aircraft were necessary to flatten them.

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki.
Atomic cloud over Nagasaki.

By contrast, Hiroshima was destroyed by one bomb from one warplane in one sortie – a startling demonstration of brute force and the escalating power of modern weaponry. Yet, as the US air force had demonstrated earlier in 1945, worse results were obtainable by conventional means. More people died when Tokyo was firebombed than were killed on the day from the blast and flames at Hiroshima. The atomic bomb did the same job more efficiently, but it was the same job.

Widening the context a little further, it is worth stressing that the hostilities in Asia were particularly brutal and Hiroshima was but one cataclysm among many. This was not purely because of the much commented upon hatred, racial and otherwise, that fuelled the Japanese-American contest, intense though that was. Japan had been fighting in China since at least 1937 (arguably since the Mukden Incident of 1931) and little that had taken place in that conflict had conformed to that most unsatisfactory and contradictory of phrases “civilised warfare”.

The rape of Nanking, the capital of Nationalist China, is possibly the best known of these atrocities. However, the fate of Chungking (Chongqing), the city chosen as the replacement capital, demonstrates that it was not alone. Selected as the new seat of government in part for its inaccessibility, Chungking could not be reached by Japanese armies – so a repeat of the pillage suffered by Nanking could not occur. But it could be reached from the air. As a result, from 1938 onwards it was subjected to sustained and continuous aerial attack. In terms of frequency rather than the weight of ordnance dropped upon it, it was one of the most heavily bombed cities of World War II.

Unsurprisingly, the history of these bombing raids is replete with tragic tales of loss and the city undoubtedly suffered badly. That, however, was preferable to Japanese occupation. The miseries of this do not need to be catalogued here, although it says something about their intensity that they are still well remembered in Korea, China and elsewhere in Asia. But it is worth recording that by 1945 hundreds of thousands of people were dying each month in Japanese occupied Asia, a reminder that the evils of war extended well beyond the battlefield and were not just experienced by the bombed.

None of this makes what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki any less objectionable – no tragedy is any less of a tragedy because there are other tragedies taking place at the same time – but it does make it, in the literal sense, unremarkable.

Nothing illustrates this better than the reaction of the Japanese military leadership to the news of Hiroshima’s destruction. The dominant political authority in Japan in 1945 was the Supreme War Council, a body that brought together in one institution the six main representatives of the army, navy and “civilian” government.

The three most military members of this council were utterly unmoved by the reports of Hiroshima’s fate. For them, the destruction of one more city was no reason to change their plans to fight the war to a victorious conclusion by smashing the long expected American invasion on the beaches. The “civilian” members felt otherwise, but could not carry the day. So no change in policy took place.

The resolve of these soldiers and sailors was also unaffected by news of the similar holocaust that hit Nagasaki three days later; and for the same reason: cities had been destroyed by the US air force at will for months; it was not deemed a new factor. As is well known, the intervention of the Emperor was needed to persuade the army and navy to adopt a different course. Seventy years down the line, the idea that two examples of destruction by atomic bomb would not have any affect on policy seems unbelievable, but by 1945 the banality of mass death and destruction was such that this was the case.

Given this, why should we mark this event after all this time? The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is special not because of the numbers that died nor because of the extent of the destruction, but because of their symbolism. They have come to stand for the future that we want to avoid in a way that some of the other horrors cannot.

Plenty of wars have been fought since 1945 – and many more people have been killed either fighting them or as innocent victims caught up in them. It is a sad reflection on the human condition, but this is unlikely to change. Equally, it is no less tragic that despite the vivid lesson of the Holocaust, acts of genocide still blight our world, as the “ethnic cleansing” in former Yugoslavia and the killings in Rwanda prove.

But the use of atomic weapons in anger has not occurred since those fearsome August days in 1945. Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki helps remind us of the need to keep this lesson firmly to the fore.

Matthew Seligmann, reader in Modern History at Brunel University London.

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