From 1945—“The Atom Strikes!”

Shortly after the surrender of Japan in 1945 and the arrival of U.S. occupation forces in the country, the Manhattan Project sent a team to Japan to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the targets of the atomic bomb attacks, and survey weapon effects and damage. The Atom Strikes! (exclamation point in the original title) is a 30 minute film commissioned by the U.S. Army Signal Corps which reports on the survey, with detailed depictions of damage to different kinds of structures at various distances from ground zero.

The effects of radiation on the population are dismissed relatively lightly. Whether this is due to lack of knowledge at the time, belief that an airburst would minimise radiation damage and fallout, or for propaganda purposes I do not know.

There is not a shred of remorse or second thoughts about use of the weapons. The general tone is triumphalist. The last words of the narration, spoken over film of the Trinity test explosion, are:

This is the record. Endless man-hours of work, two B-29s, two atomic bombs three days apart, two cities: a tabulation of that record speaks for itself.

This is the 77th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.


One of my Cornell physics professors Phil Morrison was the first American physicist from Los Alamos to visit the atom bomb damage in Japan shortly after the surrender. I think he had medical damage from it.


Why should there be? After all, they had fire-bombed Tokyo, with results that were probably more devastating. The English had fire-bombed Dresden, causing huge civilian casualties. All participants in the war had deliberately targeted civilians, regardless of the “Rules of War”. Everyone was just glad the war was over, and hundreds of thousands more people (probably including themselves) would not have to die.

Given the happy state of Hiroshima today (compared to the devastated state of Detroit), it is fairly clear that the undoubted harmful effects of radiation, while bad, are not the civilization-ending disaster preached by the Usual Suspects. The decades of academic wailing about the use of nuclear weapons has been the kind of luxury only available to a society which had the hard men prepared to do what needed to be done to win the war and stop the slaughter.


The more I read about WWII, the less I find the need to second guess the decision to use the Bombs. As I understand the real existential angst, loss of American lives, and single-minded effort it took to create war materiel, I think I understand how it all led up to use and absence of second thoughts. In a sense, the scientists who created the bomb expressed society’s second thoughts even as they finished the job of preparation. They, as a group who understood exactly what was about to be unleashed, were hesitant. I am cautious when I find myself using my contemporary values to judge history. Born at the very end of WWII, I have had a relatively non-threatening existence when it comes to war - other than what is on the horizon near the end of my life.


So, we should have sacrificed untold thousands more of our citizens? Watch this older PJTV Bill Whittle video, then we can commence a discussion about the morality and issues surrounding our nuking of Nippon.

I’ve visited the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, and a large sign in the entrance claims that we used The Bomb because we spent so much effort developing it and didn’t want it to be wasted. The Japanese are a wonderful people in general, but they have shown a penchant for altering history.


An interesting counterfactual to ponder is one in which Truman decides not to use the bomb in August 1945, keeping the Manhattan Project secret and reserving the possibility to use it later should invasion of the Japanese home islands fail or stall. Stalin, aware of the existence of the bomb from espionage and Truman’s statement to him at Potsdam after the Trinity test, decides not to enter the war with Japan. (In our timeline, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria two days after the bombing of Hiroshima.)

The U.S. and Britain proceed with the planned Operation Downfall invasion of the Japanese home islands in November 1945 and mount two amphibious landings in that month and in early 1946 near Tokyo.

Fighting was as fierce as predicted based upon the battle of Okinawa, and Allied casualties were in excess of 1.5 million, with Japanese military and civilian losses greater still. After the eventual surrender of Japan in March, 1946, the existence of the Manhattan project is declassified, and military and civilian figures who knew of the existence of the bomb and advocated its use immediately speak out, placing the responsibility for the casualties suffered since August 1945 directly on Truman and his senior military advisors and commanders. The dispute rages among the U.S. public, many of whom knew people who died in the Japan campaign.

In the 1948 elections, Republicans sweep the House, Senate, and presidency, and President Dewey charters a presidential commission to investigate the decision not to use the bomb against Japan and develop policy for use of the weapon in any future conflict.

The “decision not to drop the bomb” remains a controversial footnote to World War II more than seven decades later, during which no nuclear weapon has been used in war.


That took me down a rabbit hole to this interesting story


Much has been said and written about the decision to use the atomic bomb and drop the first on Hiroshima. But there has been relatively little discussion of the decision to bomb Nagasaki just three days later. In a 2015 article in the New Yorker, “Nagasaki: The Last Bomb”, Alex Wellerstein notes several little-known details of that attack.

First, the primary target for the second bomb was Kokura, not Nagasaki.

When Bockscar arrived over Kokura, at 10:45 a.m. , the crew found that the arsenal was “obscured by heavy ground haze and smoke,” according to the weaponeer’s flight log.

As the crew had been instructed to only bomb visually, they proceeded to the alternate target, Nagasaki, which had not been included in the original list of four targets.

Years after the bombing, General Leslie Groves, the micromanaging head of the Manhattan Project, admitted that he had never been able to figure out exactly when or why Nagasaki “was brought into the picture.”

Nagasaki was never reserved. In fact, it was bombed conventionally no fewer than four times before the Fat Man was dropped, including a little more than a week before Operation Centerboard II began. The city was not added to the list until the day before it was finalized.

Upon arriving at Nagasaki, it was obscured by clouds as well.

Nagasaki had clouds, too. It was the bombardier’s twenty-seventh birthday, and as Bockscar made its way over the city he searched for an opening. The prescribed aiming point was the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works, which covered an area about half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide at the mouth of a valley, along an inlet from the ocean. “I got it! I got it!” he suddenly shouted.

But did he really see the target, or drop the bomb by radar, knowing that the alternative would be to ditch it in the ocean?

Did the bombardier actually see his target? Postwar recollections are uncertain. The physicist and future Nobel Prize laureate Luis Alvarez, who was an observer on the Hiroshima mission, later wrote that he always took the story about the last-minute hole in the clouds “with a grain of salt,” noting that the errors in placing the bomb were similar to those that occurred with radar bombing.

President Truman not only did not explicitly order the second bombing, he appears to have been surprised by it.

President Truman seems to have been surprised by the second bombing, coming as it did so soon after the first. Intercepted Japanese reports of the damage on the ground at Hiroshima were just trickling in to American officials. Truman, who had written in his diary in late July that “military objectives and soldiers and sailors” were the target of the atomic bomb, “not women and children,” apparently confronted the reality of the weapon for the first time.

On 2022-08-08, Alex Wellerstein noted on Twitter:

The original planned schedule was one atomic bomb on August 3rd, another on August 10th. But bad weather pushed the first to August 6th (Hiroshima), and an unfavorable forecast moved the second up to August 9th (Nagasaki).

Thus, the original schedule would have given the Japanese a week to react to the bombing of Hiroshima and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war two days later, but the constraints of weather caused the two bombs to be dropped only three days apart.


The schedule changes are interesting. IIRC, they were trying to get Stalin to help obtain a negotiated surrender. Perhaps with four extra days, they would have had time to drop that approach.


The USSR played a rather duplicitous role in WWII, especially with respect to Japan. Stalin’s refusal to declare war on Japan until Japan was on its knees may have been a smart (from the USSR perspective) way to avoid their own version of the Two Front War which was grinding down Germany. And we cannot ignore the mountain of evidence that the Number 1 interest of FDR’s crew was saving communism – whatever Stalin wanted, Stalin got.

The compression of the nuclear bombing dates may even have helped the Japanese rulers to agree to surrender, by giving the impression that the USA had a large supply of “superbombs”.

The only speculation which is incontestable is that, if the war had not been brought to a close, hundreds of thousands, potentially millions, of additional lives would have been destroyed – military & civilian, Japanese & Allied.


Just as a side note on economics, has anyone ever seen a cost/damage comparison of sending a single plane with one very expensive large atomic bomb versus sending a “Thousand Bomber Raid” with tens of thousands of cheaper smaller bombs? The psychological impact of nuclear bombing was very clear, but the devastated cities across Japan, UK, Germany, USSR showed that huge bomber fleets loaded with Nobel’s plain old dynamite did a very effective (equally effective?) job of destruction, especially of civilians and civilian infrastructure.


I haven’t seen an economic analysis in the context of the situation in 1945, but certainly during the 1950s, and especially after the development of thermonuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons were seen as economical compared to the large fleets of bombers and trained crews to operate them that a conventional equivalent would require.

As to the situation at the end of World War II, I suspect that given the already sunk cost of the Manhattan project, the marginal cost to build and deploy a small number of fission bombs was small compared to continuing the massive incendiary raids which had been used against Japan. From the now-declassified minutes of the targeting committee, it was clear that they believed the psychological impact of “one bomb, one city” on Japan might be sufficient to cause a surrender in the near term.

If the atomic bomb had not been available or the decision made not to use it, Curtis LeMay was already in the process of transferring thousands of B-17s and crews from the European theatre to Okinawa, whence they would be able to bomb the Japanese home islands. Japan’s air defences were almost entirely annihilated by this point, so they could conduct low-level incendiary raids almost with impunity. As I recall, there was discussion of the problem of “running out of targets” due to LeMay’s campaign of burning Japan to the ground.

It would almost certainly been less expensive to use the B-17s in massive raids than the cost of developing the atomic bombs but, with them already developed, it was probably less costly in all regards (blood and treasure) to use them instead of the massive transfer of men and materiel from Europe to the Pacific an extended conventional bombing campaign against Japan would have involved.


Intuitively, that seems probable. But there is the difficulty of how to treat sunk costs. Ignoring the sunk costs of making the atomic bombs, it was clearly cheaper to send one B-29 bomber than to organize another Thousand Bomber Raid. But if we include the sunk costs of developing & building the bomb, should we also include the sunk costs of developing and building the B-29? And then there is the whole issue of quantifying the relative damages from the two approaches – including the very important morale effects in addition to the physical damage.

Economic assessments are tough! I think I will go back to quantum mechanics. :slightly_smiling_face:


Perhaps the timing of the Soviet declaration of war on Japan was related to the existing neutrality agreement in place since 1941. This had allowed shipment of “non-military” lend lease materiel, including trucks, food, locomotives (dual use items) throughout to war to Vladivostok and other Pacific ports on Soviet vessels throughout the war. Perhaps the Soviets were somewhat grateful? I really don’t know.


I believe my undergrad Cornell advisor Phil Morrison led that team.

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