Editorial: The two bombs that ended World War II: A haunting anniversary

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Early August 1945 was a confusing time for many Americans, who were experiencing some combination of celebration, sadness and foreboding.

The war in Europe was over, bringing home thousands of gleeful troops by ship. Yet newspapers were still catching up on reports of individual soldiers killed during winter and spring, while men continued to die in the Pacific. That meant Americans were learning nearly every day the names of friends and neighbors who did not make it back.

What would it take to defeat Japan and finally bring World War II to a close? The conventional wisdom was pessimistic — only a U.S. ground invasion would bring down the empire, requiring the deployment of 1 million men to Japan at a cost of hundreds of thousands more American lives.

And then suddenly, 75 years ago this week, the world changed forever, in ways grasped immediately, excitedly, but also hinted at darkly.

On Aug. 6, 1945, an American B-29 obliterated Hiroshima, Japan, with a secret weapon of ferocious untamed power — the first atomic bomb. On that day, at 9 a.m. E.T., President Harry Truman announced the existence of the bomb and reported the destruction of Hiroshima. The bomb, he warned, represented a revolutionary escalation of warfare. “It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe,” Truman declared. “The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.”

When Japan refused to surrender, the United States dropped a second bomb Aug. 9 on Nagasaki, leveling that city. The death toll from the two attacks totaled at least 225,000. Many victims suffered terrible burns and radiation sickness that would linger and kill later.

While it took Japan until Aug. 15 to announce its surrender, Americans recognized immediately after Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the war soon would be over, the invasion of the Japanese main islands could be called off and the terrible burden of fighting — and losing more young men — finally would lift.

“We hail this victory with gratitude,” the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board said on Aug. 11. “It means peace. Whatever uncertainties the peace contains, it will be peace, and in countless American homes long overhung with dread the day is one of Thanksgiving …

“The victory is not an occasion for national boasting. It speaks for itself. The deeds of American seamen, soldiers, and airmen cannot be enhanced by words we speak at home. They accomplished the impossible. They were backed by American production, which also accomplished the impossible.”

The Aug. 7 Tribune provided a broad account of Hiroshima and the bomb. The front page unveiled the spectacular scientific achievement and role the University of Chicago played in its development, while making clear the Atomic Age represented a frightful advance in humanity’s capacity to maim and destroy.

What did it mean? The Tribune suggested that these “terrible engines of death” had the potential to reorder world power. Whole cities now could be annihilated far more efficiently than conventional bombs had done. If the Nazis had won the race to harness the atom, Hitler could have won the war. In time, entire continents would exist under the shadow of potential annihilation. Might the Soviet Union become America’s next foe? “The secret of the weapon is being shared with Britain and Canada,” the Tribune reported, “but is not to be imparted to Russia, France and other countries pending a survey of the imagination-baffling implications of its uses for war and peace.”

Folks at the University of Chicago finally were able to confirm their contribution. Five thousand scientists and technicians had labored in secret for three years to help “wrest the secret of atomic energy from the universe,” the Tribune wrote. Only the university’s purchasing agent was said to have grasped the enormity of the project because of the “mounds of materials” requisitioned by researchers.

Scientific pride did not replace horror. When J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, witnessed the first test of the bomb in July 1945, he said later, “we knew the world would not be the same.” Some witnesses laughed, some cried. Oppenheimer said he contemplated a line of Hindu scripture: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The debate over whether the decision to drop the bomb was right, was moral, is easily misdirected. Japanese military leaders could not win the war, nor could they bring themselves to concede defeat. Until the A-bombing, fighting was certain to continue at tremendous cost to the people of both America and Japan. The Aug. 7 Tribune brought reminders. There were 21 U.S. dead after a destroyer hit a mine in the Philippines. There were 33 Chicago-area men reported wounded in various incidents. Then there was a brief story about an Evanston, Illinois, flyer lost during an air raid on Japan:

Second Lt. Eugene F. Kelly, 22, of Evanston, a bombardier on a B-29 which participated in the first raid over Tokyo, was killed March 11 en route to a B-29 raid on Nagoya, his parents have been advised. Kelly, who attended Northwestern University for two years, is survived by his widow, Mrs. Dorothy Nelson Kelly.

We were unfamiliar with Lt. Kelly, but in learning of his sacrifice and the life ambitions he was never able to fulfill, we thought of the untold thousands of other young Americans who avoided the lieutenant’s cruel fate because the war ended when it did. That is the sober justification for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The lingering question, the one that requires constant contemplation, is what must the world’s leaders do to make sure the bombings of Japan will be the only instances ever of using atomic energy as a tool of war.

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