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The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: plain evil or a necessary evil?

By Lee Mesika
 Hulton Archive / Stringer
*Updated 2024
Almost 79 years ago, the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in August 1945, causing two cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to become synonymous with nuclear destruction – and the human aptitude for it. Given the atrocious war it brought to a halt, historians are still divided over the question: was this act plain evil or a necessary evil?
Here are three reasons for and against the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Justified Evil


The bombings ended WWII

On August 15, 1945, Japan announced their surrender. This was just six days after the Nagasaki bombing, and nine days after the bombing of Hiroshima. World War II was finally over. After the Potsdam Declaration (which defined the terms for Japanese surrender) between July 17 and August 2, 1945, the Japanese Supreme War Council could not reach a consensus regarding whether or not to surrender. America decided to drop the bombs – and could have had three more atomic bombs ready by August 19, 1945. Japan Emperor Hirohito was pushed by America’s destructive bombings to break the deadlock within his War Council and agree to the terms of the declaration. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki officially ended the second world war.


Led to global nuclear disarmament programs

This was the first time nuclear weapons were put to use in actual combat. It was also the last time, since it showed the world just how devastating they are. After World War II, many nuclear disarmament movements and international councils came into being with the purpose of banning these weapons of mass destruction. These organizations led to treaties being signed and sanctions being placed against countries around the world in order to prevent nuclear catastrophe from happening again. Such continued global unity against nuclear weapons still resonates today and has strengthened recent American-led efforts to disarm North Korea.


Saved Lives

Despite the number of Japanese casualties, many believe that by dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives around the world were saved. By the end of the war, the total number of US Army troops who were dead or missing in the Pacific and southeast Asia was 41,592, with an additional 145,706 ground troops wounded. Not to mention that around 9,000 British, Indian and Commonwealth soldiers were killed or wounded in the Far East, with another 130,000 captured. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps and Navy corpsmen in this region suffered total casualties of 23,160 killed or missing and 67,199 wounded.


On the Japanese side, let’s look at the results of a B-29 incendiary raid over Tokyo. Just one of these raids (of which there were a few) killed about 125,000 people. This suggests that two of these raids would have been equivalent to the total amount of casualties that resulted from the atomic bombs. In the Potsdam Declaration, the countries against Japan stated that if Japan didn’t surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction,” so it’s safe to say that if the war against Japan hadn’t ended when it did, there would have been more such raids. Historians suggest that the 250,000 casualties from the atomic bombs could have easily reached millions if they hadn’t been dropped.


Pure Evil


Oh, the humanity

The bombs completely destroyed both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Hiroshima, nearly 92% of the structures in the city had been either destroyed or damaged by blast and fire. These weren’t the only impacts these bombs had. While the more-than-a-quarter-of-a-million death toll was enormous, the bombing itself was only the beginning of the enormous suffering the survivors went through. About half of the deaths came in the immediate weeks/years after and not necessarily on the day of the bombing. Many died in the following weeks as a result of the radiation. For those who did survive, many types of illnesses and cancers developed after the bombing.


Civilian collateral damage

Most nations are in agreement that war should be fought between armies, not civilians. True, civilian casualties can’t always be avoided, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave new meaning to  collateral damage. In Hiroshima, the estimate of civilian deaths resulting from dropping “Little Boy” stands around 80,000. (This is in addition to around 20,000 Japanese soldiers were killed as a result of the bombing.)


Meanwhile, Nagasaki’s death toll is estimated between 40,000-80,000. Among the civilian deaths in Nagasaki, it is estimated that 6,200 out of the 7,500 employees of the Mitsubishi Munitions plant, and 24,000 other civilians (including 2,000 Koreans) who worked in other war factories and plants in Nagasaki. (This is in addition to around 150 Japanese soldiers.) Estimates of the total amount of deaths as a result of the bombings differ, and range from anywhere between 220,000 to over 260,000 people. But the number of civilians killed seems unreasonably high in relation to the number of soldiers killed.


They didn’t prevent the Cold War

After World War II, tensions rose between the America and the Soviet Union. It is believed that America actually used the atomic bomb against the Japanese to show the Soviets their strength. This ended up backfiring on America, leading to an arms race in which the Soviets were able to build a bomb of their own by 1949. The world once again came close to nuclear brinkmanship in 1962, during the faceoff between America and the Soviet Union off the shores of Cuba. Though tensions have since cooled with the fall of the Soviet Union, relations are still challenging today between these two powers.


The Bottom Line: Many believe that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were inhumane. But, then again, war itself is inhuman. As the bombings ended WWII, do you think they were an act of plain evil or was this evil necessary?

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