Few journalists bother to visit Nagasaki, even though it is one of only two cities in the world to “meet the atomic bomb,” as some of the survivors of that experience, sixty-six years ago today, put it. It remains the Second City, and “Fat Man” the forgotten bomb. No one in America ever wrote a bestselling book called Nagasaki, or made a film titled Nagasaki, Mon Amour. “We are an asterisk,” Shinji Takahashi, a sociologist in Nagasaki, once told me, with a bitter smile. “The inferior A-bomb city.”
Yet in many ways, Nagasaki is the modern A-bomb city, the city with perhaps the most meaning for us today. For one thing, when the plutonium bomb exploded above Nagasaki it made the uranium-type bomb dropped on Hiroshima obsolete.
And then there’s this. “The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable,” Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, once observed, “but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki”—which he labeled a war crime. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who experienced the firebombing of Dresden at close hand, said much the same thing. “The most racist, nastiest act by this country, after human slavery, was the bombing of Nagasaki,” he once said. “Not of Hiroshima, which might have had some military significance. But Nagasaki was purely blowing away yellow men, women, and children. I’m glad I’m not a scientist because I’d feel so guilty now.”
A beautiful city dotted with palms largely built on terraces surrounding a deep harbor—the San Francisco of Japan—Nagasaki has a rich, bloody history, as any reader of Shogun knows. Three centuries before Commodore Perry came to Japan, Nagasaki was the country’s gateway to the west. The Portuguese and Dutch settled here in the 1500s. St. Francis Xavier established the first Catholic churches in the region in 1549, and Urakami, a suburb of Nagasaki, became the country’s Catholic center. While the rest of Japan was closed to the West, Nagasaki remained open for trade. Thomas Glover, one of the first English traders here, supplied the modern rifles that helped defeat the Tokugawa Shogunate in the nineteenth century.
Glover’s life served as a model for the story of Madame Butterfly, and Nagasaki is known in many parts of the world more for Butterfly than for the bomb. In Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, standing on the veranda of Glover’s home overlooking the harbor (see left), sings, “One fine day, we’ll see a thread of smoke arising…“ If she could have looked north from the Glover mansion, now Nagasaki’s top tourist attraction, on August 9, 1945, she would have seen, two miles in the distance, a thread of smoke with a mushroom cap.
By 1945, Nagasaki had become a Mitsubishi company town, turning out ships and armaments for Japan’s increasingly desperate war effort. Few Japanese soldiers were stationed here, and only about 250 of them would perish in the atomic bombing. It was still the Christian center in the country, with more than 10,000 Catholics among its 250,000 residents. Most of them lived in the outlying Urakami district, the poor part of town, where a magnificent cathedral seating 6,000 had been built almost brick-by-brick by the parishioners.
At 11:02 am on August 9, 1945, “Fat Man” was detonated more than a mile off target, almost directly over the Urakami Cathedral, which was nearly leveled, killing dozens of worshippers waiting for confession. Concrete roads in the valley literally melted.
While Urakami suffered, the rest of the city caught a break. The bomb’s blast boomed up the valley destroying everything in its path but didn’t quite reach the congested harbor or scale the high ridge to the Nakashima valley. Some 35,000 perished instantly, with another 50,000 or more fated to die afterwards. Those living in the Nakashima area saw the white flash, heard the roar, felt the ground shake, but escaped the thermal rays and firestorms and much of the radiation. The plutonium bomb hit with the force of 22 kilotons, almost double the uranium bomb’s blast in Hiroshima.
If the bomb had exploded as planned, directly over the Mitsubishi shipyards, the death toll in Nagasaki would have made Hiroshima, in at least one important sense, the Second City. Nothing would have escaped, perhaps not even the most untroubled conscience half a world away.
There were bitter consequences for the selectivity of the Nagasaki bomb, however. In Hiroshima, total devastation placed everyone who survived on the same footing. But in Nagasaki, half the city (including the Glover mansion) escaped. While Hiroshima rushed to rebuild, relief efforts in Nagasaki were slowed. The Catholic character of Urakami contributed to the divisiveness. Many Shintoists and Buddhists tried to disassociate themselves from the shame of the bombing. They called the atomic device “the Urakami bomb.” Some of them believed God was sending a message in singling out the Catholics. The problem was, many Catholics felt the same way.
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Hard evidence to support a popular theory that the chance to “experiment” with the plutonium bomb was the major reason for the bombing of Nagasaki remains sketchy but still one wonders (especially when visiting the city, as I recount in my new book) about the overwhelming, and seemingly thoughtless, impulse to automatically use a second atomic bomb even more powerful than the first.
Criticism of the attack on Nagasaki has centered on the issue of why Truman did not step in and stop the second bomb after the success of the first to allow Japan a few more days to contemplate surrender before targeting another city for extinction. In addition, the United States knew that its ally the Soviet Union would join the war within hours, as previously agreed, and that the entrance of Japan’s most hated enemy, as much as the Hiroshima bomb, would likely speed the surrender (“fini Japs” when the Russians declare war, Truman had predicted in his diary). If that happened, however, it might cost the United States in a wider Soviet claim on former Japanese conquests in Asia. So there was much to gain by getting the war over before the Russians advanced. Some historians have gone so far as state that the Nagasaki bomb was not the last shot of World War II but the first blow of the cold war.
Whether this is true or not, there was no presidential directive specifically related to dropping the second bomb. The atomic weapons in the US arsenal, according to the July 2, 1945, order, were to be used “as soon as made ready,” and the second bomb was ready within three days of Hiroshima. Nagasaki was thus the first and only victim of automated atomic warfare.
In one further irony, Nagasaki was not even on the original target list for A-bombs but was added after Secretary of War Henry Stimson objected to Kyoto. He had visited Kyoto himself and felt that destroying Japan’s cultural capital would turn the citizens against America in the aftermath. Just like that, tens of thousands in one city were spared and tens of thousands of others elsewhere were marked for death.
General Leslie Groves, upon learning of the Japanese surrender offer after the Nagasaki attack, decided that the “one-two” strategy had worked, but he was pleased to learn the second bomb had exploded off the mark, indicating “a smaller number of casualties than we had expected.” But as historian Martin Sherwin has observed, “If Washington had maintained closer control over the scheduling of the atomic bomb raids the annihilation of Nagasaki could have been avoided.” Truman and others simply did not care, or to be charitable, did not take care.
After hearing of Nagasaki, however, Truman quickly ordered that no further bombs be used without his express permission, to give Japan a reasonable chance to surrender—one bomb, one city and 70,000 deaths too late. When they’d learned of the Hiroshima attack, the scientists at Los Alamos generally expressed satisfaction that their work had paid off. But many of them took Nagasaki quite badly. Some would later use the words “sick” or “nausea” to describe their reaction.
As months and then years passed, few Americans denounced as a moral wrong the targeting of entire cities for extermination. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, declared that we never should have hit Japan “with that awful weapon.” The left-wing writer Dwight MacDonald cited America’s “decline to barbarism” for dropping “half-understood poisons” on a civilian population. His conservative counterpart, columnist and magazine editor David Lawrence, lashed out at the “so-called civilized side” in the war for dropping bombs on cities that kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. However much we rejoice in victory, he wrote, “we shall not soon purge ourselves of the feeling of guilt which prevails among us…. What a precedent for the future we have furnished to other nations even less concerned than we with scruples or ideals! Surely we cannot be proud of what we have done. If we state our inner thoughts honestly, we are ashamed of it.”