Section: Special report
It began like the creation of the universe in Genesis -- with an unimaginable burst of light -- and at another time, in another place, it might have seemed at least for an instant to be something both benevolent and divine. Then came the fireball. Millions of degrees at its core, it roared, rolled and rose, sucking the life from Hiroshima into a pillar of toxic dust and debris billowing 8 miles into the sky. No, this was not an act of divine creation but the latest work of man, decreating a city in a crushing coda to the most destructive war in history and, in the bargain, altering global politics and war forever.
Unlike most of civilization's turning points, which arrive on cat's feet and insinuate themselves gradually into people's consciousness, the atomic bomb was history announcing itself like Vesuvius. The debate over the morality of inventing it and dropping it began immediately in that torpid summer of '45 -- and still bubbles a half century later. Warnings of a new age of terror came quickly. Among intellectuals and many ordinary folk alike, the end-of-the-war delirium was dimmed by a nagging disquiet. "Yesterday," Hanson Baldwin wrote in the New York Times, "we cinched victory in the Pacific, but we sowed the whirlwind."
The sower of the whirlwind was a bird of prey with a 141-foot wingspan. The Enola Gay swept over its target -- Hiroshima's Aioi Bridge -- just after 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945. Bombardier Tom Ferebee squeezed the trigger on his Norden bombsight. "Little Boy" -- looking to one crew member like "an elongated trash can with fins" -- tumbled out and turned its nose downward. The B-29, suddenly 5 tons lighter, lurched upward. Second Lieutenant Morris Jeppson began counting: One, two, three ... . Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets banked the plane sharply to the right, diving for more speed. ... 41, 42, 43. Jeppson stopped. The fuse was set for 43 seconds. He thought: It's a dud!
A great flash of light enveloped the Enola Gay and its two backup planes. Sgt. George "Bob" Caron, the Enola Gay's tail gunner, was the only crew member to see the fireball. Stripped to his T-shirt in the small tail compartment, Caron wore a Brooklyn Dodgers cap on his head; a medal of the Virgin Mary dangled from his neck. He carried a rosary from his mother and had taped next to the hatch a photo of "Wendover Mary," a frisky young woman clad only in high-heeled shoes who had posed in the Nevada desert for GI camera buffs. Finally, into the clear plastic cover of his oxygen chart he had slipped a photo of his wife, Kay. It was impossible to have too many good luck charms on a B-29 mission over the Empire of Japan.
Despite Caron's thick goggles, the fireball blinded him momentarily. As his vision came back, a semitransparent wave of compressed air whisked toward the plane. Caron was speechless with fear as it hit with a thud. "Flak!" Tibbets shouted instinctively. Four seconds later, Caron managed to give warning just before a second shock wave rocked the aircraft. The tail gunner was soon describing the scene below: "It's like bubbling molasses down there ... the mushroom is spreading out ... fires are springing up everywhere ... it's like a peep into hell."
As Caron began shooting pictures with the K-20 camera mounted in the tail, Tibbets turned the B-29 to bring the ruined city into view out of one side of the plane. The crew was stunned. "My God, look at that son of a bitch go!" exclaimed the copilot, Capt. Robert Lewis (he put it more elegantly in his journal, writing, "My God, what have we done?"). As the Enola Gay circled Hiroshima, Caron stared at the mushroom cloud with alarm. "Holy Moses ... Colonel, it's coming toward us!" he shouted. Tibbets banked the plane yet again.
Tibbets had experienced a metallic taste at the moment the bomb detonated. Now he was savoring the taste of success. "Fellows, you have just dropped the first atomic bomb in history," he declared between puffs on a Kaywoodie briar packed with Bond Street. "I think we've won the war." There would be no need for the 12 cyanide pills he carried --one for each crew member. Tibbets's first bombing run was as a civilian; he had dropped Baby Ruth bars on Miami. Contemplating his first combat mission in 1942, he was sickened by the thought of bombing civilians. But he found the antidote to such compunctions -- you erased them from your mind. You did not envision targets as places where women, children and men would soon be dying horribly. To you, the targets were bridges, buildings, docks and other inanimate objects.
On the trip back to the island of Tinian, six hours away, the Enola Gay and its backup planes were almost 400 miles from Hiroshima before the mushroom cloud could no longer be seen -- the cloud that would never vanish from the human horizon. On the Great Artiste, which had measured the blast with parachute-borne instruments, physicist Luis Alvarez wrote a letter for his 4-year-old son, Walter, to read when he was older: "What regrets I have about being a party to killing and maiming thousands of Japanese civilians this morning are tempered with the hope that this terrible weapon we have created may bring the countries of the world together and prevent further wars. Alfred Nobel thought that his invention of high explosives would have this effect, by making wars too terrible, but unfortunately it had just the opposite reaction. Our new destructive force is so many thousands of times worse that it may realize Nobel's dream."
A secret legacy. When Little Boy left the belly of the Enola Gay, Harry Truman was on the Atlantic Ocean aboard the USS Augusta, returning from the Potsdam Conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Within hours, he would take his place in popular memory as the president who dropped the atomic bomb. It was part of his inheritance from Franklin Roosevelt -- the mansion came with a crazy aunt in the attic. Roosevelt had died in mid-April, before getting around to sharing the secret of the Manhattan Project with his new vice president. Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Manhattan Project director Leslie Groves rapidly put Truman in the picture. In later years, Truman always contended that the decision to drop the bomb was his and his alone. In fact, as his biographer David McCullough suggests, he probably never really considered not using it at the earliest opportunity. In the spring and summer of '45, the American war machine was rushing to that end. America had not spent $1.8 billion developing a weapon that could end the war only to put it on the shelf while American servicemen went on dying day after day. As Groves would eventually write, Truman went with the flow "like a little boy on a toboggan."
Japan was beaten but unbowed. Its Navy was mostly beneath the waves, its Air Force smashed, its cities battered. Yet Allied intercepts of communications revealed that the militarists in charge in Tokyo were bent on vindicating their honor and that of their emperor through a bloody, bitter-end defense of the home islands. The invasion of Japan was set for November. Truman worried it would be "Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other." Seizing Okinawa, a comparatively small island, had cost 50,000 U.S. casualties (deaths of Japanese soldiers and civilians ran as high as 150,000). Gen. Douglas MacArthur told the Army chief of staff, George Marshall, that the invasion of the island of Kyushu alone could produce more than 100,000 casualties. If invasion of the Tokyo Plain, set for March 1946, were also needed, the toll could easily double.
The atomic bomb, Truman was told by his closest advisers, had a good chance of saving these lives and many Japanese lives as well by shocking Tokyo's strutting panjandrums into surrender. How many Japanese lives would the Hiroshima attack cost? J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos Laboratory, estimated 20,000. (The actual toll turned out to be 80,000 immediately and an additional 60,000 by the end of 1945 from radiation and other injuries; the bombing of Nagasaki three days later killed some 35,000 immediately and another 35,000 by year's end.)
Allied bombing of civilians was almost routine by mid-1945. Strikes against civilians had caused great shock when the Japanese made them in Shanghai in 1937, Hitler later following suit in Europe. In the end, the Allies gave back much more than they got; the firebombing of Dresden had killed at least 35,000 Germans in February 1945; 100,000 to 200,000 men, women and children died on the night of March 9 when the U.S. 20th Air Force doused Tokyo with jellied gasoline; all told, in the months before Hiroshima, bombs killed up to 500,000 in Japanese cities and left 13 million homeless.
As horrified as Stimson, science policy coordinator Vannevar Bush and others in Washington were, the escalation had proved to be both irresistible and popular ("Blazing Tokyo Symbolizes Doom that Awaits Every Big Jap City," a Newsweek headline proclaimed). The atomic bomb was a hair-of-the-dog remedy -- a last swig of slaughter to end the slaughter. Truman accepted this but sugarcoated the strategy in his own diary. Two weeks before Hiroshima, he wrote: "Soldiers and sailors" would be the target "and not women and children."
The first report of the Enola Gay's success arrived as Truman was eating lunch with members of the Augusta crew. Grasping the hand of the Map Room officer who brought him the radiogram, Truman said, "Captain Graham, this is the greatest thing in history." The president tapped a glass with a spoon and announced the news to his dining companions. While they cheered, Truman carried the word about this incredible bomb to others on the ship. "We won the gamble," he said, smiling broadly.
A present from home. The smiles were even broader among the GIs who were scheduled to hurl themselves against nearly 2 million regular troops in Japan and numberless civilian defenders. They would not, after all, be scanning the skies for kamikazes screaming down their throats. They would not be discharging their flamethrowers into caves and choking on the smell of gasoline and burning flesh. They would not be doing any sweaty pas de deux with soldiers shouting, "Banzai!" They would not be bayoneted, shot or blown up by mine or mortar. The bomb was a reprieve made all the sweeter by its unexpectedness.
Some 100,000 Allied prisoners of war had an even greater stake in the bomb. Under orders from Tokyo, the moment the invasion of Japan's home islands began, the POWs were to be beheaded, stabbed, shot or otherwise slaughtered en masse. At certain camps, prisoners had been kept busy in recent days digging their own graves (50,000 POWs had died since 1942, many as a result of horrible abuses).
They learned about Hiroshima in myriad ways. Raymond "Hap" Halloran, a B-29 bombardier, had shrunk from 215 pounds to 112 in eight months as a POW, part of which he had spent caged at the Tokyo Zoo, handcuffed and naked. One day, he was working on a cleanup detail in Omori when a guard ordered the POWs to return to camp: "Campa go back! Campa go back!" As the men were hustled to the stockade, a couple of hundred local people stood on the roadside cursing them and throwing stones. Halloran and his buddies knew something momentous had happened. But they did not learn what it was until they boarded a U.S. hospital ship three weeks later.
The news came much quicker to Sgt. Frank Fujita, a Japanese-American held eight blocks from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Kaji Domoto, a U.S.-born Japanese who liked to serve up anti-American diatribes, told the assembled POWs that the "murderers" had destroyed an entire city with one bomb. The GIs scoffed. Domoto was notorious for fanciful tales, including one about a U.S. plane downed by a rice ball. He convinced them this time by producing Western dispatches on Truman's announcement.
Fujita and his buddies felt no elation. Previously, they had lived in fear of their guards executing them. Now, they had a second worry: that their own countrymen would drop an atomic bomb on them. Truman's announcement said that if Japan did not surrender, it would face "a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth." On the night of August 11, Fujita lay on his bed doubled up with stomach cramps, listening for guards approaching -- or for the sound of B-29s. He scribbled in his secret diary: "Two sorties this morning -- I think by the end of next month we'll be blown to hell or on our way home."
POWs were the first Americans to see the wasteland of Hiroshima from the ground. Some two dozen were prisoners in Hiroshima Castle on August 6 (unbeknown to U.S. intelligence, which thought the city was one of the few Japanese cities without POWs). Only five lived through the blast, and three of those died in the next few hours at the hands of irate Japanese. The other two, poisoned by radiation, died 11 days later in terrible agony. Their bodies covered with sores, green stuff oozing from their mouths and ears, they begged to be put to death. On the last day of their lives, the two hapless Americans were put on a truck with a B-29 crew picked up at sea a week after bailing out near Yawata. A Japanese military police captain had the truck stopped and the men's blindfolds removed. The Americans were aghast at the panorama of rubble. "Look what you have done!" the MP captain shouted. "One bomb! One bomb! Look there. That blue light is women burning. It is babies burning. Is it wonderful to see the babies burning?"
Fallout on the cape. "The president said that Allied scientists have now harnessed the basic power of the universe." When the news of the bomb crackled out over radios across America, Dwight Macdonald, editor of the radical-left journal Politics, was in a sun-swept cottage on Cape Cod. Macdonald, his wife and a friend repaired to a house where writer Mary McCarthy, her brother Kevin and Partisan Review Editor Philip Rahv were vacationing. The little circle of intellectuals stewed with outrage. The next issue of Politics was at the printer. Macdonald got on the telephone to have the issue held for a new editorial. Hiroshima, he wrote, "places `us,' the defenders of civilization, on a moral level with `them,' the beasts of Maidenek [a Nazi death camp]." The postwar guilt trip of the left had begun.
Other denunciations came from ideologically disparate sources. Commonweal, the liberal Roman Catholic magazine, found America's victory to be "defiled." The mainline Protestant journal Christian Century called Hiroshima and Nagasaki "America's atomic atrocity," asserting that "the United States has been morally defeated because she has been driven to use unconscionable methods of fighting." Even David Lawrence, the conservative editor of U.S. News, told his readers, "Surely we cannot be proud of what we have done. If we state our inner thoughts honestly, we are ashamed of it." In Time's cover story, James Agee was eloquent but circumspect: "The greatest and most terrible of wars ended, this week, in the echoes of an enormous event -- an event so much more enormous that, relative to it, the war itself shrank to minor significance." Agee offered friends a markedly more brutal post-mortem, calling the bomb "the second worst thing to happen to the human race. The worst was Creation."
But Americans who condemned the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as immoral were a minority. Truman had the overwhelming support of the population, the polls soon showed. The bomb brought victory, and that was enough for most people. Truth to tell, many had vengeance in their hearts. "No tears of sympathy will be shed in America for the Japanese people," the Omaha World Herald predicted. "Had they possessed a comparable weapon at Pearl Harbor, would they have hesitated to use it?" As usual, the cartoonists cut closest to the quick. In an Atlanta Constitution cartoon, bodies flew every which way into the air above Hiroshima. "Land of the Rising Sons," said the caption. PM, a New York City tabloid, ran a cartoon panel that had nothing in it except a balloon containing the words "So sorry." A Fortune survey of attitudes toward the A-bomb found 22.7 percent agreeing that "we should have quickly used many more of them before Japan had a chance to surrender."
What preyed on most minds in those first days of the atomic age, however, was not whether the bomb should have been dropped. It was the issue captured by cartoonist D.R. Fitzpatrick of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who depicted a minuscule human figure trying to harness a massive lightning bolt. The caption asked: "Little Man, Where To?" The future of the human race suddenly seemed at risk. "For all we know, we have created a Frankenstein!" radio broadcaster H.V. Kaltenborn warned on the evening of August 7, his voice ringing with its trademark tone of high melodrama: "We must assume that with the passage of only a little time, an improved form of the new weapon we use today can be turned against us."
Empire of the ants. When the surrender of Japan was announced on August 15, people went wild. In Washington, a crowd at the White House fence chanted, "We want Truman, we want Truman," until the president, arm in arm with Bess, strode onto the lawn. Traffic stopped, horns blew, feathers fluttered from the windows of the Willard Hotel. Thousands sang "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here." Yet the mood among the most thoughtful in the capital was subdued. The New Republic's "T.R.B." (Frank Kent) found among his friends "a curious new sense of insecurity, rather incongruous in the face of military victory."
And no wonder. The nightmares that would haunt the country throughout the cold war were springing to life red in tooth and claw. John Campbell Jr., who as editor of Astounding Science Fiction had run stories about imaginary atomic bombs since the 1930s and who was now suddenly in demand for interviews, made no bones about the next world war: "Every major city will be wiped out in 30 minutes. ... New York will be a slag heap." Only three days after Hiroshima, a New York Herald Tribune headline announced: "75 Atom Bombs Could Destroy New York City." The story explained, however, that "only seven" bombs "would be needed to reduce Manhattan to particles. ... The first logical target might be City Hall. This would erase lower Manhattan south of Houston Street, taking the skyscrapers, the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, the Holland Tunnel ..."
By late August, a New Yorker cartoon anticipated the arms race, showing two tiny military figures standing before a long row of massive warheads many times bigger than Little Boy. Writers were already speculating about the development of guided missiles equipped with atomic warheads and other missiles capable of shooting down offensive missiles. Even little children got the message that there was a tough new "kid" on the block. A small boy was observed in Central Park telling his playmates that he would play the atomic bomb: "Look, I just go `Boom.' Once. Like this." He jumped from a seesaw and went "Boom!" Adults were not always any more sophisticated. An Arkansas farmer wrote to the "Atomic Bomb Co., Oak Ridge, Tenn.," inquiring, "I have some stumps in my field that I should like to blow out. Have you got any atomic bombs the right size for the job?"
The National Press Club in Washington offered an "atomic cocktail" --Pernod and gin. Department stores held "atomic sales." The "Atombomb Dancers" tripped the light fantastic in Los Angeles. Comedians joked witlessly, "jokespert" Senator Ford ad-libbing on the "Can You Top This?" radio show: "They should call that bomb Up and Atom; when it blew up and the smoke cleared away, the Russians were at 'em." Even serious analysts tried their hand at brightening the bleakest of speculations. Might civilization have to move underground to avert extinction, as some were now forecasting? Life magazine was somehow comforted by the experience of ants, who had been around 50 million years longer than man: "Constructing beautiful urban palaces and galleries, many ants have long lived underground in entire satisfaction."
"The shatterer of worlds." A physicist who was instrumental in getting the Manhattan Project started sat down at the University of Chicago's Quadrangle Club and wrote to a friend: "I suppose you have seen today's newspapers. Using atomic bombs against Japan is one of the greatest blunders of history." The letter writer was Leo Szilard. In 1939, Szilard had seen the potential for the bomb -- and the danger that Nazi Germany would develop it. He drafted a letter to Roosevelt and persuaded Albert Einstein to sign it -- a letter that became the catalyst for the Manhattan Project. But Szilard, a fiery Hungarian newly naturalized as a U.S. citizen, had decided by early 1945 that use of the bomb would touch off a ruinous arms race. He argued for suppressing the bomb's very existence. Szilard got 67 colleagues at Chicago's Metlab to sign a watered-down petition to Truman; 80 Oak Ridge scientists also signed (Manhattan Project director Groves made sure the petition did not reach the White House until Truman departed for Potsdam).
Among the scientists who agreed with Szilard, one of the most agitated was Eugene Rabinowitch. Before Hiroshima, Rabinowitch walked the streets of Chicago wrestling with a vision of a giant fireball bending the skyscrapers into grotesque shapes in a future war that would devastate America. Should he leak the story of the superweapon to the U.S. press? He considered the idea but gave it up after several days of sleepless anguish (26 years later, in a letter to the New York Times, he would confess his temptation and say he wished he had been his generation's Daniel Ellsberg).
The majority of scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, however, supported use of the bomb. In mid-July, after the successful test of the bomb in New Mexico, scientists at Los Alamos had snake-danced with joy. They had pulled off a stunning exercise in physics, brilliantly solving a technical challenge of incredible complexity. Richard Feynman later wrote his mother: "We ran around slapping each other on the backs ... everything was perfect but the aim. The next one would be aimed for Japan, not New Mexico." After Hiroshima, the champagne corks popped again, but the mood was much less festive, and for many it was downright somber. This was no longer physics they were celebrating. It was annihilation -- of men, women and children -- and, in time, the human race? "It is a terrible thing that we made," Robert Wilson told Feynman.
The White House announcement called the atomic bomb "the greatest achievement of organized science in history." But when Groves telephoned J. Robert Oppenheimer in Los Alamos to report the success of the Enola Gay's mission, the most Oppenheimer could say was that "everybody is feeling reasonably good about it." At the Trinity test explosion three weeks earlier, some lines from Hindu scripture had suddenly come into Oppenheimer's head: "Now I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds." Test director Kenneth Bainbridge put it to "Oppie" less poetically: "We are all sons of bitches now."
Pax Americana. "Make peace ... or perish," Anne O'Hare McCormick wrote in the New York Times. It was almost universally assumed that the U.S.-British atomic monopoly could not last. Moscow was working on its own bomb and was already displaying an expansionist appetite in Eastern Europe. Conferences were held. Papers were published. Sermons were preached. In the summer and fall of '45, opinion makers poured out prescriptions for saving humanity. Writers such as Max Lerner, Dorothy Thompson and E.B. White and a number of scientists joined a boomlet for world government. Even the conservative Reader's Digest printed an article declaring that the "atomic bomb has made political and economic nationalism meaningless."
One thinker who felt this way was the man who had formulated the theory of relativity back in 1905, the man who had signed that galvanizing letter to FDR in 1939 at Leo Szilard's behest. Albert Einstein was at a lake in the Adirondacks and had just risen from a postprandial nap when a friend gave him the news about Hiroshima. His reaction was terse: "Oh, weh" ("Alas"). The rumpled lion of Princeton was soon minting foggy aphorisms ("The atomic bomb has changed everything except the nature of man.") and putting his charismatic personality behind the cause of world government.
It was a doomed cause. America had been isolationist less than five years earlier; the United Nations charter had been signed less than two months before Hiroshima. The United States came out of World War II more powerful than ever, its cities unbombed, its factories humming, its gross national product double its 1940 level, while the economies of other leading nations were in tatters. Whatever America's intellectuals wanted, its politicians and most of its people were not about to surrender the bomb and other perquisites to some nebulous global mechanism.
Four years after the summer of the bomb, Moscow tested its own. History's most costly arms race was on. When it ended 40 years later with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, it was clear that Luis Alvarez's hopes had been largely borne out -- the hopes he expressed in his letter to his son as he flew away from Hiroshima with the mushroom cloud growing smaller behind him. Four-year-old Walter grew up to be a University of California geologist and joined with his father to propound the theory that an asteroid or comet striking the Earth caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. But in the last half of the 20th century, Alvarez pere and Alvarez fils witnessed no mass extinction of their own species -- nothing to rival the great prenuclear bloodbaths of the century's first half (with 10 million killed between 1914 and 1919 and 50 million between 1939 and 1945). Regional wars went on, yes, some of them very vicious. But world war was history.
By Gerald Parshall
U.S. invasion strategy
U.S. 6th Army 5th Marine 1st Corps Amphibious Corps (3 infantry divisions) (3 Marine divisions) 40th Infantry Divisionand 11th Corps (2 infantry, 158th Regimental Combat Team 1 calvalry division) Support 9th Corps (2 reserve infantry divisions) 11th Airborne and 77th Infantry (2 follow-up divisions) Total ground forces: Naval Support 766,700 3rd Fleet 5th Fleet 7th Fleet
Kobe. Destroyed: 56 percent Tokyo. Destroyed: 51 percent Yokohama. Destroyed: 44 percent Kawasaki. Destroyed: 33 percent Nagoya. Destroyed: 31 percent Osaka. Destroyed: 26 percent
U.S. 1st Army 3rd Marine Amphibious 24th Corps (3 infantry Corps (3 Marine divisions) divisions) U.S. 8th Army 14th Corps (3 infantry 10th Corps (3 infantry divisions) divisions) Army Forces Pacific 8th Corps (2 armored Reserve (1 infantry division) divisions) Follow-up echelons 3 infantry divisions 3 infantry divisions (8th Army) (1st Army) Reserve forces Army Forces Pacific 11th Airborne Division Reserve (3 infantry Strategic reserve divisions) Corps (3 Divisions) Reserve in Philippines (3 divisions) - Total ground forces: 1,026,000
Oak Ridge. Three plants produced 64 kilograms of U-235 isotope by the war's end, enough for one atomic bomb. Some plutonium was also produced.
SEVEN KEY SCIENTISTS