It is a somber, profound, and simultaneously sad yet triumphant anniversary — one that stands as a demarcation point in human history. On Aug. 6, 1945 — 70 years ago today — the United States detonated an atomic bomb above the Japanese city of Hiroshima and ushered the world into a new era.
An estimated 70,000 were killed by the blast, and a similar number perished in the following months because of injuries, radiation sickness, and starvation. As debate continues to this day over the morality of using such a devastating weapon, the importance of remembering and studying the history surrounding the event remains essential.
Along those lines, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Park Service have taken steps to illuminate the history of the Manhattan Project that built the bomb. Last month, the agencies signed a memorandum to transform facilities at Hanford; Los Alamos, N.M.; and Oak Ridge, Tenn., into interpretive centers where future generations can embrace the scope of one of this nation’s largest scientific undertakings. Until Aug. 28, the public may comment on the preliminary proposal online (www.parkplanning.nps.gov).
Hanford, a small agricultural community near the Columbia River in Benton County, was depopulated in 1943 to make way for the secretive undertaking that would transform the world. The area became the production site for the plutonium used in a test explosion at Alamogordo, N.M., and in a second bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. The Aug. 6, 1945, edition of The Columbian (an afternoon newspaper at the time) includes a sidebar story near the bottom of the front page under the headline: “Stupendous Hanford Arsenal Revealed At Last; Even Workers Didn’t Know About It.”
That is just one part of a story that must be studied by current and future generations. The United States had been at war for more than 3½ years in Europe and in the Pacific Theater, and the final ghastly toll was more than 400,000 American fatalities and an estimated 70 million military and civilian deaths worldwide — more than 3 percent of the world’s population. That was the context in which President Harry S. Truman decided to use an atomic bomb against Japan; that was the backdrop for a nation that was weary of war and leery of attempting to invade an island nation.
The need for such a decision is reflected in a simple fact: Even after witnessing the destructive impact of one atomic bomb, Japan declined to surrender. The bombing of Nagasaki three days later finally precipitated the end of the war. As a Columbian headline on Aug. 7, 1945, put it: “Japan May Get Choice of Unconditional Surrender Or Atomic Bomb Obliteration.”
Hiroshima was a military-industrial city, and Truman later wrote in his memoirs: “In deciding to use this bomb I wanted to make sure that it would be used as a weapon of war in the manner prescribed by the laws of war. That meant that I wanted it dropped on a military target.” Years later, he wrote: “It was done to save 125,000 youngsters on the American side and 125,000 on the Japanese side from getting killed and that is what it did. It probably also saved a half-million youngsters on both sides from being maimed for life.”
The horror of war is such that deaths are measured in the thousands, and that the use of a super weapon can be justified against the weight of that measurement. The result is the somber anniversary of an event the world hopefully will never again relive.