Nagasaki — Second City to Suffer a Nuclear Attack


Updated on 09/24/2022

Nagasaki was not the primary target for the nuclear attack the United States launched against Japan on the morning of August 9, 1945. It had barely even made the list of potential targets for atomic bombings. Kokura was the primary target, and Nagasaki was the secondary target should weather conditions have prevented the attack on Kokura.

Conditions for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred three days earlier, were perfect — sunny, clear skies, nothing to obscure the target. Not so on August 9 over Kokura. The city was obscured by clouds and smoke coming from a nearby town that had been, ironically enough, firebombed by the U.S. the day before. This was a big problem. The crew of Bockscar, the B-29 Superfortress bomber plane that was to carry out the mission, were ordered to release their payload only if they could get visual confirmation of their target through their bombsight. That is, they would need to see the buildings and the city below to confirm the target before releasing their atomic bomb. Otherwise the crew would have had to use radar which was highly inaccurate, and the United States Army Air Force didn’t want their plane dropping an atomic bomb in the wrong place. So with its primary target obscured, Bockscar turned southwest toward Nagasaki, the secondary target.

When Bockscar reached Nagasaki, the crew’s bombardier saw through his bombsight that this target too was obscured by clouds. His specific aiming point was the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works located in the city, but he could not see it at all. This put him in a tough spot. If he dropped his bomb in the wrong place, it was possible that he would have been unleashing hell over a city or town that the U.S. military didn’t deem as hellworthy. Plus there were prisoner camps nearby that bomber command very much did not want destroyed. If the bombardier didn’t drop the bomb, the crew would have had to fly all the way back to their base on Tinian Island (located in the Marianas) or to their backup airfield on Okinawa with an armed nuclear device still onboard. That much wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been for that fact that one of the plane’s fuel pumps had malfunctioned, so the plane had barely enough fuel to return home even without extra weight of the large atomic bomb onboard. Odds were that they would have had to crash land on Tinian or Okinawa with the atomic device still in the plane’s belly — not a good scenario. After conferring with the pilot and mission specialist who gave the okay, the bombardier turned on his radar reasoning that it was better to drop the bomb via radar than risk nuking themselves and their comrades on crash-landing. Just as he switched the radar on still looking through his bombsight, the bombardier saw that the clouds had miraculously parted and that the city was visible.1 He then released the bomb, which fell to an altitude of about 1,600 ft (500m) before detonating over Nagasaki, killing 39,000 people and injuring upwards of 25,000 more. Bockscar circled the city several more times to survey the damage and then headed back.

Gateway to the World

Nagasaki is located on the west coast of Japan’s Kyushu Island and is the capital city of the Nagasaki Prefecture. A natural port, the areas comprising Nagasaki form a sort of half bowl or hilly amphitheater facing the ocean with the Uragami River flowing from north to south through a gap in the hills and into the harbor. The area around the river and port, much of which is landfill, is relatively flat. On the hillsides around the central city, there are terraced houses and apartments with roads winding up through them.

Above: Nagasaki harbor in 1920. A bustling port for most of its history, Nagasaki was Japan’s only port open to foreign trade during the Tokugawa period. Courtesy of the Nagasaki Peace Museum. Above right: Photo of Nagasaki harbor today. After having been rebuilt, Nagasaki went back to being one of Japan’s most important port cities. Courtesy of the Nagasaki Tourism Administration Committee.

The city is Japan’s second-oldest port for international trade, and for several hundred years was a sort of gateway to the world for Japan. This foreign trade had a profound effect on Nagasaki both economically and culturally throughout its history. In particular, trade with the Portuguese, which began in the 1500s, led to an exchange of ideas and goods that would come to affect Japan as a whole. Along with their wares, wines, guns, and other goods, the Portuguese brought along with them Christianity, which resulted in the conversion of many Nagasaki residents who generally followed the traditional beliefs of Shintoism. This didn’t sit well with the ruling shogunate who saw these conversions as a threat to their rule and erosion of their culture. This led to a series of measures intended to suppress and persecute Christians, including one instance where a number of converts were crucified.

During the 17th century, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and Spanish merchants also began trading with Japan, but this wasn’t to last very long. Relations between Portugal and Japan had deteriorated to a point where the shogun expelled all Portuguese people in the country, most of whom were in Nagasaki. Seeing not only Christianity but other western influences as detrimental to the law, security, and culture of Japan, rulers of the the Tokugawa Shogunate, a period that lasted from 1600 to 1868, closed off the country to all Western trade except for any done through the port of Nagasaki, which was permitted to remain open. Through this port, Korean and Chinese merchants could still trade, but all Europeans were barred except for the Dutch whose merchants were the only Europeans allowed to trade in the increasingly reclusive country. For the next 200 years, Nagasaki was the only city in Japan where you were likely to see foreigners from any country. More importantly, Nagasaki was the only city where any type of cultural exchange took place. This policy came to an end in the mid-1800s when Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy, after having made two diplomatic expeditions to Japan in 1853 and 1854, for the most part forced Japan at gunpoint to open trade with the United States.2 Soon after Russia, France, and the U.K. followed suit and demanded their own trade deals with the suddenly less reclusive country. As a result, other ports in Japan were opened up and Nagasaki lost its status as the only port for foreign trade.

Over the latter half of the 1800s, the port of Nagasaki was surpassed in importance by other ports in Japan such as Tokyo, Kobe, Nagoya, and Yokohama. Despite its lost status, the city thrived into the 20th century. By the 1930s just before the outbreak of WWII, Nagasaki had developed a robust ship-building industry and had become the third-largest ship-building port in the world. Nagasaki’s economy as well included other industries from domestic goods, to aircraft, to steel production. It was also home to a large Mitsubishi plant that was to prove vital to Japan’s war effort when WWII broke out. Aircraft parts, torpedoes, and other weapons were manufactured there.

In the late days of WWII after the U.S. took over islands with airfields within flying distance of Japan, Nagasaki became a target for aerial bombardment. There were about five major conventional bombing raids on the city before August 1945, during which U.S. planes hit the port, several factories, the Mitsubishi plant, and a medical school. These raids were not nearly as devastating as the firebombings that took place in other parts of the country (Tokyo chiefly among them), but they were still effective in reducing Japan’s wartime production.

Several other Japanese cities under normal circumstances would have been bombed; however, they were set aside as potential targets for the first atomic bombs. Tops on the list were Hiroshima and Kokura.

“Fat Man” (shown above) was the name of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. This device differed from the “Little Boy” bomb that was detonated three days before over Hiroshima. Fat Man was an implosion device with plutonium at its core. Stenciled into its nose is the naughty little acronym “JANCFU”. For more on that, take a look here.

Why Nagasaki?

Nagasaki was originally on a list of about 17 Japanese cities that were potential targets for atomic bombs. It was quickly discarded for several practical reasons. First off, its topography made it less appealing. Because of the hills surrounding the city, it was difficult for bombers to accurately hit their targets, and there was a degree of precision that military planners wanted with the atomic bombs. Secondly, again because of the nature and shape of the terrain, the blast would have been absorbed into the hills and wouldn’t cover the whole city. Hiroshima and Kokura were mostly flat with distinct city centers — unlike Nagasaki — so the shockwave could travel farther and destroy more city. Nagasaki was spread out over the river area, port, and hills, which meant that it would be more difficult to cover the city as a whole with one bomb. Lastly, there was a prisoner-of-war camp nearby, which although it wasn’t exactly in the the center of the city, military planners didn’t want to blow up their own or allied troops (although they did end up doing just that).

It wasn’t until the final list was compiled that Nagasaki was made a target again, but there is little reason as to why. Even General Leslie Groves himself, the head of the Manhattan Project (the top-secret American project to develop the atomic bomb) later admitted that he never knew why Nagasaki was added back to the list. Perhaps it’s because others that had been on the list including Tokyo and Yokohama had already been firebombed, and the U.S. military was looking for less-destroyed targets to assess the effectiveness of their new weapon. Kyoto, which had been on the list of targets since the get-go, was considered too important from a world cultural standpoint to destroy, which further whittled down the choices. Whatever the reason, Nagasaki again became a target.

“Fat Man”

The atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki was different from the type dropped on Hiroshima. Not only did the two bombs work differently, they didn’t look anything alike. “Fat Man” as the Nagasaki bomb was called, was a big, fat, yellow bomb that looked more at home in a Bugs Bunny cartoon than in the bay of a B-29, whereas “Little Boy” — the atomic device that was dropped on Hiroshima — looked fairly standard. The two bombs also had different methods of starting the nuclear fission that made the blasts. Little Boy was packed with 140 lbs (63.5 kg) of uranium-235, a highly reactive isotope of uranium, which was divided into two unequally sized pieces. Inside the bomb was a device somewhat like a gun that on detonation would shoot the smaller chunk of the uranium at ludicrous speeds into the bigger encompassing piece of uranium. By essentially banging these two radioactive metals together at high speed, the critical mass would be reached, resulting in a nuclear chain reaction that would make a big boom. This was not the preferred mechanism, nor was it a very efficient way of causing a nuclear blast as only about 1.38% of the uranium actually fissioned while the rest ended up as fallout. But the blast was still huge and ended up flattening Hiroshima.

Fat Man on the other hand was what people in the biz refer to as an “implosion device”. At its core were about 14 lbs (6.4 kg) of plutonium about the size of a softball, surrounded by about 5,300 lbs (2,405 kg) of conventional plastic explosive (arranged as a series of explosive “lenses” meant to direct the force of the explosion inward toward the plutonium). Plutonium is a great element to use in a nuclear bomb. It has a much smaller critical mass than uranium, meaning that you need less of it to get a chain reaction going. It’s also much safer to handle without it messing with your DNA too much; however, if you ingest or inhale it, then all bets are off. The main issue with plutonium was that it was really hard to come by. It doesn’t occur naturally and has to be created from uranium, and it takes a lot of uranium to make plutonium. It is generally created in nuclear reactors, or through another process where uranium salts are bombarded with neutrons, both means of which weren’t exactly commonplace in 1945.

As a fuel, it was more efficient than uranium, with a higher percentage of it, about 7%, that actually fissioned. On detonation, the plastic explosive lenses blew inward causing the plutonium core to compress to about 60% of its original size (from softball-sized to tennis ball-sized), reaching its “critical mass”, which then caused the atoms in the plutonium to start shooting off neutrons that then slammed into neighboring atoms, which shot its particles into other atoms, creating the desired chain reaction, which released massive amounts of destructive energy. This energy, as it did in the Little Boy detonation, came out in the form of heat, nuclear radiation, and a gigantic explosion. A far better bomb (if one could write such a thing) than Little Boy, Fat Man produced a blast that was almost twice as big as Little Boy’s.

Aerial photo of Nagasaki two days before the U.S. detonated a nuclear bomb above it. The thick dark line winding its way down the photo from the upper left down to the middle bottom is the Uragami River. In the very center of the photo is a sports complex. (Nagasaki Peace Museum)

What happened when Fat Man exploded?

Unlike most conventional bombs at the time, which in general detonated on impact, Little Boy and Fat Man were detonated in the air, which allowed them to cause more damage over a wider area. A detonation close to the ground results in a large portion of the blast being absorbed by the ground, whereas an “air burst” from a thousand feet or so in altitude lets most of that energy spread over a larger target area, destroying more buildings and killing more people.

Historians and analysts will often compare the WWII firebombings of places like Dresden, Tokyo, and other cities as examples of conventional attacks that were just as devastating as the atomic bombings. In terms of actual immediate casualties, firebombing during WWII did indeed result in numbers of deaths similar to the two atomic bombs. However, conventional attacks lack some of the secondary and tertiary effects of atomic bombs such as blinding flash, the electromagnetic pulse, and radiation bursts that harm even those taking shelter. Even if one were to take the radiation exposure from a nuclear blast out of the equation, the types of injuries suffered during atomic bombs were far more acute with death rates of those at ground zero being close to 100%. From a logistics standpoint, the atomic bomb won hands down. For a successful firebombing to have taken place, hundreds of aircraft and tens of thousands of pounds of bombs were necessary to create the “firestorm” effect, whereas with an atomic bomb, it only took one plane and one bomb to not only get the same effect but much more.

Pictured here is Nagasaki two months after “Fat Man” was detonated above the city. Ground zero is marked here in the center of the photo just to the right and above the remains of the sports complex (the oval structure next to the river in the lower center). At least 90% of those within the 1000m circle surrounding ground zero died. (Nagasaki Peace Museum)

When Fat Man detonated above Nagasaki, at least 93% of the people within 1,000ft (300m) of ground zero were killed instantly (see table below). They were either crushed by the initial shockwave or charred by the initial heat blast, which heated the air to at least 1,000°F (540°C). Some people were burned to powder leaving eerie silhouettes on the ground or on walls. Except for a few concrete reinforced structures, almost every single building in this range was destroyed, and anything flammable simply burnt up. Of those structures that did survive, it was mostly their frames that remained, their exteriors and interiors having been burned away. Those in this range who happened to be in some sort of reinforced shelter and survived the heat and shockwave also received a very fatal dose of radiation that killed them almost instantly. Things didn’t get much better for those from distances between 1,000 and 2,000 feet, as 92% of those in this range were killed. Even at a mile away from the blast, mortality was around 31.5%.

When historians, military analysts, and scientists talk about casualties in this range, they’re not talking about a couple of broken bones and some bruises. They’re talking about deep charring burns all the way down to the bone, along with second-degree burns all over the body. Clothes would suddenly ignite and fuse to the melted skin underneath. There are verified accounts of bodies being melted to their bicycles, and people who were alive but whose skin was sliding off their bodies like cheese off a hot pizza. Many people died in Nagasaki after jumping off bridges into the river to seek relief from their burns, only to be boiled alive in the super-heated water.

Blindness was another effect, albeit a somewhat minor one compared to others. The flash of a nuclear blast, should one be unfortunate enough to be looking in its direction, instantly burns retinas causing total short-term and often partial to total long-term blindness. Speaking of eyes, and this is a really gruesome one, for those underground in bomb shelters or inside other reinforced structures who managed to escape the blinding flash and heat, as the shockwave passes, the air pressure drops quickly and drastically as the air is pushed away from the center of the blast. After this, air gets sucked back toward the explosion to fuel the gigantic fireball, drastically raising the air pressure back to where it was. These sudden pressure changes caused people’s eyes to pop out of their heads with only a few blood vessels and optic nerves keeping them attached. Eardrums ruptured as well causing deafness and extreme pain and bleeding.

Intense heat, crushing shockwaves, sudden pressure drops, blinding flash, radiation. Even those beyond the blast radius received lethal radiation doses that resulted in death in the weeks and months following detonation.

For the most part, the effects of both bombs were similar in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, except for one notable detail. The bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki was more powerful than the one on Hiroshima, but because the Nagasaki bomb somewhat missed its target, and because of the hills surrounding the area above the blast, the effects were more contained, resulting in fewer deaths.

The “mushroom cloud” over Nagasaki. The bomb detonated approximately 1,000 ft. above Nagasaki. This was done to maximize the effect of the blast and not waste too much of the destructive shockwave in the ground. On the plus side, it resulted in less radioactive fallout than it would have if it had been detonated on impact. Courtesy of the Hulton Archive.

Death tolls for Nagasaki vary depending on what is taken into account, but according to the Manhattan Engineer District, which put together such statistics, 39,000 people were killed and 25,000 people were injured for a total of 64,000 casualties in the Nagasaki bombing, not taking into account all later deaths resulting from radiation exposure. For Hiroshima, it was 66,000 dead and 69,000 injured, for a total of 135,000 casualties. In all, two bombs, 204,000 casualties.

Was it really necessary?

By August 1945, Japan was beaten. Its navy was completely decimated. Its air force depleted. Its army all but spent. Their troops in Manchuria and China were slowly wearing away. Their merchant marine had been torpedoed out of existence, cutting Japan, an island nation with few natural resources, off from its overseas territories and supplies. It was the policy of the Allies that Japan had to surrender unconditionally for hostilities to cease, which was a prudent requirement considering the nature of the war and the type of peace the Allies wished for. Additionally, there were the beginnings of what would be the Cold War between the west and the Soviet Union, as longstanding fissures within the uneasy alliance between the U.S., U.K., and Soviets began to widen. The war needed to end quickly. So what was the U.S. to do in order to force a surrender? Their options were to invade with a huge army, keep up a blockade and starve Japan into submission, or use atomic weapons.

Most American military planners at the time believed that Japan would have put up a stubborn resistance if the U.S. chose to invade, similar to what was seen in the bloody battles, among others, of Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Japanese soldiers had a history of “fighting to the death” and refusing to be taken prisoner. As for civilians, there was a general belief among many in the military establishment that the citizens of Japan themselves would have fought to the death, and that they were bound by honor to fight for their emperor. Because of this, it was thought that there would have been many tens of thousands of U.S. casualties. So it wasn’t really a solution that the U.S. wanted to pursue especially after having already suffered more than 400,000 casualties in WWII. Quite reasonably, the U.S. wanted to conclude the war with as few casualties on its own side as possible.

A continued blockade of Japan along with aerial bombings, naval bombardment, and harassment could have been very effective in preventing Japan from carrying on a war. Both their home and still overseas troops had very few weapons or supplies. Additionally, the U.S. had been a proponent of the doctrine of “terror bombing”, that is, the systemic firebombing of enemy cities, whether or not they had any military or specific strategic value, laying waste their economic and political centers believing that that these bombings would break the will of the people to fight and compel their leaders to sue for peace. It was done in Germany, which had already surrendered, and was being done to effect in Japan. So why not continue to do this instead of droping atomic bombs? Because as military planners came to understand that didn’t actually work. Instead, it had the opposite effect and often times hardening the resolve of those being bombed.

The German High Command had the idea to bomb the UK into submission back in 1940 during the Battle of Britain. For three and a half months in the summer and fall of 1940, the German Luftwaffe sent wave after seemingly endless wave of bombers and fighters into the U.K. to pound city centers, military installations, aerodromes, and ports. Over the course of the “blitz” as it was known, the UK suffered more than 90,000 civilian casualties with 1.4 million buildings either damaged or destroyed. All the while, packs of U-boats prowled the North Atlantic sinking any supply ships bound for the UK, putting a huge strain the civilian population. However, despite these tactics, not only did the UK did not yield, they turned it into a moment of national pride, their “Finest Hour”, and only hardened them to fight on.

Sustained terror bombing also didn’t put down Germany when U.S. and British bombers laid waste to Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin, and a slew of other cities that, despite what military planners and politicians claimed to the contrary, were aimed directly at civilians. In all, if the terror bombing of cities were to have had the effect of demoralizing the enemy, then Japan would have most assuredly surrendered after the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, which killed at least 110,000 Japanese civilians, and left tens of thousands more without homes. It’s arguable that these raids had little more than a minor impact on the outcome of the war (for more on this, take a look at Paul Ham’s great book Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

That doesn’t mean that bombing was useless or not effective in other areas. When it was set on specific military targets (bases, airfields, etc.), infrastructure (bridges, rail lines, ports), and specific support and industrial targets (dams, power plants, oil refineries), it was quite effective. How do we know this? The results for one thing, and what the enemy attested to after the war was another.

German military strategists in their post-war their analysis generally claimed that it was allied bombing of refineries and transit points that made it difficult to carry on the War, especially in the days leading up to the D-Day landings in Normandy. Had the U.S. and Britain not bombed out rail lines, transit points, and bridges, the Germans would have been able to mount a more organized and broad counter-attack, which may have driven the Allies back into the ocean. As for refineries, power plants, and damns, those were more difficult to rebuild and, unlike factories, which were often rebuilt or relocated soon after Allied bombardment, they couldn’t be hidden nearly as easily. Japan had one operating refinery left at the time the atomic bombs were dropped, and it was taken out five days after Nagasaki by conventional bombing.

Here’s a satellite view of Nagasaki with a pin showing where the atomic bomb detonated. Although the bomb killed many people in Nagasaki, it was somewhat contained by the geography of the area. You can get a similar view on Google Maps here. Today, there is a monument erected on the site of where the bomb detonated, along with a nearby museum the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum that presents exhibits and stories about the attack. Courtesy of Google Earth.

So the U.S. was left with what they perceived as their only choice, to use their new superweapon. Philosophical and historical nuances aside, that was the general position that American President Harry Truman and a portion of his military advisors believed. Not everyone agreed.

General Dwight Eisenhower felt that blockade and conventional bombardment would be just as effective as atomic bombs in bringing about a Japanese surrender. He felt that use of atomic weapons would have consequences far beyond the war. General Douglas MacArthur, and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz had similar reservations. Even many of the engineers who created the bomb did not want to see it used. Part of their problem was that the atomic bombs were not aimed at the military but indiscriminately at Japanese civilians who had almost no say in their country’s policy of tear-assing around Asia and the Pacific, sneak attacking Americans, and causing wars. As for results and casualties, atomic bombs were no worse in terms of casualties alone than firebombing, except that instead of using hundreds of planes, only one plane carrying a big ol’ can of hell was all that was required. Even so there was a growing consensus that bombing civilians and cities wasn’t working. Hiroshima at least had value as military target and communications point, but why Nagasaki? It did not have anywhere near the same military value as Hiroshima. Was it really necessary to hit a second city?

Nowadays, many mainstream scholars believe that the U.S. did not need to drop two atomic weapons on Japan if any at all, and that their use was motivated as much by a desire to show the Soviet Union and the world that the U.S. was the most powerful nation on Earth than by a desire to bring the War to a quicker close.

Even if one were to allow for Hiroshima being a prudent show of force toward Japan that prompted its government to begin discussions of surrender, it’s a pretty difficult argument to make that dropping the second bomb on Kokura or Nagasaki was necessary to end the War or that it was about getting Japan to surrender. Hiroshima was annihilated. The Japanese military and Emperor were scared shitless of this new weapon that made the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo (which were almost as devastating as Little Boy and Fat Man combined) look archaic by atomic warfare standards. Overall, the only thing that the bombing of Nagasaki proved to the Japanese military was that the U.S. did indeed have more nuclear bombs (of course the U.S. could have proven that by dropping an atomic bomb on some other less civilian-populated place). Could not the U.S. have waited a few days longer before killing 39,000 Nagasaki residents to allow the Japanese government time to get all parties onboard?

One has to be cognizant of the prevailing feeling in the U.S. at the time. To many Americans, Japan was a brutal enemy that scared them more than anything. This fear and a healthy dose of anger Americans felt toward the Japanese cannot be discounted. Rightly or wrongly, Americans wanted revenge, and being attacked by atomic bombs were what many Americans may have felt that Japan deserved. It was Japan that decided to conduct a pre-declaration-of-war sneak attack on the U.S. navy base at Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i. It was Japan that decided to invade U.S. territories all across the Pacific. It was Japan that force-marched U.S. POWs through the intense Philippine heat in an atrocity known as the Bataan Death March. It was Japan that was responsible for forcing the U.S. to commit so many of its very young men to fight a war that the generally isolationist U.S. did not want. Such a desire for revenge to punish Japan may not have been the most humanistic reaction, but it was a very human one. Then again, if the Allies had a level of moral superiority over the Axis, did they surrender that right when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on civilians?

The caption to this photo reads: “Panorama looking northeast from Nagasaki Medical School and Hospital toward X. The area was covered with small factories and homes.” Courtesy of the U.K. National Archives.

It’s difficult to say what could have or should have been done, but one thing is for sure was that it was not the bombing of Nagasaki that brought about the Japanese surrender, which is what many Americans believe. What did? Most likely, it was the Soviet Union entering the War.

Japan and Russia/Soviet Union were longtime rivals who had gone to war with each other in the recent past first in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), and then during a brief border war in 1939. In 1941, the two countries signed a neutrality pact, which greatly freed up their armies, with the Soviets wanting to concentrate their forces on their western borders in case Germany attacked (which very much happened), and the Japanese wanting to safeguard their mainland holdings in case war with the U.S. and U.K. broke out (which also very much happened). Once Germany surrendered in April 1945, the Soviet Union was free to turn its attention to the east. At this time, there was a brief period where Japan tried to work with the the Soviets to broker a peace between Japan and the Allies, but it was never taken seriously by the Soviets who merely used the talks to stall things while they transferred their massive army from Europe to Siberia in preparation for an attack on Japanese positions. When the time came, they informed the Japanese government that their pact was no longer valid and invaded Manchuria on August 7, 1945 (August 8, local Japan time). This really put the Japanese military in a tough situation. Their armies were in no way capable of resisting the Soviet advance through Manchuria and into Korea for long, and it would only be a matter of time before the Soviets launched their own invasion of Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four main islands of Japan, along with other Japanese holdings off the Soviets’ Pacific coast. It was a menacing prospect to say the least. Then there was the Soviet premiere Joseph Stalin.

Stalin was a beast and a thug. He was probably the 20th Century’s biggest mass murderer after Adolf Hitler (some argue that Stalin killed even more people than the former German chancellor). He would not have shown Japan any mercy should his armies have invaded. Stalin was also the type of ruler who would have not only occupied Japanese lands but would have likely kept them. There would have most assuredly been mass killings as well. A similar feeling was felt in Germany during its final days. In the waning months of the war in Europe, many Germans headed west preferring to surrender to the British, French, and Americans rather than risk being sent to Siberian gulags. Japan was in the same boat.

To see how these facts fit together it is necessary to examine the series of events that let to Japan surrendering. For most of the late spring, there was talk in the Japanese high command of finding a solution to end the war as it was pretty clear they had lost. Overtures through the Soviets failed. Cities were being bombed. Then came August. First Hiroshima was obliterated on August 6. Then the Soviets invaded Manchuria on August 8. Even if Japan wanted to surrender, they would have had no time to respond before the second bomb came on August 9. This is where perhaps the plan to end the war was a little overly aggressive on the part of the United States. Truman didn’t even give the order for the second bomb, the plan was already in motion. By many accounts, Truman himself was surprised by the second bomb and immediately put a halt to further nuclear attacks without his permission. The plan all along was to drop two bombs in reasonably quick succession to show Japan and the world that the U.S. had enough in its arsenal to turn every Japanese city into a wasteland, but why not give it longer for a peace process to start? It’s entirely possible that no American diplomats, who knew that suing for peace doesn’t just happen overnight, were consulted. There needed to be meetings and discussions and more meetings for details of surrender to be worked out, especially when their country hadn’t yet been invaded. There could have, and in the opinion of many, should have been more time in between to give Japan opportunity to surrender. Even after a ceasefire, which came about August 14-15, it still took two weeks before the actual treaty to end hostilities was signed on September 2.

As for the question of whether the atomic bombs should have been used at all, even with Hiroshima, that argument will go on and on, and provide lots of fodder for future historians to chew on and future journalists to exploit every August with retrospectives, superlatives, and debates.

A final point about the conduct of the U.S. in the last days of WWII: it cannot be denied that a fair degree of racism had to have factored into the use of atomic weapons on Japan, or at the very least, softened the moral blow in doing so for some military planners. There are those who may try to deny that racism played any part in the U.S.’s decision to detonate nuclear bombs over Japan despite all the racist anti-Japanese cartoons and socially accepted anti-Asian racial epithets swirling around at that time. This racism persisted and grew despite the exploits of Japanese-American soldiers who had fought valiantly in the U.S. army in Europe. The U.S. government itself didn’t exactly have a great track record when it came to racism directed toward the Japanese either. This was a government that had removed approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and forced them to live in internment camps for the duration of the war, for no other reason than they looked like the enemy. With these facts in mind, one has to wonder, would the United States have dropped an atomic bomb on Germans had they developed the bomb early enough to have used it on them? It’s an interesting question to ponder.

No Lingering Radiation

People often wonder how anybody can live in Hiroshima and Nagasaki today after having had atomic bombs exploded over them. Radioactive fallout from a nuclear attack can be present for many years afterwards. For both Hiroshima and Nagasaki over the decade after the war, both cities saw huge spikes in cancer rates, which were directly attributable to radiation exposure both from the blast and from nuclear fallout. Specifically leukemia, according to the Radiation Effects Foundation, there was a 46% increase in attributable risk among those exposed to the bomb blasts. Other cancers saw increases in incidence well into the 1950s, and higher rates of birth defects among children born to survivors. As late as the 1990s, survivors were still suffering the late-in-life effects from radiation exposure. Even today, doctors are still studying those who survived the nuclear attacks.

Fortunately for both Hiroshima and Nagasaki — “fortune” being a relative term here — there was not a lot of lingering fallout resulting from the blasts. The initial radiation blasts were the worst and killed the most people over the months following the attacks, but the amount of fallout from the nuclear materials present in the bombs quickly dispersed. Whatever nuclear materials that actually reached the ground in both sites were later washed away with the rains and wind. Because the bombs were both in-air detonations, there was very little material on the ground that had been irradiated. Had the bombs exploded closer to the ground or on impact, the explosion would have irradiated the soil and surrounding buildings making them uninhabitable and requiring a massive cleanup to remove radioactive materials. As both cities stand today, there is almost no trace of radioactivity beyond normal background radiation, almost as if nothing had ever happened.

21st Century Nagasaki

Cities, especially port cities don’t just disappear (for the most part at least), even if they had once been blown to smithereens. After the initial cleanup from the blast, Nagasaki was able to rebuild itself, and much of its pre-war industry returned. Although it was never able to achieve the prominence it once had before WWII, the rebuilding of Nagasaki can be considered somewhat of a success. New residents moved in, which brought the post-War population up to just under a half million present-day residents. Shipbuilding and heavy machinery continued to drive the local economy into the waning days of the 1900s.

The Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki is dedicated to the history and use of atomic weapons and its effects on world culture and politics. Located next to it is the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. Courtesy of the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki.

In the 21st Century, however, Nagasaki has, like many other Japanese cities, suffered from depopulation, foreign competition, and over-centralization of industry. Especially in ship-building, foreign competition from places like South Korea has siphoned away much of the business that would have been going through Nagasaki. This caused a ripple effect on other industries in the area, and is the reason behind so many young people leaving. Even as early as 1960, many of the area’s young people headed to places like Tokyo to seek their fortunes never to return. Today, about 70% of young college-educated professionals in the area look for opportunities elsewhere. The situation for the city isn’t helped much by the overall trend in Japan of declining birthrates. This has led to a degree of urban blight as homes in many of the city’s suburbs are abandoned, and the general population ages. Tourism has filled in some of Nagasaki’s economic gaps, with people from all over the world wanting to see the once great cultural hub and the historical center of Japanese Christianity, but despite Nagasaki’s long and fascinating history and cultural relevance, it will always be known as the site of the second nuclear attack. Hopefully it will remain the last.

Nagasaki may not at all seem like it once suffered through such a horrific attack, but there are several reminders throughout the city of the events of August 9, 1945. Chief among them is the Memorial Peace Park located near ground zero of the Fat Man detonation where several monuments to WWII and the atomic bombing can be viewed. There are also the remains of a concrete wall located in the park that was once part of the bombed out Urakami Cathedral. Next to the Peace Park is the famous Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum where visitors can view exhibits about the history and effects of nuclear weapons, and the people whose lives were affected by them. It is the ongoing mission of both the Peace Park and the Atomic Bomb Museum to instill within its visitors the feeling that these weapons should never be used again and that Nagasaki never lose its status as the second and last city to ever suffer a nuclear attack.