In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud: 75 Years since the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

In February 2020, I did a presentation about the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This post is a summary of that presentation. I have not developed into a full article (or chapter in an edited book) yet, but that may happen one day, although the topic does come up in my book Japan: The Basics which includes the discussion about symbolism of different events and things. I also plan to include more discussion of the bombings in one of my future novels. But in the meantime I wanted to do this post as the topic of atomic warfare is still as important as ever, but with growing levels of ignorance about what happened in 1945, let alone what could happen now, the dangers are increasing.

Most of this post is based on the slides from the presentation I gave and key bullet points. I have tried to keep it easy to read so that readers can get key information, but may be encouraged to watch the programmes and read the book I refer to in the slides so that they can learn more about the subject.

Just some context first. I grew up in the 1980s, thinking that one day the Cold War could turn hot and that I may get to see a mushroom cloud. My favourite song was “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and as well as enjoying the song, particularly the chilling 12″ versions, I used to read the cover of the single, which detailed about nuclear weapons, with fascination.

I then started reading a number of books about nuclear weapons, including “Fields of Thunder”, and others which were more data heavy… I even remember working out a formula for blast and radiation damage based on this data.

Then there were the TV programmes. The key ones being “The Day After” and “Threads“, but also “Special Bulletin“, which opened my eyes to a different type of nuclear attack.

While at school one of my friends was from Hiroshima and I remember doing well in a debating competition discussing nuclear weapons. At university, as an undergraduate, I visited Hiroshima, meeting hibakusha, and then went on to teach about Hiroshima at university. There were other reasons why I became interested in the atomic bombings, but I can discuss those another time.

But why is the topic of atomic weapons still relevant today? The following image helps to answer that question.

Even before the global impact of a pandemic raised its head, the doomsday clock was at its closest point to midnight ever.

To understand atomic weapons, a few terms need to be understood. Deterrence – the belief that attacking the other will be madness. Requires knowledge of the other’s weapon’s power. Easy with a gun. What about a nuclear weapon? MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – the belief that if you start a nuclear war, there are no winners, everyone dies. Non-Proliferation – that other countries should not have nuclear weapons. There is an inbuilt irony here. The countries that support Non-Proliferation also tend to support the ideas of Deterrence and MAD… but if nuclear weapons are deterrents to war, surely everyone should have them. But deterrence also relies on the idea that everyone wants to live and suicide attacks, for example, have shown this is not the case.

So how did we get to this point? Let’s discuss some of the history. For this discussion, pointing fingers at who started the war and whether one atrocity is better or worse than another is irrelevant. There was a war going on and countries wanted to win the war… by whatever means necessary.

The Manhattan Project

The United States, with assistance from the United Kingdom and Canada, designed and built the bombs under the codename Manhattan Project; initially for use against Nazi Germany and inspired by the correct assumption that Germany would also conduct an atomic bomb project, and incorrect assumption that the Nazis held a lead in atomic weapons research. Japan has also been trying to develop the bomb. If you would like to learn more about the project, I would recommend the following: “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes, the TV docu-drama “Oppenheimer” and “Manhattan”. While the third of these is much more fictional, it still presents a good account of some of what the development of the bomb was like in an accessible way.

The first nuclear device, called “Gadget”, was tested (“The Trinity Test”) near Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945.

The issue now became what would be the target for the bomb to be used against Japan. Over 3½ years of direct U.S. involvement in World War II, approximately 400,000 American lives had been lost, roughly half of them incurred in the war against Japan. In the months prior to the bombings, the Battle of Okinawa resulted in an estimated 50–150,000 civilian deaths, 100–125,000 Japanese or Okinawan military or conscript deaths and over 72,000 American casualties. An invasion of Japan was expected to result in casualties many times greater than in Okinawa. We need to also consider the expense of building the bomb & number of people involved (and they managed to keep it a secret). It may have been harder to give the order not to drop the bombs, than to give the order to drop them. Could a demonstration be done? What if they were duds? Even if they worked, would people believe that the US would be prepared to use it on a city? Some hoped that the bombs could be the bombs to end all war as it would be a demonstration that humankind now can destroy everything.

The Target Committee at Los Alamos on May 10–11, 1945, recommended Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama and the arsenal at Kokura as possible targets. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson struck Kyoto from the list because of its cultural significance (and because he honeymooned there), over the objections of Gen. Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project. On July 25 General Carl Spaatz was ordered to bomb one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata or Nagasaki as soon after August 3 as weather permitted, and the remaining cities as additional weapons became available.

The bombs needed to be transported to Tinian Island, approximately 6 hours’ flight time away from Japan. This was done using a secret mission on the USS Indianapolis. The story of what happened to the Indianapolis has been turned into a movie, but was also very well summarized in a scene in Jaws (1975).

The bombing of Hiroshima

On August 6, 1945. The B-29 Enola Gay, piloted and commanded by Colonel Paul Tibbets, was launched. Navy Captain William Parsons armed the bomb during the flight, since it had been left unarmed to minimize the risks during take-off. In every detail, the attack was carried out exactly as planned, and the gravity bomb, a gun-type fission weapon, with 60 kg (130 pounds) of uranium-235, performed precisely as expected. About an hour before the bombing, the Japanese early warning radar net detected the approach of some American aircraft. At nearly 08:00, the radar operator in Hiroshima determined that the number of planes coming in was very small and the air raid alert was lifted.

At 08:15, the Enola Gay dropped the bomb called “Little Boy”. It exploded about 600 meters (2,000 feet) above the city with a blast equivalent to 13 kilotons of TNT, killing an estimated 70–80,000 people. No records exist in relation to many of those that perished. Infrastructure damage was estimated at 90% of Hiroshima’s buildings being either damaged or completely destroyed.

Truman’s statement subsequently focussed on damage to city & infrastructure, not impact on people.

Before and after the bomb – display at the Hiroshima Peace Museum


At one minute past midnight on August 9, Tokyo time, Russian infantry, armour, and air forces launched an invasion of Manchuria. Four hours later, word reached Tokyo that the Soviet Union had broken the neutrality pact and declared war on Japan. Scheduled for August 11 against Kokura, the raid was moved forward to avoid a five day period of bad weather forecast to begin on the 10th. Nagasaki had never been subjected to large-scale bombing prior to the explosion of a nuclear weapon there. On the morning of August 9, 1945, the crew of the American B-29 Superfortress Bock’s Car, flown by Major Charles W. Sweeney and carrying the bomb code-named “Fat Man”, found their primary target, Kokura, to be obscured by clouds. After three runs over the city and having fuel running low due to a fuel-transfer problem, they headed for their secondary target, Nagasaki.

When only two B-29 Superfortresses were sighted at 10:53 the Japanese apparently assumed that the planes were only on reconnaissance and no further alarm was given. At 11:02, a last minute break in the clouds over Nagasaki allowed Bock’s Car’s bombardier, Captain Kermit Beahan, to visually sight the target as ordered. The “Fat Man” weapon, containing a core of 6.4 kg of plutonium-239, was dropped over the city’s industrial valley. It exploded 469 meters (1,540 feet) above the ground exactly halfway between the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works in the south and the Mitsubishi-Urakami Ordnance Works (Torpedo Works) in the north. This was nearly two miles northwest of the planned hypocenter; the blast was confined to the Urakami Valley and a major portion of the city was protected by the intervening hills.

According to most estimates, about 40,000 of Nagasaki’s 240,000 residents were killed instantly, and over 25–60,000 were injured.


Three days after the bombing of Nagasaki, the Emperor announced Japan’s surrender. Signed on 2 September on USS Missouri – a ship which President Truman’s daughter christened at her launch.

The war was over? Not for everyone. Radiation poisoning and/or necrosis caused illness & death after the bombing – c.f. the single ‘19’ by Paul Hardcastle & those fighting PTSD long after the Vietnam War ended.

Hiroshima, cumulative death toll about 250,000. Nagasaki: 80,000

The Legacy and Remembering the Bombs

Hiroshima & Nagasaki very different; different types of bombs, different types of attack, even the memorialisation is different.

Hiroshima – One original plan was to preserve the whole city. Now they are preserve the most well known building, the A-bomb dome, & protect it from earthquake damage (other buildings may be demolished). Note this is not the epicentre.

The Hiroshima Peace Park

The Hiroshima Peace Museum has gone through a variety of changes over the years (I made my most recent visit in January 2020).

The shadow of a person in the top left picture is getting harder to see. The display in the bottom left picture was removed with the most recent update to the museum. The museum now seems darker, but more crisply laid out (pictures on the right hand side)

Whilst many of the most recent changes have been good, there is one aspect that I really do not like. While there is a section of the museum where you can watch videos of the hibakusha, it doesn’t feel like part of the main museum. Most people walk straight past it. Why are they so often overlooked or forgotten? Their experiences are central to understanding the power and destruction of atomic weapons and why (such) wars must be avoided at all costs.

In 2002, a Peace Memorial for the Victims (hibakusha). This is a lovely memorial, but once again, it seems to be ignored by most visitors to the Peace Park.

Nagasaki. A key point to note about how Nagasaki remembers the bomb is that it is just one part of Nagasaki’s heritage, rather than its main part (as it appears to be for Hiroshima). The key sites are Dutch slope (an ironic site given how flat the Netherlands is), Dejima, Chinatown, Night view, and Hashima.

As for the bomb, compared to Hiroshima, the epicentre is much more clearly marked.

The Peace Park also has noticeably less visitors than the one in Hiroshima, but has an impressive array of statues.

As for the museum, since my previous visit in the 1990s, when I went in January 2020, it felt much more impressive and I really liked the way you travel back in time by going down a sloping walkway. The level of detail about the Nagasaki bombing, post-war and current nuclear weapons was also very impressive.

But, like Hiroshima, the hibakusha seem not to be given sufficient voice. One memorial is outside the main peace park, on the edge of a car park, while another memorial, although having a very impressive design, is one of the most overly complicated buildings to navigate that I have ever been to (particularly surprising since it’s largely a rectangle with limited routes).

Like Hiroshima, the importance of water – what the victims were desperate for

No More Hiroshimas. That is the well-known peace slogan that Hiroshima (and others) promote. But there are problems with the phrase. First, it ignores what happened only 3 days after Hiroshima in Nagasaki. It also ignores other nuclear events – even one that impact Japan in the case of the Daigo Fukurymaru incident (which helped to lead to the story of Godzilla).

Hiroshima forms a central part of Japan’s pacifist and anti-nuclear stance. Japan will often protest if a country tests nuclear weapons. The bombing of Hiroshima is taught in schools – even in English classes. Over focus on Japan as victims of the war?

President Obama visited to Hiroshima and the Pope has visited to Hiroshima & Nagasaki. But does this change anything? In the past there was an assassination attempt on the Mayor of Nagasaki due to his comments about Emperor being responsible for the war/attack on city.

Today we have greater knowledge about nuclear weapons (largely thanks to the Hiroshima Peace Campaign) when make judgements – this did not exist in 1945. But we need to keep this education going. Referring to the title of this post (and original presentation), this is about us, not the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and was taken from lyrics in “Hammer To Fall” by Queen).

We need to learn from history. While some still celebrate the achievements of the “Dambusters”, bombing dams now illegal. We must learn from history. But would countries really hold back from attacking dams if it could provide a key strategic advantage or change in fortunes? Putin said he would have used the bomb on Ukraine if necessary. Ultimately phrases like “Peace in our time” are meaningless… so perhaps is the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

We must keep learning about atomic weapons or they will be used again and we won’t know what to do when it happens.

There have been many films and books that study the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Personal favourites are “Hadashi-no-Gen” (“Barefoot Gen”), “Kuroi Ame” (“Black Rain”), the BBC docu-drama “Hiroshima” and a recent book “Hiroshima-75” edited by David Marples and Aya Fujiwara.

As a final comment, I would also like to suggest people hunt down the BBC TV’s programme “QI” and their clip about Hiroshima. This caused some controversy in Japan – perhaps because some don’t understand what the programme is about and its style. While I don’t want to defend the clip out of hand, I also think one of the points that it makes – that some in Japan did a bad job at recognising hibakusha, let alone double hibakusha, has always been, and seems to remain, true. This needs to be addressed.

See also

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