Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hiroshima and Nagasaki August 1945

This summer media sources are remembering the start of the First World War 100 years ago in August 1914. Somewhat overshadowed has been the events of August, 1945 that brought the Second World War to an end. On August 5, 1945 a U.S. Air Force bomber dropped the first Atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Four days later a second Atomic bomb was dropped on the port city of Nagasaki. Five days later on August 15 Japanese Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese government agreed to accede to Allied demands and surrender unconditionally.

Earlier that year, on May 8, 1945, the European Allies had accepted the surrender of Germany after Hitler’s suicide. VE Day marked the end of the war in Europe and the Allies could now turn their full attention to the defeat of Japan. Joseph Stalin, the brutal Communist dictator in Russia, had refused to open an Asian front against Japan until the defeat of Germany.

After VE Day Stalin agreed to launch an attack on the Japanese puppet state in Mongolia within three months. On July 26, 1945 the Allied leaders met at Potsdam and issued a demand to Japan to surrender unconditionally or face utter destruction. While the Russians built up their forces in the East, the United States launched a series of devastating firebomb attacks on Japanese cities from their recently taken islands in the Pacific.

When these attacks failed to bring the Japanese to their knees, the Allies made preparations for a full-scale attack on the Japanese mainland. Massive casualties were projected on both sides.  Finally, by the beginning of August scientists had successfully tested the Atom bomb. President Truman then made the decision to use the bomb.

I was six years old at the time and have only the slightest recollection of that world-shattering event. I don’t think anyone at the time could have imagined the awful destruction caused by those two bombs. A few years later, after the Soviet Union had managed to steal the technology and build their own bomb, I remember participating in air raid drills in school. Teachers told us to crouch under our desks or just put our heads on the desks with our hands over them. I guess that this exercise was to protect against shattered windows but even we children realized its futility.

As  I got older I became somewhat aware of the debate that had gone on within the Truman administration about the decision to drop the bomb, as well as the debate that still goes on among scholars and other commentators about the necessity and morality of the action. I’m sure that this question is one in which there are strong arguments on both sides. For myself, I still wonder why it was necessary to drop the second bomb on Nagasaki only four days after Hiroshima.

Coincidentally, at the time Nagasaki was the most Christian city in Japan. The day the Japanese government agreed to surrender was August 15, the feast day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. Although Catholics had celebrated the feast of the Assumption on August 15 for centuries, the doctrine had never been officially defined by the Church.

Maybe it was the awful destruction of the Second World War, maybe it was the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and maybe it was the prospect of an atomic arms race, but only five years after the surrender of Japan on August 15, Pope Pius XII, in a rare exercise of Papal infallibility, declared that belief in the Assumption of Mary was a binding doctrine of the Catholic church.

So far, despite the Cold War and the continued development of nuclear weapons, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain unique.  Although warfare has continued, there has thankfully been no worldwide conflagration to match either WWI  or WWII. It might not seem so, but since August 15, 1945 we have witnessed an unprecedented era of peace.


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