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Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

October 6, 2017


In 1995, a poll showed that 1 in 4 Americans didn’t know that the U.S. had dropped atomic bombs in Japan. Is this astonishing ignorance? Is it willful that we do not tell the story enough? Americans do not, for the most part, like to confront our national sins. Was it justified to kill over 74,000 people, most of them civilians, in Nagasaki, three days after we killed another 70,000+ at Hiroshima? The post-war estimates by the U.S. concluded that millions of lives—American and Japanese—were saved by short-cutting an end to the war and avoiding a land invasion. It is grim math.

What Susan Southard does in Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War is turn those numbers into people. She gives us a ground-level account of the atomic bombing at Nagasaki, through the eyes of six survivors, or hibakusha (Southard’s structure mirrors the 1946 John Hersey book, Hiroshima, a portrait of six survivors of the first atomic bomb). She weaves three equally compelling threads. The first recounts the horrors of the bombing. The second deals with post-war life in Nagasaki, including the rebuilding, emotional recovery and the struggles of the hibakusha. And the third investigates the struggle to control the narrative of the bombing.

Nagasaki was a back-up target. On August 9, 1945, Kokura, the initial target city, was blanketed in fog. When the bomb named “Fat Man” detonated a third of a mile above the Urakami River Valley, a “super-brilliant flash lit up the sky,” visible from a naval hospital ten miles away. The blast was equal to the power of 21,000 tons of TNT. It’s a strange though common way to describe a bomb blast—who knows what even one ton of TNT would be like? Who can imagine what it feels like to feel temperatures over 540,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than at the center of the sun? The nuclear reaction created a shockwave that traveled faster than the speed of sound, a ball of super-hot ionized gas, and an electromagnetic blast and a fireball 750 feet wide.

“Human and animal flesh and organs were immediately vaporized. The vertical blast pressure crushed much of the valley as the cloud raised to two miles. Horizontal blast winds tore through the valley at 2.5 times the speed of a level 5 hurricane, destroying buildings, plants and animals and instantly killing thousands of men, women and children. People jumped from the upper-floor windows of collapsing buildings—hospitals, an elementary school. The heat melted iron. Flash burns burned skin away and flying glass and other debris ripped through bodies like millions of bullets fired in every direction instantaneously as far as eleven miles away. Tens of thousands of people—the ones who were not killed instantly—were irradiated at higher levels than anyone ever before.”

Yoshida Katsuji was more than a mile from the blast. It threw him 130 feet into a rice paddy. Another of the hibakusha interviewed was trapped when his Mitsubishi plant collapsed. A journalist aboard the American plane that had dropped the bomb described the mushrooming cloud as “a living thing. A new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.” One of the pilots described it as “a picture of hell.”

Indeed, the aftermath was apocalyptic. One image still sticks with me: “A bewildered woman carrying a bucket holding the severed head of her young daughter.” Nobody knew what had been unleashed upon them. For days, communication was nonexistent. The bodies of the dead were buried fast with no time for identification.

Japan surrendered after Nagasaki. But the pain for the people of Nagasaki was far from over. They had thousands of decaying corpses. Sickness. Malnutrition. Starvation. A lack of water. People searched for missing family members. Homes were gone. Schools, stores, whole neighborhoods.

Americans soldiers arrived post-bombing to find a Japanese holocaust. A community trying to rebuild, and in the rebuilding discovering who had died because those people were just no longer there. At one elementary school, of the thirty students and teachers, four survived.

The personal stories of the hibakusha are heartbreaking. As if the bombing wasn’t enough, they were treated as outcasts by much of Japanese society. Many were ashamed to tell their stories or embarrassed by their scars. But the rebuilding of Nagasaki also contains stories of human resilience, of perseverance and of a society insisting on resuming the things that made it a community—learning, working, religious practice. The scars were deep but the spirit was strong.

The third part of the book—which deals with the attempt of both governments to control the narrative of the bombing—is in some ways the most disturbing. Specifically, it examines the argument the U.S. used to justify the bomb’s use, the attempt to cover up the dangerous effects of the radiation and the long-term struggle over the story of Nagasaki.

By 1945, before the use of the atomic bombs, Allied fire-bombings had destroyed all or part of sixty-four Japanese cities. Two-thirds of Japanese believed they were losing the war. Still, Japanese Emperor Hirohito refused to give up the fight. To Americans, it seemed clear that the only thing that would force a surrender was an all-out land invasion of Japan. Avoiding a protracted land invasion would become the central justification for the bombings. After the war, former Secretary of War Henry Stimson estimated that the atomic bombings saved a million American lives and as many as ten million Japanese. Southard is skeptical of the estimate, pointing out several mistakes in the Stinson’s math. Regardless, wars are unpredictable, and most wars go longer and cost more lives than predicted by bureaucrats. Who can say what a land invasion of Japan would actually have cost?

In regards to the post-war narrative, the U.S. lived up to the adage that history is written by the victors. When the foreign media picked up reports of a wave of sickness in the areas of the bombings, the U.S. denied it as sheer propaganda.

“U.S. scientists and military leaders’ lack of knowledge and grossly miscalculated assumptions, combined with their desire to safeguard the United States’ reputation, led to passionate repudiation of Japanese claims of the effects of radiation on the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the weeks and months after the bombings.”

The Japanese media was censored, including reporting anything about the effects of the radiation from the bombs. Without permission, the United States collected specimens of Japanese victims to study the effects of the bomb, with the intent of protecting Americans in the case of an atomic attack (while continually denying the presence of dangerous radiation in Japan). Reels of post-bomb Nagasaki were seized by the U.S. government and stored away until many decade later.

The use of the atomic bombs is still a sensitive issue. Were they necessary? In particular, was Nagasaki necessary? In the eyes of some Americans, they were just putting an emphatic end to what Pearl Harbor started. And to some, even questioning the bombings is a sacrilege. In the 1990s, when the Smithsonian planned to open an exhibit on the bombings, including the stories and photos of victims, a group of senators protested, claiming that any deviation from the official narrative was an “erosion of the truth.” Ted Stevens of Alabama characterized the exhibit as “A view of events that is contrary to the memory of those who lived through the war.”

In response, Nagasaki’s mayor apologized for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and its invasion of numerous Asian nations, but stated angrily: “Do you tell me that because of this aggression and these atrocities committed by the Japanese, there is no need to reflect upon the fact that an unprecedented weapon of mass destruction was used on a community of non-combatants?”

It’s a sensitive subject, and likely will be for decades still. It’s understandable that anyone impacted by Pearl Harbor or World War II might be resistant to portraying the Japanese as “victims.” They were the enemy in a war that had become total. But it’s something we have to face if we’re to try to claim any moral status as a country. The fact is that while other countries have committed atrocities, we are the only country to ever use nuclear weapons in wartime. We can’t hide behind our status as victors. We can’t insist the facts aren’t what they are. We can make a case for how right our actions were, but we can’t hide from history.


Dan Carlin discusses the topic in episode #59 (“Destroyer of Worlds”) of his excellent podcast, Hardcore History. And for the story of the Manhattan Project and the strategy of our nuclear arsenal during the Cold War, check out Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2017 12:35 am

    I went to Middle School in Pennsylvania and they did show us a video of the bombings and photos of the victims. It was truly horrendous but people were prepared to discuss this monstrous event back then (this was 1987/88).

    • October 7, 2017 1:09 pm

      Interesting. I grew up in the Midwest as well (Cincinnati) and was in middle school at the same time. I don’t remember learning much about the bombings. Then again, history wasn’t my thing. Do you remember what the conversation was like? Must be hard for middle schoolers to process. Thanks for commenting.

      • October 8, 2017 1:36 am

        I don’t remember much discussion but I do recall it was in a Social Studies class. I was and am horrified by the things we saw. What is it that Oppenheimer said? “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.

  2. October 7, 2017 5:55 am

    1 in 4 Americans didn’t know about the atomic bombs! Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. I never knew Nagasaki wasn’t the intended target.

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