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World War II

World War II

Science & Technology in World War II


On the morning of 6 August 1945, the Enola Gay, a United States B-29 bomber, hovered over Hiroshima, Japan. Men commanding the aircraft followed instructions to release "Little Boy," the codename for the massive weapon on board—an atomic bomb. The first nuclear weapon ever to be used in war fell through the sky for nearly one minute before detonating above the city below. It destroyed nearly everything in its path, stretching a full mile from the center of the point of contact. A few concrete structures withstood the attack, but the sheer force of the blast flattened many homes, trees, businesses, churches, temples, hospitals, and schools, while the ensuing fires charred much of what remained. Over 130,000 people were killed instantly and thousands more suffered and ultimately died from injury and illness inflicted by the nuclear explosion.


Just three days later, on the morning of 9 August 1945, U.S. bomber Bockscar dropped another nuclear bomb with the codename "Fat Man" on its target in southern Japan. The explosion over the port city of Nagasaki acted as an incinerator, scorching everything within two miles of the bomb. Unlike Hiroshima, Nagasaki was an old-fashioned city, one in which few buildings had been modernized or retrofitted; most people lived and worked in wood structures built closely together. Thus the total destruction caused by the attack was even more far-reaching than the demolition in Hiroshima. A Japanese report described the post-attack landscape as "a graveyard with not a tombstone standing."15 Some 75,000 people, or nearly one-third of the total population of Nagasaki, perished in the attack, while thousands of people died in the following years from causes related to the bombing.

A Tarnished Victory

The detonation of nuclear weapons tarnished the notion of World War II as "The Good War." President Harry S. Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan was called both moral and just as well as one of the worst crimes against humanity, equal to or more heinous than the Nazi Holocaust. The debate prevented many from putting closure on the events they witnessed in the 1930s and 1940s, and complicated the story of war for subsequent generations.

Questions still surround the issue, especially among historians. Why did the United States drop atomic bombs on the unarmed citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why would President Truman order the attacks if Japanese leaders were prepared to surrender to Allied forces? How could American soldiers follow orders to deploy the weapons if they knew full well that thousands of Japanese people would be unwarned, would have no time to evacuate, and would be incinerated by the blast? Were these acts justified or morally indefensible?

A Last Resort?

Some historians have suggested that leaders of the Japanese Empire had, in fact, been far more willing to yield to Allied demands than United States officials had let on, but little evidence exists to prove this. Records do show, however, that Japanese military officials resisted all negotiations with the United States and refused to consider surrender or a cease-fire. With Japanese leaders proposing to defend the dying land, President Harry S. Truman may have had few options.

Some have concluded that racism underscored Truman's decision, but such an argument ignores the fact that scientists developed the atomic bomb to be used against an Axis enemy—German or Japanese—as a last resort. In fact, the weapon was initially created for German targets and might have been dropped in Germany had not the Third Reich surrendered when it did. The act has also been cited as diabolical. Truman's act was, in fact, calculated, but only in that he weighed the annihilation of thousands of civilians in an enemy land against the extension of violent ground warfare and the inevitable loss of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of American lives. As historian Leon Litwack has remarked, "To drop the bomb was not a question but a conclusion."16

Many of those who served in the Pacific would have agreed. For them, the bombs, in effectively ending the war, may have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American and Japanese soldiers and civilians who would have died in the escalating conflict in the Pacific. For many of the men risking their lives on the battlefront, the use of nuclear weapons to force a Japanese surrender was not a moral issue but, rather, welcomed relief from the horrors of war.

The Legacy of the A-Bomb

Technological and scientific developments influenced not only the outcome of the global conflict, but also the stakes of warfare in ways previously unimagined. For the first time in history—and the only time since—nuclear weapons were used by one warring nation against another, flattening entire cites, killing tens of thousands of civilians instantly, and poisoning thousands more with radiation-induced illnesses such as leukemia, lung cancer, breast cancer, throat cancer, and post-traumatic stress.

Although the atomic blasts forced Japan to surrender and effectively ended a war that may have continued for months or even years, the deployment of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki exposed the frightening truth that science and technology, rather than elevating the human race, could lead to the destruction of mankind. The existence of the A-bomb, to this day, challenges precious notions of human progress and forces the world to grapple with the petrifying reality of nuclear power.

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