Face to Face With a Historical Nuclear Tragedy

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is a memorial park in the center of Hiroshima, Japan/ Image: Government of Japan

The nuclear threat is an ever-present danger which must be addressed in parallel. It could still be the biggest risk of all to the peace and stability of our world at the global level and regionally. The possibility remains that still more countries will acquire them and the danger persists of their deliberate or accidental use by states or non-state/terrorist of actors. The bomb is designed to deliver a large amount of energy over a very short period of time, leading to explosions, firestorms and massive heat energy generated to obliterate every object in its path. Every single atom in the universe carries an unimaginably powerful battery within its heart, called the nucleus.

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Among the scientists at Los Alamos were the American Oppenheimer, the Italians Fermi and Segre, the Danish Bohr. The United States, Great Britain, and Canada were allies in the war and they decided to work together and to establish all their atomic projects in North America. The scientists of the British mission were not all English born. They included men from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Poland. Los Alamos solved the problems of making an explosion and building bombs and a day came in July 1945, when humanity saw a power never imagined earlier in their life. The atomic or nuclear bomb was the outcome of a prodigious programme of research carried out in secret during the years 1942-1945, following the operation of the first pile.

Ultimately, the fateful day of 16th July 1945 set off the nuclear age. Not one but three things happened on that day, giving the world its nuclear teeth. The first was a meeting, the second was testing, and the third was a sailing. The meeting took place at Potsdam, in occupied Germany. It was attended by statesmen from three future nuclear powers-US President Harry Truman, Soviet supremo Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Clement Attlee, Labour Party leader and Churchill’s successor-to-be, also participated. The discussions centred on the subject of terms of punishment to be meted to Germany, which had surrendered unconditionally, and to Japan which was refusing to do so. By the time the conference ended, Japan had been given an ultimatum to surrender, or meet ‘Prompt and Utter Destruction’.

The world’s first testing of a nuclear device took place at Trinity. It was a codename for Alamogordo, a place in the New Mexican desert almost two hundred miles south of Los Alamos. It was done in complete secrecy and meant to show whether atomic bombs would work according to calculations. It proved more powerful than the scientists had anticipated and produced a flash of light so brilliant that it was seen by a blind girl many miles away. The event was witnessed by J.R. Oppenheimer, the director of the project the physicist Kenneth Bainbridge, and a few carefully selected scientists and military personnel.

Testing and dropping of the nuclear bombs

At the moment of detonation, the ground swelled, shook, pummelled, rose and fell, sending up a plume of light so bright that every blade of grass in the vicinity stood out in the sharpest and most eerie relief. Later General Farrell described the explosion in a report to the War Department, ‘The whole country was lighted by a searching light with the intensity many times that of the mid-day sun. It was golden, purple, violet, grey and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby a mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described ….. Thirty seconds after the explosion, came first the air blast, pressing hard against the people and things; to be followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday……’ After the successful explosion the crew of US cruiser Indianapolis sailed from San Francisco on a mission that was directly related to both those proceedings. Carrying in large wooden crates parts of a device the captain and crew knew was important but not how important–or how ugly the cruiser was bound for Tinian Island in the South Pacific. From there, bomber planes were to take off with the device, none other than the “powerful new weapon” for its twin destination in Japan, ending the War and starting the nuclear age.

Nuclear explosion cloud in Hiroshima city, Japan/ Image: State Department Archives

The test of Trinity was soon followed by the actual use of atomic bombs in the war. In the war, Germany had already surrendered. President Roosevelt had died in the last April and President Truman had taken his place. Truman and the American nation wanted a speedy victory. On August 6, 1945, at 8.15 a.m., Brigadier Paul Tibbets of the US Air Force flew over in a B-29, named Enola Gay and dropped a 16-kiloton uranium fission bomb on an unsuspecting Japanese city of Hiroshima. A parachute opened, a flash of light and blasts followed, and suddenly all hell broke loose. The eyes of a young girl watching the parachute melted and their faces become bloated blisters. Ferocious fires raged through the city and temperature rose to 4000 degrees, melting iron and vaporizing human bodies. Skin dangled from the fingernails of extended hands seeking help. Houses were reduced to rubble by the enormous blast and people trapped inside were burned alive. Within seconds, thousands perished. The death toll rose to 140,000 within a year.

Three days later another bomb, named ‘Fat Man’, was dropped on Nagasaki, which suffered a similar fate. Estimates say that within the first two to four months of the bombings, dangerous effects of the explosion killed 90,000 to 166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000 to80,000 in Nagasaki.

About half of them died on the first day under the direct impact, from flash or flame burns and falling debris. Potsdam showed that the tallest of statesmen can take decisions history would loathe. Los Alamos showed that the greatest of scientists can take steps humanity deplores. The law of warfare was thus violated by a technically advanced democratic state that wore “In God We Trust”. Indianapolis was doomed by strategic miscalculation and its men by the most unexpected retaliation from nature’s autonomous dynamics.

Long-term effects and aftereffects

Japan is the only country that had witnessed nuclear holocaust. Hospitals, schools, factories, offices, nursing homes, police stations, post offices, railway stations, fire engines, ambulances, tram cars, moving and stationary vehicles, homes, temples, churches and parks–everything had obliterated. A new word “Hibakusha” meaning survivors was added to the Japanese language to describe the 1945 atom bomb victims and their yet-to-be-born children. Years after the bombing, survivors continue to suffer from radiation poisoning and cancers. Traumatised by the horrific experience and emotionally shattered, they lived in constant fear of disease and death. Soon after the bombing, many Americans express guilt and revulsion. Robert Oppenheimer, the Scientific Director of the Manhattan Project, said on November 1945 that the bomb was used against “an essentially defeated enemy”. He characterised the bombs as “Weapons of aggression of surprise and of terror”, which would give nations a“sleazy sense of omnipotence”. In addition, subsequent historical accounts reveal that the bombing was in fact unnecessary, as the Japanese were willing to surrender much earlier.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Dr Rajkumar Singh

Dr Rajkumar Singh is a Professor and Head at P.G. Department of Political Science, BNMU, Bihar, India

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