ATOMIC BOMBINGS AT 75: The Mystery of the Nagasaki Bomb

On Aug. 9, 1945, as Japan’s high command met on surrender plans, the U.S. dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki killing 74,000 people instantly, a decision that’s never been adequately explained, writes John LaForge.

The bombing of Nagasaki as seen from the town of Koyagi, about 13 km south, taken 15 minutes after the bomb exploded. In the foreground, life seemingly went on unaffected. (Wikipedia)

Originally published by Consortium News on Aug. 9, 2014. 

By John LaForge

“The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable,” Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, once said, “but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki” — which he labeled a war crime.

In his 2011 book Atomic Cover-Up, Greg Mitchell says, “If Hiroshima suggests how cheap life had become in the atomic age, Nagasaki shows that it could be judged to have no value whatsoever.” Mitchell notes that the U.S. writer Dwight MacDonald cited in 1945 America’s “decline to barbarism” for dropping “half-understood poisons” on a civilian population.

The U.S. explosion of a nuclear bomb over Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945.

The U.S. explosion of a plutonium nuclear bomb over Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945.

The New York Herald Tribune editorialized there was “no satisfaction in the thought that an American air crew had produced what must without doubt be the greatest simultaneous slaughter in the whole history of mankind.”

Mitchell reports that the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. — who experienced the firebombing of Dresden first hand and described it in Slaughterhouse Five — said, “The most racist, nastiest act by this country, after human slavery, was the bombing of Nagasaki.”

On Aug. 17, 1945, David Lawrence, the conservative columnist and editor of US News, put it this way:

“Last week we destroyed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Japanese cities with the new atomic bomb. We shall not soon purge ourselves of the feeling of guilt. We did not hesitate to employ the most destructive weapon of all times indiscriminately against men, women and children. Surely we cannot be proud of what we have done. If we state our inner thoughts honestly, we are ashamed of it.”

If shame is the natural response to Hiroshima, how is one to respond to Nagasaki, especially in view of all the declassified government papers on the subject? According to Dr. Joseph Gerson’s With Hiroshima Eye, some 74,000 were killed instantly at Nagasaki, another 75,000 were injured and 120,000 were poisoned.

If Hiroshima was unnecessary, how to justify Nagasaki?

The saving of thousands of U.S. lives is held up as the official justification for the two atomic bombings. Leaving aside the ethical and legal question of slaughtering civilians to protect soldiers, what can be made of the Nagasaki bomb if Hiroshima’s incineration was not necessary?

The most amazingly under-reported statement in this context is that of Truman’s Secretary of State James Byrnes, quoted on the front page of the Aug. 29, 1945 New York Times with the headline, “Japan Beaten Before Atom Bomb, Byrnes Says, Citing Peace Bids.” Byrnes cited what he called “proof that the Japanese knew that they were beaten before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.”

On Sept. 20, 1945, Gen. Curtis LeMay, the famous bombing commander, told a press conference, “The war would have been over in two weeks without the Russians entering and without the atomic bomb. The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”

According to Robert Lifton’s and Greg Mitchel’s Hiroshima in America: 50 Years of Denial (1995), only weeks after Aug. 6 and 9, President Harry Truman himself publicly declared that the bomb “did not win the war.”

The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, conducted by Paul Nitze less than a year after the atom bombings, concluded that “certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

Likewise, the Intelligence Group of the U.S. War Department’s Military Intelligence Division conducted a study from January to April 1946 and declared that the bombs had not been needed to end the war, reports Gar Alperovitz in his massive The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb. The IG said it is “almost a certainty that the Japanese would have capitulated upon the entry of Russia into the war.”

Russia did so, Aug. 8, 1945, and as Ward Wilson reports in his Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, six hours after news of Russia’s invasion of Sakhalin Island reached Tokyo — and before Nagasaki was bombed — the Supreme Council met to discuss unconditional surrender.

Experiments with Hell Fire?

Nagasaki was attacked with a bomb made of plutonium, named after Pluto, god of the underworld earlier known as Hades, in what some believe to have been a ghastly trial. The most toxic substance known to science, developed for mass destruction, plutonium is so lethal it contaminates everything nearby forever, every isotope a little bit of hell fire.

According to Atomic Cover-Up, Hitoshi Motoshima, mayor of Nagasaki from 1979 to 1995, said, “The reason for Nagasaki was to experiment with the plutonium bomb.” Mitchell notes that “hard evidence to support this ‘experiment’ as the major reason for the bombing remains sketchy.” But according to a wire service report in Newsweek, Aug. 20, 1945, by a journalist traveling with the president aboard the USS Augusta, Truman reportedly announced to his shipmates, “The experiment has been an overwhelming success.”

U.S. investigators visiting Hiroshima on Sept. 8, 1945 met with Japan’s leading radiation expert, Professor Masao Tsuzuki. One was given a 1926 paper on Tsuzuki’s famous radiation experiments on rabbits. “Ah, but the Americans, they are wonderful,” Tsuzuki told the group. “It has remained for them to conduct the human experiment!”

John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, edits its quarterly newsletter, and writes for PeaceVoice.

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17 comments for “ATOMIC BOMBINGS AT 75: The Mystery of the Nagasaki Bomb

  1. Alex Cox
    August 10, 2020 at 11:56

    Interesting how intensely some people defend the war crime at Nagasaki, as seen here in tge comments.

    But the author’s conclusion is right. I interviewed Sam Cohen, the ‘father’ of the Neutron Bomb, and he confirmed that Nagasaki had an experimental purpose. The Nagasaki bomb was a new device: he and his colleagues wanted to see what it would do.

  2. Jay B
    August 10, 2020 at 09:59

    Japan certainly made a statement at Pearl Harbor. And in the Korea and China. Not to mention the various bloody battles in the South Pacific. I have no doubt the bombs were a measure of revenge for Pearl Harbor and the countless atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army on American POWs and hapless civilians that got in their way. When we look back, we do so with perfect hindsight; we judge this event with the enlightenment of the 21st Century morality. While I do not celebrate the death and destruction brought about by the decision to drop the bombs, neither can I put myself in the shoes of those that must have felt the fate of the world had been in the balance for too long. As has been documented, many questioned the decision to drop the bombs AFTER they were dropped but no one said they felt prolonging the was was a “better option”. Saying someone is prepared to surrender is a long, long way from actually surrendering. Should The Bomb ever be used again, I doubt the lessons of Nagasaki and Hiroshima with have bearing on the decision.

      August 10, 2020 at 11:23

      This completely false. Seven of eight US five-star generals at the time were opposed to using the bomb. This is not 21st Century hindsight or AFTER the fact.

      Gen. Dwight Eisenhower stated in his memoirs that when notified by Secretary of War Henry Stimson of the decision to use atomic weapons, he “voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.” He later publicly declared, “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Even the famous hawk Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, the head of the Twenty-First Bomber Command, went public the month after the bombing, telling the press that “the atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.” –Gar Alperocitz, The Nation.

      “General Douglas MacArthur said that the Japanese would have gladly surrendered as early as May if the U.S. had told them they could keep the emperor. Similar views were voiced by Admirals Chester Nimitz, Ernest King and William Halsey, and General Henry Arnold….Telegrams going back and forth between Japanese officials in Tokyo and Moscow made it clear that the Japanese were seeking an honorable way to end what they had started. Retention of the emperor, as MacArthur noted, was the main stumbling block to surrender. Truman was well aware of the situation. He referred to the intercepted July 18 cable as the “telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace.” His close advisors concurred. “–Peter Kuznick, US News & World Report

      Admiral William Leahy, White House chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the war. Leahy wrote in his 1950 memoirs that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” Moreover, Leahy continued, “in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

  3. Vera Gottlieb
    August 10, 2020 at 09:50

    Nobody knew what the first A bomb would look like, what it would do, how disastrous its effect would be for the region and for the people. But then, having seen what it did, and still go ahead and drop the second A bomb…in my eyes this is MURDER.

  4. Darby
    August 13, 2014 at 14:34

    Wow. This seems like a very fair and balanced article. And who gives a s*** what Kurt Vonnegut thinks!? Yeah, it was pretty bad what happened, but hey man it’s war. We weren’t as well educated about the bomb back then. Even if we had been, the Japanese we a very respectable force and fought with such fervor that it would have cost 1,000,000+ more lives on both sides. The Tokyo Bombings killed more people (civilians as well) than those two bombs combined. Plus, I don’t hear this article weeping for the 100s of 10-year-old Korean/Chinese girls that were raped repeatedly by Japanese soldiers. Or the decapitation (of Chinese) contests that Japanese officers used to have as a form of competition. What would times be like for those countries if we had allowed the war to drag on that much longer? It’s war. It’s not a glorious thing full of honor and pride and sometimes it’s gonna come down to a moral call that not everyone is going to agree with. This article is a bunch of crap and completely bias. A very one-sided argument. Sounds like a conspiracy theorist.

    • Dan Lowe
      August 19, 2014 at 09:56

      You’re not wrong about the atrocities committed by Japan, but to conclude with ‘saying Nagasaki was unnecessary and therefore a war crime is a biased conspiracy theory’ ignores Taylor, the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, calling it a war crime. Which this very article cited.

      If the war was just a fight between atrocious world powers (England, waging terror against the Irish, the US against the Japanese, the Japanese against all of Eastern Asia, and Germany…) then there was no triumph of good over evil, only war between people who’d collectively lost their way.

      In that context, to say, ‘hey, it’s war, man,’ and that we just didn’t know enough about the bombs, is to act like we suddenly lose our ability to premeditate logical courses of action–that we lose our reason. If that’s the case, then how were the war industries coordinated? How were new weapons designed, distributed and deployed? War, especially winning a war, is most definitely a highly coordinated effort, mostly for those not in harm’s way themselves who don’t have any of the stress of being in an actual warzone (a luxury that America itself alone enjoyed). The military industrial complex didn’t happen accidentally one night, and suddenly we had all these magic weapons that no one understood. They were engineered, tested, and repeatedly employed. All except the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki, which was engineered but untested like the first bomb had been.

      But to say that we didn’t know enough about what it would do is not sufficient. Those who designed the bomb never doubted how destructive it would be, only the degree, ranging from those who thought it would be a mountain of TNT to those who thought it would ignite the whole atmosphere in a chain reaction. (I assume those people found no justification for dropping either bomb.) Especially after the first test and Hiroshima, those in charge of bombing Nagasaki/Tokyo knew it was going to be terrible, and did it because of it.

      There are plenty of justifications that have been made in the last century about the mentality of the Japanese and what the cost of the war anyway with traditional weapons, all of which you mentioned. Ideas that feed the notion that we needed to keep making those weapons and into the 1980s believe we may need to use them, and reeks of a warhawk bias on its own. What did that mentality of mutual destruction get us? Where has more war gotten us? Is our judgment perpetually clouded because, ‘hey, life is war, man’? At which point is it okay for you to consider that Germany and Japan being wrong doesn’t make us right? That’s why war crime tribunals exist in the first place, to sift out what is justifiable and what is not, to ensure that war not remain the bloodsport it has been historically.

      But since you simultaneously claim that the bomb prevented more deaths, and that we were unable to make a rational decision because we didn’t know enough, it sounds like you’re unsure about the reasons yourself but unwilling to be contrarian because you think it’s a ‘conspiracy theory’ and we should always trust the official account. You must not read the rest of the articles on this site, because the ‘official account’ is nothing but a highly formulated conspiracy.

    • TimN
      August 10, 2020 at 07:22

      You trot out the usual excuses for the bomb, one being that because Japanese soldiers committed atrocities (all armies do), then that makes it okay. The Bombs were a ” moral call?” Is that what that was? There was no justification for it, and you can’t or won’t understand that. It was utterly immoral, and, like torture, the same punk-ass excuses are always used to justify it.

  5. August 11, 2014 at 16:43

    The Japanese of that time were still in the Samari mental attitude of ritual suicide, fight to the last man and so forth. Witness their battles as America advanced closer and closer to the mainland. In Okinawa, they had to destroy the entire garrison. The Japanese never did surrender. There was no one left to surrender. Do you really think, if US troops had landed on the mainland, Japan would have simply rolled over and surrendered. One can never be sure but their past actions argued against it. Dropping the second bomb kept the Japanese high command focused and probably pushed them over the edge to surrender. She didn’t know that America didn’t have any more bombs and could see Japan being obliterated if they held out.

    • TimN
      August 10, 2020 at 07:25

      Wrong. Did you not read the article? They were ready to surrender. This was known at the time by everyone involved in the decision, including Truman.

  6. Daniel
    August 9, 2014 at 20:04

    The two bombs were different designs and with different materials. Uranium and Plutonium. Gun device vs. implosion device. Maybe they really wanted to test both “in the field”. Also, it was the show-off to the Russians. The first steps towards the cold war.

  7. Brendan
    August 9, 2014 at 10:08

    The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were all about stopping the Soviet advance and nothing to do with protecting American soldiers.

    Stalin had made a secret deal at the Yalta conference that the Soviet Union would enter the Pacific war within three months of the end of the war in Europe (maybe it was 90 days, there are differing accounts of the time limit). On 8 August, three months to the day after VE (Victory in Europe) Day, it declared war against Japan.

    It’s too much of a coincidence that Hiroshima was bombed just two days before that and the Nagasaki bomb was ready to be dropped the next day. The atomic bombs appear to have been used to rush the Japanese surrender before the Soviets could advance any further.

    It probably didn’t make any difference anyway because the Japanese leaders seemed just as indifferent to the mass slaughter of Japanese civilians as the Americans were. Because their top priority was to save the emperor, they surrendered to the US rather than allow invasion by the Soviet Union which had previously killed its own Czar along with all his family.

    • Yaj
      August 9, 2014 at 11:27


      Was the Soviet Union in a position to land invasion troops in any quantity in Japan in the fall of 1945?

    • Brendan
      August 9, 2014 at 14:12

      Yaj, Within days the Soviet forces swept through Manchuria and within weeks they captured Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands which became part of the Soviet Union. Sakhalin is only a short distance away from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Some historians believe that they did not have the capability to invade Hokkaido, never mind the rest of Japan
      and I don’t claim to know if they could or not. Whether that’s true or not the Japanese didn’t know it and the Soviet advance must have hastened their surrender to the USA.

      • Yaj
        August 9, 2014 at 17:42


        Okay, Japan “didn’t” know is certainly possible.

    • Finn Nielsen
      August 9, 2014 at 22:35

      #Brendan – As you are undoubtedly aware, the war crimes charge is entirely independent of whether the Soviets entered the war or not. It is not excusable to bomb civilian populations to send smoke signals to Russian invaders.

      • Brendan
        August 10, 2014 at 01:07

        Yes I’m already aware of that and war crimes are not excusable.

  8. Yaj
    August 9, 2014 at 09:30

    Just to be contrary:

    That Nagasaki atom bomb attack is explained if Japan had exploded its own nuclear weapon off the cost of northern Korea after the US atom bombed Hiroshima and the US had found out about this Japanese atomic weapon test.

    See: Japan’s Secret War by Robert Wilcox.

    Here’s the Amazon link to the 1995 edition:


    There’s also a 1985 edition.

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