August 6, 1945, seventy years ago today
The United States dropped one atomic bomb called “Little Boy,” and killed or fatally wounded more than a hundred thousand people in and around Hiroshima. It was the world’s first atomic bomb attack.
Three days later, we destroyed another hundred thousand people in Nagasaki with a second atomic bomb called “Fat Man.” Even though we had no more atomic bombs for immediate use, President Truman promised a “rain of ruin.” Japanese leaders evidently believed him. They surrendered.
Let’s hope there’ll never be a third atomic bomb attack on anybody.
It was the Second World War. Japan had destroyed most of the American Navy in a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and we were still struggling to recover. Germany’s Adolph Hitler had tried to turn the entire world into a Nazi “Third Reich.” He wanted to rule it for a thousand years, taking his cue from the prophesied millennial reign of Jesus. The war had continued for years already, and millions of people had died. Germany had finally surrendered a few months earlier, but the United States and her Allies were still at war with Japan.
It was common in war to bomb cities, because weapons were not yet accurate enough to target specific military installations well. Little effort was made to spare civilians. Germany had rained bombs from the sky on London until the city was almost destroyed. If the more powerful bombs we have now are ever used, they’ll destroy cities very thoroughly.
On the night of March 9-10, America’s B-29 bombers had struck Tokyo with incendiary bombs, which killed 100,000 people within a few hours. Over the next five months, American bombers firebombed 66 other Japanese cities. Untold numbers of buildings had been destroyed; between 350,000–500,000 Japanese civilians had died. But they would rather die than surrender.
It was about this time that General George Patton told his soldiers, “It is not your job to die for your country. It is your job to help our enemies die for their countries.”
Germany had been trying to design an atomic bomb.
Albert Einstein had recommended to President Roosevelt that we should design an atomic bomb, because it would be impossible to stop Germany if they got it first; but he recommended that it not be used on Japan. President Truman disagreed.
Germany was no longer in the war, and people have been debating ever since whether or not it was necessary to use atomic weapons against Japan. It’s probably something we’ll never know for sure.
For his part, Einstein became a pacifist. Somebody once asked him, “What weapons will be used in the next war?” He answered, “I don’t know, but the war after that will be fought with rocks.”
Even vastly more powerful bombs invented
In 1952, an atomic bomb was used to trigger a vastly more powerful thermonuclear hydrogen bomb. During the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union that lasted more than 40 years, both sides built thousands of thermonuclear weapons. The Soviet Union has been gone for almost 30 years now, but those weapons still exist and endanger the entire human race. There are enough of them to destroy us all many times over.
A nuclear, or atomic, bomb is an explosive device that gets its deadly power from nuclear fission, the splitting of uranium or plutonium atoms; a thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb gets its power from fusion. An atomic bomb is its trigger. Fusion smashes atoms of deuterium and tritium (isotopes of hydrogen) together with such extreme force that they fuse, forming a helium atom. Both reactions release tremendous amounts of energy from small amounts of matter, according to Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2.
The atomic bomb released over Hiroshima produced a staggering amount of energy equal to about 20,000 tons of TNT. The first thermonuclear bomb tested just seven years later released 500 times as much energy, about as much as 10,000,000 tons of TNT!
Several treaties have been made over the years to reduce the stockpiles of atomic weapons, but little has actually been done about it. Unless nuclear and thermonuclear weapons are destroyed, they will eventually destroy us. All of us.
A madman could get hold of one and destroy a city, thereby setting off a war. Pakistan and India, which have little wars every few years, both have atomic weapons on missiles aimed at each other. A leader of the United States, Russia, or China could foolishly decide for whatever reason to attack one of the others. The principle of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) has prevented such insanity for 70 years, but it can’t work forever.
Even a mistake or an equipment malfunction could produce the same result, and nothing works perfectly all the time. Those of us who don’t disappear in a flash will almost certainly die of radiation poisoning in the few months following.
The Federation of American Scientists estimated in 2012 there were more than 17,000 nuclear and thermonuclear warheads worldwide. Around 4,300 of them were considered considered ready for immediate use. There are enough of them mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach anywhere in the world in 30 minutes or less to destroy the entire human race many times over. How could anybody have ever thought we needed so many?
It’s not enough to hope. We must stop the proliferation of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons any way we can and eventually destroy our own stockpiles before they destroy us. It doesn’t have to happen.