Op-Ed: What U.S. citizens weren’t told about the atomic bombing of Japan
Seventy years ago, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan: Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945; Nagasaki on Aug. 9. With searing heat and annihilating force, the nuclear blasts tore through factories, shops and homes in both cities. Huge portions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki vanished. Weighing many factors, including the Soviet Union’s entry into the war against Japan 11 hours before the Nagasaki bombing, Japan surrendered. By Aug. 15, World War II was over.
In the United States, the necessity of the bombings to end the war has been studied and argued for decades, but the acute and long-term effects of whole-body radiation exposure on the men, women and children beneath the mushroom clouds are little known and seldom mentioned. Without also accounting for this critical aspect of the bombings, discussions of the military, moral and existential issues surrounding Hiroshima and Nagasaki are incomplete. If we choose to take and defend actions that cause great harm to civilians during war, we must also scrutinize and wholly understand the effect of those actions.
Within a week of each nuclear attack, thousands who had escaped death began to experience inexplicable combinations of symptoms: high fever, dizziness, nausea, headaches, diarrhea, bloody stools, nosebleeds and whole-body weakness. Their hair fell out in large clumps, their wounds secreted extreme amounts of pus, and their gums swelled and bled. Purple spots appeared on their bodies, signs of hemorrhaging beneath the skin. Infections ravaged their internal organs. Within a few days of the onset of symptoms, many people lost consciousness, mumbled deliriously and died in extreme pain; others languished for weeks before either dying or slowly recovering. Even those who had suffered no external injuries fell sick and died. In the ruins of his small tuberculosis hospital in Nagasaki, Dr. Tatsuichiro Akizuki likened the situation to the Black Death pandemic that ravaged Europe in the 1300s.
A second wave of radiation illnesses and deaths swept through Nagasaki in late August through early October. From Akizuki’s perspective on top of Motohara Hill, the illness carved a clear geographical path: From the bottom of the hill upward, people died in order of their distance from the bomb’s hypocenter. Akizuki called this phenomenon the “concentric circles of death.”
Today, Americans’ silence on this crucial chapter of the atomic bomb story is, in large part, an extension of U.S. denial and suppression since the end of the war. Immediately after the bombings, high-level U.S. officials publicly — and adamantly — rebuffed news reports about the bombs’ horrific aftereffects. Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs, dismissed these reports as propaganda, even as he sent teams to measure radiation levels to ensure the safety of U.S. troops about to enter both cities. Later that year, Groves testified before the U.S. Senate that death from high-dose radiation exposure is “without undue suffering” and “a very pleasant way to die.”
In Nagasaki, newborn death rates skyrocketed in the nine months after the bombing: 43% of pregnancies in which the fetus was exposed within a quarter-mile of the hypocenter ended in spontaneous abortion, stillbirth or infant death. Young mothers giving birth in the ruins did not know it yet, but even those infants who survived would face severe physical and mental disabilities.
For years, tens of thousands of hibakusha (“atomic bomb-affected people”) suffered agonizing radiation-related illnesses. Many died. Meanwhile, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s occupation press code censored Japanese news accounts, personal testimonies, photographs and scientific research on the survivors’ conditions. In the United States, virtually all reports about the devastation and radiation-related deaths stopped after a confidential memo to American media requested that all reports about the atomic bombs be preapproved by the War Department, particularly those containing scientific or technical details.
In 1946 and 1947, opposition to the bombings began appearing in U.S. media, including John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” first published in the New Yorker, and a scathing essay by journalist Norman Cousins in the Saturday Review. U.S. government and military officials hurriedly strategized how to prevent what they considered “a distortion of history” that could damage postwar international relations and threaten U.S. nuclear development. Two articles by prominent government officials — the first by Karl T. Compton, a respected physicist who had helped develop the atomic bombs, and the second by former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson — offered intelligent and persuasive “behind the scenes” perspectives on the U.S. decision to use the bombs. These powerful justifications effectively quelled civic dissent and directed focus away from the ongoing suffering of the people of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
By the early 1950s, cancer rates for hibakusha adults and children soared, and many more hibakusha developed liver, endocrine, blood and skin diseases, and impairments of the central nervous system. Mortality rates remained high. Most commonly, survivors experienced violent dizzy spells and a profound depletion of energy. Fears about genetic effects of radiation exposure on their children haunted them for decades. Thirty years after the war, high rates of leukemia as well as stomach and colon cancer persisted. From the survivors’ perspective, the atomic bomb had burned their bodies from the inside out.
As Japanese and U.S. scientists continue studying hibakusha, their children and grandchildren to try to comprehend the full effect of radiation exposure, can we come face to face with the terrorizing realities of nuclear weapons? We don’t have to suppress our condemnation of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, mistreatment and killings of Allied POWs and slaughter of civilians across Asia to do so. An expanded understanding of atomic bomb history that includes the human consequences of nuclear war will deepen our integrity as a nation and, one hopes, influence our nuclear weapons policies across the world.
Susan Southard is the author of “Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War” and the artistic director of Essential Theater in Tempe, Ariz.