Tsutomu Yamaguchi & the Dawn of a Nuclear Era

On Monday, the only survivor of both atomic blasts over Japan during the Second World War, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, passed away at the age of 93, according to an obituary by the New York Times this morning. Together, the two bombs are thought to have killed an estimated 150,000 people, with millions more in the years after due to the effects of the blasts.

The bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of the war were the product of a massive scientific and military research project known as the Manhattan Project, which completely altered the way that the military would operate strategically over the coming decades. Much debate still rages on about the background motivations of the bombing. As I’ve been working with the Norwich University Military History degree, I’ve read numerous entry essays from prospective students on a number of topics, and the motivations behind the atomic bombs is by far the one that I see the most.

The decision to bomb the Japanese at the end of the war, was not a singular issue, but rather a very complicated one, where Truman had to weigh both the immediate effects that the bombs would have, as well as the repercussions of such an attack. There are many arguments that argue for one side or the other, that the bombs were dropped as a last resort to end the war and prevent a mainland invasion by US forces, which would have been incredibly costly to both the Japanese and the Americans. On the other hand, it has been argued that the bombs were a political demonstration to a rising Soviet Union by a growing United States, to show the extents of US power. Again, this has quite a bit of merit to it. So, why not both? In this instance, Truman had the option to not only demonstrate the extent of US power to a potential rival, but also showed that the nation would use it if needed, and by doing so, helped to end the Second World War. The arguments about whose lives were more important, US soldiers or Japanese civilians and military, is one for another time, but a nation will act in its own interests – in this instance, it was in the United States’ interest to end the war and establish itself as a dominant global military power.

Atomic warfare is by its very nature very different than so called conventional warfare. A very good example can be found in the early days of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union’s problems in the years following the Second World War. Faced with massive infrastructure damage and tens of millions of people killed in the war, the country was burdened by a massive conventional army – an expensive investment that was rendered largely useless by the advances that the United States Air Force enjoyed. In several demonstrations over the years, General Curtis Lemay flew bombers over Moscow and other Soviet cities in a demonstration that the United States could easily wipe out the country. As a result, the Soviet Union began to research missile technology, as well as nuclear technology, as a way to counteract US power. The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz has noted that with any new advance in offensive force, there tends to be a defense constructed to counteract it. During his time, this was seen in advancements in artillery and fortifications. In the nuclear era, this translated from bomber and air superiority to missile counter defenses and the threat of mutually assured destruction, commonly known as MAD.

As such, warfare of the Cold War was different from the Second World War, because neither country was ready to commit to the literal destruction of the world. Nuclear weapons, because of their awesome, destructive power, held both nations in check. Smaller conflicts around the world didn’t involve the two nations actively fighting each other, at least officially, but through proxies, in a delicate game of power. There were close calls, to be sure, but the greatest measure of success was that the remaining major conflicts, such as Korea and Vietnam, were carried out by larger conventional forces, rather than nuclear ones.

Mr. Yamaguchi had a fairly unique view of the dawn of this new era of warfare. While he most likely wasn’t the only survivor of both blasts, he is the only one that is officially acknowledged to have been a survivor of both. His story is an interesting one, and shows not only the power of these weapons, but also the consequences that come with their usage. Fortunately, their use has only been demonstrated once during wartime, and hopefully, Mr. Yamaguchi’s vantage point will never again be witnessed. However, however horrible the deployment of these weapons were, one needs to keep in mind that the dropping of the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was far more than an isolated event – they ushered in a new era of the world, fundamentally changing the balance of power for the rest of the century, and in all likelihood, helped, in part, to avoid even worse conflict.