Was it right to bomb Hiroshima?

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1. What happened on 6 August 1945?

In the small hours of a warm summer day, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay flew from a US base on Tinian over the Japanese mainland. In the hold was an experimental bomb, codenamed Little Boy. The target: Hiroshima.

In Hiroshima the air raid sirens had sounded twice that morning already. On both occasions the all clear followed swiftly. Enola Gay faced no resistance as it dropped the bomb. Forty five seconds later the city was destroyed in a blinding instant. Eighty thousand men, women and children were killed and tens of thousands wounded, disfigured and poisoned by radiation from the bomb.

Three days later, another nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. A week later, Japan surrendered. The bomb brought World War Two to a sudden end, but was it right to use it?

2. Why did America use the bomb?

Conclusion of the war

The bomb was dropped to force a quick Japanese surrender. American commanders said it would save money and the lives of American servicemen and Japanese soldiers and civilians too. They said that to continue the war for weeks or months with conventional bombing and a US land invasion could have caused millions of Japanese deaths.

Retribution against the Japanese

President Truman justified his decision by pointing to the unprovoked Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the murder of American prisoners. A few days after the bombing he wrote: “When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.”

Demonstration of power

The development of the bomb cost billions of dollars, and American leaders wanted to justify the expense. They wanted to demonstrate to the Japanese that they faced overwhelmingly superior forces. They also wanted their new rivals, the Soviet Union, to see their powerful new weapon in action.

Was it a just decision?

In 1945, the idea of just war was firmly established in international law. In a just war, only combatants may be specifically targeted. Harm caused to civilians must be proportional to military ends and any harm caused must be necessary for the achievement of military goals. However, some argue that all citizens contribute to the war effort and can be a legitimate target in some cases.

3. INTERACTIVE: How did people react?

Click each of the icons below to discover some of the surprising things key people thought at the time.

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4. Was it right to use the bomb?

In this video, photographer Yoshito Matsushige describes what it felt like to be in Hiroshima immediately after the explosion. His photographs are the only known images taken in the city on the day of the bombing.

Clip: Days that Shook the World: Hiroshima (BBC Two, 2003)

One argument supporting the case that dropping the nuclear bomb was the right thing to do, is that the immediate deaths that it caused are outweighed by lives potentially saved in the long run by the quick end of the war. An argument against using the bomb is that the deliberate killing of civilians on this scale violates the principles of just war.

5. What would you have done?

The American military commanders chose to drop the bomb in August 1945. What would you have done, and how would you justify your decision?

Try to make peace

Japan said it would accept surrender if the Emperor remained in power.

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Try to make peace

The American Secretary of War turned this down. He believed the fanatical dedication shown to the Emperor by many Japanese would quickly lead to another war.

Continue the war

By August 1945 America had been firebombing Japan for over a year, had overwhelming air superiority and would be ready to invade by land within a few months.

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Continue conventional warfare

Prolonging the war for months would mean massive cost and loss of life. America planned to invade but believed the bomb would end the war sooner.

Drop the bomb

America dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and had plans to drop seven more in the next two months if Japan didn't surrender.

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Drop the nuclear bomb

80,000 Japanese people, mostly civilians, were killed instantly and up to 120,000 more died of causes linked to the bomb over the following decades.

Have a nuclear demonstration

America considered demonstrating a nuclear bomb by detonating it on uninhabited land, rather than drop it on a city.

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Have a nuclear demonstration

Scientists who built the bomb persuaded the military that there was no guarantee it would work. The shock factor of using it for the first time was important.