Even at 60: Nagasaki Is the ‘Forgotten A-Bomb City’

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By: Greg Mitchell

Although press coverage of the atomic anniversary this year did not come close to what transpired in 1995, Hiroshima did get a fair share of attention. But if history is any guide (and it usually is), Nagasaki will barely make a ripple on its day, August 9. For Nagasaki is, as a sociologist in that city once told me, “the inferior A-bomb city.”

Few journalists bother to visit Nagasaki, which was half-destroyed by an American bomb 60 years ago today. It remains the Second City and “Fat Man” the forgotten bomb. No one ever wrote a bestselling book called “Nagasaki,” or made a film titled “Nagasaki, Mon Amour.” Yet in some ways, Nagasaki is the modern A-bomb city. For one thing, when the plutonium bomb exploded above Nagasaki it made the uranium-type bomb dropped on Hiroshima obsolete.

A beautiful city dotted with palms built on a hill surrounding a deep harbor (it’s the San Francisco of Japan), Nagasaki has a rich, bloody history, as any reader of Shogun knows. Three centuries before Commodore Perry came to Japan, Nagasaki was the country’s gateway to the West. The Portuguese and Dutch settled there in the 1500s, and Urakami, a suburb of Nagasaki, became the country’s Catholic center. Thomas Glover, one of the first English traders there, supplied the rifles that helped defeat the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 19th century.

Glover’s life served as a model for the story of “Madame Butterfly.” In Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, standing on the veranda of Glover’s home overlooking the harbor, sings, “One fine day, we’ll see a thread of smoke arising …” If she could have looked north from Glover’s mansion, now Nagasaki’s top tourist attraction, on Aug. 9, 1945, she would have seen, two miles in the distance, a thread of smoke with a mushroom cap.

By 1945, Nagasaki had become a Mitsubishi company town, turning out ships and armaments for Japan’s increasingly desperate war effort. It was still the Christian center in the country, with more than 10,000 Catholics among its 250,000 residents. Most of them lived in the outlying Urakami district. At 11:02 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1945, “Fat Man” was detonated more than a mile off target, almost directly over the Urakami Cathedral, which was nearly leveled, killing dozens of worshippers waiting for confession. Concrete roads in the valley literally melted.

While Urakami suffered, the rest of the city caught a break. The bomb’s blast boomed up the valley destroying everything in its path but didn’t quite reach the congested harbor or scale the high ridge to the Nakashima valley. Some 45,000 perished instantly, with another 50,000 fated to die afterwards. The plutonium bomb hit with the force of 22 kilotons, almost double the uranium bomb’s blast in Hiroshima. If the bomb had exploded as planned, directly over the Mitsubishi shipyards, the death toll in Nagasaki would have made Hiroshima, in at least one important sense, the Second City.

In the days after the bombing, U.S. officials referred to Nagasaki as a “military city.” But few Japanese soldiers were stationed here, and only about 250 of them would perish in the atomic bombing (slightly fewer than the Allied prisoners of war who died that day. A U.S. soldier who would occupy Nagasaki later testified that the bomb fell on “women and children,” not military installations, adding “that is something this country is going to have to live with for eternity.”

There is something especially deep and troubling about Nagasaki, stemming from its tropical beauty and European influences, its second-class status as an A-bomb city, and the fact that many Americans who support the use of the bomb against Hiroshima find the attack on Nagasaki questionable, even gratuitous. If Hiroshima suggested how cheap life had become in the atomic age, Nagasaki showed that it could be judged to have no value whatsoever.

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

Criticism of the attack on Nagasaki has centered on the issue of why Truman did not step in and stop the second bomb after the success of the first to allow Japan a few more days to contemplate surrender before targeting another city for extinction. In addition, the U.S. knew that its ally, the Soviet Union, was about to join the war, as previously agreed, and that the entrance of Japan’s most hated enemy, perhaps more than the Hiroshima bomb, would likely speed the surrender. If that happened, however, it might cost the U.S. in a wider Soviet claim on Japanese conquests in Asia, or even on Japan itself.

So there was much to gain by getting the war over before the Russians advanced. Some historians have gone so far as to state that the Nagasaki bomb was not the last shot of World War II but the first blow of the Cold War.

In one further irony, Nagasaki was not even on the original target list for A-bombs but was added after Secretary of War Henry Stimson objected to Kyoto. He had visited Kyoto himself and felt that destroying Japan’s cultural capital would turn the citizens against America in the aftermath. Just like that, tens of thousands in one city were spared and tens of thousands of others elsewhere were marked for death.

When they’d learned of the Hiroshima attack, the scientists at Los Alamos generally expressed satisfaction that their project had paid off. But most of them took Nagasaki quite badly. Some would later use the words “sick” or “nausea” to describe their reaction. After hearing of the attack on Nagasaki, Truman quickly ordered that no further bombs be used without his express permission, to give Japan a reasonable chance to surrender — one bomb, one city, and 70,000 deaths too late.

As weeks, and then months and years passed, few Americans denounced as a moral wrong the targeting of entire cities for extermination. Yet in the hours after Nagasaki, when the crime was still fresh, a few brave souls saw the matter clearly. Conservative columnist David Lawrence lashed out at the “so-called civilized side” for dropping bombs on cities that kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. However much we rejoice in victory, he wrote, “we shall not soon purge ourselves of the feeling of guilt which prevails among us. … What a precedent for the future we have furnished to other nations even less concerned than we with scruples or ideals! Surely we cannot be proud of what we have done. If we state our inner thoughts honestly, we are ashamed of it.”

The biologist Jacob Bronowski later revealed that his classic study “Science and Human Values” was born the day he arrived in Nagasaki in November 1945. He observed that nothing happened in August 1945 “except that we changed the scale of our indifference to man.” He called it, memorably, “civilization face to face with its own implications.”

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