August 1945: Things will never be the same again via Chatham House

The detonation of atomic weapons over Japan was the dawn of a new age. When it comes to solving the problems that nuclear weapons have created for our species on a global scale, we seem to be intent on making things worse.

Seventy years ago two US nuclear weapons were detonated over Japan. The first, which destroyed Hiroshima, was a gun-type explosion made from uranium. The second, a plutonium implosion bomb, targeted Nagasaki.

It is important to remember that in the summer of 1945, 68 Japanese cities were devastatingly bombed by the US at a rate of three to five per week. In terms of numbers killed, the conventional bombing of Tokyo resulted in by far the highest numbers of immediate casualties. Hiroshima comes in sixth in the number of square miles destroyed and 17th when comparing the percentage of the cities in ruins. In other words, such massive devastation was not unusual at this point in the Pacific war.

What was notable was that the destruction was achieved with one aircraft and one bomb in each case. From the distance of London and for people thinking about the technology of weaponry, it was this that was most notable. Why was it so significant? Historians now mainly agree that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not the causal factor in ending the
Pacific war. So why would the delivery mechanism and the single bomb or warhead come to mean so much in the decades of the Cold War that followed?

The World Today article entitled ‘The Impact upon International Relations of the New Weapons’ was published only a few weeks after the atomic bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The writer, who used only the initials HEW as was the practice at the time, already understood that ‘nothing in the relations between sovereign states can ever be quite the same again’. How prescient HEW was, realizing ‘that a rise in the rate of civilian casualties might hereafter overshadow completely the lower casualty rate among those in uniform’.

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