8. The shock waves from the bomb

Information about what had happened at Hiroshima filtered out slowly. A technician at the Japanese Broadcasting Company in Tokyo noticed at 8.16 that his telephone connection to the radio station in Hiroshima had gone dead. A report reached the Tokyo newspaper Asahi that Hiroshima had been bombed and had ‘almost completely collapsed’, and army headquarters also learned that something was up. At 1.00, someone at the II Army

Corps, based in Hiroshima, signalled headquarters from the waterfront that the city ‘has been annihilated by one bomb and fires are spreading’. The army duly reported the news to the cabinet secretary, Hisatsune Sakomizu, who informed Prime Minister Suzuki and the rest of the cabinet, as well as Hirohito. Several suspected the atomic bomb—members of the government were aware of the Japanese a-bomb project, even though unwilling to fund it much—and their suspicions were confirmed by the Truman announcement, about which Sakomizu learned at 3.30 in the morning of the 7th. Meanwhile, military authorities summoned the managing editors of the five leading Tokyo dailies and asked that their papers downplay the news, reporting it off the front page and treating it like an ‘ordinary air raid on a city’. The editors complied. The Asahi next morning placed a brief report on the Hiroshima bombing at the end of a general story on recent American bombing attacks, ending this way: ‘It seems that some damage was caused to the city and its vicinity.’ Trains were turned back from the area or routed around it. When the cabinet met that afternoon to discuss the bombing, the army minister, Korechika Anami, disparaged the internal reports and Truman’s announcement and told the group that the army would send its investigators to Hiroshima. Among them would be Yoshio Nishina, Japan’s leading nuclear physicist.40

Despite these efforts at denial, it is certain that Little Boy administered a tremendous shock. The apparent eradication of a city by a single bomb could hardly have done otherwise. Sakomizu would later claim that cabinet members (though perhaps he did not mean all of them) knew that, if Truman’s ‘announcement were true, no country could carry on a war. Without the atomic bomb it would be impossible for any country to try to defend itself against a nation which had the weapon. The chance had come to end the war.’ And, most tellingly: ‘It was not necessary to blame the military side, the manufacturing people, or anyone else—just the atomic bomb. It was a good excuse.’ When Marquis Kido spoke to the Emperor on the afternoon of 7 August, once the use of the atomic bomb had been confirmed, Kido noted the sovereign’s deep concern and later reported that he had said: ‘Now that things have come to this impasse, there is no other way. I don’t care what happens to me personally, but we should lose no time in ending the war so as not to have another tragedy like this.’ The next morning, Hirohito told Foreign Minister Togo: ‘Now that such a weapon has appeared, it has become less and less possible to continue the war.

We must not miss a chance to terminate the war by bargaining for more favorable conditions now ...So my wish is to make such arrangements as to end the war as soon as possible.’ The Emperor asked Togo to let Suzuki know his wishes, and Togo evidently did so, prompting a meeting of the Supreme War Council, the so-called ‘Big Six’: Prime Minister Suzuki, Foreign Minister Togo, Army Chief of Staff Yoshijiro Umezu, Navy Chief of Staff Soemu Toyoda, Army Minister Anami, and Navy Minister Yonai.41

Despite such evidence, historians have frequently disparaged the claim that the Hiroshima bombing was by itself decisive in bringing about Japan’s capitulation. They point out, variously, that the Kido and Togo reports of what the Emperor said during their audiences with him were articulated only several years after the meetings had taken place, and that Kido’s contemporary diary does not record Hirohito’s statements in such detail; that, whatever Hirohito said on 7 and 8 August, he nevertheless did not accept the Potsdam Declaration, on which the Americans had insisted; and that, despite the high-level meetings that quickly followed, ‘not a single senior official... changed his prior stand on war termination after the atomic bombing’, as Leon Sigal has written. One may quibble over this judgment—after all, no single senior official mattered as much as the Emperor, and, however Kido may have elaborated on his and Togo’s conversations with him, there can be no doubt that Hirohito’s desire to end the war had significantly increased after Hiroshima had been bombed— but only slightly, for it represents the combined wisdom of historians who have studied the Japanese record most recently and carefully. The more interesting question concerns what one does with this conclusion. It is possible to argue that, because the first atomic bomb did not convince the Japanese to surrender, it was necessary to add to the shock by continuing to drop atomic bombs until they agreed to do so. It took ten plagues to compel the Egyptian Pharoah to agree to the exodus of Jews; perhaps it would require all the bombs the United States could muster to break the will of the Emperor. On the other hand, one could as plausibly argue that the bomb, despite the singular destruction and mayhem it caused, was not and would never be the war-winning weapon. To a leadership determined to sacrifice everything to defend the homeland, and to a populace already exhausted beyond shock by the experience or imminence of incendiary bombing, the annihilation of thousands of people at once was not enough to break Japan’s resolve to fight on.42

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