Fewer Americans than at any time since 1945 believe that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima 70 years ago today and Nagasaki three days later was a good idea.
In a YouGov poll just published, 45 per cent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 said that president Truman had made the wrong decision, against 41 per cent who approved. The margin was slightly narrower among 30 to 44-year- olds – 36 per cent to 33.
The picture is dramatically different in older age brackets.
Respondents between 45 and 65 supported the bombing, 55 per cent to 21 per cent. Over-65s backed Truman 65 to 15 per cent. Among the population as a whole, 45 per cent were in favour of the bombing, 29 per cent against. The figures can tellingly be compared with Gallup results in August 1945 suggesting that 85 per cent of Americans were content with the bombing, only 10 per cent opposed. (In the same poll, a remarkable 23 per cent said that they wished that more atomic bombs had been dropped before the Japanese had had a chance to surrender.)
The bombs reduced Hiroshima, population 350,000, and Nagasaki, 210,000, to smears of ash and vaporised at least 200,000 civilians. Upwards of another 250,000 were to die from radiation poisoning in later years.
In a radio broadcast within hours of Hiroshima, Truman told the nation: “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have standing above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories and their communications. Let there be no doubt.” (Docks, factories, communications. . . People didn’t rate a mention.)
Days later, of course, Truman made good on his threat. One of the first doctors to arrive in Hiroshima after the blast told: “Tremendous numbers of unidentified corpses were piled up and cremated on the spot. The injured and irradiated continued to die. Day and night in every corner of the city, corpses are piled upon the corpses and burned.”
"Irradiated" wasn't a popular word back in Washington. The allies maintained that radiation sickness was a myth, insisting that all the dead had perished in the initial blasts.
A front page report in the New York Times carried the headline: "No radioactivity in Hiroshima ruin." The atomic episode was all over and the war had ended a result.
It wasn't until the Australian Wilfred Burchett arrived as the first journalist to make it to Hiroshima that the aftermath of the explosion was described to a western audience: "I write this as warning to the world," was his intro on page one of the Daily Express. He described in detail how he had walked through a hospital ward packed with people with their skin hanging in flaps from their bodies, eyes opaque, dying, but with no visible marks. There being no word for it yet, he wrote of "an atomic plague."
In retaliation for telling it as he had seen it, his press accreditation was famously withdrawn. He was vilified for years. In some circles he still is.
The justification for the bombing offered then and since continues to be that it brought the war to a speedy end and so actually saved lives. The moral basis for this proposition is, at best, shaky – as is the calculation on which it is based. True, the Japanese surrendered within a week of Nagasaki.
But there is strong evidence that they had been ready for surrender before the Enola Gay emerged from the clouds above Hiroshima and unloaded "Little Boy" – a cuddly, anthropomorphic name for a device designed to kill on a scale unknown in all prior history. The Nagasaki bomb was nicknamed "Fat Man".
The US strategic bombing survey, commissioned by Truman, compiled by a civilian team including John K Galbraith and based on interviews with more than 400 US officers and on access to the complete Japanese military logs, reported in July 1946: "Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the survey's opinion that . . . Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."
The Soviet Union joined the war in Asia two days after Hiroshima, a day before Nagasaki, delivering in the nick of time on a promise made by Stalin in Yalta – and also with a view to qualifying as a combatant entitled to a share of the spoils.
The US will meanwhile have wanted to impress on the world and especially on Stalin that it possessed weapons capable of reducing any rival to rubble.
Thus, there were geopolitical reasons for killing everybody in the two Japanese cities that may have been more persuasive with US leaders than urgency to end the war.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had no moral or military justification. It was a crime against humanity.