The most incriminating letter was written by the then acting chief of staff of the US armed forces to the commander of the US Air Force the year before the atomic bombs were dropped. What is clear is that the US military intended the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to have precisely the effect they did - the more monumental the carnage, the better.
As outlined in the infamous letter of 1944 written by US acting chief of staff General Thos Handy, the four cities of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kokura, and Niigata were selected as targets as they would ensure the most devastating damage possible. “Hiroshima is a good radar target, and it is such a size that a large part of the city could be extensively damaged. There are adjacent hills which are likely to produce a focusing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage.” Hiroshima was therefore classified an AA target.
The letter identifies a second AA target - Kyoto, notably because it had a population of 1million and was an intellectual centre, hence “the people there are more apt to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget”. It was clear as day: the greater the incineration, the better; the more dead civilians, the better; the more dramatic the impact, the better. Kyoto and Niigata only escaped incineration because it was cloudy that day.
The second thing the letter made clear was that the US interest was in testing its new atomic weaponry, to determine the precise effects of such a bomb on a civilian population and the extent of damage which could be caused. The beginning of the letter stipulates that “additional aircraft will accompany the plane carrying the bomb so that military and civilian scientific personnel from the War Department can observe and record the effects of the explosion”.
It was the most diabolical form of military experimentation. Clearly, the victims must have been regarded as sub-human as the scorched-earth policy and excruciating death that would be suffered by more than 140 000 people was of no concern to the military’s top brass. But the US executive was equally culpable - it was president Harry Truman who, on July 25, 1945, ordered the bombing. The next day the US, UK and China issued the Potsdam declaration demanding Japan’s unconditional surrender.
The Potsdam declaration contained no provision guaranteeing the continuance of the emperor system, which was known to be an important condition of surrender. Neither did it hint at the existence of an atomic bomb, nor any intent to use such a weapon on Japan. Japan did not accept the declaration, giving the allies the excuse they needed to justify the incineration of Japanese cities and implementation of their military experimentation.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the culmination of a three-year experiment known as the Manhattan project, that began in 1942 and cost $2 billion. The development of the A-bomb was an immense, military-engineering enterprise.
It seems the human element of the indescribable suffering of the tens of thousands of Japanese people was not adequately captured at the time.
The world saw the ominous mushroom cloud in the wake of the bombing, and later the images of naked, burnt children screaming in the streets, but reports emerging out of Hiroshima after the war were limited. That was because of the occupation of American forces which censored news and analysis about the after-effects of the bomb.
Few of us will have the opportunity to engage with the survivors of that fateful day in Hiroshima or listen to their warnings to our current leaders who seem hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons with 40 times the capacity of the bombs dropped in August 1945.
I was fortunate to spend a few hours with 80-year-old Keiko Ogura in Hiroshima this week. On August 6, 1945, she was an 8-year-old child, living 2km from the site of direct impact of the atomic bomb, now known as the hypo-centre.