The Nuclear Devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Long Term Effects of Radiation Exposure

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Atomic bomb. A-bomb. Nukes. Hydrogen bomb. Weapons of Mass Destruction. There are numerous nicknames for nuclear weapons, but there is only one way to accurately describe its effects: Annihilation. The destruction or obliteration of its intended target. The words “nuclear weapons”, alone, should instill fear into the hearts of any potential victims, but the words are so leisurely thrown around in our society, as of late, that I believe most people don’t understand the true magnitude of these horrific weapons of war.

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There have only been two events in recorded history where these terrifying anomalies have been deployed and both circumstances were by the actions of the United States. In my paper, I will touch on the circumstances that led up to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but I want to delve deeper into the immediate and long-term effects of the radiation exposure that the lands and people had to endure after the bombings.

On December 7, 1941, during World War II, Japan launched a sneak attack with its Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service upon an American Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (Weller 1). The brazen act was due to the United States imposing an oil embargo on Japan. The attack crippled much of the United States fleet in the Pacific and causing 2,335 military casualties and 68 civilian casualties (Loproto para. 4). Within one week’s time, the United States was at war with the Axis Powers: Japan, Germany, and Italy (Weller 1)

In May of 1945, after four long, arduous years of combat, what was left of Nazi Germany after Hitler’s suicide, signed an armistice effectively ending the war in Europe. Japan refused to sign the Potsdam Declaration, which, asked for the unconditional surrender of Japan and the removal of Emperor Hirohito. Due to the blatant and defiant actions of Emperor Hirohito and his military, the decision was made, by the U.S., to use nuclear weapons against Japan (Weller 1,2).

In the early morning hours of August 6, 1945, the American bomber plane, Enola Gay, dropped “Little Boy”, an atomic bomb equipped with a Uranium 235 warhead, over the city of Hiroshima on the island of Honshu (Weller 2). It is believed that most of the casualties were civilians and the death toll was believed to be between 90,000 and 166,000 after the initial detonation and the four months after. The main causes of death were vaporization, severe burns, radiation sickness, and cancer.

The second bombing occurred on the morning of August 9, 1945, over the city of Nagasaki on the island of Kyushu. The American bomber, Bockscar, dropped “Fat Man”, a bomb with a Plutonium 239 warhead that nearly wiped out the entire city (Weller. 2). The estimated casualty total was over 40,000 after detonation with 60,000 seriously injured and the total death toll climbing to over 80,000 by the end of 1945. Nagasaki was a port city mainly devoted to the military industry, which, made this city a strategic target.

After news of the successful detonation reaches President Truman, a decision must be made; launch a third nuclear attack, this time the target being Tokyo, or cease the attacks. President Truman doesn’t wish to obliterate Japan, he wants their surrender, so the President decides to cease any additional nuclear attacks. According to the diary of Commerce Secretary Henry Wallace,

Truman said he had given orders to stop the atomic bombing. He said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, all those kids (Alperovitz 417).

On August 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito agrees to terms of surrender, and on September 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay aboard the battleship Missouri, Japan’s Foreign Minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, and General Yoshijiro Umezu signed the instrument of surrender on the Emperor’s behalf. The rebuilding process can now begin, but what will be the effects of such a large-scale nuclear attack mean for the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and will these cities, once again, be able to flourish?

The effects of such large amounts of radiation had never been pondered to this point. How would it affect the human body? Will this affect an entire bloodline for generations? Can we bear the fruits of a harvest after such devastation? The latter was rather quickly, to the surprise of the surviving residents. Although there was obvious and significant damage to all, the bombs being detonated at such significant altitudes allowed the land to be spared from a significant “nuclear fallout”. The resulting firestorm, more than likely, carried the fission products into the high atmosphere. A strong typhoon that occurred two weeks after the bombing assisted in washing away the nuclear material (Genetics 1506). However, the long-term effects of the radiation exposure to the populous could not be immediately known.

A cooperative Japan-U.S. organization was established called the Radiation Effects Research Foundation to help determine the effects of the bombings. Even though, the estimations of 90,000-166,000 casualties in Hiroshima and 60,000-80,000 casualties in Nagasaki represent imprecise numbers, due to the unknown amount of forced laborers and military personnel that were present at the time of the bombing and, in some cases, entire families being obliterated and unable to report any deaths, statistics relating to the long-term effects have been even more difficult to calculate.

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