From The Archives: Debating The Hiroshima And Nagasaki Bombings

"By splitting the atom, man may have united the world."

Bomb Effects

From the September 1945 issue of Popular Science.Popular Science

On August 6th, 1945, the American B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima, Japan. It was the second atomic weapon ever detonated, and the first used in actual war. A few weeks earlier, Manhattan Project researchers detonated the first atomic weapon in a remote New Mexico desert, but it was the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ushered in the nuclear age with a blinding flash.

Right before the attack, in its August 1945 issue, Popular Science coincidentally published a piece by Major George Fielding Eliot arguing that drastic measures against Japan—i.e. large-scale poison gas attacks—were necessary to end the war.

Eliot wasn't a serving member of the military at the time of publication. Instead, he was a retired officer, who worked as a naval correspondent and wrote science fiction, as well as military commentaries. He was famously wrong in 1938 when he wrote a piece titled "The Impossible War With Japan," published at the American Mercury. (Not only did the piece declare such a war was impossible, but in it, Eliot specifically said "a Japanese attack upon Hawaii is a strategical impossibility.")

In "Should We Gas?," Eliot's argument foreshadows one commonly used in defense of the atomic bombings, highlighting Japan's perceived inability to see its own inevitable defeat, and the high casualties that come with land invasions. President Truman, who ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, echoed this when explaining his rationale in a letter to Professor James L. Cate. He wrote:

I asked General Marshall what it would cost in lives to land on the Tokyo plain and other places in Japan. It was his opinion that such an invasion would cost at a minimum one quarter of a million casualties, and might cost as much as a million, on the American side alone, with an equal number of the enemy. The other military and naval men present agreed. I asked Secretary Stimson which sites in Japan were devoted to war production. He promptly named Hiroshima and Nagasaki, among others. We sent an ultimatum to Japan. It was rejected.

Obviously, gas was not the weapon of mass destruction used against Japan.

In the September 1945 issue of Popular Science, following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the editors published a statement titled "Annihilation Bomb: Friend or Foe?" It focuses heavily on the science of the weapon and the long term implications of using it, while curiously ignoring the considerable number of people who died (estimates near 200,000 dead and injured). "Annihilation Bomb" compares the power of the bombs to that of a star; it touches upon the effects of radiation, both through cancer treatments and as a harmful after-effect. There's even a suggestion of deriving energy from nuclear power: "Popular Science's editors are confident, nevertheless, that scientists can learn to control this new source of power as they have controlled fire and electricity." It ends, optimistically, with this:

"A door has been opened in the world of science, and what may be on the other side is still to be seen," says Sir John Anderson. Popular Science Monthly hopes to describe that scene to its readers as rapidly as developments make this possible. Its editors hope, too, that readers of this magazine will be stimulated to contribute to the new era of science that dawned on August 6th, 1945. By splitting the atom, man may have united the world."

Read "Annihilation Bomb" below:

Annihilation Bomb, Page One

From the September 1945 issue of Popular SciencePopular Science

Annihilation Bomb, Page Two

Popular Science