Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bombing. At 8:15am, the world's first atom bomb was released over Hiroshima, Japan, resulting in the death of some 80,000, or roughly 30% of the city's inhabitants. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped. The Japanese surrendered within a week.
Many today view this as an atrocious act, and rightly so given the number of civilian casualties. But, as General William T. Sherman said of the American Civil War less than a century earlier, "war is hell." All sides involved in World War 2 had used explosives on a scale never before imaginable. Major cities in Germany, England, and Japan were routinely firebombed by "conventional" bombs throughout the war. Far more deaths were caused by this ongoing policy than the two atomic bombs implemented to end the war.
A vast amount of World War 2 deaths occurred up close and personal, in hand to hand combat. In just a few days in December 1937, Japanese armed forces killed approximately 60,000 unarmed civilians, including women and children, in the city of Nanking, China. The fact that as many people were killed in Nanking by rifles, bayonets, and machetes as were killed in Hiroshima by an atom bomb gives us a broader context of the war in general.
The use of atomic weapons had been discussed early in the war, especially in Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler gave permission to pursue the development of an atom bomb, but assuming the war would be short, it was not his priority.
On the other hand, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, persuaded in part by the German immigrant and scientist Albert Einstein, saw the significance for obtaining the bomb before the enemies of freedom. He gave the go ahead for the top secret project two months before Pearl Harbor in 1941.
A frightening alternate history may have been realized if Hitler and the Japanese emperor Hirohito had collaborated as early as the Americans, British, and Canadians on building atomic weapons. Just days after Germany surrendered in the spring of 1945, a German U-Boat (submarine) destined for Japan was captured in the Atlantic Ocean carrying uranium and plans for the construction of an atom bomb.
What if the two "Axis Powers" had indeed built a bomb? Would they have used it? Would it have been reserved as a last resort? Would their collective conscience have led them to restrain from using such a terrible weapon, even to win the war quickly and spare millions of lives? Would the Japanese have dropped a single atomic bomb on Pearl Harbor instead of bombarding the American Pacific fleet with 350 planes?
The consensus among top military historians is that they would have used it. But what would have been their primary targets? Would their strategy have been the same as America's or would they have used it against troops instead of targeting cities? Alternate history is of course speculative, but still thought provoking.
As we recognize the horrors of that epic global conflict, let us remember that any weapon, even the devastating atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima, is just a part of the bigger picture and sometimes a necessary evil. If not for the bomb, with the U.S.-Soviet policy of "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD), World War 3 may have occurred by now. With the latest threats coming from Iran, the Pandora's Box of nuclear proliferation cannot be shut and the world will not easily be free from these horrible weapons of mass destruction.
But the hope of humanity lies in the truth of God's Word: "He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4)