A B-29 is coming,” remarked young Fujimoto, pointing outside the window of the middle-school classroom. One of his classmates, 13-year-old Yoshitaka Kawamoto, began to rise from his seat to look. But before he could stand up, he was dazzled by what appeared to be a huge lightning flash, and then he collapsed between the desks. When he came to, he became aware of dark smoke and dust swirling about him, but his pain and the ominous blackness obscured the magnitude of what had just occurred.

About 10 miles away in the air, Paul Tibbets contemplated the likelihood that his mission would bring an end to the war with Japan. The 29-year-old colonel was the pilot of the B-29 Superfortress named the Enola Gay after his mother. The devastation that he and his fellow airmen glimpsed below them would be etched into their memory to the end of their lives. From the once-bustling city below, a dark, fiery cloud now rose. Tibbets was convinced that this had been the right course of action. “We’re going to kill a lot of people,” he had thought, “but we’re going to save a lot of lives too. We won’t have to invade.”

The event that found these two individuals on opposite sides has in some ways defined the modern world. The dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and on Nagasaki three days later, forced the world to the threshold of a new era. Though most did not understand at the time, the Nuclear Age began that summer morning. A subsequent Japanese study exclaimed, “The experience of these two cities was the opening chapter to the possible annihilation of mankind.” In more than just the proverbial sense, the world hasn’t been the same since that day 60 years ago.

Birth of the Bomb

It was through military intelligence that knowledge of Nazi Germany nearing completion of a weapon using nuclear fission reached the United States and her allies in 1939. The idea of such a weapon in the hands of a military power under Hitler’s sway struck fear in his enemies. In 1941 the United States set out to acquire the scientists, technology and material needed to enter an unprecedented race for a nuclear weapon. The Manhattan Project, as it was known, was an aggressive effort to thwart the Führer’s quest for military dominance through nuclear power.

When U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer, was among those who were concerned that work on the bomb would cease. Roosevelt had intentionally left many in the U.S. government unaware of the project—including, apparently, the man who would succeed him in holding the nation’s highest elected office. Still fewer knew about its actual purpose. Besides, with the capture of nearly 1,200 tons of uranium ore in Germany that same month, there was reason to believe that Hitler could not continue with his program.

Even after it was all but certain that the Third Reich’s research efforts had come to an end, however, the Manhattan Project’s team of American, British and Canadian scientists and specialists were determined to continue their work. Roosevelt’s successor was informed of the secret project within hours of assuming office. Harry Truman later recalled: “(Henry Lewis) Stimson told me that he wanted me to know about an immense project that was under way—a project looking to the development of a new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power. That was all that he felt free to say at the time, and his statement left me puzzled. It was the first bit of information that had come to me about the atomic bomb, but he gave me no details.”

As the bomb project neared completion, some began to grasp its immense potential and fiery destructive power, and they weighed possible use of the new weapon against Japan. The weary nations of the Allied Forces desired a rapid end to the war. But even as the U.S. administration devised Operation Downfall—a proposed invasion of unprecedented scale and scope that they hoped would force Japan into an unconditional surrender—some of the military planners were still unaware of the Manhattan Project. Belief that the Allies could bring about the end of the war with the use of conventional troops and airpower was still strong in some circles. A blockade on all sea traffic was already having its effect, in addition to which the U.S. would implement measures to interrupt Japan’s domestic transportation and supply lines. Some, however, feared that if an actual invasion of Japan were undertaken, it would result in an immense loss of life on both sides of the conflict.

Truman later recalled discussions regarding the potential use of an atomic weapon:

At the meeting of June 18, ’45, the invasion plan for Japan was discussed. General Marshall’s plan was approved.

We were approaching an experiment with the atom explosion. I was informed that event would take place within a possible thirty days.”

The president’s information proved accurate. After nearly four years of intense developent in the deserts of New Mexico, the first atomic weapon—roughly equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT—was detonated near Alamogordo on July 16, 1945. Oppenheimer later recalled that upon witnessing the explosion, he thought of a phrase based on a Hindu text from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

To Bomb or Not to Bomb

The decision to use the weapon on Japan has been the subject of debate throughout the 60 years since. Also debated is the degree to which the historical accounts have been revised for political purposes by those who stood to gain or lose by their respective positions on the subject.

Truman’s writings provide no record of anyone around him offering substantial objections to deployment of the bomb, but several key people later wrote that they had, in fact, voiced serious misgivings. General Dwight Eisenhower was one of them. Eighteen years after the war, he wrote: “In [July] 1945 . . . Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. . . . The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude.” Stimson, for his part, denied that any such exchange took place.

Leo Szilard, one of the scientists who encouraged the development of atomic power in 1939 and who subsequently became the project’s chief physicist, developed such misgivings as the research progressed that he drafted a formal petition to the U.S. president warning of the bomb’s potential consequences. He and 69 fellow Manhattan Project scientists signed the petition on July 17, 1945, and requested that it be delivered to Truman, though whether the president received it before August 6 is also debated.

The petition read in part: “Discoveries of which the people of the United States are not aware may affect the welfare of this nation in the near future. The liberation of atomic power which has been achieved places atomic bombs in the hands of the Army. It places in your hands, as Commander-in-Chief, the fateful decision whether or not to sanction the use of such bombs in the present phase of the war against Japan.

. . . Such a step, however, ought not to be made at any time without seriously considering the moral responsibilities which are involved.”

We may never be able to untangle the web of conflicting statements regarding the ultimate decision to deploy the bomb. But whether or not Truman was aware of significant opposition at the time, he became convinced that dropping the bomb would hasten the end of the war and save countless casualties on both sides.

Noted military historian Richard B. Frank wrote in a recent essay titled “No Bomb, No End” that the use of the weapon indeed saved lives and brought the war to an end speedily. Frank believes that “the Pacific War would have dragged on for probably two to five more years—perhaps longer.” He also estimates that nearly five million lives would have been lost in Japan alone if the atomic bomb had not been used, and that the additional lives lost among other nationalities caught up in the war might have been double that number.

A Rain of Ruin

Truman ordered the deployment of the bomb. It seems likely, however, that few imagined the consequences of unleashing the power of the atom in the military theater. British military historian Sir John Keegan summarizes some of the details in his book The Second World War:

It was the uranium 235 version of the atomic bomb that the B-29 Enola Gay dropped over Hiroshima on the morning of 6 August 1945; a few hours later, while 78,000 people lay dead or dying in the ruins, a White House statement called on the Japanese to surrender or ‘they may expect a rain of ruin from the air.’”

Keegan explains that when it seemed Japan was unwilling to surrender, the order came to drop a bomb on Nagasaki—a decision that immediately ended an additional 25,000 Japanese lives, and over the next months and years many thousands more.

The world of the dead is a different place from the world of the living and it is hardly possible to visit there. That day in Hiroshima the two worlds nearly converged.”

Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 1986

For those in Hiroshima who survived the “rain of ruin,” it was the closest thing to a living nightmare that they could have imagined. Some of the thousands who died were almost vaporized during the flash of intense heat. The total number of related deaths during and after the Hiroshima explosion is estimated at about 200,000. Those who survived the blast tell stories of the shocking results of this new weapon.

One eyewitness account describes the explosion as a “sheet of sun.” The flash of the detonation was accompanied by complete silence. No one remembers hearing anything when the weapon unleashed its fury on the city.

Another survivor described what he saw after the detonation: human bodies almost indistinguishable as human, and the near-dead writhing in anguish where they had fallen.

Others tell of seeing young and old with severe heat burns on their bodies; skin that seemed to be melting off the bones of people still clinging to life; and piles of unrecognizable, charred bodies in the streets.

In addition to this human nightmare, the bomb damaged or destroyed nearly 70,000 of Hiroshima’s 76,000 buildings. The rebuilt city is a vital, modern place, though some of the physical scars have been intentionally preserved. But those who lived through the calamity never succeeded in making the scars on their minds and hearts disappear.

Surrender and Resolve

The emperor of Japan spoke to his shattered country on August 15, 1945. He informed the nation that they were losing the battle despite what he felt were their best efforts. The voice that the Japanese people heard through their radios told them of their nation’s defeat and surrender. He had led his nation into a costly war that resulted in the deaths of thousands and the utter destruction of two cities.

The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives,” he told his people. The emperor then began to explain the reality of what life would be like as the nation tried to recover: “The hardships and sufferings to which our nation is to be subjected . . . will be certainly great. . . . It is according to the dictate of time and fate that we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all generations to come, by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.”

The weary and defeated emperor then uttered a wish for his country: “Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation.”

These words from the imperial leader of Japan seemed to provide a legacy for the people of Hiroshima. Since 1947, they have set aside August 6 as a time to focus on the vision of obtaining peace for all generations and to remember the awesome devastation that was visited that day on the city and its people.

The official website of the annual Peace Memorial Ceremony further describes its purpose: “to console the souls of those who were lost due to the atomic bombing as well as pray for the realization of everlasting world peace. . . . The Peace Declaration, which is delivered by the Mayor of Hiroshima during the ceremony, is sent to every country in the world thus conveying Hiroshima’s wish for the abolition of nuclear weapons and the realization of eternal world peace. At exactly 8:15 a.m., the time the atomic bomb was dropped, the Peace Bell is rung, sirens sound all over the city and for one minute people at the ceremony grounds, in households and in workplaces pay silent tribute to the victims of the atomic bombing and pray for the realization of everlasting world peace.”

The website also discusses the many efforts to abolish nuclear testing and nuclear weapons. The experience of that summer morning in 1945 has left the site’s sponsors determined to do what they can to ensure that the unthinkable doesn’t happen again.

A Better World?

While Hiroshima’s efforts are praiseworthy, the world hasn’t changed for the better in respect of nuclear weaponry in the 60 years since the end of World War II.

For a short time, the United States enjoyed a monopoly on nuclear arms. However, the immense power that was unleashed on Japan brought about an era when other nations sought to acquire their own atomic arsenal. The Soviet Union, after many attempts to secure the knowledge and material, ended the monopoly in 1949 with the detonation of their version of the weapon. Joseph Stalin’s swift success in securing an A-bomb surprised many experts and military leaders in the United States. In effect, it was the beginning of a world dominated by the race for arms. The economies of the two superpowers allowed them to further develop and perfect their arsenals, leading the world into the so-called Cold War. And though that war is over, the haunting specter of nuclear devastation did not disappear with the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

Today the stockpile of known nuclear weapons is not limited to the United States and Russia. Since 1949, several others have joined the list of nations with nuclear capabilities: the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan. In addition, some authorities fear that a few republics of the former Soviet Union may have nuclear weapons in their arsenals: Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Georgia may have older but still potent weapons of Soviet origin. And a number of countries in South America, the Middle East and Asia either desire or already possess the material necessary for full-scale nuclear programs of their own. Other nations have had nuclear capabilities but claim to have dismantled their programs.

We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. . . . The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” 

General Omar Bradley, 1948

The questions that need to be asked by world leaders 60 years after Hiroshima have no easy answers. Historian Keegan summarizes: “The legacy of the First World War was to persuade the victors, though not the vanquished, that the costs of war exceeded its rewards. The legacy of the Second World War, it may be argued, was to convince victors and vanquished alike of the same thing.” Keegan offers a thought that may be lost on some in this new millennium, seemingly far removed from the events of 1945—that the real legacy of Hiroshima is that humanity shares responsibility for containing the tools of annihilation, tools that humanity itself created.

Physicist Szilard argued in his 1945 petition that the use of the weapon carried with it significant moral responsibilities. “The development of atomic power will provide nations with new means of destruction,” he wrote. “The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction, and there is no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of their future development.”

As the world wrestles with the legacy of Hiroshima, there are fears that rogue nations may unleash the nuclear genie from the bottle one more time. The main concern is that without oversight and containment, someone could move small nuclear weapons or dirty bombs into a major Western city at any time. The potential consequences are almost unthinkable. But it seems more than a possibility considering humanity’s history with the weapon.

From the biblical perspective, it is foretold that the world will yet come to the point of near annihilation. In a prophecy delivered just before His death, Jesus of Nazareth spoke of a time of great trouble such as the world has never seen, and that “unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved” (Matthew 24:22). Taken together with other prophetic statements that seem to describe the effects of future horrendous weapons (see Revelation 9), what happened to two cities in Japan will be only the beginning of sorrows.

Sixty years after the explosion of that man-made sun over Hiroshima, one thoughtful man has reminded us that “we have to learn to think in a new way.” In a May 17, 2005 New York Times op-ed piece, 97-year-old Nobel prize winner Joseph Rotblat, the only scientist to have resigned from the Manhattan Project on moral grounds, referred to the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955. Rotblat and 10 other scientists signed that manifesto against nuclear war, which was Albert Einstein’s last public undertaking just before his death. Einstein, like Rotblat, chose repeatedly to warn against the human folly of nuclear development for aggressive purposes.

Surely Jesus said nothing different when he issued His warning 2,000 years ago about the lengths to which humans would go.