Hiroshima at 70: Why attitudes are changing about the first atomic bomb

Seventy years after the bombing of Hiroshima, public opinion is shifting against justifying the event.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
The Japanese national flag is seen near the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, western Japan, August 5, 2015. Japan will mark on Thursday the 70th anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, killing about 140,000 by the end of the year in a city of 350,000 residents. It was the world's first nuclear attack.

On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped one of the world’s first atomic bombs on the seaside city of Hiroshima, killing anywhere between 66,000 to 150,000 people.

At the time, a vast majority of Americans believed it was the right thing to do: A Gallup poll from that year shows that a full 85 percent of the US public said they approved of the use of “Little Boy” on Japan. Only 10 percent disapproved, while the rest said they had no opinion.

But times and attitudes may be changing – a gradual shift that experts say is due largely to both dimming memories of the nightmare that was World War II, and growing awareness of the consequences of nuclear weapons.

“There’s declining support for the idea that it was justified, [especially] among young people,” Bruce Stokes, director of global economic attitudes at Pew Research Center, says in a phone interview. “There’s a better understanding now of the horror of it all.”

Seventy years after Hiroshima took place, historians, politicians, and the general public continue to disagree about whether or not the US should have used the atom bomb, and what its place was in the war. But despite the debate, world leaders have, for the most part, maintained the “moral imperative against the use of nuclear arms as a tool of war,” as The Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board puts it.

In an echo of that understanding, the number of Americans who say the US was justified in using the atomic bomb has dropped to 56 percent, according to a Pew Research Center poll from this spring. And while that still represents a majority – and although a sense of justification is not the same as outright approval – the figures show a clear decline, Mr. Stokes says.

“I think over the last 70 years, people have become more aware of what the nuclear age is and the consequences of it,” Allan Winkler, a distinguished professor of history at the Miami University of Ohio, says in a phone interview.

That awareness is vital, Prof. Winkler says, particularly in light of discourse around the nuclear deal that six world powers, including the United States, struck with Iran last month. As contested as its contents are, he adds, the deal represents continued efforts at preventing both the spread of nuclear weapons and the resurgence of the sense of fear and urgency that led then-President Harry Truman to unleash the bomb in the first place.

“We can still incinerate a city,” Winkler says. “But the lack of urgency is an important thing.”

It’s not only Americans whose attitudes are changing. Among the Japanese, there is a growing sense that the use of the bomb was unjustified, with 79 percent saying that it was unwarranted compared to 64 percent in 1991, according to Pew.

“We’re still a long way from sharing the same view,” says Stokes, but the figures do suggest “there is a general overall decline, or a revulsion against, using nuclear weapons … even in a context where people at one point thought it was completely justified.”

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