The Choice to Bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Dehumanizing the Victims

Nagasaki before and after the bombing, after the fires had burned out. Public Domain

The debate about whether the United States “needed” to drop atomic bombs on Japan will likely be waged indefinitely. Was it to end the war, save American lives, test the bomb or send a message to Stalin?

Amidst all the theories, some of which are disputed and a few disproven, one over-riding motivation remains: racism.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a highly effective propaganda campaign was waged in the US to paint Japanese people as sub-human or worse. The Japanese were depicted as predators and vermin. During reporting from Iwo Jima, Time magazine, pronounced the Japanese people “ignorant” and went on speculate: “Perhaps he is human. Nothing. . . indicates it.”

Today, the posters and rhetoric in circulation then would be considered abhorrent hate speech. But in the 1940s, it instilled enough revulsion in the American public to justify the annihilation of at least 200,000 human beings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And it was only the beginning. After World War II, the newly emergent atomic powers began testing their weapons of annihilation on Indigenous communities far away. The Americans bombed the Marshall Islanders; the British targeted Aboriginal lands in Australia and the islands of Micronesia; the French went to Algeria and then Polynesia; the Soviet Union chose Kazakhstan.

The Marshallese, like the Japanese before them, were characterized as subhuman. They were deliberately experimented on, to see what would happen to human beings living in a highly radioactive environment. This included returning the people of Rongelap to their atoll just three years after they were removed to make way for the enormous and disastrous Castle Bravo test on March 1, 1954. They were returned, because, said, Merril Eisenbud, director of the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency’s health and safety laboratory, “That island is by far the most contaminated place on Earth and it will be very interesting to get a measure of human uptake when people live in a contaminated environment.”

Much of this was celebrated by the US military brass. The Marshallese victims of atomic tests were brutally denigrated as uncivilized, albeit they were, conceded Eisenbud in one his most appalling statements, “more like us than mice”.

Admiral William H.P. Blandy and his wife cut an Operation Crossroads mushroom cloud cake, while Admiral Frank J. Lowry looks on. (Photo: US Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The uranium needed for atomic weapons was mined in places such as the Congo in Africa, and on Native American and First Nations lands in North America.

Today, France still gets at least half of the uranium needed to power its commercial nuclear reactors from Niger, although the recent coup there may have put that supply chain in jeopardy. But many of the people who mine it live without electricity and running water and suffer the health consequences of the radioactive tailings and waste left behind in their environment.

Of course, it’s not an entirely racist story. Atomic veterans the world over have struggled for recognition of their suffering and for compensation, largely unsuccessfully. Many experienced the tests directly. Others were sent in later to “clean up” the radioactive mess left behind.

In the US, citizens of Nevada and surrounding states were shocked to learn that their own government was willing to treat them like guinea pigs. The more than one thousand atomic tests carried out at the Nevada Test Site, situated on Western Shoshone land, contaminated communities across multiple US states.

Those communities were not warned or protected. Indeed, the Nevada tests were treated as something thrilling. Las Vegas even promoted them as some sort of bizarre tourist attraction. One postcard of the time depicts a massive mushroom cloud rising behind the “Desert Inn” in Las Vegas as an American family unpack their luggage. But the postcard was no mere fantasy. Photographs of the time show Las Vegas hotel guests around a swimming pool watching a mushroom could rise in the distance.

Still today, sickeningly, you can buy Fat Man and Little Boy earrings at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.

US president, Barack Obama, was the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, but he did not issue a formal apology for the atomic bombing. (Photo: White House/Wikimedia Commons)

The United States has never officially apologized — to the people of Japan, or the Marshall Islands, or New Mexico, where the first Trinity test took place, or Nevada and the neighbouring states. Nor has France for its part in bombing Algerians in the Sahara and French Polynesians in the South Pacific. The UK has neither apologized to, nor agreed to compensate, its atomic veterans for their exposures during atomic tests on Australian Aboriginal land and the Line Islands of the Pacific.

The dehumanizing of other human beings, mostly on the basis of what we erroneously call “race” (we are all the same “race”) is of course not restricted to the nuclear sector. Communities of color, at least in the United States, are routinely targeted by the fossil fuel and chemical industries and by industrial and inhumane factory farming.

In North Carolina, for example, where a large portion of the country’s horrendous hog factory farms are located — known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs — there are 10 million pigs, about one per person. However, these are concentrated in a handful of mainly African American counties. As the Rachel Carson Council describes it in its report, Pork and Pollution, in one predominantly North Carolina African American county alone there are 2.3 million hogs.

Addressing the fundamental crime of racism is an essential step if we are to eliminate the existential threats of nuclear war and the climate catastrophe now upon us.

This article is adapted from a blog entry originally published by Scottish CND and a subsequent webinar presentation for Scottish CND on August 8. For an essential deep look at racism and the nuclear sector, read Vincent Intondi’s excellent book, African Americans Against The Bomb.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.