Isaac Meyer

Historian, teacher, podcaster

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The Conversation: World politics explainer: The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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Episode 16 – And Then the War Came

We’ve arrived, finally, at the Pacific War — this week, we’ll be charting the course Japan took to war, briefly summarizing the course of said war, and then discussing how the war ended. This topic can be rather dark — after all, we’re talking about a war that killed millions — but it’s an important one for understanding the course Japan is on today, and the background in this episode will be important in future shows on the fall of the Japanese Empire.

Listen to the episode here.

Sources

Drea, Edward. Japan’s Imperial Army: It’s Rise and Fall, 1853-1945.

Frank, Richard. Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire.

Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. Racing the Enemy. 

Jansen, Marius. The Making of Modern Japan.

Pyle, Kenneth. Japan Rising.

Pyle, Kenneth. The Making of Modern Japan. (Historians are not the most original lot).

The complete text of the Potsdam Declaration is available here.

The complete list of messages related to surrender (from the original Japanese note indicating willingness to surrender to President Truman’s announcement of said surrender) is available here.

Media (Courtesy of the Wikimedia Foundation)

A captured Japanese soldier surrounded by Soviet Troops in the wake of the Battle of Nomonhan (Khalkhin Gol) in 1939. The defeat of the Japanese Army by the Soviets helped drive the momentum towards an attack on the western Allies rather than the Soviets.

A captured Japanese soldier surrounded by Soviet Troops in the wake of the Battle of Nomonhan (Khalkhin Gol) in 1939. The defeat of the Japanese Army by the Soviets helped drive the momentum towards an attack on the western Allies rather than the Soviets.

Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Hull's final memorandum to Japan in November, 1941 was worded in an ambiguous way which convinced Japanese planners that the US was intent on forcing more concessions than Japan was prepared to give. This was the final impetus towards war.

Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Hull’s final memorandum to Japan in November, 1941 was worded in an ambiguous way which convinced Japanese planners that the US was intent on forcing more concessions than Japan was prepared to give. This was the final impetus towards war.

Togo Shigenori (born Park Moo-duk), the Korean-Japanese Foreign Minister who had been one of the last objectors to war with the US. Eventually he would return to the post of Foreign Minister in 1945, and become a member of the pro-peace faction of the Big Six.

Togo Shigenori (born Park Moo-duk), the Korean-Japanese Foreign Minister who had been one of the last objectors to war with the US. Eventually he would return to the post of Foreign Minister in 1945, and become a member of the pro-peace faction of the Big Six.

View from an under-carriage camera mounted on a Japanese attack plane of the raid on Pearl Harbor.

View from an under-carriage camera mounted on a Japanese attack plane of the raid on Pearl Harbor.

The USS Arizona on fire in Pearl Harbor.

The USS Arizona on fire in Pearl Harbor.

British General Sir Arthur Percival, surrounded by Japanese troops and under a flag of truce, going to negotiate the surrender of Singapore to Japan. The Battle of Singapore was the largest defeat of British land forces in history.

British General Sir Arthur Percival, surrounded by Japanese troops and under a flag of truce, going to negotiate the surrender of Singapore to Japan. The Battle of Singapore was the largest defeat of British land forces in history.

Japanese casualties (in the foreground) and American troops (in the background) during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. Guadalcanal would mark the first time the Japanese were forced to fall back in the face of the Allied advance. It would not be the last.

Japanese casualties (in the foreground) and American troops (in the background) during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942. Guadalcanal would mark the first time the Japanese were forced to fall back in the face of the Allied advance. It would not be the last.

The American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise fighting off Japanese planes in 1942. The Enterprise was one of the carriers which had been a target of the Pearl Harbor attack, but had been out on a training mission with two other carriers at the time of the attack.

The American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise fighting off Japanese planes in 1942. The Enterprise was one of the carriers which had been a target of the Pearl Harbor attack, but had been out on a training mission with two other carriers at the time of the attack.

American troops advancing behind a Sherman battle tank during the Battle of Saipan in Summer, 1944. The loss of Saipan made it clear that Japan had lost the war, but fighting would continue for over one year afterwards.

American troops advancing behind a Sherman battle tank during the Battle of Saipan in Summer, 1944. The loss of Saipan made it clear that Japan had lost the war, but fighting would continue for over one year afterwards.

Downtown Tokyo the day after the firebombing (the river is the Sumida-gawa in downtown Tokyo).

Downtown Tokyo the day after the firebombing (the river is the Sumida-gawa in downtown Tokyo).

Civilian casualties in downtown Tokyo.

Civilian casualties in downtown Tokyo.

The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, approx. 7 km away from the center of the blast.

The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, approx. 7 km away from the center of the blast.

An Occupation video from 1946 showing the burn damage to a Japanese woman from Hiroshima. This video is graphic and disturbing, but worth watching if you think you can handle it. Also available from the same period is a video of life in the ruins of Hiroshima in March 1946.

There are several other images of survivors and the devastation of the bomb available on the Wikipedia page for the atomic bombings.

The July 25th order from Thomas Handy to Carl Spaatz, authorizing the use of atomic weapons. If you're having a hard time with the image, the text is available here.

The July 25th order from Thomas Handy to Carl Spaatz, authorizing the use of atomic weapons. If you’re having a hard time with the image, the text is available here.

Soviet Marines occupying Port Arthur in southern Manchuria. The Soviet invasion of Manchuria crushed the remaining Japanese defenders of the territory.

Soviet Marines occupying Port Arthur in southern Manchuria. The Soviet invasion of Manchuria crushed the remaining Japanese defenders of the territory.

Shigemitsu Mamoru, as representative of the Japanese Empire, signing the surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.

Shigemitsu Mamoru, as representative of the Japanese Empire, signing the surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.

American General Douglass MacArthur (who would command the American Occupation of Japan) giving a speech during the surrender ceremony. You may notice that the flag in the background has the incorrect number of stars for 1945 -- that's because it's the one that flew on Commodore Perry's flagship in 1854.

American General Douglass MacArthur (who would command the American Occupation of Japan) giving a speech during the surrender ceremony. You may notice that the flag in the background has the incorrect number of stars for 1945 — that’s because it’s the one that flew on Commodore Perry’s flagship in 1854.

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