On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Tens of thousands were killed instantaneously, with thousands more subsequently succumbing to radiation sickness. Total death toll estimates range from 66,000 to 150,000.
Seventy years later, Japan and the United States are close allies. But the recent polling suggests Americans do not fully comprehend the intent of—and suffering inflicted by—atomic weaponry.
The use of atomic weaponry against the people of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) has long divided opinions on either side of the Pacific. In 1945, a Gallup poll taken immediately after the bombing found that 85% of Americans approved of the act. That number has not surprisingly declined in the relatively peaceful years since.
A 1991 Detroit Free Press survey conducted in both the United States and Japan found that only 63% of Americans felt use of the atomic bomb against Japan was justified by the circumstances of war, with 29% saying the act was unjustified. At that time, only 29% of Japanese said the bombing was justified (a surprisingly high figure), while only 64% said it was wholly unwarranted.
Pew conducted a third survey in 2015, which found that 56% of Americans today believe dropping the bomb was justified, with 34% saying it was not. Numbers have shifted to a similar degree in Japan, where only 14% now say the bombing was justified, with 79% saying it was not.
Despite distinct decline in Americans voicing disapproval of nuclear bombs, a troubling majority seem comfortable justifying the deployment of catastrophic weaponry against civilians. And atomic bombs were designed to wreak havoc for years after their use, with residual radiation and other effects making an accurate death toll so difficult to ascertain.
Perhaps this is because the continental United States hasn’t been invaded, occupied, or fallen victim to a foreign military attack since the War of 1812. One would hope that the events of 9/11 would soften American convictions in this regard—and perhaps they did. But the Pew data shows that a majority of Americans clearly have no conception of the horrors of nuclear warfare. What’s even scarier? The US currently maintains a stockpile of over 5,000 nuclear warheads. If we thought their use was justifiable in 1945, who’s to say we won’t someday vote someone into office willing to drop another one?