Nukes in Asia

The first and only (so far) use of “atomic” weapons in history was against the Japanese. But we’ll never know how close we came to seeing a second atomic attack, only five years later, also in Asia. In Korea.

The attacks on Japan are still contentious: Was Tokyo on the verge of surrender anyway? Or was it in fact the nuclear attacks that convinced the Japanese to quit?

Who knows? All that’s certain is that with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pacific war ended. Hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers now would not die invading the Japanese home islands; nor also – it is sometimes forgotten –would hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians – including mostly women and schoolchildren — who would have been forced into hopeless combat by their government.

The Americans had both the capacity and the inclination to reduce Japanese cities one-by-one to radioactive ashes. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US was energetically preparing more A Bombs, dozens of them, if needed. They weren’t.

Here are some remarkable photos of the actual Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs in production. (There’s a link to more photos at the end):

Technician applies sealant to Fat Man- the Hiroshima bomb

Technicians autographing Fat Man

One of the worries generated after the war, was that once a new terrible weapons system has been used, there is less hesitation in using it a second time, or a third, and so on. It’s not novel any more.

The horror is somehow the less because it’s been done before. It’s not exactly more acceptable; but rather less unacceptable.

That’s what happened with gas in World War One and with submarines attacking civilian ships in World War 2.The level for outrage is raised bit by bit and suddenly the unthinkable has become the everyday.

Technicians prepare Thin Man, the Nagasaki bomb

In Korea there was great clamour from some hotheads to use atomic bombs against the Chinese communists. President Truman refused to rule the option out. British Prime Minister Atlee flew to Washington specifically to ask for a promise atomic weapons would not be used in Korea… at least without British agreement. Truman refused to give any such assurances and Atlee went home empty-handed.

It now seems unlikely, looking back from the comfort zone of 60 years, that Truman would have okayed atomic strikes in Korea… unless there was a catastrophe at the front and nuclear hits were the only way of saving Allied armies (including Canadians) from destruction.

But there were a few excited voices around Truman counselling nuclear strikes, as there were around Kennedy during the Cuban crisis in 1962. Both leaders – we should be eternally thankful for this – remained calm and listened to the prudent, and not to nuclear fanatics and their frenzied calls for unleashing a slide into Armageddon.

More Fat Man-type casings in background.
Thin Man casings in foreground

Korea was the nuclear war that did not happen.

Here’s that link to more of those riveting photos of the manufacture and assembling of those first atomic weapons. Korea was only five years in the future.

The “ordinariness” of the scenes is chilling.


About Dan Bjarnason

Dan Bjarnason is the author of "Triumph at Kapyong, Canada's Pivotal Battle in the Korean War." Bjarnason was a television news and documentary reporter for The National at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 35 years, He specialized in military history and has worked on documentaries from the Little Bighorn to the Falklands. He now lives in Toronto and can be reached at:
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