Seventy years after the United States dropped the world's first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, its place in history remains secure. As The Post has written: "It's seared into the collective global memory — no other time in history has a nuclear weapon been used in war." But how do the United States and Japan, and the rest of the world for that matter, teach this seminal event so many decades after the world witnessed this incredible display of force.
For the occasion, we asked the users of the social platform Reddit, "How is the Hiroshima atomic bomb taught in your country?"
The post received more than 2,500 comments, and these were some of the common threads:
- The bombing saved lives by ending the war more quickly and without a land invasion.
- Although it may not have been necessary, especially the subsequent bombing of Nagasaki, the United States wanted to send a message to the rest of the world.
- The bombing was only a small part of the overall coverage of World War II (or barely mentioned at all).
- It was the start of the Cold War.
- It led to independence.
A more scholarly approach to global viewpoints can be found in "History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History," which was published in 2004 and collected excerpts from textbooks in different parts of the world. Here's a sample from Asia, North America and Europe:
Philippines: "Horrible atomic bombs" brought Japan to her knees.
Canada: "Most Canadians are unaware of the crucial role Canada played in the development of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki." (A uranium refinery in Ontario supplied the Manhattan Project.)
Italy: "There was no doubt that in very little time the Japanese, already at the end of their tether, would have had to surrender ... What seems certain is that the show of force, made indiscriminately at the expense of unarmed people, increased the United States' weight in post-war tensions and decisions, especially concerning the Soviet Union. It is probably therefore that Truman's decision was inspired more by post-war prospects than by calculations on the most convenient method to put an end to the conflict with Japan."
Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology, said that although countries that were invaded by Japan were very much in favor of the atomic bomb, Europe generally takes a dim view. "They find it completely shocking that a majority of Americans still think Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified and morally correct." Meanwhile, an analysis of U.S. and Japanese textbooks in use during the 1990s concluded that "there is a gap between what the historical evidence presents, what academic historians now know and the evidence presented to pupils."
This account by a Reddit user reflects what this reporter learned in high school in the mid-1990s.
I am an American, which like 90% of the people who have commented so far were as well, so I don't know how helpful this will be.
- Firstly, that the emperor of Japan was seen as a sort of deity by his people.
- Secondly, that all of the people of Japan were hell-bent on destroying the Americans, because it was the will of the emperor, and the emperor would bow to no one.
- Thirdly, that the Japanese were bombing American ships in the Pacific theater, and that an end was needed before the loss of life became unbearable.
- Fourthly, that the Americans weighed the potential for loss of life in continuing a land invasion into the Japanese islands, versus the detonation of an Atomic Bomb, and viewed the latter as more preferable.
- Fifthly, that after the detonation of the first atomic bomb, the emperor remained resolute and would not surrender, which led to the detonation of the second atomic bomb, leading to the surrender of the Japanese Emperor and the end of that war.
By the latter half of the 2000s, though, American textbooks were taking on a more nuanced approach, offering perspectives from Japanese victims and even dissension by U.S. officials. The change is attributable partly to the passage of time and partly to the evolution in the way students are taught, says Christopher Hamner, who teaches history at George Mason University. "The textbook has walked away from this idea that it speaks with this omniscient voice and it tells you facts. Textbooks will have documents from both sides, they acknowledge that there are multiple perspectives." He added that students today "are just a little more skeptical, and I mean that in the best possible sense."
Interesting, a user claiming to be an American teacher offered a perspective of today's classroom:
I am from America, but I feel I can contribute because I am a high school history teacher. When I was in school, it was simply stated that we dropped two bombs, thus ending the war. When in college the focus around the bomb was an emphasis on the pacific theatre. Very much an idea of, "they won't quit so we must use the bomb, it will save many American and Japanese lives to do so." Last year when I taught U.S history to Juniors, we took the latter approach. We looked at casualties of each island, projected casualties, and discussed why the bomb was so effective. It is a more "matter of fact" that it was used and not a real dwelling point. However, the bomb is the heart and center of the Cold War section.
Also, these Reddit comment threads speak to the changing currency of textbooks, pillars of knowledge whose preeminence has dimmed in a world where books, articles and discussions are readily available to the curious mind. The comments are edited for length, but not for grammar or typos.
In response to comment asking for anyone taught in Japan:
My wife is Japanese, born and raised in Hiroshima. Her grandparents witnessed the bomb from two different locations just outside the city as children.
She has told me about how they were taught about the bomb in her school in Hiroshima. It seems they have special classes all about the bomb. She says they learn technically how it works, all about the effects of radiation, and about its development. She says they are taught about the decision making process behind the decision to drop it. She says they are taught in great detail about the physical and psychological effects of being directly affected by it. They are also taught about the aftermath of the bomb with regards to rebuilding the city.
It sounded very different from the lesson taught to me in U.S. schools — that the bomb was a "necessary evil" that was going to cost less lives than the supposed only alternative of an invasion of the Japanese main islands.
The Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima is visited by the young students. They can see the A-bomb Dome from their equivalent of Central Park. In other words, there are constant reminders of this tragedy that put their city on the map.
My wife told me that these special classes on the A-bomb are only taught in Hirishima and Nagasaki and are not part of the national curriculum in Japan in general.
The rest of the world
I am an Australian who learnt about the bombings primarily through japanese language class. As you can probably guess there was a bias toward the japanese with a focus on the lives lost (mostly stories about children during and born after the bombings).
Brazilian here. I remember this part of World History being very sad and polemic. Our teachers tried hard to show us the consequences and power of the bomb.
Canadian here. ... I remember being taught that the second bomb was unnecessary. My social studies teachers tended to vilify the U.S. for Nagasaki.
Chilean here. It was only pointed as the weapon that ended the war. Really brief
French here. Basically we see the bombings as part of the atrocious disasters of world war 2, through the technological advanced massive killings weapons "progress".
German here. In school, most of the history of war was about the German atrocities. … Other atrocities (killing of native Americans, Hiroshima, CIA involvement in toppling democratic states leading to torture etc.) were not covered at all, or only very briefly.
In Greece, it goes like this: The WWII ended with the atomic bomb of Hiroshima and Nagashaki. That's it, really, just a reference.
What I was taught in India was that even though the Japanese never surrender, when there was a possibility of a nuclear threat, they were ready to surrender. However, the president at the time chose to do it anyway to send a message to the world (or mainly the USSR).
Nowadays, when we were taught this important moment in Indonesian history, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was seen as a stepping stone that eventually provided the opportunity to proclaim our independence.
Iranian here. They teach us that the U.S dropped one bomb, Japan surrendered, the U.S dropped the other bomb to test it.
Italian here. In 4th grade (10 years old) we studied it the first time, dedicating a lot of time to the victims and the horrors of the bomb…. Later on, in middle school and high school the message was always the same: the Americans compellingly "thought" the bomb was the ONLY thing that could end the war.
Korean here and I attended a school in Seoul. From what I remember being taught about the bomb while in Korea was 2 parts — first, to end a long drawn out invasion of Japan and any territories in order to secure a surrender. There were moral considerations but mostly the discussion involved the mechanics of using war technology developed during a time of war to save American lives. And secondly, to demonstrate to the world that the US had the technology and was willing to use it as the US considered a post war political climate.
Here in Lithuania it just said the US needed to finish the war with Japan quickly but at the same time they needed to show strength. So that they will be taken seriously in the future.
Malaysia. There wasnt much detail explained about the bombing, just that it happened after pearl harbour and the japanese surrendered after that and then the war ended.
I'm from Mexico, and I remember there was some emphasis on how the bomb was unnecessary (since the war was already drawing to a close) and how it was one of the many atrocities of the war.
Netherlands here. The main narrative in high school history was the cost of invasion and the political desire for a swift end to the war.
In New Zealand I was taught it was to speed the end of the war. The morality of it was questionable but understandable in the context of the time (i.e. no one at the time knew about black rain and the horrible drawn out deaths from radiation). The reasons for dropping it were to save American lives in a landing on the main islands after the high causalities in Okinawa and other island hopping campaigns.
Singaporean. The main questions raised were not why the bombs were dropped, but why they were dropped so late, and only after so many died and suffered.
Here in South Africa, we learned why the bombs were dropped, and whether that was reasonable as an action of war and as a prevention of even more deaths. We read/listened to countless primary sources, and ended the quarter with a week-long debate on whether or not it was justified.
Swede here. We were mostly just taught about the war going on in Europe from what I can remember. ... It almost felt like we were running out of time at the end of the semester; "The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor so the Americans dropped two bombs to end that fight".
I was taught in Switzerland. We were taught about them as more of a start to the Cold War, rather than as an end to the Second World War. This was because it was viewed as an American show of nuclear strength to the Soviets in order to act as a deterrent, rather than just an act of aggression against Japan.
UK History teacher here (secondary). I like to use it as an example to develop the student's argument formation. It's usually taught as a standalone lesson with the topic 'Was the dropping of the atomic bombs justified?'. Give the kids evidence, reports, accounts and let them make up their mind.