World war II saw the catastrophic events that lead to the deployment of the first ever and second uses of a nuclear warhead. The atomic bomb has been described as one of the most abominable devices humans have ever conceptualized and invented.

In this article, you'll learn the devastating effects of the atomic bomb and what ensued in Hiroshima and Nagasaki prior to its deployment as well as the aftereffects of the atomic bomb hit.

Bombing of Pearl Harbor: Launching the US into WWII

During the early years of the second world war only Eurasian countries were really involved in the war efforts and the United States tried to prevent involving themselves in the war.

However, all that changed on December 7th, 1941, when there was a surprise aerial attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii performed by the Japanese. The Pearl Harbor attack (as it's now famously known) facilitated the United States official entrance in the WWII, as they declared Japan as a National enemy three days later.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor was initially completely unprecedented through the United States military’s eyes, although in hindsight, tension between the two nations had been brewing for nearly a decade.

What Forced the Decision to Engage Nuclear Weapons

For four years, war raged on and both American military and civilians grew weary as the war seemed endless and the enemy (Japanese forces) were relentless in their attacks. Finally, a sliver of hope shone for America; the Manhattan project was a success and Harry Truman was faced with what he described as the most difficult decision of his life, "To unleash the most terrible weapon known to mankind and finally end the war or not to?" that was the question.

Before the weapon was released, an allied demand from the US for an immediate and unconditional surrender was made to the leadership in Japan. The demand stated that refusing to surrender will lead to disaster, but there was no indication of the use of a nuclear warhead by the United States military was unknown to Japan.

The Japanese government refused to “unconditional surrender'' but they did indicate that they were open to a conditional surrender. At first, a US invasion to Japanese land was offered up to help close out the war, post refusal. However, weighing the potential of 1 million American soldiers dying in the invasion, the President talked with the Vice President and the leaders of the Manhattan project.

To save the lives of countless American soldiers, on August 6th, 1945, a plane called the Enola Gay dropped the first ever deployed atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, vaporizing 70,000 Japanese civilians. The following months and years saw casualties build up to 100,000 as more people died from injuries and radiation sickness post bomb.

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Hiroshima and “Little Boy”

Little Boy was the name of the atomic weapon dropped on Hiroshima on that fateful day in August of 1945. It was the first nuclear weapon ever used in official warfare. The bomb was dropped by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay which was piloted by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., commander of the 509th Composite Group of the United States Army Air Forces and Captain Robert A. Lewis.

Physicist Robert Serber named the first two atomic bombs during World War 2 based on their shapes and size: the thin man and the fat man. The thin man was a long and thin device, and its name came from the detective novel and series of movies about "the thin man". Little boy was then chosen as the official nick-named by others as an allusion to thin man since it was based on its design.

The bomb "Little Boy" was dropped at approximately 08:15(JST). It fell for 44.4 seconds, and it detonated at an altitude of 1,968 ± 50 feet (600 ± 15 m). It was less powerful than Fat Man but had more casualties and damages in comparison due to the location on which it was dropped.

Nagasaki and “Fat Man”

Fat man also known as Mark III, was the codename for the nuclear bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki in Japan. It was dropped 3 days later on August 9th, 1945. It was the second nuclear weapon used after Little Boy and the third nuclear weapon ever dropped in human history. It was named by Robert Serber and it got its name because of its round and short shape after Sydney Greenstreet's character in Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.

The aircraft that transported Fat Man was piloted by Major Charles Sweeney. Kokura was marked as its primary target and Nagasaki its secondary target. However, it was discovered that the primary target was obscured by clouds and drifting smoke from fires started by a major firebombing raid by 224 B-29s on nearby Yahata the previous day.

This covered 70% of the area over Kokura, obscuring the target. Due to bad visibility, that’s when Nagasaki was switched to the primary target and although it was also obscured from clouds, an opening was found and the bomb was released and detonated at 11:02 local time, following a 43-second free-fall, at an altitude of about 1,650 feet (500 m).

Over 35,000 people were killed by the bombing and a total of >60,000 were killed due to aftereffects of the nuclear fallout.

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Nuclear Effects on Local & Global Scales

The world had never experienced a weapon capable of such mass destruction before, and the effects on everyone were staggering:


The entire nation of Japan was immediately thrown into a state of mass panic and grief as if the already debilitating effects of war wasn't bad enough, they had firsthand experience in how catastrophic a nuclear weapon could be.

Immediate Death Tolls

The main cities that were hit; Nagasaki and Hiroshima, saw people die in the tens of thousands not to mention the millions of dollars’ worth of property damage.

In Nagasaki, an estimated 30% of the civilian population was said to have been killed by the initial blast and resultant firestorm and 70,000 people suffered serious injuries. An estimated 20,000 military personnels were also killed as war with some American prisoners of war waged on.

In Nagasaki, it was believed that over 200,000 people were within the city on the day of the bombing. And even though the bombing didn't claim as many lives as the one in Hiroshima, tens of thousands of people still suffered great loses. Over 6,000 students and civilian workers were confirmed dead immediately after direct hit. Upon final review, it was estimated that 22,000 people died from the initial blast and there were over 60,000 injured.

Secondary Deaths

The initial hit wasn't the only cause of death as even days, months, and years after the nuclear bombs were detonated, thousands of people continued to die from radiation poisoning, the injuries they suffered, etc.

In Nagasaki there were many undocumented residents so an accurate number cannot be given as to how many people lost their lives the days following the bombing, but it was estimated that 39,000-80,000 people died in total.

Hiroshima suffered the most casualties both from the direct hit and aftermath. At the time the bomb hit, Hiroshima had an approximate population of >300,000 and it had reached its peak population of 381,000 people during the war but systemic evacuation saw the population at about 34,0000.

An estimated 30% of the population were killed. About 90,000-140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and 60,000 in Nagasaki. Many people who weren't originally affected by the bombing suffered from radiation poisoning and some lost their lives because nuclear fallout had never been handled by doctors up to this point. Essentially, they had no idea what they were dealing with.

Japanese officials determined that 69 percent of Hiroshima's buildings were destroyed and another 6 to 7 percent damaged. In the years that followed, many of the residents would suffer from cancer, leukemia, birth defects and other terrible side effects of the nuclear radiation.

Malnourishment and Starvation

Farmlands, water sources, and stores anywhere near the bombing sites were contaminated and rendered nuclear. No local food or water sources were safe for the community to consume.

Many men, women, and children starved. Hunger ran rampant following the bombings. The loss of property, establishments, etc. made it very difficult for people to access sustenance. Due to the never-before-seen circumstances many people that may have helped were scared due to the unknown and the fact that people were dying from radiation poisoning.


Globally, the world was in utter shock as nuclear realization hit and its subsequent fear consumed nations worldwide. On September 2nd, World War II ended when Japan provided it’s formal surrender to U.S. General Douglas MacArthur aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri.

While the end of the biggest war in history brought global relief, the fear of future nuclear weapon productions had the world still living in fear of this potential.

Bomb Improvements & Increased Manufacturing

With the introduction and proven success of nuclear bombs, other nations started performing research to not only produce but also improve their own nuclear weapons. Essentially, post WWII became a nuclear arms race.

Over the years, more bombs have been produced as well as other warheads by nations across the world. There are currently nine countries in the world armed with nuclear weapons.

Fear and Intimidation

The United States solidified themselves as a global superpower following the devasting events of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so much so that Japan surrendered, ending the war. The unbelievable decision also led to other countries living in fear or trying to become allies.

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What would Modern Nuclear War Look Like?

The nuclear holocaust, nuclear Armageddon, or atomic holocaust is a theoretical scenario that depicts a global mass detonation of atomic weapons causing widespread destruction and radioactive fallout.

Not taking into the account of the above scenarios of mass global use that could ensue after just 1 country makes the nuclear decision; even just the ‘scarce’ use of modern nuclear weapons could lead to firestorms, local nuclear winters, localized radiation sickness, and mass casualties like we saw in the 1940’s.

The threat of a nuclear holocaust plays an important role in the popular perception of nuclear weapons. Essentially, the decision to use nuclear weapons will start and end in a chain reaction across the globe. As soon as 1 country launches their warheads, likely, all global superpowers will immediately follow, launch all of their nuclear weapons. It is this grim, yet very real possibility, that keeps the world intact, as imperfect as it may be.