Hiroshima: Atomic Blast That Changed The World Turns 75 The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were said at the time to be justified as the only way to end World War II. Seventy-five years later, legal experts say they would now be war crimes.

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Hiroshima Atomic Bombing Raising New Questions 75 Years Later

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Seventy-five years ago today, an American warplane dropped the world's first atomic weapon. It exploded directly above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, instantly killing tens of thousands of civilians. That nuclear airstrike and a second one three days later in Nagasaki led to the Japanese surrender and the end of World War II. NPR's David Welna reports that what was justified by some then is being sharply questioned today. And a note - this story includes graphic accounts of the aftermath of the attack.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: President Harry Truman was returning from an Allied Nations conference in Potsdam, Germany, where a demand for Japan's unconditional surrender had been refused when he recorded this message to the American people on August 6, 1945.

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HARRY TRUMAN: A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy.

WELNA: Truman then described the terrible new weapon that had obliterated two-thirds of Hiroshima.

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TRUMAN: It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.

WELNA: Its explosion at 8:16 on a Monday morning created a gigantic 900-foot-wide fireball 500,000 degrees hot.

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SETSUKO THURLOW: In that moment, I saw that bluish-white flash in the windows.

WELNA: Setsuko Thurlow was a 13-year-old in Hiroshima that fateful day. Three years ago, she told NPR how she crawled out of a collapsed building to find dark objects approaching her. It was human beings fried by the blast.

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THURLOW: They were covered with blood and burned and blackened and swollen, and the flesh were hanging from the bones. Parts of their bodies were missing. And some were carrying their own eyeballs in their hands. And as they collapsed, their stomach burst open.

WELNA: Thurlow's campaigned for decades against nuclear weapons. Earlier this week, she sent President Trump a letter. Nuclear weapons, she wrote, are not a necessary evil. They are the ultimate evil. Russell Gackenbach witnessed the Hiroshima bombing from a very different perspective. Before his death in November, he'd been the last surviving member of the U.S. crew on that mission. Asked four years ago what his thoughts were as he rode on a warplane named Necessary Evil, Gackenbach told Voices of the Manhattan Project we had to go out and kill every one of them.

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RUSSELL GACKENBACH: We were at war. They started it. It was our turn to finish it. And we did. And we saved lots of lives, both in our military and in their military.

WELNA: Four years ago, Barack Obama became the first American head of state to visit Hiroshima's Peace Memorial. He offered condolences but pointedly did not apologize.

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BARACK OBAMA: Mere words cannot give voice to such suffering. But we have a shared responsibility to look directly into the eye of history and ask what we must do differently to curb such suffering again.

WELNA: Standing in the very same spot in November, Pope Francis suggested a great crime had occurred in Hiroshima.

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POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

WELNA: Using atomic energy to wage war, the pope said, is today now more than ever a crime.

GABRIELLA BLUM: There is no question that a dropping of a large nuclear weapon amongst the civilian population is a war crime.

WELNA: Gabriella Blum is a Harvard Law School professor specializing in the law of war. Although there was no clear treaty law 75 years ago outlawing atomic bombings, Blum says that's changed.

BLUM: Under the current laws of war, if you know you're going to impact civilians, you must provide warning. And you must take precautions to avoid harming civilians to the extent possible. There is no doubt none of that was considered. None of that was seriously weighed in reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

ALLEN WEINER: There was a lot of invocation of the military nature of the target, but I think that was really a rationalization to help people feel more comfortable with what they were doing.

WELNA: That's Stanford Law School professor Allen Weiner. He co-authored "Why The Atomic Bombing Of Hiroshima Would Be Illegal Today." It's the cover story for the current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. He says while the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not clearly illegal at the time...

WEINER: It seems to me quite indefensible to claim that the atomic bombing of those cities, which was intended to cause widespread civilian casualties, could be legally justified.

WELNA: Still, Weiner worries that after 75 years, memories of such horrific bombings may be fading. They may now be clearly illegal, but that's no guarantee that can't happen again. David Welna, NPR News.

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