Too many nightmares were born 75 years ago Thursday when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

A few days later, another A-bomb targeted Nagasaki — a devastating one-two punch (combined, the two bombings killed at least 214,000 people, probably many more) that forced Japan to surrender to end World War II.

With that, a nuclear age arrived with a blinding flash and a firestorm of death that forever altered civilization.

Generations later, we still grapple with the history.

By mid-summer of 1945, Japan’s back was against the wall in the dying days of the world war. It was the last Axis power standing, with Nazi Germany having capitulated in May. With the allies bearing down, the eventual outcome in the Pacific theater really wasn’t in doubt.

But the endgame was another matter. The general thinking was that Japan would not submit to an unconditional surrender, thus forcing an invasion of the island nation that was scheduled for that November. With reports of Japanese civilians digging in for a defiant last stand, an invasion would have likely produced massive casualties.

The bombings made that invasion unnecessary, or so one narrative goes; it’s an irrefutable point.

This version of what might have happened hit home for a lot of the World War II veterans I knew, who may well have been part of that invasion force. In fact, my father, who had just turned 18 in 1945, might have been one of those tossed into that meat grinder.

However, evidence also suggests Japan may have been prepared to surrender anyway. According to Martin J. Sherwin, history professor at George Mason University and author of a book on Hiroshima, if the allies had clarified to Tokyo that the surrender terms would have spared the life of the Japanese emperor, a different scenario may have emerged that would have not included the atomic strikes on civilian targets. The entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan on Aug. 8, one day before the Nagasaki bombing, also played a crucial role in this destiny, and that impact has been discussed ever since.

In 1946, author John Hersey wrote a massive article for The New Yorker magazine called “Hiroshima,” which presented that atomic bombing in painful human terms that had previously been kept from the public. The article was eventually republished as a book and remains one of the essential reads of 20th century literature. Many details were unforgettable: people’s eyeballs boiling out of their sockets, slabs of seared skin falling off bodies, the shadows of vaporized victims burned into walls and an atomic mushroom cloud so massive that it created its own weather system and dropped radioactive rain on the survivors. “Hiroshima” unflinchingly showed us the shattered bones and charred flesh of an obliterated world.  

U.S. government officials responded to Hersey’s account with the publication of their own article in Harper’s magazine to reinforce their rationale for the strikes. The article was credited to former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, even though he harbored his own doubts about the bombs. (He came to think of the bomb as “a monster … that could destroy civilization.”) Once published, Stimson’s article was made widely available to other publications and became required reading for many Americans in the early days of the nuclear age. Its narrative took hold with the public and shaped Cold War thinking for years thereafter.

Still, there was no official American consensus on the bombings, as even the military branches were at odds on the subject. While an Air Force account said the bombings made the need for an invasion of Japan unnecessary, the Naval take was that the bombings had little military effect and it was Russia’s entry that turned the tide. In fact, “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan,” declared Adm. William Leahy, the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Admiral at the time. “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. … My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make wars in that fashion, and that wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

Thus, history left us with another monster — a nebulous moral conflict that pits lives against lives and still forces us all these years later to grasp the price of peace and the ghastly costs of war.

Unlike the dead, that monster hasn’t faded away. We still live in its shadow — but at least WE live. That us-versus-them perspective offers uncomfortable alternatives; it also provides no comfort to the souls incinerated to win a peace for a weary world. But it all stands as a grim fact of our history to be judged by future generations  — by us.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended a war, but they unleashed something else that has haunted us ever since. And 75 years later, it remains inescapable, and we cannot and must not look away.

Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.

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