FERMIAC: The Computer that Advanced Beyond the Manhattan Project

One of the keys to nuclear fission is sustaining a chain reaction. A slow chain reaction can provide clean power for a city, and a fast one can be used to create a weapon that will obliterate a city. These days, kids can learn about Uranium and Plutonium in high school. But just a few generations ago, the idea of splitting the atom was just a lofty goal for the brightest physicists and mathematicians who gathered at Los Alamos National Laboratory under the Manhattan Project.

Decoding the mysteries of nuclear fission required a great deal of experimentation and calculations. One bright physicist in particular made great strides on both fronts. That man was [Enrico Fermi], one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. Perhaps his greatest contribution to moving the research beyond the Manhattan Project was creating a handheld analog computer to do the math for him. This computational marvel is known as the FERMIAC.

What is Fission?

Nuclear fission occurs when a nucleus is split into fragments, a process that unleashes a great deal of energy.  As a handful of neutrons travel through a reactor pile or other fissionable material, a couple of outcomes are possible. Any one neutron collision might result in fission. This means there will be some number of new neutrons whose paths must be tracked. If fission does not occur, the neutrons may simply scatter about upon collision, which changes their speed and trajectory. Some of the neutrons might be absorbed by the material, and others will simply escape it. All of these possibilities depend on the makeup of the material being bombarded and the speed of the neutron.

Fission Diagram by Michalsmid

Every event that happens to a neutron comprises its genealogical history. If this history is recorded and analyzed, a statistical picture starts to emerge that provides an accurate depiction of the fissility of a given material. [Fermi]’s computer facilitated the creation of such a picture by performing mathematical grunt work of testing different materials. It identified which materials were most likely to sustain a reaction.

Before he left Italy and the looming threat of fascism, [Fermi] led a group of young scientists in Rome called the Via Panisperna boys. This group, which included future Los Alamos physicist [Emilio Segrè], ran many experiments in neutron transport. Their research proved that slow neutrons are much better candidates for fission than fast neutrons.

During these experiments, [Fermi] ran through the periodic table, determined to artificially irradiate every element until he got lucky. He never published anything regarding his methods for calculating the outcomes of neutron collisions. But when he got to Los Alamos, [Fermi] found that [Stanislaw Ulam] had also concluded that the same type of repeated random sampling was the key to building an atomic weapon.

The Monte Carlo Method: Shall We Play a Game?

Monte Carlo method applied to approximating the value of π. by CaitlinJo

[Ulam], a Polish-born mathematician who came to the US in 1935, developed his opinion about random sampling due to an illness. While recuperating from encephalitis he played game after game of solitaire. One day, he wondered at the probability of winning any one hand as laid out and how best to calculate this probability. He believed that if he ran through enough games and kept track of the wins, the data would form a suitable and representative sample for modeling his chances of winning. Almost immediately, [Ulam] began to mentally apply this method to problems in physics, and proposed his ideas (PDF) to physicist and fellow mathematician [John von Neumann].

This top-secret method needed a code name. Another Los Alamos player, [Nick Metropolis] suggested ‘Monte Carlo’ in a nod to games of chance. He knew that [Ulam] had an uncle with a propensity for gambling who would often borrow money from relatives, saying that he just had to go to Monte Carlo. The game was on.

The Tricky Math of Fission

Determination of the elements most suitable for fission required a lot of calculations. Fission itself had already been achieved before the start of the Manhattan Project. But the goal at Los Alamos was a controlled, high-energy type of fission suitable for weaponization. The math of fission is complicated largely because of the sheer number of neutrons that must be tracked in order to determine the likelihood and speed of a chain reaction. There are so many variables involved that the task is monumental for a human mathematician.

Stanislaw-Ulam-FERMIAC
[Stanislaw Ulam] and FERMIAC.

After [Ulam] and [von Neumann] had verified the legitimacy of the Monte Carlo method with regard to the creation of nuclear weaponry, they decided that these types of calculations would be a great job for ENIAC — a very early general purpose computer. This was a more intensive task than the one it was made to do: compute artillery firing tables all day and night. One problem was that the huge, lumbering machine was scheduled to be moved from Philadelphia to the Ballistics Research Lab in Maryland, which meant a long period of downtime.

While the boys at Los Alamos waited for ENIAC to be operational again, [Enrico Fermi] developed the idea forego ENIAC and create a small device that could run Monte Carlo simulations instead. He enlisted his colleague [Percy King] to build the machine. Their creation was built from joint Army-Navy cast off components, and in a nod to that great computer he dubbed it FERMIAC.

FERMIAC: Hacking Probabilities

FERMIAC was created to alleviate the necessity of tedious calculations required by the study of neutron transport. This is something of an end-run around brute force. It’s made mostly of brass and resembles a trolley car. In order to use it, several adjustable drums are set using pseudorandom numbers. One of these numbers represents the material being traversed. A random choice is made between fast and slow neutrons. A second digit is chosen to represent the direction of neutron travel, and a third number indicates the distance traveled to the next collision.

FERMIAC in use
FERMIAC in action.

Once these settings are dialed in, the device is physically driven across a 2-D scale drawing of the nuclear reactor or materials being tested. As it goes along, it plots the paths of neutrons through various materials by marking a line on the drawing. Whenever a material boundary is crossed, the appropriate drum is adjusted to represent a new pseudorandom digit.

FERMIAC was only used for about two years before it was completely supplanted by ENIAC. But it was an excellent stopgap that allowed the Manhattan Project to not only continue unabated, but with rapid progress. FERMIAC is currently on display at the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico alongside replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy, the weapons it helped bring to fruition. [Fermi]’s legacy is cemented as one of the fathers of the atomic bomb. But creating FERMIAC cements his legacy as a hacker, too.

After Los Alamos, [Stanislaw Ulam] would continue to make history in the field of nuclear physics. [Enrico Fermi] was opposed to participating in the creation of the exponentially more powerful hydrogen bomb, but [Ulam] accepted the challenge. He proved that Manhattan Project leader [Edward Teller]’s original design was unfeasible. The two men worked together and by 1951 had designed the Teller-Ulam method. This design became the basis for modern thermonuclear weaponry.

Today, the Monte Carlo method is used across many fields to describe systems through randomness and statistics. Many applications for this type of statistical modeling present themselves in fields where probabilities are concerned, like finance, risk assessment, and modeling the universe. Wherever the calculation of all possibilities isn’t feasible, the Monte Carlo method can usually be found.

[Main Image Source: FERMIAC machine by Mark Pellegrini]

UPDATE: Commentor [lwatchdr] pointed out that the use of the FERMIAC began after the Manhattan Project had officially ended in 1946. Although many of the same people were involved, this analog computer wasn’t put into use until about a year later.

89 thoughts on “FERMIAC: The Computer that Advanced Beyond the Manhattan Project

  1. -We made a bomb that can blow up a whole city in one go. We dropped two of them and ended wwii.
    -Not a bad start, but I want one that’s about a hundred times bigger. Get cracking.

    We are an odd species.

    1. Actually the main drive to improve yield at the time was due to the cost and effort to produce the plutonium/Uranium for the bombs. The amount of material needed at the time for a bomb was a strategic bottle neck. I read somewhere that they estimated we could only produce 6 bombs a year. They knew the bombs were not very efficient and therefor looked in to making efficient to expand the stock pile they could produce in a year.

      As a side effect they made the bombs cleaner, reducing the fissile fuel of the bomb to less than 1/4 of what the first bombs used.

  2. I’ve always wondered in American School’s do they sort of brush over the fact they released two nukes on japan in civilian areas? Do they say teach kids it was a justified action? Not trying to start some hate on America thing here I have mixed feelings myself about the who nuke thing, Just wondering what the teaching stand point is.

      1. I think in some respects it was justified it was all out war no nules really, The world was at war and had been for quite a few years. It could have also saved lives instead of an invasion. The otherside of me thinks the initial bomb was enough Japan did try and surrender although conditionally Showing they were ready to talk.

          1. That would be the US. The reason Japan attacked US wasn’t for fun, it was because US policies made it impossible for Japan to expand its empire. And US policies wasn’t designed for anybody but the US and its projection of force.

          2. What you call Japan “expanding its empire” would be termed by most people “invading other countries,” or maybe “committing war crimes” if you get down to the real details of it all. Japan had been throwing their weight around East Asia for ten years before they finally made the mistake of attacking Pearl Harbor. The USA certainly didn’t start anything there.

          3. When I went to HS certainly there where specific government, history, and sciences classes however the lone science teacher did bring pertinent government, and history into the science class room. What should be pondered how things would have been if the USA hadn’t terrorized Japan into trade with the US pretty much enabling Japan to become the military power it did.

      2. On August 9th, 1945, the same day of the head of operations in Tokyo received news of the Nagasaki bomb, it also received news that Stalin had turned against Japan (from their previous anti-aggression pact) and started to invade Manchuria. That same day Japan surrendered. What made them ultimately decide to surrender is not clear cut. This is one of *several* aspects of historical events which makes it worth telling the history objectively and argue the need for these extremely cruel an inhumane bombings.

        For anyone in support of the actions taken, I whole heartedly recommend visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

        1. When you visit the Hiroshima Atom Bomb Memorial, be sure to read the various signs and plaques. Not just the English translations, but also the original Japanese ones. You will find two entirely different characterizations of the war, carefully crafted for the intended audience.

          1. A book that should be required reading for all secondary school or college studies of the history of WW2 should be Hiroshima Diary by Michihiko Hachiya, a doctor who survived Hiroshima’s bombing and worked to save people suffering from radiation poisoning afterward. Here is a Wikipedia article about him and the book: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michihiko_Hachiya. My father was in Japan during the post-war occupation, and many times later as a visiting physicist and lecturer. He brought the book back with him from one of those visits, which I read, and still shed tears just thinking about it, and the impact it had on my life.

    1. Yeah. Textbooks really don’t describe them as civilian centers, but rather industrial areas that manufactured munitions. Also; they totally emphasize how “necessary” it was to use them to end the war “decisively.” And, if I remember right, they include photos of the devastation caused by the bombs, but don’t describe the human victims at all (or show photos).

      It’s pretty screwed up.

    2. You can’t teach that an atomic bomb was dropped on a city without making it clear that it included civilian casualties, but it is taught. It is also taught that the cities were targeted due to their military importance, not because the US wanted to kill as many civilians as possible. Japan intentionally mixed military industrial facilities around civilian infrastructure to discourage air raids, so you could say Japan put their civilians in harm’s way to protect the military. The US even took into account the cultural significance of cities into their decision, this is why Kyoto was eliminated from the list of targets. The US also dropped millions of leaflets on cities to warn civilians of air raids (although specific to atomic attacks). And the bombs were not dropped at the same time. Japan was given a chance to surrender after the first bomb was dropped. They refused, believing that the US only had 1 or 2 more atomic bombs and they could survive the damage. So the second bomb was not dropped until Japan refused to surrender. So in summary, yes, it is taught that the atomic bomb drop was a mostly “justified” action. You can argue it was not and there are some valid arguments there, but there is no 100% correct answer here. I’d add that almost everyone reading this has NOT lived through a true World War (I’m not talking “regional” wars like Vietnam, Iraq, etc) so it is probably impossible for any us to really understand what that was like and what was right or wrong in a war like that.

      1. “Japan intentionally mixed military industrial facilities around civilian infrastructure to discourage air raids”

        All countries do that. The civilians work in the factories, and need to live close to the factories. It was not done intentionally to discourage air raids.

          1. Reminds me of the debate in Clerks regarding whether the Deathstar contractors should be considered innocent bystanders in its destruction. Unless you are forced to do the work against your will you do have to claim a certain risk working at such facilities. That being said war and politics are never something as clean cut as we want them to be, humans are complicated little bastards.

      2. Actually, the “military importance” of the chosen cities was largely based on them being psychologically impactful- such as geographically small enough to be completely destroyed with the size of bombs we had. The target committee wanted a few different objectives to be achieved – and one of those being an impact so horrific that no one would want to use them again. To do that, they decided that they couldn’t just damage a city, they had to wipe one off the map. And the goal was successful, because now people associate an atomic bomb with total destruction of a city, regardless of size.

        Here are minutes from one of the meetings:
        http://www.dannen.com/decision/targets.html

    3. the alternative was carpet firebombing, al. la. Dresden, of the major industrial and civilian centers followed by a mass invasion, something a war-weary nation was not inclined to do. Military targets in Japan where often located in civilian centers and by the end of the war the Allies (as well as the Axis Powers) commonly attacked civilian centers – the thinking at the time was to get the civilians to realize the war was too expensive in lives (civilian lives) and resources to pursue.

    4. They certainly don’t say it’s justified as much as they bluntly say, “this is what ended the war in japan”.

      Japanese internment camps are brushed upon, but in no real detail. Most of what was taught is “Nazis were a socialist worker party with a leader that went batshit insane”.

      1. Even though Hitler hated socialism. He just put it in the name so people who weren’t very discerning would vote for him. Sure there’s a lesson Americans could learn there too. And probably some other countries.

    5. I would say it depends on your school. Yes, we are all taught about the dropping of the bomb. Personally, my school took a neutral historical approach that Truman made the decision to drop the atomic bomb to save live of allied soldiers. We do discuss the ramifications of this and we watched several programs that had graphic photos of the aftermath as well as graphic photos in the text books. It was not sugar coated. Neither was other USA atrocities such as starving prisoners in the Civil War, the massacres in Vietnam etc, internment of the Japanese Americans in WWII, and many of the lies our government has told us.

    6. I was taught that they weren’t civilian areas, in that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were shipyard building ports making machines of war, and that the majority of the population was employed to do this, and the remaining population (the ones not directly making machines of war) were the support structure for those who were.

      I was also taught that it was a source of great anguish for our president to make the decision, and that the decision brought the war to a close with the fewest casualties on both sides (as compared to the other options he had).

      I was also taught that we (the US) didn’t claim Japan as a conquered territory, but worked to rebuild the country and eventually gave back Japanese autonomy.

      (And I was taught, and I’m not making this up – I was actually taught this, that the emperor personally asked president Truman to give postwar Japanese some dignity, and not be ground under heel as a conquered nation. And Truman agreed to this.)

      Americans are pretty arrogant, but I wonder what would have been the result if the tables were turned and Japan had won, or if Hitler had simply stopped at Poland and France and consolidated his forces.

        1. If you havent read this book it is an absolute must read. Its by Phillip K Dick, they guy who wrote “A Scanner Darkly” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”. Its the definitive wold war 2 alternate history story, the USA is split down the middle half owned by Japan and half by the Soviets.

      1. I should maybe point out that when I went to school, WWII was quite fresh in the minds of the adults, being only 2 wars back (after Korea).

        Today’s history courses have a handful of wars to cover between now and then, so I think the Japanese conflict has faded a little.

        That’s why it’s “the bombs ended the war” without giving as much detail.

        1. Your right I am British myself and we were on the winning side, When i was educated about the War I was taught roughly the same. I do think some of the bad things the Allies did was brushed a side and glossed over with how glorious and brave our men were. I do think the bombing of Japan was necessary, I also think the Emperor of Japan should have given up after the first bomb. That is what could have saved lots of lives.

          I also think too many people have a goodies/baddies view of the war. We all know Hitler was a crazy nutter but the German forces (excluding the SS) were just normal people like us before the war. They were called up to fight for their country and I think most people would fight for their country if told too. I think German soldiers have been demonised since the war. It is a bit of a shame a lot of these guys gave their lives for Hitler. Their country seems to be ashamed of their past and rightly so to a certain extent however there was good and bad on both sides. While we brush it over we expect them to remember the bad they done.

      2. This is pretty much what we were taught as well. Anyone who questions the rationale behind the bombings has to put himself in the shoes of the person in 1945, not the person of 2015, and do the math. It was justified then, easily enough, by counting the expected casualties caused by an invasion (millions) and expected casualties caused by bombing, and the math is clear even to this day. It was much less expensive a toll in human life to bomb those two cities, than it would have been to invade. We were shown figures on the bombings, pictures, and told that the two bombs killed fewer civilians than would have died in just the conventional bombing leading up to an invasion and that the two bombs killed fewer people than the one bombing raid on Tokyo just a few months before. Seems pretty straight forward.

      3. Also of note, the poisonous and long-lasting nature of radioactive fallout was completely unknown at the time of the bombings.

        So far as anyone knew at the time, atomic bombs were like conventional bombs. They would flatten a city, but otherwise cause no long-lasting harm.

        It was the medical reports and correlations of area sicknesses around Hiroshima and Nagasaki that first got scientists clued in to the hazards of radioactivity.

        In times past it was common to have full-torso X-ray machines in doctors’ offices that you simply walked behind, or X-ray machines in shoe stores that would show your foot bones inside the shoes.

        Check out this video of a pedestrian usage of radioactivity to see what I mean:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Q1gksqqhLU

        So, yeah… it turned out to be a poisonous mess, but no one knew that would happen at the time.

        From Truman’s point of view, it was just a big bomb.

        1. Yeah I think people myself included sometimes forget that radiation was not fully understood at the time, it’s mental people were covering themselves in radioactive creams, Obviously this would be a big no nowadays. I seem to remember that clocks with hands that glowed in the dark were also radioactive Radium people just did not understand the risks of some elements. Lead pipes for water was also another thing & more recently asbestos.

          1. “people were covering themselves in radioactive creams” are you referring to the Dorthy Gray/Grey salon cold cream commercial? In the event you are go back and watch again paying attention. The the subject’s face was covered with dirt containing enough radioactive material to sound off a Geiger counter. I never heard mentioned that the cold cream contained radioactive material. Clearly the dangers of radiation where known or they wouldn’t have gone through the effort to use the minimal amount, not that I know the the amount used was safe. My understanding is that in the USA lead water supply pipe was used despite of the dangers of using where understood. As like the powers that be in the USSR understood the danger posed of asbestos, so did the powers be be in the USA understood the danger and covered it up As a result many people suffered horribly, and mineral that has many beneficial uses, and can be used safely is lost to us in the USA for the foreseeable future. All for the profit few.

        2. Only idiots did not know, and it doesn’t’ matter if they are scientist. Several people died from mishaps during the Manhattan project, and in fact madame curie also died from radiation, and that was all known.

          And the same idiocy persist today where half the educated world population still thinks they are immune to radiation.

        3. The poisonous nature AND the long lasting nature of radioactivity was well understood at the time. There were health scientists at Los Alamos. The scientists and environment were monitored for radiation, and in most cases when a scientist was over the exposure limit they were not told, and allowed to continue their important work.
          Remember Trinity, and the test animals, structures and human viewers that were all heavily monitored during the shot.
          To say they thought of them the same as conventional weapons is completely false. The reports you hear of some military project to use small nuclear devices to dig canals and such come from ill-informed military personnel that had no real understanding of the device, or authority to use such a device in the first place.
          In times of war the duty to your country outweighs your safety.
          And the thousands of nuclear tests that came after the war (decades worth) produced fallout that lasts today.

          1. I agree. Scientists of the time new the effects of radiation exposure. Any physicist of the time could explain half life, daughter nucleotides, and products of uranium fission (which was not top secret as we all know).

    7. The teaching standpoint I experienced in American public schools between 1983 and 1995 was very objective and non-judgmental. We learned about WWII and who the parties were, about why America was in the war in the first place, and we spent a lot of time talking about the two nukes dropped. We watched survivor recounts, spent a lot of time learning about the horrors of nuclear attack, but I don’t recall ever having a teacher tell me that the attacks were justified or that they weren’t, or even knowing what my teachers thought about it personally. I do remember having interesting discussions with other students about whether the attacks were justified or not, none of which ever came to a definite conclusion. My personal view that evolved out of that educational experience is that the attacks were terrible, but in the end resulted in the best outcome for humanity; a war ended, and a world that learned a very hard, conscience-searing lesson about the dangers of total warfare.

    8. I took a course in 11th grade, which was a combined American history and American literature course. We had a major unit on American actions during WW2. My teacher was half Japanese. We staged mock debates on issues such as the internment of Japanese citizens, use of atomic weapons, the nasty stuff in the Pacific theater [both sides], as well as perceptions of these things over time as articulated through American literature. I was simultaneously enrolled in AP US History, which was a class designed by another amazing teacher to a) teach us about the study of history and b) arm us with facts to pass the AP test. My public high school was also widely recognized to be among the best in the nation; results may vary.

      Prior to these courses I had a single general (although mostly US) history course in the 7th grade where we learned basic facts. I believe there are two standard lines of thought regularly issued to American students about these nuclear incidents. The actions are justified according to 1) These targets were valid and strategic military targets 2) the bombs avoided the prolonged greater bloodshed and a misery of a land invasion.

      In my coursework it became clear that while these were/are definitely some of the prevailing viewpoints (and in fact easily defensible positions), they were not the only ones or necessarily the right ones. More importantly these distinctions are nothing but a gift enabled by hindsight. Despite the fact I was a complete fuck off during this time I would attribute to these experiences my ability to think critically. Subsequent consideration has lead me to consider the nuclear aspects a distraction from the atrocity of war (Dresden, Nanking, Tokyo, Nazi Poland, Soviet Poland – these were all more “traditional” massacres that were as or more grisly than nuclear attacks).

      PS. I earned high marks from those debates for my obnoxious defense of positions antithetical to my personal beliefs.

      1. I wrote my feelings on the situation a few comments up, But just to add too that tradional massacres have killed lots more people than the bombs for sure. Still in 2015 it is hard to imagine a bomb wiping a whole city out in seconds thats what makes nukes so scary. Personally I wish they were never invented although I agreed ith their use on Japan but only because it did end the war. I do think that when humanity ends it will be nuclear related, All it takes is for a crazy leader to be incharge of nukes and that will be the end of us.

    9. Records contemporary to the actual target selection indicate that those involved considered both Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be military targets. One reason they were selected was because they had not been successfully bombed earlier (mostly due to weather and luck). Once they were selected as targets for the atomic bombs, they were removed from consideration as targets for conventional attacks.

      I’ve seen interviews with Japanese who were in the Japanese military at the time who indicated that these were military targets. To me, that’s a really interesting part of the argument over the bombing.

    10. Yes. Where where taught that it ended WWII and ended up saving many more lives than it cost. That it was a total war and that all sides bombed civilians and that Japan killed more people in the rape of Nanking than the US did in bombing Nagasaki.
      BTW My Uncle had served in Europe during WWII he had been reported killed in action twice, The last time he was some significant burns from but not enough to get sent home. When they dropped the bomb he was on his way to Japan for the planned invasion. He was sure that he was not going to make it home. He was sure that Truman saved his life by using the bombs.

    11. Not at all. When I was in school (admittedly more than 30 years ago) we learned that, after Okinawa the army expected 750,00 – 1.25 million American casualties when we invaded the home islands. They were so concerned they spun up a new factory to make body bags. The best guess, again based on Okinawa, was that there would be 10’s of millions of Japanese casualties. Target selection for the A-bombs was also given a lot of thought. In the end they didn’t really know what it would to do a city so they selected a small number and forbade the Army Air Force from bombing them so that they would be able to get a good damage assessment. Although the scientists who built it believed it would probably flatten a medium sized city – with the attendant casualties – they weren’t sure. About half of them opposed using it on cities and petitioned the president to drop it on an uninhabited island as a demonstration. A commission studied the question and recommended that it be used on Japan. They concluded that the government was so militaristic that they would simply lie to the emperor and people about the effects. After dropping two bombs we ended the war. There were certainly a very large number of civilian casualties (200K+), however you must remember that the conventional bombing raids of the era were even more destructive. The firebombing of Tokyo killed significantly more civilians than either atomic bomb; the horror was that a single plane could do in an instant what had previously required hundreds and taken hours – ultimately in terms of actual effects on the civilian population the result was the same. Militarily it made the situation impossible for Japan, no conceivable defense could stop every plane, and with the possibility that every plane could destroy a city it meant there was no viable alternative to surrender. Nonetheless, a faction of the military attempted a coup to prevent surrender.
      In the end it undoubtedly caused fewer deaths than an invasion would have – and that was absolutely going to happen. There was never any possibility that the US would stop before they got an actual surrender or completely destroyed the country as in Germany.
      That’s what we learn in school

    12. Hiroshima was a military target. The civilian casualties were no greater than a carpet bombing of the same military facilities to complete destruction, like a Dresden. The mass of the Japanese army waiting to respond to an invasion was stationed there.

      Nagasaki was not a military target because there were no military targets of value left. Japan publicly stated that Hiroshima was a hoax. The leaders were being told by warmongering military who would rather every Japanese civilian be dead than to end the war they started that the Americans used an intensive Dresden style conventional attack, and dropped nuclear material from a failed bomb project to fool radiation detectors.

      The choice for ending the war when one didn’t work was to pick the next best target. Since Nagasaki was not a military target, it was left mostly untouched by the war, so far. Tokyo would have been a possible target, but it was already heavily damaged by bombing, so bombing the non-military target of Nagasaki was the only way to save the most Japanese lives as possible.

      Nagasaki was *not* a case of “we have two bombs, lets use them both”, as I’ve seen taught outside the US. It was a case of “they said we are bluffing after the first bomb, a ground war in Japan will leave nobody and nothing alive, so Nagasaki will save the most lives on both sides.”

      Though not mentioned in the US education is that Japan surrendered after the first bomb. But the conditional surrender required the government and military be left in place and untouched by foreign influence. The first surrender was rejected by the US and the next bomb was dropped. The US could have begun talks at that point. But made a conscious decision to continue war after a surrender, because the US considered the terms offered unconscionable, so much so that talks with them would be fruitless.

      We certainly covered it in the US better than the Japanese cover their war atrocities. Though, as others point out, we don’t usually cover US internment camps. We gloss over that, and we’ve officially changed the name, as my relatives who were alive at the time recall them being called “concentration camps” but that name is now been re-written to only apply to Nazi death camps.

      1. It’s always amazing the education system of each country try’s to gloss over their own attocities, We were taught about Nazi concentration camps too in the UK however we didnt hear anything about the allies camps for the japanese. I have since learned about them myself, I think when teaching people about the war there is a good vs bad overtone too the whole thing.

        1. Concentration camps were actually used by British during the Boar war, no gas chambers were involved, it was more cost effective for restrict resources, some 26,000 women and children died in such camps. Hitler learned from family.

          1. Yeah I know they did Britian has some of the worst war atrocities on record however it seems America & UK pretend to stand as some sort of moral superiors for the rest ofthe world while at the same time doing whatever they want.

    13. As a product of the American public school and university systems, I was taught (and I now believe rightly so), that use of the bombs–however horrendous–probably saved more Japanese lives and definitely saved more American lives than the alternative of continued fighting.

      On this, the anniversary of 9/11, like you, the last thing I want to do is stir up hate. However, you should ask a Japanese kid what do they learned of the attrocities committed by the Imperial Army. This is still a very sore spot for China and Korea.

      I would say Americans, like the Germans, are taught the whole, unvarnished truth. Whether we are capable of learning from our history is another matter.

      1. I agree the Japanese don’t teach anything at all but our countries UK/USA do gloss over some things a little. Perhaps it is not intentional and maybe some teachers just feel a bit patriotic and don’t want to make their country seem bad but there is good and bad on both sides.

      2. Many Japanese people have a proud heritage, but like all people sometimes get pulled into conflicts. History is about what happened, and speculating why it was right or wrong does not change what happened. i.e. Arguing whether it is honourable to kill a murders son is a logical fallacy, but it is one that successfully allowed the invasion of Iraq.

        Is a soldier “bad” for following orders that violate their own sense of ethics? No. The man flying the plane that dropped the bombs certainly thought the A-bomb were a horrific act, but society does not care for the opinion of the person employed to carry out it’s demands.

        Should Japan be considered a victim? No, they were a capable enemy engaged in active combat operations.

        America may have been justified in trying to end a war, but certainly can’t convince the rest of the world that war itself is a righteous action. Peace came at a high price, and its one the Japanese paid with dead families. Accordingly, keep in mind 43% of allied men in my home country were already dead by the end of WWII thanks to the British draft, so many felt that desperate actions were the only solution left.

        Even today, Germany and Japan tend to be a voice of reason in dilemmas within global hostilities.
        Many of their people remember that political policy and the lack of rational consideration mean someone has to pay a price of misery. The disturbing part is that current American Political culture seemed to forget that wars don’t really have a winning side, but rather survivors with a legacy of destitution. After the 911 backlash of religious violence against anyone that resembled the Muslim faith, it reminded us that another Crystal-naught was very possible on American soil if we forget our history. This part of a taboo history is not really remembered by books, and in 30 years I’m sure George Bush will be called a political genius.

        At least on 911 we can remember those we lost, and comfort those who can’t forget…

          1. I think that what he is saying is that a) most people would feel that killing others is morally wrong, but b) soldiers sometimes need to do it for the greater good. I would assume (hope?) that most soldiers do not glory in killing other humans.

    14. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was horrendous but bombing cities with hundreds of bombs is horrendous too. Fire everywhere no chance to espace burning in it. The air so hot that even if there is no flames nearby your lungs and skin burns. Like beeing in oven. Tokyo bombardment in march and may 1945 made 100,000 deads.

    15. In an inner city US high school of questionable repute during the 80’s, I was taught that many military and especially political leaders were greatly concerned that the Pacific front end quickly due to a treaty with the Soviet Union. The leadership’s perceived cost in US lives for an invasion was described as being lower than advertised since it was presumed by the leaders that a lot of those lives would actually end up being Russian and Chinese if the war went on long enough for an invasion. There was concern that they (and the Soviet Russians in particular) would become a lasting force in the Pacific if they became involved in the war there. So the intent was to force Japan to an unconditional surrender as quickly as possible, so that there would be no possibility of re-ignition of the front during negotiations. Also, this avoided more land war in Asia (and with a grandfather who served in the Navy in Manchuria, I really appreciate that part being shortened).

      Politics, it seems, had it’s thumb on the scale measuring the balance between fast and deeply horrific weapons, and a longer conventional and deeply horrific war.

      (No citations, since OP asked about what was taught, and this is documentation of what I was taught, and not what has since been documented in the intervening time as having been taught.)

  3. first sentence – slow fusion can provide clean power for a city…. Nuclear energy is not clean, with radioactive byproducts, capable of killing and poisoning humans, that will exist for geologically long time periods and for which no practical disposal system exists.

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