LONDON – Many British people were horrified by the Hiroshima atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945, according to surveys conducted in the days and weeks after the U.S. attack.
A day after the bomb fell on Hiroshima, Mass Observation, a social research organization, sent investigators out on the streets to gauge public reactions through informal conversations.
Some people called the use of the bomb “devilish,” “awful” and “dreadful,” with one saying, “I think it’s the most devastating thing I’ve ever heard.”
Investigators noted, “A great many people, whether they realized the full power of the bomb or not, felt misgivings about the use of so powerful a weapon.”
Some of the responses indicate the public was not fully aware of the extent of the attack and thought that only military bases had been targeted.
While there was a large number who disapproved altogether, many people were conflicted about the use of the bomb. Many also failed to see that it was different from conventional weapons being used at the time.
Mass Observation was founded in 1937 by a British group to create “an anthropology of ourselves,” innovative at the time for focusing on the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain.
The material, which is now held by the Mass Observation Archive, is far from representative as the information was gathered by speaking to people on the streets, through monthly short answer questionnaires of a few hundred people, or by having people send in their diaries.
However, Matthew Grant, director of research in the history department at the University of Essex, who has used the material for his research, said it is valuable because it reveals what ordinary people thought, expressed in their own words.
Kyodo News had access to the Mass Observation Archive, which is part of the University of Sussex’s Special Collections, and looked at the digitized files.
Grant also suggests Britain’s particular experience in World War II could have contributed to the public reacting primarily with horror and fear at the use of the new weapon.
“Britain had the experience of being bombed that North America didn’t, and it was more able to consider and think about what would happen directly,” he said.
Mass Observation also surveyed a national panel of around 160 people later that August, which found that the first reaction for the majority was “horror, mixed with fear.”
The report quoted one response as a typical first reaction: “I felt a rather sick, horrible feeling; I felt that it was a dreadful thing that man had such terrific power to bring destruction to other men.”
The report also notes that respondents were “clearly very worried” about the morality of the use of the bomb, which was discussed in over half of the responses.
As another respondent wrote, “I was shocked at first to learn that the Allies had been responsible for wiping out a city — a definite reversal of their original statement that civilian targets would be avoided in the early stages of the war.”
Antony Best, associate professor in international history at the London School of Economics, noted there was a long-running concern about civilian bombing since the 1930s in Britain, as it was considered to be an enemy tactic.
This led to controversy in the eyes of the public over the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in 1945. Responses to this survey suggested a similar reaction.
Best noted, “The interesting thing is this survey deals with the immediately after, without the thing that really makes the bomb different, which is fallout.
“It’s the 1950s itself that sees the full awareness come to light, as those who had been victims are able to reach out to the Western press without American censorship getting in the way.”
Grant said these reactions also show people were anxious about the atomic bomb from the outset.
He said, “What you get straight away in terms of this reaction is almost typical of the whole period, of the intense worries about what this would mean in a future war.”