In early August 1945 atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These two bombs quickly yielded the surrender of Japan and the end of American involvement in World War II. By 1946 the two bombs caused the death of perhaps as many as 240,000 Japanese citizens1. The popular, or traditional, view that dominated the 1950s and 60s – put forth by President Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson – was that the dropping of the bomb was a diplomatic maneuver aimed at intimating and gaining the upper hand in relations with Russia.
Today, fifty-four years after the two bombings, with the advantage of historical hindsight and the advantage of new evidence, a third view, free of obscuring bias and passion, can be presented. First, the dropping of the bomb was born out of the complex infinite military, domestic and diplomatic pressures and concerns. Second, many potentially viable alternatives to dropping the bombs were not explored by Truman and other men in power, as they probably should have been. Lastly, because these alternatives were never explored, we can only conjecture over whether or not Truman’s decision was a morally just one, and if indeed it was necessary to use atomic energy to win the war.
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The war in Asia had its roots in the early 1930s. Japan had expansionist aims in Eastern Asia and the Western Pacific, especially in Indochina2. In July of 1940, the United States placed an embargo on materials exported to Japan, including the oil in the hope of restraining Japanese expansionism. Nevertheless, tensions remained high in Asia and only increased in 1939 when Germany ignited World War II with an invasion of Poland. America’s determination to remain isolated changed abruptly following Japan’s “surprise attack” on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.
Military strategists and politicians poured the majority of American war effort into the European theatre, and before the United States could fully mobilize most of South-East Asia had fallen to Japan, including the Philippines. Slowly, the United States recaptured the many small islands invaded by Japan, including Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. These “Japanese forces waged a stubborn, often suicidal battles were ferocious; although the Americans won each, resistance.” They demolished the Japanese fleet and established air bases3, for at the naval battle of Midway Island, America supporting conventional bombing.
Under the guidance of President Roosevelt, a top-secret joint effort between America and the United Kingdom had begun to build an atomic bomb that could be used against Germany. Run by General Leslie R. Groves at locations such as Los Alamos, New Mexico, this project then called by its code name only to a handful of scientists and politicians. Truman learned of the project, then called by its code name S-1 (and later as the Manhattan Project), from Secretary of War Stimson on April 25 19454, only after becoming President.
Concurrent with the Manhattan project, both Japan and America were making preparations for a final all-encompassing conflict, which both sides expected would involve an American invasion of mainland Japan. The Americans expanded conventional bombing and tightened their increasingly successful naval blockade5. The Japanese began and stockpiling of aircraft, amassed a giant conscripted military force, and commenced the creation of a civilian army—who swore total allegiance to the emperor. This awe-inspiring army included “so-called ‘Sherman Carpets,’ children with dynamite strapped to their bodies and trained to throw themselves under American tanks.” 6
In the end, these final preparations were not employed. On August 26th, 194 the American B-29 bomb, named Enola Gay by the Pilot Paul W. Tibbets, dropped the “little boy” uranium atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later a second bomb, made of plutonium and nicknamed “fat boy,” was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. On August 14th, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally and the war in Asia ended.
Truman’s monumental decision to drop these bombs was born out of the complex background discussed above. The pressure to drop the bomb stemmed from three major categories: military, domestic and diplomatic.
The military pressures stemmed from discussion and meetings Truman had with Secretary of War Stimson, army chief of Staff General Marshal Chief of Staff, Admiral William Leahy, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and others. On June 18th, 1945, general Marshall and Secretary of War Stimson convinced Truman to set an invasion of the island of Kyushu for November 19457. Truman knew of the ferocious fighting currently taking place in the Pacific, and naturally had a desire to minimize what the ferocious fighting currently taking place in the Pacific, and naturally had a desire to minimize what he fled would inevitably be a long, bloody struggle8. In an article written to Harper’s magazine two years after the dropping of the bombs, Stimson wrote that the “Allies would be faced with the enormous task of destroying an armed force of five million and five thousand suicide aircraft, belonging to a race that had already amply demonstrated its ability to fight literally to the death.” 9 Stimson, Truman and others believed the invasion of the Japanese mainland would be extremely costly and therefore embraced the bomb as a military weapon whose use fully condoned the never questioned.
Truman’s feelings that the bomb was a necessary military weapon can be seen in his diary on July 25, 1945. In which he recorded that he had told “Secretary of War, Mr. Stimson, to use (the atomic bomb) so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children.10” In these diary entries it seems that military pressures lied mostly heavily on Truman’s mind. Adding even more pressure from a military standpoint came when a second invasion was discussed and tentatively planned for March 1946, consisting of a landing on mainland Honshu, and would certainly be “proportionately more violent.11.”
After the dropping of the bombs President Truman, Secretary of War Stimson and others claimed that the military pressures discussed above were the only reason for deciding to drop the bombs. Stimson wrote, “At no time, from 1941 to 1945, did I ever hear it suggested by the President, or any other responsible member of the government, that atomic energy should not be used in the war, “ and also added, “The entire purpose was the production of a military weapon.12” Thus the traditional view was established, the bomb was a legitimate weapon of war and used only for military purposes. The simplistic military view was furthered by press releases in the weeks following the bombings.
For example, the New York Times quoted Truman on August 7th with phrases such as, “Hiroshima was a major military target,” and, “We have spent two billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history—and won.13” These phrases and others gave readers the single-sided view that the bomb was dropped for military reasons, and through the entirety of the 1940s and 1950s, no other major contradictory statement of any kind has ever made. The praising and glorifying of the scientists involved filled the paper after the bombs were dropped. Truman implied the bomb was something for which the American people should be proud.
The second major source of pressure on Truman and his advisors to drop the atomic bombs came from domestic tensions and issues of reelection, combined with a collective American feeling of hatred toward the Japanese race. As in most major Military conflicts, there was an effort to establish the Americans as morally superior to the Japanese. Truman was no exception to this generalization, and on July 25th, 1945, he wrote that the Japanese people were “savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic…”14 Furthermore, there was fear amongst Truman’s advisors that if they were to, “interpret the supreme war goad more leniently for Japan than had been the case with Germany.”
They would, “leave an unwanted impression, at home and abroad, of “appeasement.15” Truman knew that if he backed down and did not remain firm on his stance with Japan the American public might be outraged. Furthermore, if the bomb was not dropped, Truman feared that it would prove extremely difficult in post-war America to justify the two billion dollars16 spent on the Manhattan Project17. Truman became president because Roosevelt died while in office, and although he never fully embraced the idea of being President, a desire to ensure the possibility of his reelection would certainly have been at least a subconscious consideration.
The third major source of pressure on Truman to drop the bomb was diplomatic tensions with Russia. Today, historians debate nothing about the dropping of the bombs more than whether diplomatic tensions played a role in Truman’s decision. Truman’s predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, followed a program of cooperation and good relations with Russia, highlighted by the Lend-Lease program and the symbolic gestures of good nature at the Yalta conference. Truman broke away from these good-natured relations and sought to follow a new “hard-line” policy.
While preparing for his first meeting with a Russian official as President of the United States, Truman exclaimed that if the Russians did not wish to be cooperative, “ they could go to hell.18” During his meeting with Soviet foreign minister Molotov, “Truman told Molotov that the American interpretation (about the conflict over Poland) was the only one possible.” Furthermore, as the meeting came to a close f a flabbergasted Molotov responded have never been talked to like that in my life.19” Collectively, these quotes leave little doubt that Truman embraced a new policy of strict bluntness and a willingness to “play hardball” with the Russians.
While it is fairly clear that Truman embraced a new hard-line policy it is highly controversial whether Truman took this policy one step farther. The “revisionist” historian Alperovitz claims that Truman made a conscious effort to postpone the Potsdam meeting until the atomic bomb could be tested, which he calls the “strategy of a delayed showdown.20” In this way, Truman would be able to intimidate the Russians and gain the political upper hand, or as Secretary of State Byrnes told Truman the bomb could, “put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.”
On May 16th, 1945 Stimson told President Truman that, “We shall probably hold more cards in our hands later than now,” and supposedly urged him to adopt the policy of delay22. Although Alperovitz himself admits that many of the details are missing from Truman’s meetings with is advisors, it nonetheless becomes extremely difficult to believe Truman and Stimson’s claim that the only reason the bomb was dropped was for military reasons.
There exists evidence in Truman’s diaries and letters to his wife that seems to contradict Alperovitz’s revisionist theory of American diplomacy concerned with using the bomb to intimidate the Russians23. The first entry of note is from June 7th 1945, slightly more than a month before the inception of the Potsdam Conference. On that day Truman wrote: “I’m not afraid of Russia. They’ve always been our friends and I can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t always be24.” This feeling expressed by Truman of what seems like the sincere desire for a friendship is reinforced in Truman’s gratitude towards Harry Hopkins, whom he sent to meet with Joseph Stalin and set the stage for the upcoming Potsdam Conference, and was greatly pleased about the “good progress25″ Hopkins made.
In a telegram to Truman on May 12 945, Winston Churchill expressed his fear and concerns that the Allies, his country included, were withdrawing troops out of Europe, and asked, “Meanwhile what is to happen about Russia?26” If, as Alperovitz maintains, Truman was seeking a “showdown” with Russia would he not have responded to Truman’s fears and ordered American troops to stay in Eastern Europe? Instead, Truman continued to withdraw his American Troops from Eastern Europe. Later Truman explained his reasoning: “We were 150 miles east of the border of the occupation zone line agreed to a Yalta. I felt that agreements made in the war to keep Russia fighting should be kept and I kept them to the letter27.” In these statements, we see a sincere desire not to have a confrontation with Russia, or to intimidate them, but rather a real desire to cooperate with them.
In a letter to his wife on July 18th, Truman told her that, “a start has been made and I’ve gotten what I came for –Stalin goes to war August 15th with no strings on it28.” There is no antagonism in these words only pleasure over Stalin’s entrance29. Nevertheless, there is one single, yet extremely important, diary entry that seems to support the Alperovitz theory. In his diary on July 17th, the first day of the Potsdam conference, Truman recorded that, “Most of the big points are settled. [Stalin will] be in the Japanese War on August 15th. Fini Japs when that comes about30.” Those last six words are of the utmost importance, for they strongly suggest that Truman desired not to receive help from the Russians, but instead to finish the war before Russian aid came into being. Perhaps, as Alperovitz maintains, there may well have been a desire on Truman’s part to drop the bomb to gain an upper hand against Russia.
In hindsight, it appears as if there existed five major alternatives to the dropping of the atomic bombs. A non-combat demonstration, a modification of the demand for unconditional surrender, a pursuit of “Japanese peace feelers31,” awaiting soviet entry into the war and lastly continuing conventional warfare–the aerial bombing of cities and naval blockade. Nevertheless, the first two of these are arguably the most realistic, and therefore my discussion will be limited to the first two only.
A non-combat demonstration would have entailed either dropping the bomb in a desolate area with international observers or the dropping of the bomb on an unpopulated area of Japan. This alternative was brought up twice, once on May 31st, 1945 at the Interim Committee Lunch and again in the Frank committee report on Jun 11, 194532. The recommendation by the scientific Panel (presided over by the four principal physicists involved in the Manhattan Project–Fermi, Lawrence, Compton and Oppenheimer) was to use the bomb only in “direct military use33.” Stimson, Truman, Byrnes, and others collectively embraced this recommendation because they feared that the bomb might turn out to be a “dud” and thus prove counterproductive toward intimidating the Japanese.
Also because there was a severe limit to the materials on hand, as Stimson later wrote, “we had no bombs to waste34.” Thus this alternative was not pursued, for the logistical obstacles were thought to be difficult to overcome, and allied military and political advisors were not sure the observers would be allowed to report the demonstration to the Japanese emperor accurately.
The second alternative to dropping the bomb would have been modifying the American demand for unconditional surrender so as to guarantee the continuance of the Japanese emperor. Many American officials believed that this was the single issue restraining the peace factions in Japan. After consulting with Joseph Grew and Harry Hopkins, who both believed that Japan was already on the verge of defeat, Admiral Leahy recommended to Truman on June 18th, 1945 that the demand for unconditional surrender is modified.
Truman commented that he would think about it, but voiced concern over “public opinion on this matter35.” Secretary Stimson concurred, and in his July 2nd, 1945, memorandum to Truman, he wrote that he advised adding the clause that while the United States demand a “peacefully inclined government,” they would “not exclude a constitutional monarchy under [Japan’s] present dynasty.36” In the end, Truman did not accept this recommendation, and the Potsdam Deceleration was released without any mention of the Japanese Emperor37.
Truman made this decision because he feared that such a modification might “embolden the Japanese to fight on for better terms38.” Ironically, when Japan’s surrender was accepted on August 14th, the Emperor was allowed to remain in power. Thus, this alternative to dropping the bomb was eventually embraced, but only after the bombs dropped, when it was no longer an alternative.
An important aspect to remember is, were the atomic bombings necessary to save Allied lives and end Japan’s threat to world peace while avoiding a deadly invasion of the Japanese mainland? The numerous events that lead up to Japan’s surrender in World War II were initiated by international conflicts, but the means of achieving Japan’s surrender could, and should have been looked at from other angles. The war could have been ended sooner with fewer deaths on all sides by using the full carrot and stick: 1) offer retention of the emperor for a quick surrender39, 2) threaten Russian invasion40 and 3) atomic destruction as the alternative41. None of these key incentives to surrender were used prior to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Has the above method failed, and had the Russian invasion failed to bring surrender soon, the atomic bombs were still available – but as a last resort. As Truman stated, –that the attack on Pearl Harbor for years earlier was one of the justifications for his decision42, we seem to forget that 240,000 Japanese civilians died – the attack on Pearl Harbor was returned 100 times over.
Historian and former naval officer Martin Sherwin has summarized the situation, stating that, “The choice in the summer of 1945 was not between a conventional invasion or a nuclear war. It was a choice between various forms of diplomacy and warfare43.” (Sherwin, pg. xxiv). Taken into consideration, some of these alternatives [to dropping atomic bombs on Japan], promising to retain the Japanese monarchy, awaiting the Soviets’ entry, and even more conventional bombing – very probably could have ended the war before the dreaded invasion of the Japanese mainland by the Allies44. Still, the evidence, to borrow a phrase from F.D.R. –is somewhat “iffy”, and no one who looks at the intransigence of the Japanese militarists should have full confidence in those other strategies.
But we may well regret that these alternatives were not pursued and that there was not an effort to avoid the use of the first atomic bomb – and certainly the second.
It did not take long after the bombings for questions to arise as to their necessity for ending the war and Japan’s threat to peace. One of the earliest dissents came from a panel that had been requested by President Truman to study the Pacific War. Their report declared “Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved. It is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to December 31st, 1945 and in all probability prior to November 1st 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped. Even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.45” (Bernstein ed., The Atomic Bomb. Pg. 52-56).
The decision to drop atomic bombs of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is one of the most written about contemporary historical topics. Well over seventy major, fully researched and unique books are accessible to the public on this fascinating topic, and perhaps as many as three hundred historical journals have been written as well46. Still, the majority of these articles are polarized—either the dropping of the bombs was an immoral diplomatic maneuver or a glorious military action.
To anyone with a sincere desire for objectivity, a moderated view seems most reasonable, recognizing that it was a combination of military, diplomatic and domestic issues that led to Truman’s decision. In addition, instead of passionately declaring the bomb to have cost innocent lives, or declaring blankly that it was, without doubt, a saviour of lives, it seems most reasonable to conclude that we simply can not tell.
Furthermore, Truman became President only weeks before making his monumental decision, he seems to have dropped the bomb simply because he never considered not dropping the bomb47. Together with his advisors, Truman never thought to rethink the basic principles established under the Manhattan Project’s inception under Roosevelt, and therefore, dropped the bomb because they believed in their heart it was the right thing to do, and never reconsidered. There is no way we can know for certain whether the approach of seeking alternatives would have ended the Pacific was sooner and with fewer lives. But one may regret that such an attempt was not made.
Had the attempt failed, the continuing blockade of supplies, Soviet invasion, and the atomic bombs was still available. However, anyone tempted to use the atomic bomb would have done well to share the hesitancy agreed upon by Truman and President Roosevelt. Dwight Eisenhower was right when he commented on the atomic bombings on Japan — “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” (Ike on Ike, Newsweek, 11/11/63, pg. 108).
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