The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb

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On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Because the Americans were taken by surprise, 19 ships were sunk and about 2,400 American soldiers and sailors were killed. Four years later, on August 6, 1945, at precisely 8:15 am, the world's first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima; the attack on Pearl Harbor four years earlier was one of the justifications President Truman gave for his decision to use the nuclear weapon. Over 240,000 Japanese civilians died -- Pearl Harbor's devastation had been recreated 100 times over. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan into a quick surrender.

Many factors contributed to the final decision to use the bomb. The traditional belief that dominated the 1950s and 60s -- put forth by President Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson -- was that the dropping of the atomic bombs was a solely military action that saved as many as a million lives from the upcoming invasion of Kyushu. In the 1960s a second view developed that claimed the dropping of the bomb was a diplomatic maneuver aimed at gaining the upper hand in relations with the USSR. Today, fifty years after the two bombings, and with the advantage of historical hindsight and new evidence, a third view has been added. The decision to drop the bomb was made because of many domestic and international pressures and concerns. Also, many potential alternatives were not explored thoroughly by Truman and other men in power. Lastly, because these alternatives were never fully explored, we can only speculate about whether or not Truman's decision to drop the bomb actually saved lives and if the decision was a morally correct one.

Events Leading Up to the Bombing

The war in Asia had its roots in the early 1930s. Japan had expansionist aims in Eastern Asia and the Western Pacific, especially in Indochina. The United States placed an embargo on materials exported to Japan, including oil, in the hope of curbing Japanese expansionism. Tensions still remained high in Asia, though, 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 7, 1941. Military strategists and politicians poured the majority of American war effort into the European theater, 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.

Under the guidance of President Roosevelt, a top-secret joint effort between America and the United Kingdom was 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 program was fully known 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 1945, only after becoming President.

Both Japan and America were making preparations for a final end-all conflict, which both sides expected would involve an American invasion of mainland Japan. The Americans expanded conventional bombing and tightened their increasingly successful naval blockade. The Japanese began the stockpiling of aircraft, gathered a giant conscripted military force, and commenced the creation of a civilian army that swore total allegiance to the emperor.

In the end, these final preparations were never put to use. On August 6th, 1945, the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay, dropped the "Little Boy" uranium atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Three days later a second bomb, made of plutonium and nicknamed "Fat Man" was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. On August 14th the Japanese surrendered unconditionally and the war in Asia ended.

Pressures to Drop the Bomb

Truman's decision to drop these bombs was born out of a complex background. Pressure to drop the bomb stemmed from three major categories: military, domestic and diplomatic.

The military pressures came 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 1945. Truman knew of the ferocious fighting currently taking place in the Pacific, and naturally had a desire to minimize what he felt would inevitably be a long, bloody struggle. Truman, Stimson, and others believed the invasion of the Japanese mainland would be extremely costly, and therefore embraced the bomb as a military weapon whose use should be fully condoned and never questioned.

The second major source of pressure on Truman and his advisors to drop the atomic bombs came from domestic tensions and issues of re-election, along with a collective American feeling of hatred toward the Japanese race. Like most major military conflicts, there was an effort to establish the Americans as morally and socially 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..." He 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 dollars spent on the Manhattan Project. 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 minor issue for him.

The third major source of pressure on Truman to drop the bomb was diplomatic tensions with the USSR. Today, nothing is more debated by historians 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 the USSR; however, Truman adopted a "hardline" policy in which these generally good relations were abandoned. 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." Because of this new attitude, Truman undoubtedly wanted to win the war quickly and get a foothold in the Far East before the Soviets could start to throw their weight around.

Alternatives to the Bomb

In hindsight it appears as if there existed four major alternatives to the dropping of the atomic bombs: a non-combat demonstration of the power of the nuclear bomb, a modification of the demand for unconditional surrender, awaiting Soviet entry into the war, and continuing conventional warfare -- aerial bombing of cities and naval blockade. However, Truman paid little or no attention to any of these alternatives and dropped the bomb instead.

Truman became President only weeks before making this monumental decision; he seemed to have dropped the bomb simply because he never considered doing otherwise. Truman and his advisors never thought to review the basic principals established under the Manhattan Project's inception and therefore gave the go-ahead because they believed that it was the right thing to do. They never reconsidered their decision.

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