Why did we drop the bomb Essay

This essay has a total of 3710 words and 17 pages.


Why did we drop the bomb





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 citizens(1). 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 atomic bombs was a solely military action that avoided the loss of as
many as a million lives in the upcoming invasion of the island of Kyushu. In the 1960s a
second school of thought developed--put forth by "revisionist" historians--that claimed
the dropping of the bomb was a diplomatic maneuver aimed at intimating and gaining the
upper hand in relations with Russia. Today, fifty 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
a complex myriad of 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 to drop
atomic bombs was a savior of lives, and by extension, we may never know if Truman's
monumental decision was a morally just one.


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.(2) In July of 1940 the United
States placed an embargo on materials exported to Japan, including oil in the hope of
curbing 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 7 December 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. These the "Japanese
forces waged a stubborn, often suicidal battles were ferocious; although the Americans won
each, resistance."demolished the Japanese fleet and established air bases for (3) 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 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 25 April 1945(4), 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 blockade.(5) The Japanese began the 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. One 6 August 1945 the American
B-29 bomber, 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 14 August 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. 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 18 June 1945 General Marshall and
Secretary of War Stimson convinced Truman to set an invasion of the island of Kyushu for
November 1945.(7) 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.(8) 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 and never questioned. Truman's feelings that the bomb was a necessary
military weapon can be seen in his diary on 25 July 1945, in which he recorded that he had
told "Sec. 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 most 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." (emphasis mine)(12). Thus the traditional view was
established--the bomb was a legitimate weapon of war and used only for military purposes.


This simplistic military view was furthered by press releases in the weeks following the
bombings. For example, The New York Times quoted Truman on 7 August 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 was
ever made. The praising and glorifying of the scientists involved which filled the paper
after the bombs were dropped, Truman implied the bomb was something for which the American
people should be proud of.


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 25 July 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 goal 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 dollars(16) spent on the
Manhattan Project.(17) 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 pressures on Truman to drop the bomb was diplomatic tensions
with Russia. Today, nothing about the dropping of the bombs is debated by historians 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 a
flabbergasted Molotov responded, "I 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."(21) On 16 May 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 delay.(22) Although Alperovitz
himself admits that many of the details are missing from Truman's meetings with his
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 Russians.(23) The first entry of note is from 7 June 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 be."(24) This feeling expressed by Truman of what seems like 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 progress" Hopkins made.(25) In a telegram to Truman on
12 May 1945 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 Churchill's fears and ordered America's troops to
stay in Eastern Europe? That way when the delayed showdown did occur, he would still have
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