Critical Essays Events Surrounding the First Atomic Bombs


Making the Decision

Hiroshima still makes the headlines. Today, if a nuclear test occurs, the leader who ordered it can expect to be the recipient of a telegram from the mayor of Hiroshima. Until there are no more nuclear weapons in the world, an eternal flame continues to burn at Peace Park, Hiroshima. A plaque in a memorial at the park reads: "Let all the souls here rest in peace; for we shall not repeat the evil." The Smithsonian Institute drastically had to alter a fiftieth anniversary exhibit about the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb, because veteran's groups protested that the exhibit made the Japanese look like innocent victims. Fifty years after the bombing, a Gallup poll showed that senior citizens, by a narrow margin, supported the bombing. Younger Americans, however, appeared to believe that the nuclear bombing of Japan was wrong. Looking back at the bombing, historians find it easy to second-guess or use hindsight. The lens through which we peer at that decision today is different from the lens that people were looking through 1945. It is important not to take such decisions out of their historical context, which is difficult to do so many years after the fact. It makes more sense to consider what led to the decision based on the atmosphere of 1945 rather than to try and weigh the pros and cons of the decision in our era.

There were several factors involved in the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Personalities, politicians, lack of understanding between cultures, the uncertainties of scientists, and top meetings among world leaders all had something to do with the decision.

The creation of an atomic bomb began in 1941 when Franklin Roosevelt was persuaded by Albert Einstein to fund the project. However, when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, the bomb had not been tested and scientists were not in agreement about its possible effects. In fact, so little was known about this bomb that later strategists figured some B-29s would have to follow after it to ensure a huge conflagration.

With the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, a man known for his common sense and decisiveness, became president. But Truman was worried and unsure of himself as he took over the presidency. On April 24, he was given detailed information about the atomic bomb. Two million dollars had been spent on the project but at this point it had still not been tested. Truman was not yet aware of its capabilities, and he was thinking about an invasion of Japan.

American casualties and Japanese attitudes put pressure on the leaders to end the war. The following month on May 7, Germany surrendered unconditionally but the war with the Japanese raged on in the Pacific. By June, American air strikes had left millions of Japanese homeless and naval blockades cut off food. But still there was no surrender because to traditional Japanese thinking, it would mean total disgrace. They feared that their emperor would be executed or his royal family abolished. It was under these conditions that the Americans began to discuss alternatives. Those alternatives were partly influenced by the terrific number of American casualties in the island war with Japan.

On June 18, Truman and his advisors held a conference to plan an invasion of Japan. The invasion would begin on November 1, first targeting the island of Kyushu and then Honshu in the following March. Predictions of 31,000 to 50,000 American deaths in the first month horrified President Truman. However, based on island combat where the Japanese flew kamikaze missions and the death toll of Allied soldiers was tremendous, the President and his advisors did not doubt the determination of the Japanese. Truman approved the possible invasion plan. He also, however, considered the possibility of dropping the ultimate weapon: the first atomic bomb. He felt that the Japanese should have no warning because they might move American prisoners of war to whatever target was announced. Still, the bomb had not been tested and the American death toll rose considerably in the Pacific.

On the other hand, the Japanese were all but defeated militarily. They began to dig in for a possible American invasion. They hoped to cause enough American casualties to bring a negotiated peace. Perhaps they would be able to keep their emperor.

Two events occurred in mid to late July that sealed the fate of the citizens of Hiroshima. First, the Potsdam Conference began on July 15 in a suburb of Berlin and at the meeting were Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Harry Truman. Second, during that conference the atomic bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert. It was found to have the explosive power of 15,000-20,000 tons of TNT. Messages to President Truman, sent in code, indicated that the testing had been a huge success. On July 24, Truman decided to use the bomb. He told Joseph Stalin about the existence of the new weapon but Stalin already knew because he had information from the Soviet agents who were working at the Manhattan Project headquarters. The conference proceeded to issue the Potsdam Declaration, explaining that the Japanese must surrender unconditionally or there would be total destruction. The announcement did not mention the fate of Emperor Hirohito. The Japanese government, hopelessly deadlocked in political arguing, made it clear they would ignore the message.

The use of the bomb was inevitable because Americans shared the position of their government: End the war as quickly as possible and try to avoid an all out invasion with the loss of many lives. Americans were war-weary by 1945. They had seen the bombing of Pearl Harbor, kamikaze attacks, and horrible casualties in Okinawa and Iwo Jima. The American public was ready to be done with it all. Public pressure was intense. The mood was not positive toward anything but surrender. Recent newspaper photos had shown American POWs beheaded by Japanese soldiers, and everyone knew of the Bataan Death March. A poll taken at that time showed that one third of Americans questioned wanted to bring the Japanese emperor to justice and execute him.

Dropping the Bomb

Why Hiroshima? After the blitz of London and the bombing of various German cities, it was no longer a problem in peoples' minds to bomb civilian areas during war. Hiroshima was Japan's seventh largest city and it had not been bombed as much as the other major cities of Japan. It had factories that made war materials and it was also the headquarters of the Japanese Second Army. The American government did not think there were Allied prisoners of war in the area, but it was wrong. In the center of the city was Hiroshima Castle, where 23 American prisoners of war were incarcerated. The second choice for a target was Kokura, an industrial center and arsenal, or Nagasaki, a port city.

On July 31, Truman ordered the military to drop the bomb as soon as the weather would permit. The President ordered Secretary of State Stimson to carry out the orders so that military objectives, soldiers, and sailors would be the targets. Only military targets were to be hit, not women and children. The orders given by Truman show how little anyone knew about the bomb's capability for widespread destruction. When the bomb was detonated over Hiroshima, 70,000 men, women, and children lost their lives instantly — none of them were military targets. In the months to follow, another 50,000 died of injuries and radiation poisoning. Looking down from the Enola Gay, the aircraft that dropped the bomb, the co-pilot, Robert Lewis, wrote in his journal, "My God, what have we done?"

Three days later, a second bomb — this time an implosion bomb costing $400 million to develop — was dropped on Nagasaki. It has been estimated that this bomb killed an additional 70,000 people. Ironically, Emperor Hirohito had already decided to surrender before the second bomb was even dropped.

American soldiers celebrated, downed all the beer they could find, and danced upon hearing that the bomb had been dropped on Japan. They were relieved that they would survive the war. One million troops had already been called up to begin the final assault and invasion of Japan, and it was estimated that as many as 20,000 Americans would have died in the first month of fighting. There was great relief throughout the Allied world.

Details Emerge

But time moved on, weeks passed, and eventually the gruesome details of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began to emerge. John Hersey's Hiroshima, published in the New Yorker in 1946, had a remarkable impact on public understanding of the event. Pictures emerged of cities razed to the ground and people with horrible burns and life-changing injuries and scars. President Truman, even in 1965, said that he would not hesitate to drop the bomb again. Despite the conclusion of John Hersey — that the world has an indistinct memory of the effects of this bomb — the fact remains that it has not been used since the events were reported so vividly in John Hersey's Hiroshima.

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