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Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb
Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb
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World War II was fought by millions of people in all corners of the world. There were battles and military posts in surprising places. The Caribbean and Central America, Greenland, Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands, Iraq, Syria, Burma, and the Arctic are a few of the little known places that were involved. Every major country of the time was involved in the war.
Conflict in the Pacific began well before the official start of World War II. Seeking raw materials to fuel its growing industries, Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931. By 1937 Japan controlled large sections of China and accusations of war crimes against the Chinese people became commonplace. At this time, several treaties were in place to limit the size of navies in the Pacific Ocean. In 1934, Japan ended its cooperation with other major powers in the Pacific by withdrawing from the Five Power Treaty. The United States, along with other countries, criticized Japanese aggression but shied away from any economic or military punishments.
Relations between the United States and Japan worsened when Japanese forces took aim at Indochina with the goal of capturing oil rich areas of the East Indies. Responding to this threat, the United States placed an embargo on scrap metal, oil, and aviation fuel heading to Japan and froze Japanese assets in the United States. Furthermore, the United States demanded that the Japanese withdraw from conquered areas of China and Indochina. Japan, sensing conflict was inevitable, began planning for an attack on Pearl Harbor by April, 1941.
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought the United States officially into World War II. In the surprise attack, Japan sunk several ships, destroyed hundreds of planes and ended thousands of lives. The Japanese goal was to cripple the U.S. Pacific fleet, and they nearly succeeded. President Franklin Roosevelt called the attack “a day which will live in infamy,” and the American people were shocked and angered.
The ensuing war was costly. Years of fighting brought the US armed forces closer and closer to Japan as they “hopped” from one island to another. The Japanese were vicious fighters, however, and every victory cost more time, material, and, sadly, lives. The last major battle, the fight for Okinawa, lasted almost three months and took more than 100,000 Japanese and American lives.
After President Roosevelt died on April 12th, 1945, it became Harry Truman’s job to decide how to end the war. The thought of invading Japan gave Truman and his advisors pause. The war had shown that the Japanese were fighting for the Emperor who convinced them that it was better to die than surrender. Women and children had been taught how to kill with basic weapons. Japanese kamikaze pilots could turn planes into guided missiles. The cost of invasion, they knew, would be high.
Upon becoming president, Harry Truman learned of the Manhattan Project, a secret scientific effort to create an atomic bomb. After a successful test of the weapon, Truman issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of the Japanese government, warning of “prompt and utter destruction.” Eleven days later, on August 6, 1945, having received no reply, an American bomber called the Enola Gay left the Tinian Island in route toward Japan. In the belly of the bomber was “Little Boy,” an atomic bomb. At 8:15 am Hiroshima time, “Little Boy” was dropped. The result was approximately 80,000 deaths in just the first few minutes. Thousands died later from radiation sickness. On August 9, 1945, another bomber was in route to Japan, only this time they were heading for Nagasaki with “Fat Man,” another atomic bomb. After the first minute of dropping “Fat Man,” 39,000 men, women and children were killed. 25,000 more were injured. Both cities were leveled from the bombs and this, in turn, forced Japan to surrender to the United States. The war was finally over.
Today, historians continue to debate this decision. Was there another way to end the war?
If you were President Truman in 1945, would you have dropped the bomb?
Decision Lesson Procedures and Goals
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Documents to be examined:
Newspaper clipping, “Japanese planes destroy US fleet at Pearl Harbor,” December 8, 1945
Excerpts of Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to Congress, December 8, 1941
Casualty statistics from World War II
Excerpt of Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender, July 26, 1945
Letter from Henry Stimson to Harry S. Truman, April 24, 1945
Letter from Harry S. Truman to Richard Russell, August 9, 1945
Translation of leaflet dropped on the Japanese, August 6, 1945
Petition to the President of the United States, July 17, 1945
Minutes of meeting held at the White House, June 18, 1945
Decision Background Information
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Decision Documents to Examine
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Decision Graphic Organizer
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Video: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Pearl Harbor
The Decision to Drop the Bomb [ushistory.org]
51g. The Decision to Drop the Bomb
Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and Josef Stalin meet at the Potsdam Conference. They discussed the post-war order and peace treaty issues.
America had the bomb. Now what?
When Harry Truman learned of the success of the Manhattan Project, he knew he was faced with a decision of unprecedented gravity. The capacity to end the war with Japan was in his hands, but it would involve unleashing the most terrible weapon ever known.
American soldiers and civilians were weary from four years of war, yet the Japanese military was refusing to give up their fight. American forces occupied Okinawa and Iwo Jima and were intensely fire bombing Japanese cities. But Japan had an army of 2 million strong stationed in the home islands guarding against invasion.
A "mushroom" cloud rises over the city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, following the detonation of "Fat Man." The second atomic weapon used against Japan, this single bomb resulted in the deaths of 80,000 Japanese citizens.
For Truman, the choice whether or not to use the atomic bomb was the most difficult decision of his life.
First, an Allied demand for an immediate unconditional surrender was made to the leadership in Japan. Although the demand stated that refusal would result in total destruction, no mention of any new weapons of mass destruction was made. The Japanese military command rejected the request for unconditional surrender, but there were indications that a conditional surrender was possible.
Regardless, on August 6, 1945, a plane called the dropped an atomic bomb on the city of HIROSHIMA. Instantly, 70,000 Japanese citizens were vaporized. In the months and years that followed, an additional 100,000 perished from burns and radiation sickness.
AJ Software & Multimedia
This map shows the range of the destruction caused by the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. Exploding directly over a city of 320,000, the bomb vaporized over 70,000 people instantly and caused fires over two miles away.
Two days later, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. On August 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped on NAGASAKI, where 80,000 Japanese people perished.
On August 14, 1945, the Japanese surrendered.
Critics have charged that Truman's decision was a barbaric act that brought negative long-term consequences to the United States. A new age of nuclear terror led to a dangerous arms race.
Some military analysts insist that Japan was on its knees and the bombings were simply unnecessary. The American government was accused of racism on the grounds that such a device would never have been used against white civilians.
On August 6, the city of Hiroshima, Japan remembers those who lost their lives when the atomic bomb fell. Thousands attend the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony annually.
Other critics argued that American diplomats had ulterior motives. The Soviet Union had entered the war against Japan, and the atomic bomb could be read as a strong message for the Soviets to tread lightly. In this respect, Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been the first shots of the Cold War as well as the final shots of World War II. Regardless, the United States remains the only nation in the world to have used a nuclear weapon on another nation.
Truman stated that his decision to drop the bomb was purely military. A Normandy-type amphibious landing would have cost an estimated million casualties. Truman believed that the bombs saved Japanese lives as well. Prolonging the war was not an option for the President. Over 3,500 Japanese kamikaze raids had already wrought great destruction and loss of American lives.
The President rejected a demonstration of the atomic bomb to the Japanese leadership. He knew there was no guarantee the Japanese would surrender if the test succeeded, and he felt that a failed demonstration would be worse than none at all. Even the scientific community failed to foresee the awful effects of RADIATION SICKNESS. Truman saw little difference between atomic bombing Hiroshima and FIRE BOMBING Dresden or Tokyo.
The ethical debate over the decision to drop the atomic bomb will never be resolved. The bombs did, however, bring an end to the most destructive war in history. The Manhattan Project that produced it demonstrated the possibility of how a nation's resources could be mobilized.
Pandora's box was now open. The question that came flying out was, "How will the world use its nuclear capability?" It is a question still being addressed on a daily basis.
The decision to use the atomic bomb
Less than two weeks after being sworn in as president, Harry S. Truman received a long report from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. “Within four months,” it began, “we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history.” Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted from the interplay of his temperament and several other factors, including his perspective on the war objectives defined by his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the expectations of the American public, an assessment of the possibilities of achieving a quick victory by other means,
The decision to use the atomic bomb
By Alonzo L. Hamby • Edit History
Less than two weeks after being sworn in as president, Harry S. Truman received a long report from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. “Within four months,” it began, “we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history.” Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted from the interplay of his temperament and several other factors, including his perspective on the war objectives defined by his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the expectations of the American public, an assessment of the possibilities of achieving a quick victory by other means, and the complex American relationship with the Soviet Union. Although in later decades there was considerable debate about whether the bombings were ethically justified, virtually all of America’s political and military leadership, as well as most of those involved in the atomic bomb project, believed at the time that Truman’s decision was correct.
During World War I, Truman commanded a battery of close-support 75mm artillery pieces in France and personally witnessed the human costs of intense front-line combat. After returning home, he became convinced that he probably would have been killed if the war had lasted a few months longer. At least two of his World War I comrades had lost sons in World War II, and Truman had four nephews in uniform. His first-hand experience with warfare clearly influenced his thinking about whether to use the atomic bomb.
A second factor in Truman’s decision was the legacy of Roosevelt, who had defined the nation’s goal in ending the war as the enemy’s “unconditional surrender,” a term coined to reassure the Soviet Union that the Western allies would fight to the end against Germany. It was also an expression of the American temperament; the United States was accustomed to winning wars and dictating the peace. On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally to great rejoicing in the Allied countries. The hostility of the American public toward Japan was even more intense and demanded an unambiguous total victory in the Pacific. Truman was acutely aware that the country—in its fourth year of total war—also wanted victory as quickly as possible.
A skilled politician who knew when to compromise, Truman respected decisiveness. Meeting with Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, in early May, he declared: “I am here to make decisions, and whether they prove right or wrong I am going to make them,” an attitude that implied neither impulsiveness nor solitude. After being presented with Stimson’s report, he appointed a blue-ribbon “Interim Committee” to advise him on how to deal with the atomic bomb. Headed by Stimson and James Byrnes, whom Truman would soon name secretary of state, the Interim Committee was a group of respected statesmen and scientists closely linked to the war effort. After five meetings between May 9 and June 1, it recommended use of the bomb against Japan as soon as possible and rejected arguments for advance warning. Clearly in line with Truman’s inclinations, the recommendations of the Interim Committee amounted to a prepackaged decision.
Scientists and the atomic bomb
Among those who had full knowledge of the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, most agreed that the weapon should be used. However, sharp dissent came from a group of scientists at the project’s facilities at the University of Chicago. Their leader, Leo Szilard, along with two prestigious colleagues, Walter Bartkey, a dean of the University of Chicago, and Harold Urey, director of the project’s research in gaseous diffusion at Columbia University, sought a meeting with Truman but were diverted to Byrnes, who received them with polite skepticism. As he listened to them argue that the United States should refrain from using the bomb and that it should share its atomic secrets with the rest of the world after the war, Byrnes felt that he was dealing with unworldly intellectuals who had no grasp of political and diplomatic realities. He neither took their suggestions seriously nor discussed them with Truman, who most likely would have shared his attitude anyway. Szilard and his associates seem to have represented only a small minority of the many hundreds of scientists who worked on the bomb project. In July 1945 project administrators polled 150 of the 300 scientists working at the Chicago site and could find only 19 who rejected any military use of the bomb and another 39 who supported an experimental demonstration with representatives of Japan present, followed by an opportunity for surrender. Most of the scientists, however, supported some use of the bomb: 23 supported using it in a way that was militarily “most effective,” and 69 opted for a “military demonstration in Japan” with an opportunity for surrender “before full use of the weapons.” In later years, several key figures, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Douglas MacArthur, Admiral William Leahy, and Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy, claimed to have opposed using the bomb, but there is no firm evidence of any substantial contemporary opposition.
Most of the scientists, civilian leaders, and military officials responsible for the development of the bomb clearly assumed that its military use, however unpleasant, was the inevitable outcome of the project. Although they were forced to formulate an opinion before a single bomb had been built or tested, it is unlikely that a more precise knowledge of the weapon’s power would have changed many minds. Truman faced almost no pressure whatever to reexamine his own inclinations.