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The Decision to Drop the Bomb


When a reluctant Albert Einstein wrote the letter to President Roosevelt that set the American atomic bomb project in motion, he ruefully predicted to his colleagues: “You realize, once the

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military have this, they will use it, no matter what you say.”

Like so many of his predictions about world affairs, Einstein’s fears proved correct. But the fateful decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan was controversial even at the time, and the explanations for and motives behind that decision remain a subject of controversy two generations after the fact.

Let us begin with the salient facts that are beyond dispute:

  • Initially, the sole motivation behind the American effort to build a nuclear weapon (the “Manhattan Project”) was the fear that Germany’s nuclear expertise would be utilized by Hitler to build an atomic bomb for Nazi Germany. Had they managed to do so, they could have used it to destroy Britain and the Soviet Union, and eventually threaten the U.S. itself. (In fact, German atomic bomb research never came close to success, but this did not become clear until after the war was over).
  • By contrast, everyone understood that Japan, with its much weaker scientific and industrial base, represented no conceivable nuclear threat.
  • By the time the Manhattan Project was near to producing a prototype atomic bomb in late 1944, a year of unexpected victories by the Red Army on the eastern front had sapped the ability of the Wehrmacht to resist Allied advances in the West. As the winter went by, it began to seem increasingly likely that Germany would be defeated before the atomic bomb was ready for use. In fact, the final collapse of Nazi Germany occurred two months before the first atomic bomb prototype was tested at Alamogordo.
  • For this reason, a number of atomic scientists and even a few governmental officials began to question the wisdom of proceeding with the bomb project, and many more began to question the need to use it to defeat the remaining Axis power, Japan. Many held these views quite vehemently. After the German surrender, a group of scientists led by Leo Szilard and Josef Rotblat quit the project altogether, and many more signed petitions to the President that it never be used.
  • There remained only two possible strategic uses for the atomic bomb: to hasten the defeat of Japan, and – by demonstrating American willingness to use it – dissuade Stalin from exploiting the growing power and success of the Red Army to dominate post – Nazi Europe. Since the 1960’s there was been an ongoing debate among historians as to which was the “real” motivation behind President Truman’s decision to use it on Japan.

Both versions of events have strong evidence to support them, but the debate is no mere academic dispute: it has become but a deeply politicized divide between two distinct historical narratives. This was dramatically illustrated in 1995 when the “Enola Gay” – the B-29 bomber that dropped the bomb over Hiroshima – was exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington to mark the 50 th anniversary of the event. At first, the bomber was displayed along with exhibits showing Hiroshima’s destruction, but after loud Congressional objections these were removed, and several senior Smithsonian officials resigned in protest. In part to quell the controversy, the Enola Gay was moved out to the new Air and Space Museum a considerable distance from central Washington near Dulles airport.

The “official version” – strongly backed by the American public, most politicians, and the soldiers and commanders in the Pacific theatre from 1945 to the present day – insisted that the only issue was that of obtaining unconditional Japanese surrender without further loss of American soldiers. The brutal battle for Okinawa, whose invasion exceeded the D-day landings in scale, had just been won. The exceptionally high casualties sustained in this operation, and the atrocities committed by both sides in this battle led American military leaders – up to and including President Truman himself – made them seek any feasible way to end the war in the Pacific without an invasion of the Japanese home islands. From this perspective, the use of the new atomic bomb to force a rapid Japanese surrender seemed a logical and necessary military action. Any moral qualms – and many were expressed by both scientists and civilians who seen or heard of the Trinity test – were drowned out by the universal anger at the growing body of evidence about Japanese atrocities against civilians and their brutal mistreatment of Allied prisoners. The bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and of Nagasaki on August 9 was followed by a rapid Japanese surrender, an apparent vindication of the bomb’s use in anger.

But beginning in the 1960’s – and not coincidentally with the rise of antiwar protests over Vietnam – a different perspective was put forward by so-called “revisionist” historians. In their view, the use of the atomic bomb was not necessary to obtain a Japanese surrender. They unearthed documents that seem to show that the majority of the Japanese leadership, led by the Emperor, was ready to surrender within a matter of weeks at most, impeded only by a small clique of extremists within the military, and that American and British intelligence intercepts made this clear. The real motive for the use of the bomb was quite different: it was, in the first instance, an attempt to cow Stalin and his triumphant generals from further territorial ambitions in Europe, and beyond that a weapon that would ensure victory in what some believed to be an inevitable war with the Soviet Union.

That such a war was to be expected was a commonplace on the political right. A number of top American generals – most prominently George Patton and Curtis LeMay – assumed that such a war would have to be fought sooner or later, and openly advocated an preemptive atomic strike against the Soviets both in public and privately to Truman. Their views were powerfully reinforced by Churchill, whose wartime alliance with Stalin did not weaken his belief that Soviet communism was now the central threat to western civilization and must be eliminated. Truman himself was at least partially convinced by these arguments; at his urging, General Groves, the military commander of the Manhattan Project, relentlessly drove his scientists and engineers to ensure that the first atomic test would take place before the President’s scheduled meeting with Churchill and Stalin at Potsdam.

The first atomic bomb was exploded a week before the meeting, and Soviet intelligence reported this to Stalin only days before Potsdam. There seems little evidence that Stalin’s demeanor or negotiating position was affected by this knowledge; his immediate response was to order that the small – scale Soviet nuclear bomb project be ramped up immediately, and given all the resources it required to duplicate the American nuclear breakthrough. In a sense, then, even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki Truman’s political use of the atomic weapon set in motion the world’s first nuclear arms race.

The “revisionist” view is bolstered by the decision to destroy both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the object were solely Japanese surrender, then one bomb – or, as some scientists proposed, even a demonstration test before captured Japanese generals – would have been enough. The only possible reason for this double destruction was to ensure that both the uranium - based bomb (used on Hiroshima) and the plutonium – based design (used on Nagasaki) would function under combat conditions, and that the Soviets would receive an object lesson in their efficacy and – equally important to Truman and Churchill – the will of the Americans to use them in combat.

The rational debate between these two views has long since degenerated into ideological posturing and a morass of “what ifs”. But about the impact of the American decision to bomb Hiroshima there can be no doubt. For the 60 years following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the overwhelming power of the new weapon has led one nation after another to attain its secrets, and still more continue to do so, to the despair of those who seek world peace. On the positive side, revulsion against the hideous destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave birth to worldwide movement to ban these weapons. While its concrete successes may be modest, the nuclear peace movement has ensured that even the most warlike fear the dangers posed by atomic weapons. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have not been used in anger, and without doubt the peace movement has and will continue to help this blessing continue.

Readings :

  • Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb a the Architecture of an American Myth. N.Y.: Knopf, 1995
  • T.M. Huber, Okinawa. N.Y.: Casemate Publications, 2003