Why did President Truman Decide to Drop the Two Atomic Bombs On Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945
At 02:45 August 6th 1945, the B-29 Superfortress the Enola Gay took off from the specially lengthened North Field on the Island of Tinian in the Marianas. The plane piloted by Colonel Paul Tibbets was 7 tons. At 0815 hours the bomb doors of the B-29 opened and flying at approximately 32,000 ft the uranium based atom bomb code-named “Little Boy” was unleashed upon the city of Hiroshima. Over 70,000 men women and children were killed by blast alone. And over the next half century approximately another 40,000 would die from related illnesses. With this 70,000 were wounded at Hiroshima.
The co-pilot of the Enola Gay could see, “smoke and fires creeping up the side of the mountain”. Then again on August 9th a second holocaust was unleashed on Nagasaki. “… a giant ball of fire rose as though from the bowels and a giant pillar of purple fire… shooting skyward and with enormous speed” The effects of the bomb here were much less spectacular than at Hiroshima. There were only 80,000 initial casualties of which 40,000 were dead. Japan surrendered to the allied forces on August 14th, 1945.
Emperor Hirohito made the announcement to a stunned nation, I can not endure the thought of letting my people suffer any longer. A continuation of the war would bring death to tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of persons, the whole nation would be reduced to ashes”. Who had ordered this barbaric act, and for what purpose? To find the answer we examine the military situation surrounding the final stages of the war on Japan, Americas diplomatic rivalry with Russia, the need to appease American public opinion and justifying the enormous cost of the development of the weapon which was invested into by the American people and they wanted to see it in action.
There are four main reasons why Truman ordered the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will now discuss each reason in more detail with factual evidence that justifies his decision. By April 1945 the Japanese armed forces had been eliminated from everywhere apart from their home soil and parts of northern Manchuria in China. The Americans had already taken some of the Japanese homeland, Okinawa approximately 300 miles south of Kyushu had been taken.
At a joint war plans committee it was concluded that 46,000 Americans would die in the invasion of Kyushu and Honshu. The rate of wounded to fatalities was estimated to be 3 to 1, so 175,000 US casualties were not out of the question. However these early reports were rejected by George Marshall, the army’s chief of staff. Another estimate was put forward by Admiral Leahy, he concluded that it would be unlikely that any less than 35% of the invasion force would be killed, this would work out to be 250,000 American dead.
This was estimated in August when the Japanese strength on Kyushu was 14 infantry divisions and according to US intelligence reports, there would be another 2,250,000 army workers, 1,300,000 navy workers and 250,000 special garrison troops and a volunteer militia officially put at 28,000,000. The decisive battles would be won and lost on Kyushu, if the Americans could win there, they could achieve victory anywhere in Japan. “We thought we would be able to defeat the Americans on their first landing attack.
But if the Americans launched a second or third attack, first our food supply would run out, then our weapons” Secretary to Japanese Minister of War in 1963 It would have been only when there was no other option, when they would physically be unable to fight would they have surrendered. An American intelligence report shows, “Top priority has been given to defence. There is considerable activity in the construction of heavy artillery positions. It is probable minefields have been laid along the beaches. At the back of the beaches are hills which are heavily fortified. This report was on the defences of Kyushu, the island with Nagasaki on. During the early spring of 1945 Prime Minister Suzuki gave a rallying cry to make one final stand against the “invader”. “I expect the 100 million people of the glorious Empire to join themselves in a shield to protect the Emperor and the Imperial land from the invader. ” The response was terrific, in nation wide call, over 28,000,000 people joined the local militia regiments. So clearly the Japanese were willing to fight to the last man to defend their homeland, their pride and reputation.
The military situation on Japan was still nevertheless desperate. Since the fall of Okinawa, the Japanese had known that there was no prospect of winning the war, and so had turned their main efforts into defending the home islands. However they were taking a terrible battering from US aeroplanes. Each month 40,000 tons of bombs were dropped onto Japanese cities, 60 cities had half there houses destroyed, 90% of the navy and merchant shipping had been sunk and Honshu (the largest of the 4 main Islands) had been totally cut off from Hokkaido to the north and Kyushu (the primary US invasion target).
There was only sporadic resistance to the B-29 raids, as the Japanese had to conserve all aviation fuel for when the invasion came and for the Kamikaze crafts and planes. If the US had decided to launch an invasion of the Japanese mainland it was thought that it could be waging war possibly 18 months later, so the dropping of the atomic bomb would therefor be quicker. Some military leaders believed that Japan would never surrender to America while they were still using more conventional methods of warfare, e. g. the conventional bombing of Cities.
As the US forces gradually took Islands closer and closer to Japanese mainland the resistance put up by the Japanese had grown more determined and fiercer. Previously against the Japanese, America the Japanese had fought virtually to the death, on Iwo Jima of the 21,000 troops only 200 survived of the Japanese forces, they had fought to the death. During the invasion of Okinawa the Japanese had used their “divine wind” tactics for the first time in large numbers. The kamikaze suicide boats and planes had taken an unprecedented toll on US shipping and at one point it seemed inevitable that the invasion force was going to have to pull out.
Japan was an extremely proud nation with a tradition of warrior courage, a code had been passed down from the Shogun times that surrender was unacceptable. All of these factors could have saved American lives if the bombs were too be dropped. There were other options open to Truman however. A demonstration on a nearby deserted Island could have been sufficient to persuade the Japanese into surrender but, “A demonstration in an uninhabited area was not regarded likely to make Japan surrender, there was the danger of the bomb being a dud, also we had no bombs to waste”
Henry Stimson, 1946. Blockade had severely weakened the Japanese industry and number of supplies, conventional weapons had destroyed almost all of the Japanese industry and also the Japanese were willing to negotiate terms with the US, but would not accept unconditional surrender which is what the US was asking for. There was once voice in the military who was opposed to the use of the weapons, he was Dwight Eisenhower, he believed that Japan was already defeated and it was only a matter of time before they would accept the terms of surrender.
All of Truman advisers were agreed that no invasion was necessary, the relentless saturation bombing and Naval blockade was having its effects, General Marshall believed that it would only need a Russian declaration of war to make the Japanese surrender. Also Admiral Leahy, “the Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender”. General Eisenhower gave his opinion when he saw Stimson (Secretary of War) at the Potsdam Conference in Early July, “I voiced to him my grave misgivings… It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of face”.
The efforts being made by the Japanese to surrender were being picked up and de-coded by the US. It was clear from the start that if the peace party could eliminate the “unconditional surrender” clause then they might be able to persuade the Emperor to overrule the government. The only condition that was not negotiable was that they must keep their Emperor. “Togo said further that the unconditional surrender terms of the Allies was about the only thing in of the way of the termination of the war” Secretary of the Navy noting on Togo’s telegram to Sato (ambassador in Moscow) on July 12th.
The US also wanted diplomatic superiority over Russia. The US was not the only power to ignore the Japanese pleas for an honourable defeat, Russia also wanted to take Japanese territory in Manchuria and Korea, and thus hopefully be able to expand the Communist spheres of influence just as they had done a few months previously in Eastern Europe. In July 1944 the “Big Three” had met a Yalta in the Crimea, this has now been marked as the high point in the relations between the three countries, UK, the USSR and US. One topic which had been deliberately brought up at Yalta by the US and the UK was the situation regarding Poland.
The USSR wanted to take control of it just as it had done with other countries that the Red Army had conquered. However the US wanted it to become a free state with a freely elected government. After Yalta, to the US there was no longer a major issue with Poland, it had been agreed that it would hold free elections after the war. However when these did not materialise at the wars end Truman complained to the Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov of Russian action in Poland and of a general failure to implement the Yalta agreements, Molotovs response was: “I have never been spoken to like that in my life”.
The news of the successful development of the atomic bomb tightened Trumans response to Russian diplomacy. He was wary of the possibility of Russia occupying Manchuria and Japanese territory in the east as this would spread communism, the US wanted to contain it as best they could. With the European war over, there was now no need to appease Stalin. The only other area in which the US needed his help was the Far East. But now whether or not the USSR became involved or not would make little difference from a military point of view.
But of course a Russian declaration of war would have a devastating physiological effects upon the Japanese people. At the time though. US polititions were beginning to wonder whether it might not be better the halt any Soviet expansion and influence into South East Asia by ending the war while Russian troops were still on the other side of the Manchurian Border. In this the Atomic bomb was to take on an extra, and rather significant role. In strategic terms the bomb would boost the Americans power diplomatically.
It could also be used to pre-empt a Russian declaration of war against Japan. Ever since October 1944 a declaration of war by the USSR on Japan had been promised within 3 months of the war ending in Europe. Truman wanted to make sure that there was approval to use the bomb before the Potsdam conference. It had been decided to tell Stalin about the bomb, but fist of all Truman needed to know that it worked. A test site had been built at Alamogordo in New Mexico. On Monday 16th the first ever atomic explosion took place.
The super-critical mass was achieved with a plutonium based bomb. This gave the Americans an edge over Russia, they now had the most powerful weapon in the world thus making them stronger than Russia. However when Staling was informed of the development he failed to comprehend the significance of the bomb, so a real demonstration was needed to show him what awesome power the US had. This gave Truman the military power and diplomatic advantage he needed to out manoeuvre his Russian counterpart.
Truman was a new president, he had only come to office by the death of Franklin . D. Roosevelt, and being his successor he had to prove his authority and power to Stalin and Churchill. If Truman were to use the bomb before the USSR became involved in the war with Japan then the bomb would bolster Trumans negotiations with Stalin. For the US time was running out rapidly, if they failed to use the bomb soon then Russian forces could move into Japanese held territory and so the bomb had to be used as soon as possible.
Also the American people wanted to avenge the deaths suffered at Pearl Harbour and also get revenge for the surprise attack. In less than two hours the Japanese had killed 2300 US military personnel, destroyed 177 planes, sunk or crippled 18 warships and damaged another 3 The nations pride had been dealt a severe blow after the attack. America had a great industrial capacity and had large military capabilities, so an attack by a relatively small country embarrassed the US military and lowered their image to the world.
The Japanese had poorly treated allied prisoners. Even though Japan never signed the Geneva Convention they gave a qualified promise in 1942 to abide by the Geneva rules. Japan at first committed such atrocities as the “death march of Bataan,” but began to abide by the rules after a sufficient number of Japanese prisoners had fallen into Allied hands to make reprisals possible. “The Japanese cry of No work-No food brought a shudder to those poor souls suffering form dysentery. ” An account from a British POW working on the Burmese Railway.
Truman thought that dropping the bomb would satisfy the demand for revenge against Japan and would win him political and public support at home. The Kamikaze crafts and planes were still attacking US warships even though they were also searching for surrender at the same time. Despite this though the Japanese had suffered tremendous losses to their air, sea and land forces in the closing stages of the war, this could have been seen as being sufficient revenge. Also all Japanese descendants living in the US were put into interment camps, which were built in the desert.
Even people who had been born in the US and had regarded themselves as loyal Americans were still forced to sell their home and move to these camps. There was no evidence that any Japanese Americans were traitors. “There were hundreds and hundreds of barracks to house 10,000 if us” An account by a student who was sent to a camp. The bomb had been in development since 1942, over this time over $2,000,000,000 had been spent on it. Much of this had come from the tax payers money so the people wanted to see it being used, Truman had to justify the expenditure of such a huge sum of money.
There had been 4 years of scientific effort and work put into the program on a multi national scale, Truman felt it was his duty to justify the effort by using it for what it had been designed to do. For Truman and his advisers, the question of if to use it or not had never been a question, it had always been assumed that it would be used on the Japanese, the only questions brought up were, when and where. This shows lack of consideration for humanitarian issues. The decision of when and where was to made by the interim committee which was made up of political, military and scientific leaders.
Scientists were divided on its use on Japan, “General Groves, the engineer of the Manhattan Project, was desperate to see the fruits of his labours before the end of the war. ” From a book published by the campaign for nuclear disarmament in 1985. “A demonstration of the bomb might best be made on the desert or on a barren Island. Japan could then be asked to surrender” A note from American Nuclear scientists to the government in June 1945. However a demonstration of its power on a nearby Island was never regarded seriously, there was a too bigger chance of an error occurring such as the bomb being a dud.
This would have satisfied the scientists but the military and political leaders wanted to see it being used in anger. There was a possibility that if the US dropped the bomb then there would be repercussions of a drop in world opinion on the US. Also trade might have been cut with them, but Truman never took his issue seriously. These four points can all be linked to one thing, how America wanted the world to see it and how Truman would be seen in the eyes of his own people, the American population.
Its status had been tarnished after the attack on Pearle Harbour and so dropping the bomb would show the world that they have the greatest military capabilities out of the world powers. They wanted to increase their world status to what it had been before the Japanese attack. If Truman allowed Russia to get the upper hand over them during the peace negotiations then the world and his own people would see him as a weaker leader than Roosevelt and so he might not have been able a second term in office.
Also other capitalist or democratic countries would feel alone and unsupported if America let the USSR get an upper hand. If the US had invaded them undoubtedly they would have been heavy US casualties, they US high command would be seen as being poor in leadership, also Truman would lose a lot of public support at home as he would not have been able to justify the huge expenditure. Also dropping the two bombs would have avenged the American casualties suffered in the war and for the cruel treatment of allied POW’s.
Truman wanted to use the bomb on the pretence of saving US lives, but his more likely motive was to gain an upper hand over Stalin during the peace negotiations by showing off the capabilities the US had. But did the dropping of the bomb achieve what had been intended? On the positive side it had brought a more rapid conclusion to the war with Japan. Emperor Hirohito had announced their surrender on August 14th and the peace terms were officially signed by Japanese delegates aboard the USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay on September 2nd 1945.
If Japan was to be invaded then there is no doubt that many lives have been saved. Did the bombing have the desired effect on Russia and Stalin though? The USSR invaded Japanese held Manchuria on August 9th coincidentally the same day that the plutonium bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The USSR still held onto large areas of Eastern Europe and forced communism onto the held territories. The bombing showed the Russians what incredible power the new weapon had. If the USSR were to keep up the balance with America then they too must have one.
This set the scene for the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, it was democracy against communism, an “iron curtain” descended across Europe and already the Cold War had begun. If the Cold War prevented a more conventional war between the two superpowers then the fact that they both had weapons of mass destruction acted as each others deterrent. And so if this is the case then the use of the bomb although unknown at the time has been justified, as it is the only time that a weapon of its kind has ever been used in anger.