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Dropping The Bomb Essay

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 Enola Gay 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.

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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.

Atomic Bomb: Decision (Hiroshima-Nagasaki)
Find short, descriptive links to many of the important documents surrounding the decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan here. The highlight of this website is a convincing interview with Dr. Leo Szilard, one of the scientists on the Manhattan Project, predicting the use of the bomb would start the arms race with the Soviet Union.

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Remembering Nagasaki
One day after the bombing of Nagasaki, photographer Yosuke Yamahata documented the devastation. View the intense horror of nuclear war by taking this "Nagasaki Journey," then browse through the message boards to see how people were affected by this world-breaking tragedy.

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Conversation on the Existence of the Bomb
On July 24 I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force. The Russian Premier showed no special interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make 'good use of it against the Japanese.' -President Harry Truman, Year of Decisions.

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Gather 'round the radio, folks — President Truman's about to speak. Hear a clip of Truman's announcement that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.
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Essay on the dropping of Atomic bomb on Japan. On August 6, 1945, a B-29 bomber named Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb, on Hiroshima, Japan. Hiroshima had been almost eradicated with an estimated 70 – 80 thousand people killed.

Three days later, a second, more powerful bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, killing over 100,000 people. Since Japan was economically and militarily devastated by the late summer of 1945, the use of the atomic bombs on Japan was unnecessary and unwarranted in bringing about a conclusion to the war in the Pacific. By the end of the war, the U.S. forces had pushed the Japanese far back into their country, leaving them no access to any resources. Japanese cities and factories were being endlessly bombarded by American bombers.

The Pacific Fleet had driven the Imperial Navy from the ocean and planes of the fast carrier forces were striking Japanese naval bases in the Inland Sea. Clearly, Japan was a defeated nation. The decision to use the atomic bomb was validated by the U.S., who said that the force was necessary to end the war, which, in turn, would save lives of both American and Japanese soldiers. However, many believe that since Japan was already of the verge of surrender when the bombs were dropped, this argument cannot be morally validated. If Japan was almost beaten by August 1945, many say that the reason the U.S. dropped the bomb was simply to test it on living humans. Aside from the ground test in the New Mexico desert, no one knew what destruction atomic weapons were capable of.

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Throughout the war, the city of Hiroshima had been left virtually untouched by U.S. attacks. It is inferable, then, that the United States government hoped to see the full effect of nuclear power by detonating the atomic bomb on this locality, as they could be sure that any damage was from the atomic bomb alone. A similar reasoning could be applied to the usage of the second bomb, fat man, which was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. One could wonder if the motive behind this second attack was similar to the first; the only difference being that the bomb to be tested this time was considerably more powerful.

The final say on whether or not to drop die bomb came from President Harry Truman, who consulted with a special Committee known as the Interim Committee. This organization was made up of Secretary Stimson as chairman; President Truman’s personal representative, James F. Byrnes; the Under Secretary of the Navy, William L. Clayton; and the Assistant Secretary of State as well as many others. The work of the Interim Committee was to discuss the uses of the bomb and whether or not it would be wise to use nuclear force against Japan in combat. On July 1, 1945, the committee submitted a report to President Truman stating that: a) the bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible, b) it should be used against a military target surrounded by other buildings; c) it should be used without prior warning of the nature of the weapon.

The Interim Committee decided against warning the Japanese about the atomic bomb because they claimed that they weren’t sure if it would detonate. Not one of the Chiefs nor the Secretary thought well of a bomb warning, an effective argument being that no one could be certain, in spite of the assurances of the scientists, that the ‘thing would go off.’ This was refuted by many as being quite ignorant. For example, the atomic bomb was tested in Trinity Site, New Mexico, USA. It was viewed by the media, U.S. government officials and the military. Viewing the destruction firsthand should have convinced the United States that nuclear power was a real and tangible danger. They should have been quite sure at this point that the bomb would, indeed, detonate. The US wanted a quick and effective way to end the war.

However, there were many other possible alternatives to dropping the bomb that should have been considered. Truman wanted an ‘unconditional surrender’ from Japan, but his offer to them threatened the position of their Emperor. The Japanese were unwilling to accept this as a condition to their surrender, as the Emperor in Japanese culture was considered to be godlike. Obviously, they were therefore unwilling to accept unconditional surrender. To compromise, the US could have assured Japan the retention of the status of the Emperor in the terms of surrender. Japan would have ended the war themselves, without the U.S. ever having been used nuclear force. The United States also could have threatened Japan with a Russian invasion.

The Japanese were counting on Russia to help them make peace with the U.S. without unconditionally surrendering, which they believed would result in the loss of their Emperor. If the U.S. had have convinced Japan that Russia would use force, the Japanese may have felt that it was necessary to give up, as at the time Russia was the only nation with whom Japan maintained a neutrality contract. Finally, the United States could have warned the Japanese about nuclear power as a final resort. Surely the Japanese had known about the astronomical and devastating effects before the bombs were dropped, they would have seriously considered surrendering, no matter what the cost to their culture.

Because the United States chose not to thoroughly consider all of their options in forcing Japan to surrender and end the war, the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was impulsive and rash. Had they considered all of the alternatives, and had only used the atomic bomb as a last resort, many lives could have been saved. It was completely hypocritical of the Americans to say that they wanted to save lives, when, instead they destroyed them.

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