Perhaps the most debated decision by a U.S. president in the 20th century has been the decision made by Harry Truman to proceed with the atomic bombing of Japan. Those who have defended the decision, including Truman himself, argued that the two weapons dropped over Japan (Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945) brought World War II to a speedy conclusion and saved the lives of many American service personnel who would otherwise have been killed in the invasion of Japan. Those who have criticized the decision argue that Japan was ready to accept the terms of surrender that were offered after the bombs were dropped and that Truman knew of this position. Some have pointed out that a direct attack on civilian targets represented a violation of international law and treaty obligations of the United States.
Defenders of the decision counter that the Japanese had started the war with an unprovoked attack on the United States, they had been guilty of many violations of international law, and they had a record of atrocities against civilians prior to and during the war.
The estimates of the number of immediate and delayed casualties from the two weapons have varied a great deal, but most authorities agree that at least 100,000 civilians were killed at Hiroshima and another 70,000 died at Nagasaki at the time of the bombings. Thousands more died over the next weeks from radiation poisoning and from burns and injuries suffered during the bombings. Critics of the decision have questioned the morality of such a large-scale attack on a civilian population, especially if the attack was not needed to end the war.
Many of the facts and issues surrounding the decision have been examined closely. The most debated and most important specific issues in question have been these.
(1). What was the expected estimate of the number of American casualties that would result from an invasion of Japan? Although journalistic accounts and some public speeches suggested that American casualties might reach 500,000 to 1 million, careful review of documents from the time suggest that planners anticipated American casualties on the order of 200,000 to 300,000, including those injured. Defenders of Truman’s decision have continued to insist that the bombing was justified for this reason alone. The employment by the Japanese of suicide attacks by pilots of aircraft loaded with high explosives had raised the casualty rate during the U.S. attacks on the island of Okinawa, and continued high casualties from such aircraft could be expected during an invasion of the Japanese main islands.
(2). What was the relationship of Truman’s decision to his view of the Soviet Union? It has been argued that he delayed the meeting at Potsdam in July 1945 and asked for the nuclear test at trinity to be held as soon as possible so that he would be certain of holding the nuclear weapon when entering negotiations with the Russians. Since the Soviets had agreed to enter the war against Japan in the early weeks of August 1945, Truman may have hoped to win Japanese defeat without Soviet participation and thereby prevent their making territorial gains at the conclusion of the war. Further, it has been argued that Truman wanted to demonstrate to the Soviets that the United States not only had the nuclear weapon but also had the will to use it, thereby creating a dominant position for the United States in the post–World War II period. The large size of the Soviet army, its control of much of Eastern Europe, and its harsh dictatorial regime under Joseph Stalin all posed threats that the United States could offset as a nation armed with nuclear weapons.
(3). Did the president and his advisors adequately consider alternatives, such as detonating a nuclear bomb over a deserted area as a demonstration to the Japanese of what they would face if they did not surrender? Such a demonstration had been advocated by a group of scientists at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory and submitted in a report by physicist James Franck. Several scholars have traced the fate of this recommendation, noting that it was ultimately opposed even by J. Robert Oppenheimer because the United States possessed only two weapons. Had the demonstration not been successful, the nation would have used up half its stockpile and lost the value of surprise.
(4). Was the president fully informed and aware of the Japanese indications that they were willing to accept a surrender in which their territorial integrity was preserved and in which they could retain the emperor? These terms, discussed in peace-feelers through the Soviet Union and Switzerland before the dropping of the atomic bombs, comprised the terms eventually agreed to in the final peace settlement. Were the peace-feelers in fact genuine, did they represent only the position of a faction within the Japanese government, or were they possibly intended only as a deception? Although information about the peace-feelers was known to some in the Truman administration, it is not clear that those making the bomb-targeting decision were aware of them.
(5). To what extent did the high cost of the Manhattan Project, some $2 billion, dictate that the weapon had to be used in order to justify the diversion of money and scarce resources of personnel and materials during the war to the project? To what extent did the institutional inertia of plans set in motion account for the dropping of the weapons? The decision to drop the second bomb was apparently not reviewed after the first weapon was detonated. General Leslie Groves explicitly dreaded that he would be subject to investigation and possible punishment for leading a project that spent valuable and scarce resources during the war without making a contribution to victory.
The historical literature on these and related issues is extensive. At the 50th anniversary of the use of the atomic weapon on Japan in 1995, public and academic discussion of the topic explored all sides of the issue.
- Based on this article, and what you have read in your textbook, was dropping the bomb the right course of action? Explain what you believe in a very detailed explanation, utilizing this article and your textbook.