Why did Truman drop the Bomb?

One of the key issues to come out of the end of the Second World War is why did President Truman decide to use the atomic bombs. There has been continuing debate over its use and the implications of its use. This is just some of my thoughts on this most interesting and complex question.

The dropping of the atomic bombs ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9 respectively, represented a major turning point in human history, as it was the culmination of science and war coming together as one, a process, which had been taking place since the start of the Industrial Revolution. While the dropping of the bomb eventually saw the ending of World War II with the defeat of Imperial Japan, it is the decision to drop them, which has come in for much criticism years after the event and it may well be one debate that will never be fully agreed upon.

The main criticism of the decision to use the bombs is that the actual target was not Japan but much rather the Soviet Union. Many revisionist historians’, spurned on by the work of Gar Alperovitz on the subject, see their use as a method of forestalling Soviet ambition in both the Far East and in Western Europe and as Martin Sherwin has commented that, ‘The shock of the bombs…would not only be felt in Tokyo, American leaders calculated that it would be noted in Moscow.’ The main basis for this thesis has been the re-examination of the primary sources from the period. Many of which have opened up holes in the original claims of the United States government and orthodox historians alike.

The orthodox argument is based around the assertion that the bombs were dropped in order to end the war as quickly as was feasible with as few casualties as possible. One historian, Alonzo Hamby, has even gone as far as suggesting it was Harry Truman’s experience with the American Expeditionary Force in the First World War, were he served as an artillery officer, which led to his decision to use the bombs. Hamby comments that, ‘Truman, the old artilleryman…understood…the hopes and fears of the…young combat officers dreaming of families and futures…’ Therefore, the argument comes down to a case of military expediency, the saving of American lives, the orthodox view, against political realities, forestalling Soviet ambition, the revisionist view. This forms the basis of the debate as to why the bombs were dropped.

When examining the decisions to use the bomb one ‘myth’ already becomes readily apparent to the reader and this is the strange myth of a half a million American lives saved by the use of the bombs. This argument is a reference to the planned Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands, Operations Olympic and Coronet, which were to be started in November 1945, Olympic, which was to be the attack on Kyushu, and then in early 1946, Coronet, the invasion on the main island of Honshu. Within this context of planning for the invasion orthodox historians have argued that the bomb was used to save countless American, and Allied, lives from a bloody campaign in Japan. This myth first gained credence in President Truman’s memoirs when he commented that the invasion would have cost half a million lives. Though this may have been the case it is now widely known that the Japanese, feeling the effects of bombing and blockade, wanted peace, and were seeking it through their ambassador in Moscow. While it is true that the Soviets may well have kept this from the Americans in the hope that they would be able to share in the spoils of the war in the Far East it is now obvious that the Japanese were willing to seek peace and that the only obstacle in the way was unconditional surrender and the issue of the Emperor. This in itself would have saved American lives. A comment a revisionist historian is all too willing to make. As will be noted later a continued blockade and strategic bombing campaign may well have also saved American lives, but it is the invasion itself that must be analysed. The main issue is Truman’s definition of casualties; Truman insinuates that the casualties equate to combat deaths. However, the estimates that had been given to the President related to casualties, that is to say wounded as well as dead. In this respect the dropping of the bomb would not have saved half a million lives as they did not need saving but as one historians comment it would surely not have saved ‘…more than 20,000 and probably less than 15,000…’ Thus, the myth has been built up through the literature as saving half American deaths when in actual fact in terms of fatalities the figures would have been significantly smaller.

The main argument that the bombs were dropped for military reason has become heavily steeped in mystery as J R Miles makes clear ‘By the time historians were given access to…secret files…the myth…had achieved the status of accepted history.’ As commented earlier some historians’ see it as Truman’s disgust at seeing the countless lives of American soldiers being lost in an invasion of Japan. This may well have been born out of his experience of WWI but does not give the historian a realistic vision of the whole picture. For example, when looking at the official bombing order there is no mention of the intended targets being primarily military in nature, as such, the cities were to be the targets themselves. Therefore, it must be considered whether or not they were legitimate targets for such a weapon whose usage not based upon accurate bombing. In terms of Just War Theory it would appear that Truman and his administration were indeed acting outside the confines of morality, however, given the overall violent nature of the Second World War this may well have been considered justified by the administration, for example, for comparison consider the treatment by the Japanese of Allied Prisoners of War and the infamous Rape of Nanking. Truman does, however, comment in his diary for the 25th July that the targets were indeed to be ‘…military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children.’ Therefore, touching on the moral aspects, which in civilized war must always exist if it is to subsist within the domain of civilised human behaviour, we must consider the Presidents actions within the realms of conducting a war or setting the scene for the peace. Consequently, the question remerges to what was the target for this weapon; was the intended targets military or another possible target, the Soviet Union. This duplicitous nature of the bombing order and its wording feeds well into the revisionist argument because if the targets were to be military in nature then why not state this, therefore it can be argued that the intended target, as seen by the wording of the bombing order, was the cities themselves, therefore it is reasonable to assume that this was a show of force, possibly designed to scare the Soviet Union.

Another document, which sheds light on the military aspects of the decision use the bomb, is the Franck Report of June 11 1945. In this report a panel of seven members of the Manhattan Project suggested that a demonstration of the bomb destructive power on a remote island would be much more useful than using it on a specific target. They believed America should take a moral high ground and as the report comments that, ‘…America would be able to say to the world, “You see what weapon we had but did not use.”…’ They suggested this because as in their own words the use of the bombs could ‘…precipitate the race of armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons.’ This is of course the situation that occurred when the Soviet Union finally tested their bomb in 1949. While the majority of the report was rejected it was agreed that the Soviets should be informed of it. The fact that this did not happen when the report suggested it is due to a conversation between Winston Churchill, Stimson and Truman in which details of the bomb should be kept secret, though Stalin should be notified of a new ‘weapon’. Therefore, this report can be seen in two distinct lights. Firstly, there did seem to be an intention to tell the Soviets of its existence. When viewed from this point of view it may well be considered that the bomb had a military purpose, most notably Truman’s wish to use it to save lives. Secondly, the fact that Churchill and Stimson easily swayed Truman shows both theirs and Truman’s fear of the Soviets and their intention in the Far East. Therefore, when Stalin was informed of the weapons nothing was mentioned about the words ‘atomic’ or ‘nuclear’ and as Gar Alperovitz comments this was in order to strengthen ‘…American diplomacy only after it was demonstrated in combat…’

The incident of when Truman mentioned a weapon of immense power to Stalin is extremely interesting in the history of the use of the bomb. As pointed out above the words ‘nuclear’ or ‘atomic’ were not used and when Truman casually mentioned it on July 24 at the Potsdam Conference, Stalin is remarked to have been unimpressed, however, based on the recollections of Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgi Zhukov this was not the case as he commented in his memoirs that, ‘In actual fact, on returning to his quarters after this meeting Stalin, in my presence, told Molotov about his conversation with Truman. The latter reacted almost immediately. “Let them. We’ll have to talk it over with Kurchatov and get him to speed things up.”…’ This obviously refers to the Soviet Union’s own effort at developing an atomic weapon, much of which was based upon espionage of the Manhattan Project that Stalin had been well aware of due to the projects infiltration by the NKVD. This event has often been interpretated by revisionists as an attempt to intimidate Stalin, an attempt, which based on contemporary recollections, was unsuccessful. As James Byrnes, US Secretary of State commented, ‘Stalin’s only reply was to say that he was glad to hear of the bomb and he hoped we would use it. I was surprised at Stalin’s lack of interest. I concluded that he had not grasped the importance of the discovery.’ If the use of the bomb and its announcement to Stalin was designed to be an attempt to intimidate the Soviets it was an attempt that was made against the advice of several of Truman’s senior military aides, in particular General of the Army Marshall and Admiral Leahy. Both of who believed that the war with Japan was over and that an attempt to outsmart and intimidate the Soviets with ‘atomic diplomacy’ would fail to check Stalin ambitions in the Far East and Europe.

One of the most interesting documents relating the use of the bomb is the United States Strategic Bombing Survey. The report was written early after the end of the war in an attempt to assess the success of the strategic bombing campaign which the US Army Air Forces had conducted over Germany and Japan, however, it must be born in mind that the report was conducted by a service of the US Army seeking its independent in the post – war years. The report has often been used in an attempt to argue that the war could have been ended by conventional means and as such the Atomic Bombs were not a necessary measure. As such the maritime blockade and aerial campaign over the Japanese home islands have been considered one of the most successful campaigns of military coercion in history as the report comments that ‘General Takashima, when asked by the Survey as to his reaction to the Imperial Rescript, stated that surrender had become unavoidable; the Army, even should it repel invasion, could no longer protect the Japanese people from extermination.’ Thus, the argument that has been given by some historians is that the atomic bombs were not needed to force Japan’s surrender as the conventional strategic bombing campaign would have done this by November at the earliest possibly December by the latest. Thus, the decision to use the bombs early and hope to end the war can be seen as supporting the revisionists claim as Alperovitz, the chief revisionist, claims the USSBS concluded ‘…that Japan would likely have surrendered in 1945 without atomic bombing, without a Soviet declaration of war…’ However, the report does go on to comment that the atomic bombs did have a role in Japan’s surrender and thus, did save the spilling of anymore blood both on the allied side as well as the Japanese side, both military and civilian, because as the report comments, ‘The role of the atomic bomb in the surrender must be considered along with all the other forces which bore upon that question with Japan.’ However, when reading the survey it does lend credence to the argument that the both the dropping of the atomic bombs and the planned invasions of the home islands were not necessary due to the success of the naval blockade and conventional strategic bombing campaign.. As such one of the most important reasons for the use of the bomb, saving of American lives, was not needed because the report concludes that this would have been possible by the application of strategic air power alone and would have forced Japan’s surrender by November 1945 at the latest. Thus, why was the bomb used early, well as commented before it may well have been used to forestall Soviet ambition in the Far East and prevent a divided Japan and a similar situation to which was building up in central Europe.

It appears when looking at the many primary sources that exist there were many people who wished to see that the bomb was not used. That Truman and his advisors did use it can be taken as an act of, as Alperovitz called it, atomic diplomacy. For example, the Bard memorandum, which was written by the Under – Secretary for the Navy Ralph Bard and given to Stimson suggested that the bomb did not need to be used and that the Japanese themselves were looking for a way out of the war, as commented earlier the Japanese were attempting to use their ambassador in Moscow in order to help seek favourable terms with the allies. As the memorandum comments the Japanese were seeking surrender and that this was the ‘…the opportunity which the Japanese are looking for.’ The major stumbling block to Japanese surrender was the role of the Emperor but if this could have been solved peace could have been attained and the bomb would not have been necessary. The comments made by Bard were supported by several other top officers, as commented above both Marshall and Leahy had their reservations over its use. While they all believed it may have forced Japanese surrender, though Bard argued that this was not even needed, it would have no effect on Soviet ambitions if that was it’s intended target as has been supposed by the revisionists. So then it must be considered what was its point, if Japan would surrender with some negotiations over the Emperor’s role and it would not forestall Soviet ambition then the dropping of these to weapons must be seen as one of the greatest misjudgements in history as it precipitated an arms race with the Soviet Union that was to have huge consequences for the twentieth century.

Therefore, it can be seen that the decision to use the atomic bomb was indeed a complex, and indeed sometimes a muddled, judgment that had concerns over ending the war quickly, with as few casualties as possible and forestalling Soviet ambitions in the region. Many of the primary documents in some way tend to lend themselves to either school of interpretation and it comes down to a choice of which sources are used to support a thesis. Historians’ could accept what has been written by Truman, Stimson et al and agree that it was used for purely military reasons or they could be cynical and argue that there must be something more to it and that, for example, Truman would not possibly write about it in his memoirs. The primary sources, such as the USSBS, again lend themselves to both interpretations. While the USSBS states that Japan could have been defeated as quickly as possible without the bomb, thus supporting the ideas of revisionist historians, it does concede that it forced Japan to end the war quicker than had been anticipated, thus supporting the writings of orthodox historians. Whether a historian chooses to believe one argument or another comes down to their attitude on international affairs. However, by accepting the revisionist reasoning, a historian would be accepting that the US Government was acting to forestall Soviet ambition, and in doing this they are agreeing to ideal that government acted with some other intent in the arena international affairs. While this may be true it relies on certain assumptions, which may never be proved due, and the possible release of documents that have been classified and may well never be released in our lifetime and as John Buckley has commented about the use of the bombs and its political considerations that, ‘This is not to argue that political considerations did not flow from that decision, but there is no effective evidence to support the contention that it prompted it.’ Thus, while there may have been considerations the overriding aim based on sources must be the saving of American lives. The orthodox reasoning is heavily based upon what has been given to the public and assumes the infallibility of that nation’s government in its policies. Therefore, there must be some middle ground and in reality the use of the bombs was quite possibly related to both aspects of the reason given and that Truman wished to end the war quickly for whichever reason. Thus the argument over the use of the bomb may well be one that will probably never be reconciled and will go on for years to come. One thing is agreed upon though, the use of the bomb launched the world into a new and uncertain world in mutually assured destruction (MAD) became a byword and a worry for all concerned in the later half of the twentieth century.

17 responses to “Why did Truman drop the Bomb?

  1. Pingback: military history·

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  3. Dear Sir,
    It annoyed me very much that you only speak abt. American lives, the war criminals of Guantanamo bay. You forget that the bomb also saved 150 00 people in NL east Indies (Indonesia) their lives, locked up in misserable camps and abt. 100 000 Brittish and Australian pow’s spread between Indonesia and Japan. If there was no bomb, I could not write this comment.
    Alas in the end, the Japanese were not consequent ( hari-kiri or seppuku).
    JPF Barneveld Binkhuijsen

  4. The reason they were not mentioned was because the purpose of the piece was to examine the debate over the dropping of the bomb and the validity of the claim that it saved America, and Allied, lives in an invasion of the japanese home islands. Of course the dropping of the bomb did help save the lives of the PoW’s but it was examining operational issues not issues surrounding those who had already been defeated.

    Ross

  5. Your answer is a nonsense answer. We were good enough to risk our fighter aircraft to defend Singapore. And later in the Irian Barat case USA betrayed us because of cold war considerations. And still more later, Guantamo Bay in contradiction with all international rules, USA keep a lot of innocent people in prison, and manhandled them, Bush, the bigest criminal of them all!
    JPF Barneveld Binkhuijsen, Dorderecht NL

  6. I do not see why my answer is a non-sense answer. You asked why I mentioned American lives and I explained. I agree that a secondary effect of the use of the bomb was that Allied PoW’s were released earlier than planned; however, I do not think it had any bearing on the use of the bomb. I also do not see what relevance American actions in the 1960′s have on a decision taken in 1945. Unfortunately, the decision was an American decision by the nature of the program that develop it, therefore, the considerations that drove that decision were going to be primarily American in nature.

  7. Hmm, Trumans’s well publicized diary entries decry his outrage at the Japanese slaughter of POWs. How can you substantively claim that the fate of those still held by the animalistic, vicious and insane Japanese army and people was not of great importance to Truman?

  8. The Nazi’s, Soviets and Imperial Japanese would all have used the bomb if they had it.
    They would have given it alot less thought too, which is the scary thing.
    The Nazi’s would have nuked Russia, possibly Great Britain also and then vice versa.
    The Japanese would have bombed the USA and China without hesitation.
    In reality I wish there were no such things as atomic weapons but there is nothing anyone of us could do to change that.
    When somone has an ultimate weapon, its going to be used.

  9. Jason made a comment on whoever got the Bomb first would have used it. This assessment is correct. Japan herself had two programs going, the Army and the Navy. The Navy floated the idea of making mini-A-bombs for kamikaze planes. Fortunately Japan was unable to accomplish her goals.

    One comment that never holds water is the one “that America started the atomic arms race.” Incorrect. Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman split the atom in 1938. And who did they work for? Nazi Germany.

    But Jason is correct. Whoever got it first was going to use it.

    Mark.

  10. I don’t think that if any other country at the time had the bomb would have used it, because they knew it it wasn’t going to benefit them, truly it was a bad decision, it does not make sense saying that it’d save lives when on the other hand it killed thousands of lives, and if they didn’t use it, they could’ve just fought the war normally without using the bombs. It was completely unnecessary. That is why those bombings are considered a crime against humanity.

  11. David, moral philosophers who are applying 21st century morals out of context only consider the use of the bomb a crime against humantiy. It has no basis in international law. Nuclear weapons have not been outlawed in any treaty. Their proliferation has been limited and their numbers reduced but they are a valid weapon of war, and will be for many years to come. As to whether no other country would have used the bomb then I think you are ignoring the historiography of the bomb. All the major powers were in some way developing a bomb. Britain was closely involved in the Manhattan Project. The German development of the bomb prompted the Allies to start the Manhattan Project. The Soviets were developing a bomb and committing industrial espionage against the Manhattan Project. Even the Japanese had a bomb in development. Why spend the time and resources to develop a bomb if they were not going to use it? The truth is that each of these countries would have used it. You are using post-facto analysis of the bombs impact to claim that because of the devastation it caused then they would not have used. Simply not the case as no one truly understands its destructive capability. As to whether or not it was beneficial then you need to look at the correspondence and decision-making process that went into the decision to use the bomb. While there were debates over targeting the general consensus was that it would be beneficial to the war effort. It was not known whether it would end to the war but there was a belief that it may bring the Japanese to the negotiating table, which it did.

  12. David,

    I second Ross’ comments and suggest reading “Downfall: The end of the Imperial Japanese Empire” by Richard Frank. The book illuminates many aspects of the decision process as well as provides evidence that reinforces the argument that the bomb did indeed save lives, not just American, but all nationalities – most of all the Japanese.

  13. There has been no mention of the American electorate in this. Truman may have been influenced by how voters might react to hearing that the USA had a war-winning weapon but had chosen not to use it.
    At this stage of the war war-weariness had reached a very high level.

    This is slightly analogous to the RAF’s bombing campaign of Germany. Having built thousands of bombers, it was necessary to use them, even if the cost/benefit was dubious. The hard-pressed British civilian population would have been very annoyed otherwise.

    “…then the dropping of these to weapons must be seen as one of the greatest misjudgements in history as it precipitated an arms race with the Soviet Union that was to have huge consequences for the twentieth century.”

    I am curious as to why Ross believes that dropping the A bombs precipitated the arms race. Seems to me it would have happened whether or not the bombs were actually used.

  14. I have a couple of questions, that perhaps I lack the information to understand. Since this was an arms race, and you might not be certain how far away from successful development these other nations are, isn’t there also danger in delaying the Japanese surrender? How close was someone else to completion, and as you said whoever had it would use it. Isn’t there a logical conclusion that you must use yours first to prevent someone else from using theirs? In essence that having the weapon puts you in a position that you have to prove that it works. I understand that this could have been accomplished through bombing somewhere that was uninhabited, but a bomb had to be dropped to prove that the technology worked. It wasn’t whether or not to drop the bomb, it was where.

    My grandfather told me that the Japanese position was no surrender, that they were going to fight till the last breath, of the population, not the military. Although this may have been purely a political position, based on the behavior of the Japanese on the surrounding islands wouldn’t there be a tendency to believe this assertion? Additionally you pointed out that at the time of the decision the US didn’t know how close the Japanese may have been to surrender. Truman probably saved my life. My grandfather was in training for the invasion of mainland Japan. As much as we’ll never know whether or not we could have achieved a surrender without bombing civilians, you cannot determine how many lives would have been lost before the Japanese surrender. Isn’t it much easier to come to your conclusion with the hindsight of complete information, that Truman did not have at the point where he had to make a decision? I think you presume to much based on what the administration had as guesses about what might happen vs. actual knowledge and I doubt it would have been as easy in those moments to be certain about how quickly the Japanese would surrender. I may very well be wrong, just trying to better understand.

    Thank You.

  15. Am watching the documentary, THE WAR, and find the facts that have come forward to be very convincing: Truman’s decision to drop the bomb was the right decision for that time in history.

  16. Truman was a failure his entire life until he became in league with the corrupt, Thomas J. Pendergast. He was a prime example of the Napoleon Complex and after the war, when asked how long it took him to decide on dropping the bomb – he smiled and snapped his fingers. When my blog, pacificparatroopers reaches that stage, I will need to keep my own opinions in check.

  17. The article is very impressive and consider all the points. Jason is right: whoever got the bomb first would use it without moral considerations. And Moss is right too: the atomic bomb is a valid war weapon today and can not be discharged as a potential offensive one. We can´t judge war by moral standards of today. The WWII was a global conflict with many casualities, specially civilian and the first nation to be in possession of any intimidating weapon would use it to bring the war to its end. The drop of the bomb certainly had many reasons, but we cant discharge the military one side by side with the political one. There was a rice to reach the atomic military energy between the contending nations. Lucky the USA take the leadership in the question. But WAR IS HELL anyway.

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