The Decision to Drop the Bomb


Another post from the History Book Club.

(Why ‘atomic bomb’ rather than ‘nuclear bomb’? See this post.)

The Decision to Drop the Bomb: A Political History by Len Giovannitti and Fred Freed, Coward-McCann 1965.

Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy ed. by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, The Pampheleteer’s Press 1998.

The Decision to Drop the Bomb grew out research the authors did for a pair of NBC News programs in the ‘60s. The Decision to Drop the Bomb traces events from the death of Roosevelt to the surrender of Japan. The authors interviewed many of the key figures, such as Oppenheimer, and the Secretaries of State and War. Throughout, the authors take a neutral journalistic tone.

For the 50th anniversary of the dropping of A-bomb, the Smithsonian planned to exhibit the Enola Gay (the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima), accompanied by material to give the context and aftermath of bombings. Critics accused the museum of historical revisionism and anti-Americanism. The museum ultimately displayed the Enola Gay by itself. Hiroshima’s Shadow was compiled in response to this controversy. The editors explicitly ally themselves with the museum against the critics, writing that, “As the rationales for the atomic attacks have come under detailed historical scrutiny and the foundations underpinning much of the original justification have begun to erode, adherence to the legend of Hiroshima has intensified among those who believe the United States acted correctly, even morally.”

What reasons have been proposed for the decision to drop the bombs?

  1. To bring the war to an end as quickly possible, saving hundreds of thousands of lives, both American and Japanese. This is the sole reason Truman ever gave publicly.
  2. To place the U.S. in the strongest possible position postwar, vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was preparing to invade Manchuria in August 1945, by previous agreement with the U.S. and Britain. In Europe, where Germany and Italy had already surrendered, Stalin was becoming more and more intransigent. The longer the war in the Pacific dragged on, the more the Soviet Union would be able to consolidate its power. As P.M.S. Blackett wrote in 1948, “the dropping of the atomic bombs was not so much the last military act of the second world war, as the first act of the cold diplomatic war with Russia now in progress.”
  3. For domestic political reasons. The Manhattan project had cost two billions dollars. In the wake of an invasion of Japan, with the attendant loss of life, no politician could justify to the American people not dropping the bomb.
  4. Because we had it. As Oppenheimer expressed it in an interview, “The decision was implicit in the project. I don’t know whether it could have been stopped.”

The two books under discussion paint a complex picture, with some support for all these suggestions. Here are some facts that provide context, even as their implications remain unclear.

(a) By the time the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, most of Japan’s cities had already been almost completely destroyed by conventional firebombing (like the well-known destruction of Dresden). More lives were lost in the firebombing of Tokyo than in Hiroshima. General Curtis LeMay predicted that Japan would surrender by the end of 1945 even without an invasion, simply because the U.S. Air Force was running out of targets.

(b) After the bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the almost simultaneous invasion of Manchuria by the Soviet Union, cutting off the strongest part of the Japanese army, the Japanese Supreme War Council met in emergency session. The “peace” faction, led by the Premier, proposed accepting the Allied terms of surrender subject to sole stipulation that the Allies guarantee the preservation of the Emperor. The military ministers held out for three additional conditions. They knew that the war was lost, but they preferred to fight to the bitter end. Emperor Hirohito finally broke the deadlock. Some officers attempted a coup-d’etat, which was easily suppressed.

(c) The surrender of Japan was not truly “unconditional”. The language was carefully fudged on both sides so that Japan could be assured of keeping the Emperor as a figurehead.

Several high-ranking officials in the U.S. government had wanted to make this offer explicit before dropping the bomb. However, Secretary of State Byrnes and others were strongly opposed because of the inevitable political backlash. Germany and Italy had surrendered without any such assurances; many in Congress and the nation regarded Emperor Hirohito as the equivalent of Hitler.

(d) The moral viewpoints of the participants ran the gamut at the time, even shifting in unexpected ways. Many physicists favored a demonstration of the A-bomb, as opposed to actual military use. Leo Szilard, the physicist who provided the catalyst for the A-bomb project in the first place, ultimately became one of the strongest proponents of this position, but in 1944 he wrote to a colleague that, “unless atomic weapons were actually used in a war, people would not understand them and therefore would not make the sacrifices necessary to insure peace” (paraphrase by Giovannitti and Freed).

Robert Oppenheimer recalled a surprising opinion from Secretary of War Stimson:

I remember Mr. Stimson saying to me that he thought it was appalling that there should be no protest over the air raids which we were conducting against Japan, which in the case of Tokyo led to such extraordinary heavy loss of life. He didn’t say that the air strikes shouldn’t be carried on, but he did think there was something wrong with a country where no one questioned that…

(e) The number of lives that would have been lost in a direct invasion of Japan remains controversial. While the figure of 500,000 or even a million U.S. lives appears repeatedly in the book by Giovannitti and Freed, one historian writes, “there is solid evidence…that military planners seven weeks before Hiroshima had placed the number at 46,000 and sometimes as low as about 20,000 American lives.”


Leave a comment

Filed under History Book Club, Physics, Reviews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.