The Atomic Bomb

The Decision to Use the Bomb

The modern nuclear arsenals and the struggle to control nuclear weaponry have brought new significance and controversy to the American use of the atomic bomb in World War II. This reading selection describes the circumstances surrounding the decision to use the atomic bomb. There is considerable debate among historians about the necessity of using the bomb to force Japan's surrender; there is perhaps even greater controversy concerning the moral principle involved in subjecting the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to this weapon. This latter point is raised, but not answered, at the end of the essay.

World War II was the second world-wide war in less than a generation's time. The World War I had erased any romantic illusions about the nature of modern war; World War II saw the complete mobilization of entire populations and economies in the waging of the war. It was fought with grim determination on every side. In such conditions, each side carried out acts of great brutality in the frustration and necessity of achieving victory.

For the first time outside a civil war, fighting spread beyond the armies to whole populations: Hitler used aerial bombing to try to break the spirit of the British; the Japanese used aerial bombing and soldiers against the Chinese civilian population; both Japan and Germany used their military forces to subdue resistance in occupied nations; and the allied forces used bombing to carry the war beyond the battle front and break the opposition of enemy populations. By the end of the war, technology had advanced to the point where such bombings were terrible: the allied bombing of Dresden killed tens of thousands of people, and the American firebombing of Tôkyô in March 1945 probably killed more than 100,000 people.

During this period, wartime technology raced ahead, as each side attempted to be the first to develop the techniques and equipment that would enable it to win. Many nations sought to decipher the secrets of atomic energy, but the United States was the first to develop the ultimate weapon, the atomic bomb.

Prelude to the Bomb

On April 1, 1945, the Allies invaded the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, and their victory there after bitter and bloody fighting with heavy losses on both sides proved that Japan could not win the war. It also proved, however, that invasion of the Japanese homeland would cause massive casualties on both sides. As American ground forces swept Okinawa clean of Japanese troops, the local civilians were caught in the middle. Subjected to gun fire, bombing, and infantry combat by the American advance, they were prevented from surrendering by the Japanese troops. Okinawa only served to confirm everyone's idea of how the final battle for the main islands of Japan would be fought.

The surrender of Okinawa caused the Japanese cabinet to collapse and a new, pro-peace prime minister and foreign minister pressed the army to allow negotiations. The Japanese military, however, trapped in its own mystique of rigid determination and self-sacrifice in the name of the nation and emperor, insisted on strict terms.

Just at this point, the atomic bomb became a reality. The first successful test of the atomic weapon was held on July l6, 1945. The United States now had the choice of using it to try to end the war in another way. All other forms of attack, from the grim battle for Okinawa to the terrible fire bombing of Japan's cities, had failed to deter the leaders in Tôkyô. Perhaps the atomic bomb would resolve the crisis without a need for invasion. President Truman, who had already left for Potsdam to meet with Churchill and Stalin, left instructions that the bomb was not to be used against Japan until after the Allies had agreed on and issued a declaration.

The Potsdam Declaration of July 26, issued by the Allied powers and calling for "unconditional surrender," was not acceptable to the Japanese military, despite the declaration's threat that failure to surrender would be met by "complete destruction" of the military and the "utter devastation of the Japanese home land." Following ten days of Japanese silence, the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945, on the city of Hiroshima.

The Impact on Japan

It was reported the next day to the Japanese Army General Staff that "the whole city of Hiroshima was destroyed instantly by a single bomb." On August 8 the army was further rocked by the news that the Russians, who had remained neutral to Japan throughout the war, had attacked Japanese forces on the Asian mainland. But despite the prime minister's insistence that Japan must accept surrender, the army insisted on total, last-ditch resistance. The news, midway through this conference, that the city of Nagasaki had also been destroyed by another atomic bomb, did not sway them from their determination.

Finally, the Japanese prime minister and his allies agreed that the only course was to have the emperor break the deadlock by expressing his view. The emperor's statement that Japan's suffering was unbearable to him and that he wished for surrender broke the military's opposition and began the process of ending the war in the Pacific.

Assessing the Decision

Was it necessary to use the atomic bomb to force Japan to surrender? This is a subject of heated debate among historians. Some point to the existence of a pro-peace faction in Japan, resisting the army and growing in strength. This faction had already tried to express Japan's interest in peace through the Russians, whom they believed were still neutral. In fact, the Russians had secretly agreed at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 to attack the Japanese.

Moreover, Japanese offensive capabilities were exhausted. The navy and air force were almost totally destroyed by the summer of 1945, and the Japanese islands were completely cut off from the rest of the world. The Russian attack of August 8 on Manchuria met little or no resistance.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did the battle over the island of Okinawa influence the decision to use the atomic bomb?
  2. How would you rank, from most important to least important, the several factors or considerations involved in the U.S. decision to drop the atomic bomb? Explain.
  3. Today, the Japanese often say they have a "nuclear allergy," and the government accordingly has proclaimed "three nuclear principles," that it will not own or manufacture nuclear weapons and will not allow them to be brought into Japan.

| back to top |

Introduction to Primary Source Documents

In August 1945 American aircraft dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 100,000 people and injuring many more. Japan soon sued for peace and World War II ended. Ever since President Harry S. Truman made the fateful decision to unleash atomic weapons on Japan, contemporaries and historians have debated the morality, necessity, and consequences of the choice.

Truman said he authorized the use of the atomic bombs on populated areas because that was the only way to shorten the war and save American lives. Until the 1960s most historians accepted that conclusion. But recent scholarship, although not denying the argument that American lives would have been spared, has suggested that other considerations also influenced American leaders: relations with Soviet Russia, emotional revenge, momentum, and perhaps racism. Scholars today are also debating why several alternatives to military use of the bomb were not tried.

In early May 1945, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson appointed an Interim Committee, with himself as chairman, to advise on atomic energy and the uranium bombs the Manhattan Engineering District project was about to produce. In the committee's meeting of May 31, 1945, the decision was made to keep the bomb project a secret from the Russians and to use the atomic bomb against Japan. On June 11, 1945, a group of atomic scientists in Chicago, headed by Jerome Franck, futilely petitioned Stimson for a non-combat demonstration of the bomb in order to improve the chances for postwar international control of atomic weapons. The recommendations of the Interim Committee and the Franck Committee are reprinted here.

| back to top |

Primary Source Documents with Document-based Questions

Report of the Interim Committee on the Military Use of the Atomic Bomb (May 1945) [PDF]
Report of the Franck Committee on the Social and Political Implications of a Demonstration of the Atomic Bomb (For a Non-Combat Demonstration) (June 1945) [PDF]
The Potsdam Declaration (July 26,1945) [PDF]

| back to top |

Student Exercises

A. Choose students to prepare positions and debate the following issues before the class:

    1. "Should the U.S. drop the atomic bomb?" Yes or No. (Students should read the two committee reports, above.)
    2. From the Japanese position prior to the dropping of the bomb: "Should we surrender?" Yes or No. (Students should read the Potsdam Declaration and ask themselves whether they would have surrendered had they been the Japanese leaders.)

B. Divide the class into two teams. Each team should be assigned the task of staging a debate in one of the two settings below.

Setting: President Truman's Cabinet (late July, 1945)
Question: Should the United States use the bomb to end the war with Japan?
Materials: Interim Committee Report and Franck Committee Report, above.

Setting: The Japanese Government (late July, 1945)
Question: Should Japan surrender?
Materials: Potsdam Declaration

| back to top |

© 2009 Asia for Educators, Columbia University |