By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
Since before the Second World War had begun, nuclear physics had been rapidly developing as a realm of scientific endeavor. The possibility had already been raised that perhaps atomic fission, that is the breaking of atoms, could be exploited in the development of a weapon.
Developing the Deadly Bomb
Enrico Fermi, working in the United States at the University of Chicago, showed that a controlled nuclear reaction was possible. Fermi also recognized that there was potentially a military application.
Congress approved the creation of the Manhattan Project, a secret program. The officer in charge of it was General Leslie Groves. Several prominent German-Jewish scientists were also working on the Manhattan Project. British nuclear scientists had also gone to America to pool their knowledge and their resources with the Americans.
When he became president, Harry Truman didn’t know about the research on the atom bomb. He was briefed on was the fact that this secret weapon project was going on, and that it was almost ready. He had to decide whether it should be used once the test had worked.
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He shared his advisors’ belief that a conventional invasion of Japan would be very costly in lives and might take many years. Truman himself doubted whether a demonstration could be arranged. How do you send an invitation to a nation with whom you’re at absolute war? Where would the test be? Surely, the enemy would assume that it was a trick. Besides, what if it went wrong? There’d only ever been one atomic explosion, the test, and the American military had only two more of these bombs.
If one of them was used in a test, and it didn’t convince the Japanese, the Americans would be putting themselves in a weaker military position. If it didn’t provoke a surrender, it would be wasted.
The Bomb at Hiroshima
Those were some of the considerations that eventually led Truman to conclude that the weapon ought to be used. The first, then, was dropped from a B-29, called the Enola Gay, on August 6, 1945. It was dropped on the Japanese port city of Hiroshima. It was a place where there were densely concentrated defense industries, and the city had not previously been bombed very much, so that the effect of this one explosion was unmissable.
In fact, the American strategic planners, anticipating the completion of the atom bomb, had set aside various Japanese cities stating that they won’t attack those places, as they were potential nuclear targets. Hiroshima was the first of them.
The explosion killed 70,000 people outright, and about 100,000 more from wounds and radiation sickness in the following months.
Nagasaki Bombing and Japanese Surrender
The second, three days later, destroyed the city of Nagasaki in the same apocalyptic way—instant mass destruction.
That finally did lead the Japanese to conclude that they must surrender. They weren’t aware that the Americans had now used both of their nuclear weapons. They surrendered with no conditions at all, except that the emperor should be retained. In fact, the emperor broke precedent by going onto Japanese radio to announce to his people that the war was coming to an end.
Atom Bombs: Ethical?
Now, although a great debate about the rights and wrongs of the atom bomb has raged ever since, and certainly in—for example—the early 1980s during the antinuclear movement, Hiroshima was regarded as a great war crime.
In context, it’s very easy to understand why the Americans decided it was the appropriate thing to do. Look at it from the point of view of American soldiers who were getting ready to launch a conventional invasion of the Japanese mainland themselves, and who suddenly were reprieved from having to do so because of the bomb and the Japanese surrender.
Lifesaver for Some
Richard Prendergast, from Chicago, was a participant in Studs Terkel’s book The Good War. He had just been released from a German prisoner of war camp with the end of the European war, and he had been rehabilitated when he was told that he was going to become part of the invasion force of Japan. He said, “So I get my orders. Fort Lawton, Seattle, Washington, going off to the invasion of Japan. We’re sitting on the pier, sharpening our bayonets, when Harry dropped that beautiful bomb, the greatest thing that ever happened. Anyone sitting at that pier at the time would have to agree.
Well, it’s understandable, isn’t it, that from his point of view it seemed to be literally a lifesaver. Coming out of the war in Europe, and being imprisoned, and then about to go to Japan, suddenly he’s spared.
America after the War
On September 2, 1945, the Japanese surrendered to General MacArthur on the deck of the USS Missouri. MacArthur, then became the American commander inside Japan who set about organizing the rebuilding of Japan, and the creation of a Japanese democracy to replace the military autocracy that had been completely defeated.
America had lost 292,000 war casualties, more than in any other previous foreign war, but a tiny number compared to the losses that ran into the tens of millions, in the case of the Russians and the Germans. America, therefore, emerged from the war economically mightier than ever, and undamaged at home.
Common Questions about Atomic Bombs on Japan and the End of WWII
Harry Truman himself doubted whether a demonstration could be arranged. If one of the bombs was used in a test, and it didn’t convince the Japanese, the Americans would be putting themselves in a weaker military position. If it didn’t provoke a surrender, it would be wasted.
The first bomb was dropped from a B-29, called the Enola Gay, on August 6, 1945, on the Japanese port city of Hiroshima.
The apocalyptic destruction of Nagasaki led the Japanese to conclude that they must surrender. They surrendered with no conditions at all, except that the emperor should be retained.