The Atom Bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Dropping the Atom Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

During World War II, a mid-20th-century conflict that involved several nations, the United States military dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Wikipedia, 2005). The first atomic bomb was exploded over Hiroshima on August 5, 1945; the second was detonated over Nagasaki four days later. The bombs killed more than 120,000 people immediately and about twice as many over time. Many of the victims were civilians.

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As a result of the bombings, Japan surrendered unconditionally. These bombings went down in history as the first and only nuclear attacks, and have been the source of much debate in the sixty years that have followed. This paper discusses the decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in an effort to demonstrate that the decision to drop these bombs was indeed the right decision.

The atomic bombs were secretly created by the United States, with the help of the United Kingdom and Canada, under the codename “Manhattan Project” (Wikipedia, 2005). The bombs were initially created for use against Nazi Germany. However, as Worls War II progressed, it was increasingly clear that the U.S. military needed to resort to stronger tactics.

Even before Japan initiated WWII, its leadership was divided into two opposing groups (McManus, 1995): 1. The peace party, who never wanted any hostilities between Japan and the United States; and 2. The war party, who believed that Japan should rule the Pacific and most of the lands touching it. The war party launched a vicious attack on a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Japan’s only sizeable victory during the war.

According to historian Victor Hanson, the Battle of Okinawa, the last major battle of World War II, demonstrates Japan’s determination to fight until the bitter end (Wikipedia, 2005). More than 120,000 Japanese and 18,000 American soldiers were killed in this battle and it was one that strongly influenced Truman’s decision. The Japanese were a deadly enemy in the eyes of U.S. leaders, as they upheld a strong tradition of pride and honor: Many Japanese soldiers followed the Samurui Code, an ancient ethical code of content, and would fight until the very last man was dead.

The Decision to Drop the Bombs

The decision to drop the bombs in Japan was made by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who stated that the bombs were necessary to generate a quick resolution of the war by inflicting destruction, and instilling fear of further destruction, that was strong enough to cause Japan to surrender (Wikipedia, 2005). Immediately following the Hiroshima atomic attack (and prior to the Nagasaki atomic attack), Truman issued the following statement (Wikipedia, 2005):

“It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the likes of which has never been seen on this earth.”

When President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Harry Truman took over the Presidency, which included responsibility for final nuclear weapon decisions (Morton, 1960, p. 66). The decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan was his first major decision. The Target Committee, which consisted of Groves’ deputy, two Army Air Forces officers, and five scientists, met in Washington in mid-April 1945. Their initial intention was to choose cities that had not already been heavily damaged by the Twentieth Air Force’s conventional-weapon bombing campaign, but the committee determined that these types of targets were scarce. Finally they decided on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as ideal military targets.

Near the end of the war, Stimson observed that Japan was near defeat but not near surrender and looked upon the bomb to push Japan into surrendering (Bernstein, 1976, pp. 119-121). It is well documented that alternatives plans were under consideration; however, these were risky compared to simply dropping a bomb, and therefore passed over in favor of the bomb (Oh, 2002, p. 22). For example, one alternative would have been to invade Japan. However, Truman felt that the decision to drop the atomic bomb saved half a million U.S. lives, not to mention numerous Japanese casualties.

To the extent that the bomb was a military necessity for the war to end, domestic political pressure played a major part in the decision (Oh, 2002). The Manhattan Project was a bureaucratic industrial giant with over 120,000 employees and facilities all over the U.S. (Takaki, 1995, p. 38).

With the exception of Congress’ participation in the discussions of the use of the atomic bomb, it appears that Congress had little involvement in Truman’s decision (Bernstein, 1976, p. 119). By early 1945, more than two billion dollars had been dumped into the project. Truman’s advisors knew that Congress would not continue to blindly fund a project without more details and guarantees. For this reason, it is often suggested that the bombs were used partially because the Manhattan Project could have seemed a huge waste if its value had not been demonstrated by the use of the atomic bomb. Still, there is little evidence to suggest that Truman decision was influenced by this factor.

Debate on the Necessity of the Bombings

When considering the details surrounding the atomic bomb decision, it is difficult to overlook the fact that hundreds of thousands of innocent lives were lost in the bombings (Wikipedia, 2005). While opponents of the Truman’s decision use this fact to argue against the atomic bombings, proponents counter that the bombings ended the war sooner than would otherwise have been the case, ultimately sparing many lives that would have been lost if Japan had carried out its invasion plan. Japanese officials argue that the bombings were completely unncessary, as Japan was planning to surrender anyway. Still, the United States had no evidence that demonstarted this plan of surrender.

While proponents of Truman’s decision admit that the civilian leadership in Japan was cautiously and discreetly sending out diplomatic communications before the bombings, they argue that Japanese military officials were strongly opposed to any negotiations before the atomic bombs were dropped (Wikipedia, 2005). Many historians support the decision, citing Japanese resistance as a major cause of concern.

Proponents of the atomic bombings also argue that WWII was becoming far too costly and waiting for Japanese surrender would have caused many more deaths than the bombings did (Wikipedia, 2005). As a result of the war, civilians were dying throughout Asia at a rate of about 200,000 per month. The war caused Japanese imports and military aid to stall, resulting in unprecedented rates of famine and malnutrition. “Immediately after the defeat, some estimated that 10 million people were likely to starve to death,” noted historian Daikichi Irokawa.

In addition, it is believed that the United States would have lost many soliders in the planned invasion of Japan, although estimates of fatalies and casulaties are the source of much debate (Wikipedia, 2005). After the war ended, Secretary of State James Byrnes claimed that 500,000 American lives would have been lost. Some military advisors stated that a worst-case scenario may have involved up to 1,000,000 American casualties.

On a positive note, the atomic bombings directly caused a quicker end to WWII, liberating hundreds of thousands of Western citizens, including approximately 200,000 Dutch and 400,000 Indonesians from Japanese concentration camps (Wikipedia, 2005). In addition, Japanese atrocities against millions of Chinese, such as the Nanking Massacre, were ended.

WWII Factors

By August 1945, U.S. Navy submarines and aerial mining by the Army Air Forces (AAF) drastically restricted Japanese shipping (Morton, 1960, pp. 48-49). The AAF controlled Japanese skies and the AAF’s B-29 bombing attacks destroyed its war industry. A plan for the invasion of Japan was in the works and scheduled for November 1945. To combat this invasion, Japan had a veteran army of approximately two million ready, an army that had demonstrated great ferocity in combat. The Japanese also had 8,000 military aircraft available for Kamikaze (suicide) attacks on U.S. ships. The draft had been extended to include men from age 15 to 60 and women from 17 to 45, adding millions of civilians ready to fight the enemy to the death, by any means possible.

Experience throughout the Pacific war had shown that Japanese combat casualties had run from five to 20 times those suffered by the Allies, particularly in the battles of the Philippines and Okinawa (Morton, 1960). Whatever the predicted Allied losses, the potential Japanese military and civilian casualties would have been staggering. Whether Japan would have surrendered prior to invasion without the use of the atomic bombs is a question that can never be answered. Using the history and projections available to him, President Truman made the grave decision to use the atomic bomb in an effort to end the war quickly, thus avoiding a costly invasion.

The orders to release the atomic bomb for use was sent to General Carl Spaatz, commander of the Strategic Air Force in the Pacific (Morton, 1960). The orders were approved by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, as well as by President Truman. The instructions listed the targets to be attacked. Hiroshima was an industrial area with many military installations. Nagasaki was a major port with shipbuilding and marine repair facilities. In general, the participants in the decision to use multiple bombs largely based their decision on the expected psychological effect on the Japanese government and the desire to end WWII. As expected, just after the bombs were dropped, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito was convinced that further resistance would be useless and took an unprecedented step in Japanese history by surrendering to save the lives of his people from additional attacks.

As a result of the atomic bomb, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was leveled and thousands of people died (Kreiger, 2003, p. 3). The world’s second test of a nuclear weapon proved the tremendous power of nuclear weapons for killing and maiming.

President Truman wrote in his diary on July 25, 1945, that he had ordered the atomic bombings of two Japanese cities (Ferrell, 1980, pp. 55-56). His diary suggests that he ordered the bomb dropped on a “purely military” target, so that “military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children.” He wrote (Ferrell, 1980, p. 56): “I have told the Sec. Of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it [the atomic bomb] so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.”

In his first speech to the U.S. public about the bombing of Hiroshima, which he delivered on August 9, 1945, after dropping the bomb on Nagasaki, Harry Truman reported (Kreiger, 2003, p. 3): “The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.”

Among the critics of the use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leading U.S. military figures. General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander Europe during World War II and later U.S. president, described his reaction upon having been told by Stimson that atomic bombs would be used (Kreiger, 2003, p. 3): “During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, attempting to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. . . .”

Despite these criticisms from U.S. World War II military leaders, however, there is still a powerful sense in the United States and among its allies that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary and fruitful.

Hamby (1997, p. 27) sums up the debate eloquently with the following statement: “The major questions about the events of the summer of 1945 are for the most part moral, or at least nonempirical. Who can disprove a belief that any resolution of World War II would have been preferable to the atomic solution? Who can say with absolute assurance that the second bomb was necessary? Who can prove that it was necessary to drop the second bomb just three days after the first? Who will ever know for certain that Japan would not have been forced by hunger, fuel shortages, and infrastructure collapse to surrender before an invasion? But most of us also have talked to veterans, British as well as Americans, recounting their roles in the planned invasion of Malaya or Japan and ending with the conclusion, ‘The atomic bomb saved my life.’ Such beliefs, reflecting the sentiments of men who lived and breathed a desperate situation that we can scarcely comprehend, were also part of the historical reality of 1945.”


Had the bombs not been used, an enormous number of Americans and Japanese may have been killed in further battles. In 1995, Washington, DC’s Smithsonian Institution summed up the atomic bombings in an Enola Gay exhibit (McManus, 1995, p. 34). Enola Gay was the B-29 bomber that delivered the A-bomb over Hiroshima. A wall display read: “[The bombs] destroyed much of the two cities and caused many tens of thousands of deaths. However, the use of the bombs led to the immediate surrender of Japan and made unnecessary the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. Such an invasion, especially if undertaken for both main islands, would have led to heavy casualties among American, Allied, and Japanese armed forces and Japanese civilians.”

Immediately after the end of WWI, Truman publicized the view of wartime Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall that an invasion of the Japanese mainland would have required “a million men for the landing and a million more to hold it, and … half a million casualties” (McManus, 1995, p. 34).

Of all the political and military decisions in history, few have been the subject of more analysis and controversy than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Miles, 1985,121). For decades, historians have argued over and deeply contemplated the decision to use the atomic bomb near the end of WWII (Oh, 2002).

While there will always be differences in opinion, it appears that Truman’s decision to drop the bomb on Japan was a mixture of military, political and social motivations used to end a tragic war and spare many more lives from being sacrificed in an attempt to get the Japanese to surrender.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Barton J. (1976). The Atomic Bomb: The Critical Issues. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Ferrell, R. (1980). Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman. New York: Harper and Row.

Takaki, Ronald. (1995). Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Miles, Rufus E. (1985). Hiroshima: The Strange Myth of Half a Million American Lives Saved.

Oh, Jung. (Winter, 2002). Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The Decision to Drop the Bomb. Michigan Journal of History.

Morton, Louis. Greenfield, Kent. (1960). Command Decisions. Washington DC: Department of the Army.

Hogan, Michael J. (ed.), Hiroshima in History and Memory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

McManus, John. (August, 1995). Dropping the Bomb. New American Journal: Vol. 11, No. 17.

Hamby, A. (September, 1997). The Decision to Drop the Bomb. Journal of American History, Vol. 84, no. 2.

Krieger, David. (August 1, 2003). Remembering Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Nuclear Page Peace Foundation.

Wikipedia Encyclopedia. (2005). Atomic Bombings.

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