As the 75th anniversary of VJ Day and the end of the Second World War approaches, the world inevitably turns its attention to the enduring tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is often forgotten that World War II was a nuclear war, albeit a one-sided one, and the controversy over the use of nuclear weapons has never gone away.
This piece is a slightly modified excerpt from The Lesser Evil, my book on the Second World War. It explains how the decision to drop what became known simply as ‘the bomb’ was made. Another article will examine the ‘why’.
It is easy to imagine President Harry S. Truman spending sleepless nights agonising over a decision that would take the lives of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, but that was far from the case. ‘Hell no, I made it like that,’ he told the historian John Toland in 1958, snapping his fingers. In many ways the decision was almost made for him as the atomic bomb was developed on the working assumption it would be used. The US Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, who was in on the secret, said after the war that President Roosevelt had indicated using atomic bombs as a decisive war-winning weapon was the only thing that justified their cost. Under the terms of the Quebec Agreement of 1943, the United States could not use the bomb without the consent of the United Kingdom, but in practice the British went along with whatever the Americans, clearly the senior partner in the arrangement, decided. On 30 April 1945, Field Marshal Wilson, a British member of the Anglo-American combined chiefs of staff in Washington, told Sir John Anderson, the cabinet minister responsible for the British input to the Manhattan Project, ‘the Americans propose to drop a bomb sometime in August.’ That was followed on 1 June when the Interim Committee, set up to oversee the use of atomic technology and chaired by Stimson, accepted a recommendation from James Byrnes, ‘… that the bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible; that it be used on a war plant surrounded by workers homes; and that it be used without prior warning.’ It is difficult to conceive that Byrnes, who was close to Truman, after pushing for such a policy on the Interim Committee, would have tendered different advice to the president after he was appointed secretary of state on 3 July.
On 18 June Truman met with his military chiefs at the White House. These included head of the army, General George Marshall, head of the navy, Admiral Ernest King and Ira Eaker, who represented ‘Hap’ Arnold the head of the USAAF. In considering the options to end the war, Marshall doubted that air power alone would be enough so the choice boiled down to an invasion, siege, or a combination of both along with continued bombardment. King thought a siege would be ineffective without control of Kyushu, one of Japan’s four major islands, and Truman was concerned about casualties; if the Japanese inflicted losses on the same proportion as on Okinawa or Iwo Jima, American losses could be as a high as 300,000. It was pointed out that Okinawa was not a typical case as the fighting there had occurred on a narrow defence line. Marshall thought casualties similar to Leyte were more likely, around 17,000. King qualified that by saying they might range between the Leyte and Okinawa figures, possibly as high as 40,000. Soviet intervention was predicted to create a tipping point towards a Japanese surrender and was considered necessary to pin down the Japanese forces on the Asian mainland to prevent them from reinforcing the home islands. Truman approved Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu, and kept the option of Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu, the main Japanese home island, open. But he was worried and had good reason to be. More Americans had been killed in the Pacific in the first six months of 1945 than in the previous three years. He said Kyushu could create another Okinawa, ‘closer to Japan’ and the chiefs of staff agreed. The situation in China was then discussed before, as the minutes tersely recorded, the men discussed ‘certain other matters.’  These were almost certainly the atomic bomb.
According to Eaker, Truman made the decision to use the Bomb based on the advice he received at the meeting and when it was over, the president handed him a letter for delivery to Karl Spaatz, head of US strategic bombing in the Pacific, directing him to use nuclear weapons. Eaker’s account, if correct, indicates the decision was a fait accompli long before Truman travelled to the Big Three conference at Potsdam, where according to Churchill, ‘…the decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb to compel the surrender of Japan was never even an issue. There was unanimous, automatic agreement around our table; nor did we hear the slightest suggestion we should do otherwise.’
If we accept Eaker and Churchill at their word, the Potsdam Proclamation – a diplomatic ultimatum demanding Japan’s surrender – was nothing more than a piece of political window-dressing, designed to justify a decision already made. Truman was fully aware through intelligence intercepts that the Japanese would not accept unconditional surrender, raising the obvious question why was the proclamation not modified as a number of prominent figures suggested? These included Stimson, Grew, the acting secretary of state, his chief-of-staff, Admiral Leahy, the US joint chiefs and Churchill. Yet Truman set aside their advice and pursued a strategy that would almost certainly result in using the Bomb. His reasons appear to be political rather than military. A Gallup poll in June revealed only 7% of Americans thought the emperor should be retained, even as a puppet, and a third thought he should be executed as a war criminal. Another poll showed Americans were impatient for demobilisation. The director of the War Mobilisation and Reconversion Office warned the joint chiefs he ‘was fearful of unrest in the country.’ Any conciliatory move towards Japan would have been politically damaging. Truman needed the war to end and to end soon and with as few American casualties as possible. The American public was war weary and tired of their loved ones dying on obscure islands at the hands of people they regarded as mindless fanatics. It was a view Truman largely shared as a letter to a church group on 11 August 1945 shows:
‘Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs that I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and the murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them.
When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.’
Truman would have found himself in political hot water if the United States continued to sustain even light casualties in a siege of Japan while a new super weapon sat unused. The Bomb could not be kept a secret forever however and foreign policy considerations bore heavily on his mind. With over a million Red Army troops poised on the Manchurian border, Truman could hardly tell Stalin their services were no longer required. In fact, he went to Potsdam still seeking Red Army assistance even though he thought it might not be necessary. On 17 July he noted:
‘Discussed Manhattan [Project] (it is a success). Decided to tell Stalin about it. Stalin had told [Churchill] of a telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace. Stalin read his answer to me. It was satisfactory. Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in. I am sure they will when Manhattan appears over their homeland. I shall inform Stalin about it at an opportune time.’
It is important to note it was a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ ‘Manhattan’ appeared over the Japanese homeland. His ‘Potsdam Journal’ then included the following entry for the 25th: ‘This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th.’ Spaatz’ written orders were dated the same day.
The atomic bomb solved a lot of problems for Truman. It kept Soviet involvement to a minimum, finally pushed the Japanese to surrender and kept the Russians out of Japan. All in all, a good result for United States foreign policy. Whether its use was morally right or justified are different questions entirely.
- (Toland, 2003) p.766 ↑
- (Grayling, 2006) p152 ↑
- http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/Quebec.shtml ↑
- (Feis, 1961) p.33 ↑
- Minutes Interim Committee, 1 June 1945 ↑
- Minutes, White House meeting, 18 June 1945 ↑
- (Schrijvers, 2002) p.256 ↑
- Minutes, White House meeting, 18 June 1945 ↑
- (Alperovitz, 1996) pp346-47 ↑
- (Churchill, 2002) p.941 ↑
- (Alperovitz, 1996) p.243 ↑
- (Alperovitz, 1996) pp.300-01 ↑
- (Hopkins, 2009) L.7082 ↑
- (Hopkins, 2009) L.6974 ↑
- http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/bomb/large/index.php ↑
- (Hopkins, 2009) L.7014 ↑
- (Alperovitz, 1996) p.546 ↑
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam