A young second lieutenant, Paul Fussell, was about to be transferred from Europe to the Pacific when he received the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In 1988, he published Thank God for the Atom Bomb. “For all the fake manliness of our facades,” he wrote, “we cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.”
Generations of Americans have been taught that the United States reluctantly dropped atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men like Fussell who were poised to die if the U.S. invaded. But the story is really more complicated – and much more disturbing.
With its sights trained on first defeating the Nazis, the United States threw the lion’s share of its resources into the European war. Roosevelt had insisted on the Europe-first strategy. He opposed “an all-out effort in the Pacific.” Defeating Japan, he argued, would not defeat Germany, but defeating Germany would mean defeating Japan, “probably without firing a shot or losing a life.”
Following the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese took the offensive early in the war. But the United States scored a major victory at Midway in June 1942, and then began the island-hopping strategy that would continue for more than three years. The Japanese fought fiercely, ensuring that the U.S. victory would come at an enormous cost. U.S. industrial production gave the U.S. forces tremendous advantages. By 1943, U.S. factories were churning out almost 100,000 planes a year, dwarfing the 70,000 Japan produced during the entire war. By the summer of 1944, the United States had deployed almost a hundred aircraft carriers in the Pacific, far more than Japan’s twenty-five for the entire war.
Science also figured prominently in the war effort. Development of radar and the proximity fuse contributed to the Allied victory. But it was the development of the atomic bomb that would change the course of history.
Science fiction writers and scientists had long pondered the possibility of atomic energy for both peaceful and military purposes. Beginning in 1896, a series of scientific discoveries by Henri Becquerel, Marie and Pierre Curie, and Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford ignited public curiosity about radioactivity. In the early 1900s, comments by Rutherford, Soddy, and others about the enormous energy locked in matter and the possibility of blowing up the universe aroused futuristic apprehension. But they and others also fantasized about the positive uses to which such energy might be put and the utopian societies that could emerge.
While awaiting the advent of atomic power to create a new Garden of Eden, the public became enamored of the healing power of radium and other radioactive ingredients. Promoters claimed that their products could heal all sorts of maladies, ranging from baldness to rheumatism to dyspepsia to high blood pressure. One list contained eighty patent medicines with radioactive ingredients that could be inhaled or injected or taken in tablets, bath salts, liniment, suppositories, or chocolate candy. William Bailey claimed that the products produced at Bailey Radium Laboratories in East Orange, New Jersey, would cure everything from flatulence to sexual debility. Among his products was a Radioendocrinator, which could be worn around the neck to rejuvenate the thyroid, around the trunk to stimulate the adrenals and ovaries, or under the scrotum in a special jockstrap. He did a thriving business, especially with his liquid Radithor, whose saddest and most noteworthy victim was wealthy Pittsburgh manufacturer and playboy Eben Byers. Byers’s physician recommended he try Radithor for his injured arm, and Byers began drinking several bottles a day in December 1927. Not only did it work for his arm, Byers claimed, it gave him new vitality and sexual energy. Believing it was an aphrodisiac, Byers pressed the substance on his lady friends. By 1931, he himself had consumed between 1,000 and 1,500 bottles and started feeling sick. He lost weight, experienced bad headaches, and watched his teeth fall out. Experts decided that his body was slowly decomposing. His upper jaw and most of his lower jaw were removed, and holes appeared in his skull. From there the end came quickly as he succumbed to radioactive poisoning.
Among those who warned of atomic energy’s dystopian possibilities was H. G. Wells, who wrote the first atomic war novel – The World Set Free – in 1914. Wells prophesied an atomic war between Germany and Austria on one side and England, France, and the United States on the other in which over two hundred cities were destroyed by the “unquenchable crimson conflagrations of the atomic bombs.” He later proposed his own epitaph: “God damn you all, I told you so.”
A brilliant, quirky, Hungarian physicist named Leo Szilard was influenced by Wells’ writing. Szilard, who left Germany soon after the Nazi takeover, had given extensive thought to the possibility of atomic energy. He tried to discuss the feasibility with Rutherford, who dismissed it as the “merest moonshine” and threw Szilard out of his office. Undaunted, Szilard took out a patent in 1934 on how a nuclear chain reaction would work, citing beryllium as the most likely element rather than uranium.
In December 1938, two German physicists stunned the scientific world by splitting the uranium atom, making the development of atomic bombs a theoretical possibility. Those in the United States who were most alarmed by this development were the scientists who had escaped from Nazi-occupied Europe, who feared the consequences should Hitler get his hands on such a weapon. Proposing that the United States build its own atomic bomb as a deterrent, the émigré scientists tried but failed to arouse the interest of U.S. authorities. Feeling desperate, in July 1939, Szilard and fellow Hungarian physicist Eugene Wigner solicited the help of the universally admired Albert Einstein, who agreed to write to President Roosevelt, urging him to authorize a U.S. atomic research program. Einstein later regretted the action, admitting to chemist Linus Pauling, “I made one great mistake in my life – when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that the atom bombs be made.” He actually wrote three letters to Roosevelt on the subject.
The scientists were right about one thing. Germany did begin an atomic research program. But, unbeknown to the Americans until late in the war, Germany abandoned its atomic research early on to focus on more immediately available weapons like the V-1 and V-2 rockets. Hitler and Albert Speer had little interest in putting manpower and resources into a weapon they might not be able to use in the current war.
Despite Roosevelt’s commitment U.S. research developed at a glacial pace. It languished until the fall of 1941, when the United States officially received the British MAUD report, which corrected the erroneous belief that five hundred tons of pure uranium might be required to make a bomb – an amount that would stop the program in its tracks. In fact, wartime science administrator James Conant thought it unwise to commit so many resources to the project. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arthur Holly Compton reported that by the summer of 1941, “The government’s responsible representatives were…very close to dropping fission studies from the war program.” However, the new calculations showed that only five to ten kilograms were needed and that a bomb was achievable within two years.
With a new report in hand, Vannevar Bush, the country’s other top science administer, went to see Roosevelt and Vice President Henry Wallace on October 9. Based on the new information, Roosevelt gave Bush the resources he requested.
Bush put Compton in charge of bomb design. Compton set up the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. The goal was to produce a self-sustaining chain reaction in an atomic pile. Compton asked J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant and charismatic theoretical physicist, to bring together a team of extraordinary theoreticians to grapple with a number of important questions. Among Oppenheimer’s “luminaries,” as he called them, were Edward Teller and Hans Bethe, who shared a compartment on the train west to Berkeley, where they were to gather in the summer of 1942. Teller confided what was really on his mind. Bethe recalled, “Teller told me that the fission bomb was all well and good and, essentially, was now a sure thing. In reality, the work had hardly begun. Teller likes to jump to conclusions. He said that what we really should think about was the possibility of igniting deuterium by a fission weapon – the hydrogen bomb.” Teller was so gung-ho on the fusion bomb that his fellow scientists had a difficult time getting him to focus on the problem at hand – building an atomic bomb. Thus, from nearly the outset of the project, the leading scientists were aware that what lay at the end of the road was not just an atomic bomb, which would vastly multiply human destructive capabilities, but a hydrogen bomb, which would threaten all life on the planet.
That summer they had a scare so profoundly unsettling that it forced them to halt the project. During their deliberations, the physicists suddenly realized that an atomic detonation might ignite the hydrogen in the oceans or the nitrogen in the atmosphere and set the planet afire. Nuel Pharr Davis, in his study of Oppenheimer and physicist Ernest Lawrence, describes the abject fear that engulfed the room: “Oppenheimer stared at the blackboard in wild surprise, and the other faces in the room, including Teller’s, successively caught the same look. … Teller had correctly calculated the heat production of a fission bomb; Oppenheimer saw it, with or without a deuterium wrapper, setting afire the atmosphere of the entire planet, and no one at the conference could prove he was wrong.” Oppenheimer rushed east to confer with Compton. In his memoirs, Atomic Quest, Compton explains that he and Oppenheimer agreed that “unless they came up with a firm and reliable conclusion that our atomic bombs could not explode the air or the sea, these bombs mush never be made.” Compton reflected, “Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind!” Back at Berkeley, Bethe performed some additional calculations and discovered that Teller hadn’t accounted for the heat that would be absorbed by radiation, which lowered the odds of blowing up the world to three in 1 million – a risk they were willing to chance.
On December 2, 1942, the scientists at Met Lab succeeded in creating the first sustained nuclear chain reaction. Given the lack of safety precautions, its lucky they didn’t blow up the city of Chicago. Szilard and Italian émigré Enrico Fermi shook hands in front of the reactors as the scientists toasted with Chianti in paper cups to salute Fermi’s leadership. Szilard, however, appreciated what a bittersweet moment it actually was, and warned Fermi that December 2 “would go down as a black day in the history of mankind.” He was right.
Slow out of the gate, the United States now embarked on a crash program – the Manhattan Project – under Brigadier General Leslie Groves in late 1942. Groves appointed Oppenheimer to organize and head the project’s main laboratory at Los Alamos in New Mexico’s beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Most onlookers assumed that the relationship between Groves and Oppenheimer would be a marriage made in Hell. They were opposites in every imaginable way. Groves weighed more than twice as much as the pencil-thin scientist, who, despite being over six feet tall, weighed 128 pounds at the start of the project, and 115 by the end. Groves came from poverty, Oppenheimer from wealth. They were different in religion, taste in foods, smoking and drinking habits, and especially politics. Groves was a staunch conservative, Oppenheimer an unapologetic leftist, most of whose students, friends, and family members were Communists. He admitted that he was a member of every Communist Party front group on the West Coast. At one point, he had given 10 percent of his monthly salary to the Communist Party to support the republican forces in Spain.
Oppenheimer and Groves were also opposites in temperament. Whereas Oppenheimer was beloved by most of those who knew him, Groves was universally despised. Groves’ assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Nichols, said that his boss was “the biggest S.O.B. I have ever worked for.” He described him as “demanding,” “critical,” “abrasive and sarcastic,” “intelligent,” and “the most egotistical man I know.” Nichols admitted that he “hated his guts and so did everyone else.” But Groves’ gruff, bullying, take-no-prisoners style actually complemented Oppenheimer’s ability to inspire and get the most out of his colleagues in driving the project forward to completion.
That is not to suggest that the scientists and the military didn’t clash over security provisions and other matters. Where possible, Oppenheimer ran interference for the scientists and eased the suffocating grip of military control. Sometimes Oppie, as his friends called him, made his point humorously. On one occasion, Groves told Oppenheimer that he didn’t want him to wear his signature porkpie hats because they made him too recognizable. When Groves next entered Oppenheimer’s office, he found him wearing a full Indian headdress, which Oppenheimer proclaimed he would continue to wear until the end of the war. Groves ultimately relented.
As the bomb project progressed steadily, so did the Allied effort in the Pacific. By 1944, the United States was capturing more and more Japanese-occupied territories, eventually bringing Japan itself within range of U.S. bombers. In July 1944, the Combined Chiefs of Staff, under General George Marshall, a future secretary of state and Nobel Peace Prize winner, adopted a two-pronged strategy to win the Pacific war: first strangle Japan with an air and sea blockade and pummel the country with “intensive air bombardment”; then, with Japan’s military weakened and morale lowered, invade.
In June 1944, as Allied forces advanced in both the European and Pacific theaters, Churchill and Roosevelt finally delivered on the long-delayed second front, landing 100,000 troops on the beach at Normandy, France. German forces, retreating from the Soviet advance, would now have to fight a real two-front war.
On July 9, U.S. forces took Saipan. The toll was enormous. Thirty thousand Japanese troops and 22,000 civilians were killed or committed suicide. The United States counted almost 3,000 dead and over 10,000 wounded in the nearly month-long combat – its highest battle toll to date in the Pacific. For most Japanese leaders, the calamitous defeat offered definitive proof that military victory could not be won. On July 18, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and his cabinet resigned.
The next day, just as news of Tojo’s resignation began to circulate, the Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago. Franklin D. Roosevelt easily secured the nomination for an unprecedented fourth term. The real contest was over the vice presidency. Henry Wallace had incurred the wrath of party conservatives by calling for a worldwide “people’s revolution,” toward which end the United States and Soviet Union would work together, and by championing the cause of labor unions, women, African Americans, and the victims of European colonialism. His enemies included Wall Street bankers and other anti-union business interests, southern segregationists, and defenders of British and French colonialism.
William Stephenson, head of British intelligence in New York, even deployed Roald Dahl to spy on Wallace when the RAF lieutenant and future writer was posted to Washington, D.C. In 1944, Dahl got hold of a draft of Wallace’s upcoming pamphlet “Our Job in the Pacific.” What he read, he said, “made my hair stand on end.” Wallace called for the “emancipation of …colonial subjects” in British India, Malaya, and Burma, French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, and many small Pacific islands. Dahl secreted the manuscript out of Wallace’s friend’s home and rushed it to British intelligence officials to copy and transmit to British intelligence and Churchill. “I was later told,” Dahl reminisced, “that Churchill could hardly believe what he was reading.” Wallace wrote in his diary that “the entire British Secret Service was shaking with indignation as well as the British Foreign Office.” British leaders pressured Roosevelt to censure and part ways with his vice president. Stephenson remarked, “I came to regard Wallace as a menace and I took action to ensure the White House was aware that the British Government would view with concern Wallace’s appearance on the ticket at the 1944 presidential elections.” Dahl, whose main job in Washington was monitoring Wallace’s activities – the two regularly walked and played tennis together – said his “friend” was “a lovely man, but too innocent and idealistic for this world.”
It was precisely because most of the world did not agree with Dahl’s assessment that Wallace posed such a threat. In March 1943, Wallace embarked on a forty-day seven-nation goodwill tour in Latin America. Speaking in Spanish, he electrified his audiences. He stopped first in Costa Rica, where 65,000 people, 15 percent of that nation’s population, turned out to greet him. “The reception accorded Mr. Wallace was the greatest in the history of Costa Rica,” the New York Times reported. But that was just the beginning. Three hundred thousand greeted his plane in Chile. More than a million cheered him as he walked through the streets of Santiago, arm in arm with President Juan Antonio Rios. One hundred thousand people, 20,000 over capacity, packed the stadium to hear him speak. Ambassador Claude Bowers reported to Washington: “Never in Chilean history has any foreigner been received with such extravagance and evidently sincere enthusiasm. … His simplicity of manner, his mingling with all sorts of people, his visit to the workers’ quarters without notice…and his inspection of the housing projects absolutely amazed the masses who responded almost hysterically.”
In Ecuador, he spoke movingly of the postwar future at the University of Guayaquil. “If the liberation of the people for which the fight is going on today with the blood of youth and the sweat of workers results in imperialism and oppression tomorrow, this terrible war will have been in vain,” he declared. “If this sacrifice of blood and strength again brings a concentration of riches in the hands of a few – great fortunes for the privileged and poverty for the people in general – then democracy will have failed and all this sacrifice will have been in vain.” Two hundred thousand welcomes him to Lima. The trip was not only a personal triumph; it was a diplomatic tour de force. When it was over, a dozen Latin American countries had declared war on Germany and twenty had broken diplomatic relations.
Wallace was equally popular back home. While he was away, Gallup asked Democratic voters whether they view favorably or unfavorably each of the four leading contenders to replace Roosevelt if he decided not to run again. Wallace’s 57 percent favorability rating more than doubled that of his nearest competitor.
Wallace’s acclaim made it even more urgent for his detractors to make their move. Knowing that Roosevelt’s failing health meant he would not survive a fourth term, the party bosses decided to oust Wallace from the ticket and replace him with someone more amenable to the party’s conservative factions. In 1944, they staged what was known among insiders as “Pauley’s coup,” named after Democratic Party Treasurer and oil millionaire Edwin Pauley. Pauley had once quipped that he went into politics when he realized that is was cheaper to elect a new Congress that to buy up the old one. Pauley co-conspirators included Edward Flynn of the Bronx, Mayor Edward Kelly of Chicago, Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City, Postmaster General and former Party Chairman Frank Walker, Party Secretary George Allen, and national Democratic Party Chairman Robert Hannegan.
After going through the list of potential candidates, the party bosses chose undistinguished Missouri Senator Harry Truman to replace Wallace. They picked Truman not because he had any substantial qualifications for the position but because he had been sufficiently innocuous as a senator that he had made few enemies and could be counted on not to rock the boat. They gave little, if any, thought to the attributes that would be necessary to lead the United States and the world in the challenging times ahead, when decisions would be made that would shape the course of history. Thus, Truman’s ascent to the presidency, much like of his career, was a product of backroom deal-making by corrupt party bosses.
Although Harry Truman left office with approval ratings so low that only George W. Bush has come close, he is now widely viewed as a nearly great president and routinely showered with praise by Republicans and Democrats alike. Former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whom George W. Bush credited with telling “me everything I know about the Soviet Union,” named Truman her man of the century to Time. Some historians have fallen into the same trap, none more than David McCullough, whose hagiographic biography of Truman won him a Pulitzer Prize.
The real Harry Truman is more interesting than McCullough’s fanciful one. Truman overcame a very difficult childhood, one that took a great toll on his psyche. Growing up on his family’s Missouri farm, he struggled to win the affection of his father, John “Peanuts” Truman. The elder Truman, though only five foot four, relished beating up much taller men to show how tough he was. He wanted the same toughness in his sons. He found it in Harry’s younger brother Vivian. Harry, however, was diagnosed with hypermetropia, or “flat eyeballs,” and forced to wear Coke-bottle-thick glasses, so he couldn’t play sports or roughhouse with the other boys. “I was afraid my eyes would get knocked out if there was too much of a rough and tumble play,” he explained. “To tell the truth, I was kind of a sissy.” He was picked on and bullied by the other boys, who called him “four-eyes” and “sissy” and chased him home after school. To make matters worse, when he arrived home trembling and out of breath, his mother would comfort him by telling him not to worry because he was meant to be a girl anyway. He wrote about one incident in a 1912 letter, “That sounds rather feminine, doesn’t it. Mamma says I was intended for a girl anyway. It made me pretty mad to be told so but I guess it’s partly so.” He later reflected that being regarded as a “sissy” was “hard on a boy. It makes him lonely, and it gives him an inferiority complex, and he has a hard time overcoming it.” Not surprisingly, gender issues plagued him for years. He often referred to his feminine features and attributes. He would later prove that not only was he not a sissy, he could stand up to Stalin and show him who was boss.
Economic hardship also plagued him. Although he was a good student, with a serious interest in history, his family’s economic circumstances made it impossible for him to attend college. After graduating from high school, he bounced around for a while before returning to work on his father’s farm. He also got involved in three failed business ventures and didn’t experience real success until his service in the First World War, when he served bravely and honorably in France.
His final business venture, a haberdashery that went belly up in 1922, left the thirty-eight-year-old Truman with a wife to support and limited prospects. It was at that low point that party boss Tom Pendergast offered to get Truman elected judge in Jackson Country. During the campaign, Truman, who was always bigoted and anti-Semitic, sent a $10 check to the Ku Klux Klan but was denied membership because he would not promise to stop hiring Catholics.
Truman remained a loyal member of the notorious Pendergast machine throughout the 1920s and early 1930s but felt as if he were getting nowhere in life. On the eve of his forty-ninth birthday in 1933, he mused, “Tomorrow I’ll be forty-nine, but for all the good I have done the forty might as well be left off.” The following year, just when Truman had wearied of machine politics and was contemplating a return to the farm, Boss Pendergast picked him to run for the Senate – his first four choices had turned him down – and engineered his election. When asked why he had chosen someone as unqualified as Truman to run, Pendergast replied, “I wanted to demonstrate that a well oiled machine could send an office boy to the senate.” Known derisively among his new Senate colleagues as “the Senator from Pendergast,” and shunned by most of them, Truman worked had to gain respectability in Washington, a stature he finally achieved in his second term in the Senate.
He almost didn’t get that second term. Failing to win Roosevelt’s endorsement, Truman eked out reelection to the Senate in 1940 by a razor-thin margin with the help of the St. Louis Hannegan-Dickmann machine while Pendergast languished in federal prison. Truman now owed favor to two corrupt urban machines. Roosevelt, meanwhile was staking his own political future on the choice of the high-minded Wallace as his vice presidential running mate, taking comfort in the knowledge that Wallace’s progressive ideals would help steer the country through the rocky times ahead.
The American people showed much better judgement than the party bosses. When Gallup asked likely Democratic voters in a Gallup Poll released on July 20, 1944, during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, who they wanted on the ticket as vice president, 65 percent selected Henry Wallace. Jimmy Byrnes of South Carolina, who would later exert so much influence over Truman’s Cold War thinking the atomic bomb decision, received 3 percent of the vote, with Wallace even trouncing him by a six-to-one margin in the South. Truman came in eighth out of eight candidates, with the support of 2 percent of those polled. But Roosevelt, tired, ailing, and dependent on the bosses for reelection, was not willing able to fight for Wallace as he had in 1940. He simply announced that were he a delegate, he would vote for Wallace.
Party leaders made sure they had an iron grip on the convention. Yet the rank-and-file Democrats would not go quietly, staging a rebellion on the convention floor. The groundswell of support for Wallace among the delegates and attendees was so great that despite the bosses’ stranglehold over the proceedings and strong-arm tactics. Wallace’s supporters almost carried the day as an uproarious demonstration for Wallace broke out on the convention floor. In the midst of the demonstration, Florida Senator Claude Pepper realized that if he got Wallace’s name into the nomination that night, Wallace would sweep the convention. Pepper fought his way through the crowed to get within five feet of the microphone when the nearly hysterical Mayor Kelly, purporting that there was a fire hazard, got the chairman, Senator Samuel Jackson, to adjourn the proceedings. Had Pepper made it five more feet and nominated Wallace before the bosses forced adjournment against the will of the delegates, Wallace would have become president in 1945 and the course of history would have been dramatically altered. In fact, had that happened, there might have been no atomic bombings, no nuclear arms race, and no Cold War. But the bosses further restricted admission and made the requisite backroom deals. Truman finally prevailed on the third ballot. Ambassadorships, postmaster jobs, and other positions were offered. Cash payoffs were made. Bosses called every state chairman, telling them that the fix was in and Roosevelt wanted the Missouri senator as his running mate. On Roosevelt’s urging, Wallace agreed to remain in the cabinet as secretary of commerce.
Jackson apologized to Pepper the next day. “I knew if you made the motion,” he explained, “the convention would nominate Henry Wallace. I had strict instructions from Hannegan not to let the convention nominate the vice president last night. So I had to adjourn the convention in your face. I hope you understand.” “What I understood,” Pepper wrote in in his autobiography, “was that, for better or worse, history was turned topsy-turvy that night in Chicago.”
Meanwhile, the bomb project was progressing rapidly. Scientists, still worried that they might trail the Germans, worked feverishly on two types of atom bombs – one using uranium, the other plutonium. It was not until late 1944 that the Allies discovered that Germany had abandoned its bomb research in 1942. Although the original rationale for the bomb project – as a deterrent to a German bomb – no longer applied, only one scientist, Polish-born Joseph Rotblat, left the Manhattan Project at that point. The rest, fascinated by the research and believing they could speed the end of the war, pushed even harder to finish what they had started.
If Wallace’s ouster from the ticket represented the first major setback to hopes for a peaceful postwar world, fate would soon deliver a second devastating blow. On April 12, 1945, with German surrender imminent, the United States’ beloved wartime leader – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – passed away after more than twelve years in office. The longest-serving president of in U.S. history, he had seen the country through its hardest times: the Great Depression and World War II. The nation mourned and wondered about Roosevelt’s successor.
Events unfolded at a dizzying pace over the next four months, forcing the new president to make some of the most momentous decisions in the nation’s history. After an emergency cabinet meeting on April 12, Secretary of War Henry Stimson finally let Truman in the bomb secret. Truman received a fuller briefing the following day from Byrnes, his old Senate mentor, whom Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal had flown up from South Carolina in his private plane. A former Supreme Court Justice, Byrnes had expected the vice presidential nomination in 1944, but party leaders considered his staunch segregationist views too great a liability. At that meeting, Byrnes told Truman that the United States was building an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world.”
“The world in its present state of moral advancement compared with its technical development would be eventually at the mercy of such a weapon.”
They warned that the fate of humanity would depend upon if and how such bombs were used and what was subsequently done to control them.
Truman received a fuller briefing on the atom bomb on April 25 from Stimson and Groves. They explained that they expected within four months, to have “completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb that could destroy a whole city.” Soon other nations would develop their own bombs. “The world in its present state of moral advancement compared with its technical development would be eventually at the mercy of such a weapon. In other words, modern civilization might be completely destroyed.” They warned that the fate of humanity would depend upon if and how such bombs were used and what was subsequently done to control them. In an account of the meeting published posthumously by his daughter, Truman wrote, “Stimson said gravely that his didn’t know whether we could or should use the bomb, because he was afraid that it was so powerful that it could end up destroying the world. I felt the same fear.”
Caught between the advancing Soviet troops, who had entered Berlin form the east, and the Allied troops approaching from the west, Germany surrendered on May 7. That meant that the Soviet Union, as agreed at Yalta, would enter the Pacific war around August 7, almost three months before the November 1 start date for the invasion of Japan.
Japanese soldiers fought fiercely and valiantly. Few ever surrendered. They believed that death on the battlefield would bring the highest honor: eternal repose at Yasakuni Shrine. At Tarawa, of 2,500 Japanese soldiers, only 8 were taken alive. In just five weeks of combat at Iwo Jima, 6,281 U.S. soldiers and marines were killed and almost 19,000 wounded. At Okinawa, the biggest battle of the Pacific war, 13,000 Americans were killed or missing and 36,000 wounded. As many as 70,000 Japanese soldiers and more than 100,000 Okinawan civilians died, many of them taking their own lives. Americans were also shocked to see wave after wave of kamikaze pilots suicidally crash their planes in a last-ditch effort to sink or damage U.S. ships.
As prospects worsened in 1945, some Japanese leaders began calling loudly for “100 million deaths with honor,” preferring that the nation might fight to the death rather than surrender. But U.S. top leaders, including Marshall and Stimson, dismissed such rantings, remaining convinced that when defeated, Japan would surrender. The “Proposed Program for Japan” that Stimson presented to Truman in early July stated that despite Japan’s capacity for “fanatical resistance to repel an invasion,” he believed that “Japan is susceptible to reason in such a crisis to a much greater extent than is indicated by our current press and other current comment. Japan is not a nation composed wholly of mad fanatics of an entirely different mentality from ours.”
The debate over just how costly an invasion would have been has raged for decades. The Joint Staff Planners prepared a paper for the Joint Chiefs’ June 18 meeting with the president, estimated 193,500 dead and wounded taking Japan. Some estimates were higher, some lower. Truman initially said that thousands would have died, but then steadily raised the number. He later claimed that Marshall had told him that a half-million men could be lost in an invasion. But the basis for that assertion has never been found. Marshall’s own estimates were much lower, as were those of General MacArthur, who was in charge of planning for the invasion.
But as the war dragged on month after bloody month, the prospects for an invasion dimmed. By the end of 1944, the Japanese navy was decimated, having lost 7 of 12 battleships, 19 of 25 aircraft carriers, 103 of 160 submarines, 31 of 47 cruisers, and 118 of 158 destroyers. The air force was also badly weakened. With the rail system in tatters, food supplies shrank and public morale plummeted. Some Japanese leaders feared a popular uprising. Prince Fumimaro Konoe, who had served three times as prime minister between 1937 and 1941, sent a memo to Emperor Hirohito in February 1945: “I regret to say that Japan’s defeat is inevitable.” He warned, “What we must worry about is a Communist revolution that might accompany defeat.” Since at least the previous August, in the aftermath of the U.S. victory at Saipan, Japan had quietly commenced studies on how to end the war. Japanese desperation was growing by the day, as was apparent to publishing magnate Henry Luce, who visited the Pacific for a firsthand look in spring of 1945. He wrote, “A few months before Hiroshima, I was with Admiral Halsey Navy as it assaulted the coast of Japan. Two things seemed clear to me – as they did to many of the top fighting men I talked to: first, that Japan was beaten; second, that the Japanese knew it and were every day showing signs of increasing willingness to quit.” Even Richard Frank, whose book Downfall present the most authoritative defense of the atomic bombings, observed, “It is reasonable to assume that even without atomic bombs, the destruction of the rail-transportation system, coupled to the cumulative effects of the blockade-and-bombardment strategy, would have posed a severe threat to internal order and subsequently thus impelled the Emperor to seek an end to the war.
Why, then, if Japan was not a nation of suicidal fanatics and its prospects for military victory had vanished, did its leaders not surrender and ease the suffering of their soldiers and citizens? The answer to that lies, in large measure, in the U.S. surrender terms, though the emperor and his advisors must bear their share of the blame.
At Casablanca in January 1943, President Roosevelt called for the “unconditional surrender” of Germany, Italy and Japan. He later claimed to have done so spontaneously, catching even Churchill by surprise. In a letter to his biographer Robert Sherwood, Churchill supported that interpretation: “I heard the words ‘unconditional surrender’ for the first time from the President’s lips at the [news] conference.” Though “unconditional” had not been included in the official communique of the press conference, it had clearly been discussed beforehand and agreed by Roosevelt and Churchill. The ramifications of adhering to that demand would be enormous.
The Japanese assumed that “unconditional surrender” meant the destruction of the kokutai (imperial system) and the likelihood that the emperor would be tried as a war criminal and executed. For most Japanese, such an outcome was too terrible to contemplate. They had been worshipping the emperor almost as a god since Jimmu in 660 B.C. A study by MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Command explained, “to dethrone, or hang, the Emperor would cause a tremendous and violent reaction from all Japanese. Hanging of the Emperor to them would be comparable to the crucifixion of Christ to us. All would fight to die like ants.” Realizing that, many urged Truman to soften the surrender terms. Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew, who had previously served as ambassador to Japan and knew the Japanese better than any other top administration official, wrote in April 1945, “Surrender by Japan would be highly unlikely regardless of military defeat, in the absence of a public undertaking by the President that unconditional surrender would not mean the elimination of the present dynasty if the Japanese people desire its retention.” Grew joined with Stimson, Forrestal, and Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy in urging Truman to change the surrender terms. U.S. military leaders also felt strongly about the wisdom of giving the Japanese assurances about the emperor. Admiral Leahy told a June meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that he feared that “our insistence on unconditional surrender would result only in making the Japanese desperate and thereby increase our casualty lists.”
U.S. officials understood how critical the question of surrender terms was to the Japanese because they had broken Japanese codes even before the United States entered the war and were intercepting Japanese communications that repeatedly emphasized the surrender issue. In May, Japan’s Supreme War Council met in Tokyo. The council, also known as the Big Six, consisted of Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, Army Minister Korechika Anami, Army Chief of Staff Yoshijiro Umezu, Navy Minister Mitsumasa Yonai, and Navy Chief of Staff Soemu Toyoda. They decided to solicit the help of the Soviet Union to getter better surrender terms from the United States, offering the USSR territorial concession in return. Japan’s initial contacts were enough to convince Soviet officials that the Japanese were looking for a way out of the war. That news did not please the Soviet leaders, who wanted to secure the concessions the Allies had promised in return for the Soviets entering the Pacific War, which was still a couple of months off. On June 18, the emperor informed the Supreme War Council that he favored quick restoration of peace. The council concurred, agreeing to ascertain the Soviet Union’s willingness to broker a surrender that would safeguard the emperor and preserve the imperial system.
A series of cables in July from Foreign Minister Togo in Tokyo to Ambassador Naotake Sato in Moscow made that crystal clear. On July 12, Togo cabled Sato, “It is His Majesty’s heart’s desire to see the swift termination of the war. … [However,] as long as America and England insist on unconditional surrender, our country has no alternative but to see it through in an all-out effort for the sake of survival and the honor of the homeland.” The following day, Togo cabled, “His Majesty the Emperor, mindful of the fact that the present war daily brings greater evil and sacrifice upon the peoples of all the belligerent powers, desires from his heart that it may be quickly terminated.”
Despite the mounting evidence that changing the surrender terms could bring the war to a swift end, Truman listened instead to Byrnes, who insisted the American public would not tolerate compromising surrender terms and warned the president that he would be crucified politically if he tried.
Though dropping two atomic bombs on an already defeated nation in order to avoid domestic political repercussions would seem morally reprehensible under any circumstances, there was little reason to think that Truman would have had to pay a price for letting the emperor remain on the throne. In fact, Republican leaders had provided Truman all the political cover he needed. On July 12, 1945, Senate Minority Leader Wallace White, a Republican from Maine, addressed his Senate colleagues, urging President Truman to clarify what he meant by “unconditional surrender” in the hope of expediting Japan’s surrender. If Japan ignored or rejected the president’s offer to surrender on more favorable terms, he reasoned, “it will not have increased our losses or otherwise have prejudiced our cause. Much might be gained by such a statement. Nothing could be lost.” White’s Republican colleague from Indiana, Homer Capehart, held a press conference later that day to support White’s request. Capehart informed the press that the White House had received an offer by Japan to surrender solely on the grounds that Emperor Hirohito not be deposed. “It isn’t a matter of whether you hate the Japs or not. I certainly hate them. But what’s to be gained by continuing a war when it can be settled now on the same terms as two years from now?” In a June editorial, the Washington Post condemned “unconditional surrender” as a “fatal phrase” that was conjuring up such fears among the Japanese people that it was proving an impediment to ending the fighting.
Changing the surrender terms was not the only way to expedite Japanese surrender without using atomic bombs. What the Japanese dreaded above all else was the Soviet Union’s entry into the war. In early April 1945, the Soviet Union informed Japan that it was not renewing the 1941 Neutrality Pact, raising Japanese fears that the Soviets would declare war. All parties understood what that would mean. On April 11, the Joint Intelligence Staff of the Joint Chiefs predicted, “If at any time the USSR should enter the war, all Japanese will realize that absolute defeat is inevitable.” In May, Japan’s Supreme War Council drew a similar conclusion: “At the present moment, when Japan is waging a life-or-death struggle against the U.S. and Britain, Soviet entry into the war will deal a death blow to the Empire.” On July 6, the Combined Intelligence Committee issued a top-secret report on the “Estimate of the Enemy Situation” for the Combined Chiefs of Staff, who would be meeting at Potsdam. The section assessing the “Possibility of Surrender” described the effect Soviet entry would have on the already hopeless Japanese:
The Japanese ruling groups are aware of the desperate military situation and are increasingly desirous of a compromise peace, but still find unconditional surrender unacceptable. The basic policy of the present government is to fight as long and as desperately as possible in the hope of avoiding complete defeat and of acquiring a better bargaining position in a negotiated peace. … We believe that a considerable portion of the Japanese population now consider absolute military defeat to be probable. The increasing effects of sea blockade and cumulative devastation wrought by strategic bombing, which has already rendered millions homeless and has destroyed from 25% to 50% of the built-up areas of Japan’s most important cities, should make this realization increasingly general. An entry of the Soviet Union into the war would finally convince the Japanese of the inevitability of compete defeat. Although individual Japanese willingly sacrifice themselves in the service of the nation, we doubt that the nation, as a whole, is predisposed toward national suicide. … The Japanese believe, however, that unconditional surrender would be the equivalent of national extinction.
The Japanese ketsu-go strategy entailed preparing for an American invasion, with the hope of inflicting such heavy casualties that the war-weary Allies would offer more lenient surrender terms. Japanese leaders had correctly identified Kyushu as the intended landing site and had beefed up their forces. Civilians armed with sharpened bamboo spears were instructed to fight to the death along with the soldiers.
Clearly, U.S. leaders knew that retention of the emperor was the main obstacle to Japanese surrender and that the dreaded Soviet entry was drawing closer. Why, under those circumstances, would the United States use two atomic bombs against an almost helpless population? To make sense of that, one has to understand the moral climate within which that decision was made.
American’s felt a profound hatred toward the Japanese. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Allen Nevins wrote after the war, “Probably in all our history, no foe has been so detested as were the Japanese.” Whereas U.S. wartime propaganda took pains to differentiate between evil Nazi leaders and “good Germans,” no such distinction was made among the Japanese. As Newsweek reported in January 1945, “Never before has the nation fought a war in which our troops so hate the enemy and want to kill him.”
Historian John Dower has shown that American thought of the Japanese as vermin, cockroaches, rattlesnakes, and rats. Simian imagery abounded. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, commander of the South Pacific Force, was notorious in this regard, urging his men forward to kill the “yellow monkeys” and “get some more monkey meat.” People questioned whether the Japanese were really human. Time wrote, “The ordinary, unreasoning Jap is ignorant. Perhaps his is human. Nothing…indicates it.” The British Embassy in Washington reported back to London that the American viewed the Japanese as a “nameless mass of vermin.” And the ambassador described Americans’ “universal ‘exterminationist’ anti-Japanese feeling.” When popular war correspondent Ernie Pyle was transferred from the European to the Pacific in February 1945, he observed, “In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people feel about cockroaches or mice.”
Some of this sentiment can certainly be attributed to racism. But other powerful forces were also at work in producing this hatred of the Japanese. Even before the United States entered the war, Americans had heard about Japanese bombing, rape, and brutality toward the Chinese, especially in Nanjing. Americans’ rancor toward Japan soared with the “sneak attack” at Pearl Harbor. Then, in early 1944, the government released information about the sadistic treatment of U.S. and Filipino prisoners during the Bataan death march two years earlier. Soon stories about unspeakable Japanese cruelty – torture, crucifixion, castration dismemberment, beheading, burning and burying alive, vivisection, nailing prisoners to trees and using them for bayonet practice – flooded the media. Hence, what had been anger toward the Japanese earlier in the war turned to abject hatred just as the U.S. military action was heating up in the Pacific.
But President Truman’s bigotry toward Asians long antedated reports of Japanese savagery. As a young man courting his future wife, he wrote, “I think one man is as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. Uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man of dust, a nigger from mud, and threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate the Chinese and Japs. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess.” Truman regularly referred to Jews as kikes, to Mexicans as greasers, and to other groups with equally derogatory names. His biographer Merle Miller reported, “Privately Mr. Truman always said ‘nigger’; at least he always did when I talked to him.”
Truman’s racism notwithstanding, it is right to criticize Japan’s unconscionable behavior during the war. However, it is worth noting that Americans often behaved wretchedly as well. U.S. Pacific war correspondent Edgar Jones detailed U.S. atrocities in a February 1946 article in The Atlantic Monthly: “What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts or carved their bones into letter openers.”
Racism also reared its ugly head in the treatment of people of Japanese descent living in the United States when the war broke out. Japanese Americans had faced discrimination in voting, jobs, and education for decades. The Immigration Act of 1924 denied Japanese who had settled in the United States after 1907 the right to become naturalized U.S. citizens and prohibited further immigration from Japan. Even before Pearl Harbor, some on the West Coast began conjuring up fanciful scenarios of Japanese-American sabotage in the event of war. One journalist wrote, “When Pacific zero hour strikes, Japanese Americans will sow mines across the entrances of our ports. Mysterious blasts will destroy many shipyards and flying fields and part of our fleet. … Japanese farmers, having a virtual monopoly of vegetable production in California, will send their peas and potatoes and squash full of arsenic to the markets.” Following Pearl Harbor, rumors and ugliness proliferated. One California barbershop offered “free shaves for Japs,” but added, “not responsible for accidents.” A funeral parlor announced, “I’d rather do business with a jap than an American.”
California Attorney General Earl Warren led the charge to remove Japanese Americans from the western states. Warren warned that the Japanese in southern California might be “the Achilles heel of the entire civil defense effort.” Lieutenant Colonel John L. DeWitt, commander of the Fourth Army and head of the Western Defense Command, who had worked on the 1921 War Plans Division strategy to intern all “enemy aliens” on the islands of Hawaii, seconded Warren’s efforts. On December 9, De Witt announced that Japanese warplanes had flown over San Francisco the previous night and the city was in imminent danger of Japanese attack. Dewitt told a Civil Defense Council meeting, “Death and destruction are likely to come to this city any moment.” Rear Admiral John Greenslade informed the audience that they had been “saved from a terrible catastrophe” by “the grace of God.” “Why bombs were not dropped,” DeWitt admitted, “I do not know.” One reason might have been that the Japanese flyover never occurred, which might also explain why U.S. forces never shot down any of the planes and why the army’s and navy’s searches for the Japanese aircraft carriers came up empty. But DeWitt was furious with San Franciscans who did not take the blackout orders seriously enough, denouncing them as “inane, idiotic and foolish,” and threatened, “If I can’t knock these facts into your heads with words, I will have to turn you over to the police to let them knock them into your heads with clubs.”
DeWitt’s mistrust of San Franciscans was benign. His mistrust of Japanese was pathological. DeWitt had initially characterized talk of large-scale evacuations as “damned nonsense.” But public pressure continued to mount, reinforced by the late-January release of a government report on the bombing of Pearl Harbor that was prepared by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts. Espionage, the report alleged, had facilitated the attack. While most of the information was conveyed by Japanese consular agents, other Hawaiians of Japanese descent also played a role. The report reinforced public doubts about the loyalty of Japanese Americans. The resulting outcry apparently changed DeWitt into a passionate advocate of relocation. DeWitt argued that the fact that the Japanese, citizens and noncitizens alike, had not engaged in sabotage proved that they were plotting a future assault. Others, including Stimson and McCloy echoed his sentiments, pressuring Roosevelt to take action before it was too late.
Defectors from the “Japs-can’t-be-trusted” line included one very unlikely individual: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover told Attorney General Francis Biddle that mass evacuations weren’t necessary. All known security risks had already been rounded up. Biddle informed Roosevelt that “there were no reasons for mass evacuations.”
Roosevelt ignored their advice. Despite the fact that there was no evidence of Japanese-American sabotage, on February 19, 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which laid the groundwork for the evacuation and incarceration of Japanese and Japanese-Americans from California, Oregon, and Washington, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens by birth. Although the executive order made no explicit mention of race or ethnicity, its intended target population was unmistakable.
U.S. authorities abandoned the sweeping evacuation plans made for Hawaii’s large Japanese population when wealthy white sugarcane and pineapple plantation owners complained that they would lose their labor force. However, the government did impose martial law, suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and locked up some two thousand kibei, people of Japanese descent who had visited Japan for education and acculturation.
On the mainland, especially in California, where the Japanese represented only slightly above 2 percent of the population, the situation was very different. Executive Order 9066 forced some 120,000 to evacuate their homes and settle outside the prohibited defense zones. But their entry was blocked by surrounding states. The governor of Idaho, Chase Clark, spewed, “The Japs live like rates, breed like rats, and act like rats. We don’t want them.” The governor of Wyoming warned that if the Japanese were moved to his state, “There would be Japs hanging from every tree.” The attorney general of Idaho recommended that “all Japanese…be put in concentration camps.” “We want to keep this a white man’s country.”
By February 25, 1942, the FBI had incarcerated all adult males of Japanese ancestry on Terminal Island, California. The U.S. Navy gave all other residents of Japanese ancestry forty-eight hours to clear out. Between March and October 1942, the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) opened temporary camps, known as assembly centers, to hold Japanese inmates, who were registered and given numbers. In Santa Anita and Tanforan, California, families were housed in horse stables, a single stall accommodating five or six people. They were later moved to more permanent relocation centers, referred to at the time as “concentration camps.” Conditions in the camps were deplorable; they often lacked running water, bathroom facilities, decent schools, insulated cabins, and proper roofs. The camps did, however, have adequate barbed-wire, machine-gun installations, and guard towers. Appalled by the treatment of the prisoners, Milton Eisenhower resigned as director of the War Relocation Authority (WRA).
Some westerners were motivated by greed in supporting the evacuations. Because evacuees were allowed to take only what they could carry, their former neighbors eagerly bought their property at a fraction of its real value or seized what was left behind, including abandoned crops. A leader of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association of Central California admitted, “We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific coast or the brown man.” The Japanese lost an estimated $400 million in personal property – worth perhaps $5.4 billion today.
Starting in March 1942, the War Relocation Authority moved prisoners to ten hastily constructed relocation centers in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. The Poston and Gila River Relocation Centers in Arizona soon housed populations of 17,814 and 13,348, respectively, making them the third and fourth largest cities in the state virtually overnight. Heart Mountain became the third largest city in Wyoming.
Inside the camps, Japanese toiled under scorching desert sun in Arizona and California, swamp-like conditions in Arkansas, and bitter cold in Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, and were paid a paltry $12 per month for unskilled labor and $19 for skilled. Japanese doctors earned $228 per year, while a white senior medical officer earned $4,600. White nurses who earned $80 per month at Yellowstone County Hospital received $150 at Heart Mountain, eight to ten times as much as their Japanese counterparts. Federal authorities sent photographers Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange to capture the images of daily camp life, instructing them to take no photos showing barbed wire, watchtowers, or armed soldiers. Still, Adams, Lange, and a Japanese inmate, Toyo Miyatake, captured a few of the banned images.
In February 1943, the U.S. government pulled a shameless about-face. Needing more manpower to fight the war, Roosevelt called upon American-born Nisei to join the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in conjunction with the 100th Battalion Hawaii already stationed in Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The “One PukaPuka,” as the Hawaiian members called their unit, had volunteered early in the war and had had to struggle long and hard to be recognized as worthy to serve. The 442nd Regiment became one of the most decorated units in U.S. military history, fighting bravely in Italy and France, and suffering 1,072 casualties, including 216 deaths in October 1944.
That Japanese Americans were capable of such sacrifice for their country was apparently beyond the comprehension of the head of the Western Defense Command. In April 1943, DeWitt told the House Naval Affairs Subcommittee that he wasn’t worried about Germans or Italians, “but the Japs we will be worried about all the time until they are wiped from the face of the map.” “A Jap’s a Jap,” he informed them, whether a U.S. citizen or not. DeWitt’s racist remarks rankled the Washington Post, which shot back, “The general should be told that American democracy and the Constitution of the United States are too vital to be ignored and flouted by any military zealot. … Whatever excuse there once was for evacuating and holding them indiscriminately no longer exists.”
Many Americans agreed. Some drew parallels with Nazi policies, although the differences, admittedly, were much greater than the similarities. In June 1942, Christian Century wrote, “The whole policy of resort to concentration camps is headed…toward the destruction of constitutional rights…and toward the establishment of racial discrimination as a principle of American government. It is moving in the same direction Germany moved.” Eugene V. (Victor Debs) Rostow published a scathing piece in the Yale Law Journal in 1945, arguing, “We believe that the German people bear a common political responsibility for outrages secretly committed by the Gestapo and the SS. What are we to think of our own part in a program that violates every democratic social value, yet has been approved by the Congress, the President and the Supreme Court?”
In June 1943, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the government’s favor in the first two cases to come before it. Although the ruling in Hirabayashi v. United States did not address the fundamental issues of evacuation and incarceration, Justice Frank Murphy’s concurring opinion came very close to doing so:
To say that any group cannot be assimilated is to admit that the great American experiment has failed. … Today is the first time, so far as I am aware, that we have sustained a substantial restriction of the personal liberty of citizens of the United States based upon the accident of race or ancestry. … In this sense, it bears a melancholy resemblance to the treatment accorded to members of the Jewish race in Germany and other parts of Europe.”
On January 2, 1945, the WRA “ended” forced incarceration but provided little assistance as prisoners tried to rebuild their shattered lives. Some decided to migrate as far away from the West Coast as possible. According to the National Park Service, the Japanese received only “$25 per person, a train ticket, and meals en route for those with less than $500 in cash.”
It was not until the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 that many of the older Japanese, the Issei, were deemed “fit to be citizens.” Moreover, it took over forty years for a national apology and monetary redress of $1.5 billion for survivors of the incarceration centers.
The United States’ moral threshold – particularly its indifference to inflicting civilian casualties on a massive scale – had also been dramatically lowered by years of bombing civilian populations, particularly in the air war against Japan. Urban area bombing had begun during the First World War. The Germans, British, French, Italians, and Austrians had all bombed one another’s cities, and some of this continued in brutal fashion during the interwar period. To its credit, the United States strongly condemned the Japanese bombing of Chinese cities in 1937. When war began in Europe in 1939, Roosevelt implored the combatants to refrain from the “inhuman barbarism” involved in bombing defenseless civilians.
Undeterred, Germany began bombing British cities. The British responded with thousand-plane bombing raids on urban targets in Germany. By the mid-1940s, great cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Warsaw, London, Rotterdam, Moscow, Stalingrad, Leningrad, Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin, and many others had been severely bombed.
The United States, by contrast, concentrated almost entirely on precision bombing of key industries and transportation networks until late in the European war. In August 1942, Captain Paul Tibbets, who would later pilot the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, expressed apprehension at the possibility of causing civilian casualties as he prepared to lead the first daytime raid by U.S. bombers against German targets in occupied France. He told a reporter that he felt “sick with thoughts of civilians who might suffer from the bombs dropped by this machine.” Watching the bombs fall, he thought, “My God, women and children are getting killed!” But as the war continued, Americans’ scruples began to soften. The October 1943 area bombing raid on Munster was an important turning point. The most tragic exception to the earlier standards was U.S. participation in the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945.
The United States adopted a far more ruthless bombing policy in Japan. When Major General Haywood Hansell, head of the 21st Bomber Command, resisted orders to use incendiaries against large urban areas, Air Force General Henry “Hap” Arnold replaced him with General Curtis LeMay. Nicknamed “Iron Ass” by his men because he was so relentless and demanding, LeMay had made his reputation in the air war in Europe. In Japan, he revolutionized bombing tactics and took what was already being referred to as “terror bombing” to an entirely new level.
The incendiary bombs killed 100,000…The victims, Lemay reported, were “scorched, and boiled and baked to death.”
LeMay commented that if the United States lost the war, they’d all be tried as war criminals, and deserved to be convicted.
On the night of March 9-10, 1945, LeMay sent 334 planes to attack Tokyo with incendiary bombs consisting of napalm, thermite, white phosphorus, and other flammable materials. The bombs destroyed sixteen square miles, killing perhaps 100,000 people and injuring even more. The scalding inferno caused canals to boil, metal to melt, and people to burst into flames spontaneously. The victims, LeMay reported, were “scorched and boiled and baked to death.” By May, 75 percent of bombs dropped were incendiaries designed to burn down Japan’s “paper cities.” According to Japanese scholar Yuki Tanaka, the United States firebombed over a hundred Japanese cities. Destruction reached 99.5 percent in the city of Toyama, driving Secretary of War Henry Stimson to tell Truman that he “did not want to the U.S. get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities,” though Stimson did almost nothing to halt the slaughter. He had managed to delude himself into believing Arnold’s promise that he would limit “damage to civilians.” Future Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, who was on LeMay’s staff in 1945, agreed with his boss’s comment that if the United States lost the war, they’d all be tried as war criminals and deserved to be convicted.
Brigadier General Bonner Fellers called it “one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of non-combatants in all history.”
Hatred toward the Japanese ran so deep that almost no one objected to the mass slaughter of civilians. Oppenheimer recalled Stimson’s disappointment over Americans’ indifference: “I remember Mr. Stimson saying to me that he thought it 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 extraordinarily heavy loss of life. He didn’t say that the airstrikes shouldn’t be carried on, but he did think there was something wrong with a country where no one questioned that.” Brigadier General Bonner Fellers called it “one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of non-combatants in all history.” Arnold felt that “90% of Americans would have killed every Japanese.”
General Groves’ Target Committee decided that the atomic bombs would be dropped on military facilities surrounded by workers’ homes in previously unbombed cities. The committee decided to make the initial use so spectacular that people everywhere would appreciate the weapon’s significance. When members of Stimson’s Interim Committee, which examined a number of issues surrounding the use of the atomic bombs, raised alternatives, including a demonstration, Byrnes, as Truman’s personal representative on the committee, overrode them.
At its May 31 meeting, the Interim Committee also addressed the future of nuclear weapons. Scientists understood that the bombs under production were the most rudimentary, primitive prototypes of what was to follow. The prospect terrified them. Oppenheimer informed the nation’s top military and civilian officials that within three years the United States could have weapons of between 10 and 100 megatons – potentially almost seven thousand times as powerful as the bomb that would soon be dropped on Hiroshima.
In late May, Szilard, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Harold Urey, and astronomer Walter Bartky attempted to see Truman to caution against the use of the bomb. They were rerouted to Spartanburg, South Carolina, to speak with Byrnes, whose response appalled Szilard: “Mr. Byrnes did not argue that it was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war. He knew at the time, as the rest of the government knew, that Japan was essentially defeated. … At that time Mr. Byrnes was much concerned with the spreading Russian influence in Europe; [insisting] that the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe.” Groves also admitted that in his mind the Soviet Union had always been the enemy: “There was never from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this Project any illusion on my part that Russia was our enemy, and the Project was conducted on that basis.” Groves shocked Joseph Rotblat when he said over dinner in March 1944, “You realize of course that the main purpose of this project is to subdue the Russians.” Byrnes’s and Groves’ statements shed crucial light on Byrnes’s April 13 remark to Truman that the atomic bomb “might well put us in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.”
While the Los Alamos scientists worked feverishly to complete the bomb, others began to have doubts about the wisdom of what they had done. In June, Chicago Met Lab scientists set up a series of committees to explore various aspects of atomic energy. The Committee on Social and Political Implications, chaired by the Nobel Laureate James Franck, issued a report, greatly influenced by Leo Szilard, questioning the wisdom of using atomic bombs in the current war. It warned that a surprise attack on Japan would not only destroy the United States’ moral position, it could instigate a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union spurred by the threat of “total mutual destruction.” The report also noted that because there was no secret to the scientific principles behind the bomb, the Soviet Union would soon catch up.
Szilard understood the dangers better than anyone else. He desperately attempted to prevent the bomb’s use. He circulated the Franck Committee report to scientists at other laboratories. After security officers had it classified and banned its circulation, Szilard drew up a petition warning the president: The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction, and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of their future development. Thus, a nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for the purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.
One hundred fifty-five scientists at Chicago’s Met Lab and the uranium plant at Oak Ridge signed the petition. Oppenheimer banned its circulation at Los Alamos and alerted Groves, who made sure it didn’t reach Stimson and Truman until it was too late to stop the bomb’s use. Groves’ security agents had been conducting extensive surveillance of Szilard throughout the war. At one point, Groves went so far as to draft a letter to the attorney general labeling Szilard an “enemy alien” and requesting that he “be interned for the duration of the war.” Fortunately, Compton persuaded him not to send it. Groves ordered his own poll among scientists and was chagrined to see that 83 percent favored demonstrating the bomb before using it against Japan. He hushed up the results.
Others also tried to prevent the bombs’ use but, sadly, had no more success than Szilard. On June 27, Undersecretary of the Navy Ralph Bard, the navy representative to the Interim Committee, wrote Stimson a memo, stating, “During recent weeks I have also had the feeling very definitely that the Japanese Government may be searching for some opportunity which they could use as a medium of surrender.” He urged that the United States, “as a great humanitarian nation,” warn Japan about the Soviet entry into the war and the development of the atomic bomb and clarify the surrender terms. Some historians believe that after leaving government as few days later, Bard met with the president to press those points, but the record is ambiguous. It is clear, however, that when Truman met with the Joint Chiefs on June 18, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy recommended that he tell the Japanese “that they would be permitted to retain the Emperor and a form of government of their own choosing” and “that we had another and terrifyingly destructive weapon which we would have to use if they did not surrender.”
Things came to a head when Allied leaders gathered in Potsdam, a suburb of bombed-out Berlin. The target date for the first atomic bombing was less than a month away. Truman arrived on July 15, nervously anticipating his first meeting with Churchill and Stalin. Reports poured in confirming the Japanese desire to quit if allowed to surrender conditionally. The evidence that top U.S. officials recognized the signals emanating from Tokyo is unassailable. Truman unambiguously characterized the intercepted July 18 cable that stated, “Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace” as “the telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace.” Forrestal wrote about “evidence of a Japanese desire to get out of the war,” Stimson about “Japanese maneuverings for peace,” and Byrnes about “Japanese peace feelers.” In his 1966 book The Secret Surrender, OSS official and later CIA head Allen Dulles recalled, “I went to the Potsdam Conference and reported to Secretary Stimson on what I had learned from Tokyo – they desired to surrender if they could retain the Emperor and the constitution as a basis for maintaining discipline and order in Japan after the devastating news of surrender became known to the Japanese people.” The Pacific Strategic Intelligence Summary for the week of the Potsdam meeting reported, “It may be said that Japan now, officially if not publicly, recognizes her defeat. Abandoning as unobtainable the long-cherished goal of victory, she has turned to the twin aims of (a) reconciling national pride with defeat, and (b) finding the best means of salvaging the wreck of her ambitions.” As head of the War Department Operations Division Policy Section, Colonel Charles “Tick” Bonesteel, recalled, “the poor damned Japanese were putting feelers out by the ton.”
Truman’s principle reason for going to Potsdam, he claimed, was to make sure the Soviets were coming into the war as promised. Knowing that their entry would deliver the final crushing blow, he rejoiced when Stalin reassured him, writing in his diary on July 17, “He’ll be in the Jap war on August 15. Fini Japs when that comes about.” The next day, Truman wrote to Bess, “We’ll end the war a year sooner, and think of the kids who won’t be killed!”
Truman had one more card to play, but the timing had to be precise. Simson understood that. He wrote in his diary on May 15 that the bomb was a crucial diplomatic tool, but that it wouldn’t be tested before Potsdam: “We think it will be shortly afterwards, but is seems a terrible thing to gamble with such big stakes in diplomacy without having your master card in your hand.”
Truman had pushed the start of the summit back two weeks and hoped the bomb would be tested before negotiations with Stalin began. Oppenheimer confessed, “we were under incredible pressure to get it done before the Potsdam meeting.” It turned out, from Truman’s perspective, to be worth the wait.
On July 16, while Truman was touring Berlin and preparing for the next day’s meeting with Stalin, scientists exploded the first atomic bomb in the desert outside Alamogordo, New Mexico. The Trinity test exceeded all expectations. Given the enormous power of the 18.6-kiloton blast and the brightness of the sky, some scientists feared they had indeed set the atmosphere on fire. Oppenheimer said that a phrase from the Bhagavad Gita flashed through his mind: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Deputy Director Kenneth Bainbridge put it more simply: “Now we’re all sons-of-bitches.”
Groves cabled the preliminary results to Stimson, who rushed to brief Truman and Byrnes. They were elated. On July 21, Groves sent a much fuller and more dramatic report, which stated, “The test was successful beyond the most optimistic expectations of anyone.” Groves estimated the energy released to be equivalent to 15 to 20 kilotons of TNT, an amount that so far exceeded anything previously achieved that it was almost inconceivable. Stimson read it to the president and secretary of state. Along with Groves’ report cane one by Brigadier General Thomas Farrell, who described a “strong, sustained awesome roar which warned of doomsday.” When Churchill read this report, he exclaimed, “this is the Second Coming in Wrath.”
Truman, Byrnes, and Groves believed they now had a way to speed the Japanese surrender on U.S. terms without Soviet help and thereby deny the Soviet Union the promised territorial and economic concessions. Stimson observed, “The President was tremendously pepped up by [the report] and spoke to me of it again and again when I saw him. He said it gave him an entirely new feeling of confidence.” Truman, who had allowed Churchill and Stalin to dominate the early sessions, now rode roughshod over the proceedings. Winston Churchill described the scene at the next plenary session: “I couldn’t understand it. When he got to the meeting after having read this report he was a changed man. He told the Russians just where they got on and off and generally bossed the whole meeting.” McCloy, too, noted the role the bomb played in bucking up Truman’s confidence: “Throughout it all, the ‘big bomb’ is playing its part – it has stiffened both the Prime Minister and the President. After getting Groves’ report they went to the meeting the next day like little boys with a big red apple secreted on their persons.”
Though never able to stand up to his father or Boss Pendergast or the other bullies, Truman could now stand up to Stalin himself. If, as was said, the revolver made all men six feet tall, the successful atomic test made the diminutive Truman a giant who towered over the world’s most fearsome dictators. But Truman’s public bravado masked a deeper understanding of the world he was about to usher in with the use of the atomic bomb. He wrote in his Potsdam diary, “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Arc.” Unfortunately, Truman’s apocalyptic forebodings did not impel him to seek alternatives as the day of reckoning approached.
Stimson considered the atomic bomb “a revolutionary change in the relations of man to the universe that might even mean the doom of civilization.”
Unlike the other principle decision makers – Truman, Byrnes, and Groves – Stimson did have serious misgivings about using the atomic bomb. He referred to it as “the dreadful,” “the terrible,” “the dire,” “the awful,” and “the diabolical.” He considered in not merely a new weapon but “a revolutionary change in the relations of man to the universe that might even mean the doom of civilization…it might be a Frankenstein which would eat us up.” He tried repeatedly to convince Truman and Byrnes to assure the Japanese about their emperor. But trying to convince them was an exercise in futility. When Stimson complained to Truman about being ignored on this point at Potsdam, Truman told his elderly, frail secretary of war that if he didn’t like it, he could pack his bags and go home.
At Potsdam, Stimson informed General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander, that the bomb’s use was imminent. Eisenhower reacted strongly. He described his response in a Newsweek interview: “So then they told me they were going to drop it on the Japanese. Well, I listened, and I didn’t volunteer anything because, after all, my war was over in Europe and it wasn’t up to me. But I was getting more and more depressed just thinking about it. Then he asked for my opinion, so I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.” Eisenhower told historian Stephen Ambrose that he had expressed his opposition directly to Truman and his top advisors. Historian Barton Bernstein finds reason to doubt Eisenhower’s account, but General Omar Bradley supports Ike’s version.
Now that the bomb had been successfully tested, Truman, Byrnes, and Stimson no longer welcomed the Soviet Union’s entry into the war, which would entitle the Soviets to the concessions Roosevelt had promised at Yalta. Churchill observed on July 23, “It is quite clear that the United States do not at the present time desire Russian participation in the war against Japan.” Byrnes acknowledged, “Neither the President nor I were anxious to have them enter the war after had learned of this successful test.” He explained to assistant Walter Brown that he was “hoping for time, believing that after [the] atomic bomb Japan will surrender and Russia will not get in so much on the kill.” For Truman and his advisors, the way to accomplish this seemed obvious: use the atomic bomb. Truman spelled it out: “Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in. I am sure they will when Manhattan appears over their homeland.”
Before the conference ended, Truman sidled up to Stalin and casually mentioned that the United States had developed a “new weapon of unusual destructive force.” Unaware that Soviet intelligence had kept Stalin informed of the Manhattan Project, Truman was surprised by his seemingly disinterested response and wondered if Stalin had grasped what he was telling him. Stalin understood far more than Truman realized. He knew that the test had been scheduled. Now he concluded that it had succeeded. He immediately phoned Soviet security and Secret Police Chief Lavrenti Beria and berated him for not having known that the test had occurred. Andrei Gromyko reported that when Stalin returned to his villa he remarked that the Americans would use their atomic monopoly to dictate terms in Europe but that he wouldn’t give in to their blackmail. He ordered Soviet military forces to speed the country’s entry into the war, and he ordered Soviet scientists to pick up the pace of their research.
Truman never issued a direct order to drop the bomb. At Potsdam, on July 25, he approved a directive signed by Stimson and Marshall ordering that the atomic bombs be used as soon after August 3 as weather permitted. He knew there was little chance that the final Potsdam Declaration, which contained neither a significant modification of surrender terms, a warning about the bomb, or notice of Soviet entry into the war, would be accepted by Japan. Still, it is important to note that contrary to later claims by Truman and Stimson, the authorization was given before, not after, the Japanese rejected the Potsdam Declaration. Truman did not invite Stalin to sign the declaration, even though Stalin came intending to sign it and even brought a draft of his own. Stalin’s signature would have notified the Japanese that the Soviet Union was about to come into the war. The absence of his signature encouraged the Japanese to continue their futile effort to gain Soviet assistance in securing better surrender terms while the hours ticked off until the bomb was ready to use.
Truman’s behavior at Potsdam reinforced Stalin’s belief that the United States intended to end the war quickly and renege on its promised concessions. During the conference, he told Truman that Soviet troops would be ready to attack by the middle of August. Soviet Chief of Staff Aleksei Antonov informed his U.S. counterparts that the actual start date was more likely the end of the month. Stalin ordered Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevski to prepare to invade ten to fourteen days earlier.
Although Truman always took responsibility for the decision, Groves, who had drafted the July 25 memo, contended that Truman didn’t actually decide; he simply acquiesced. “As far as I was concerned,” he wrote, “his decision was one of non-interference – basically, a decision not to upset the existing plans.” “Truman did not so much say ‘yes’ and not say ‘no.’ ” Groves described Truman scornfully as “a little boy on a toboggan.”
Truman left Potsdam on August 2. The following day, Byrnes assistant wrote in his diary, “Aboard Augusta/President, Leahy, JFB agreed [sic] Japs [sic] looking for peace.” But first he wanted to use the atomic bomb.
General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of Allied forces in the Pacific and the second-highest-ranking active-duty offices in the U.S. Army, considered the bomb, “completely unnecessary form a military point of view” and became both angry and depressed when he learned that United States was about to use it. He held a press conference on August 6, before the bomb drop was announced, and told the reporters that the Japanese were “already beaten” and that he was thinking about “the possibilities of a next war with its horrors magnified 10,000 times.”
On August 6, at 2:45 A.M., three B-29s took off for Japan from the island Tinian in the Marianas, 1,500 miles away. The lead plane, the Enola Gay, carried the uranium bomb, Little Boy, which exploded at 8:15 A.M. with a yield now estimated at 16 kilotons of TNT. Hiroshima’s approximately 300,000 civilians, 43,000 soldiers, 45,000 Korean slave laborers, and several thousand Japanese Americans, mostly children whose parents were interned in the United States, were just beginning their day. The target was the T-shaped Aioi Bridge, near the centre of the city. Hiroshima, despite its port and Second General Army Headquarters, had not been considered a priority military target for earlier bombing. The bomb totally destroyed an area extending approximately two miles in all direction. Watching the city of Hiroshima disappear horrified the Enola Gay’s crew members. The pilot, Paul Tibbets, who named the plane after his mother, described the scene below: “The giant purple mushroom had already risen to a height of 45,000 feet, 3 miles above our own altitude, and was still boiling upward like something terribly alive. Even more fearsome was the sight on the ground below. Fires were springing up everywhere amid a turbulent mass of smoke that had the appearance of bubbling hot tar.” On another occasion, he reflected, “If Dante had been with us on that plane, he would have been terrified. The city we had seen so clearly in the sunlight a few minutes before was now an ugly smudge. It had completely disappeared under this awful blanket of smoke and fire.” Tail gunner Bob Caron called it a “peep into hell.” Copilot Robert Lewis wrote in his flight log, “My God! What have we done?”
Radioman Abe Spitzer watched from the accompanying plane, the Great Artiste, and thought he was hallucinating. He provided the most graphic and terrifying description of what crew members witnessed and one worth quoting at length:
Below us, spread out almost as far as I could see, was a great fire, but it was like no ordinary fire. It contained a dozen colors, all of them blindingly bright, more bright colors than I imagined existed, and in the center the brightest of all, a gigantic red ball of flame that seemed larger than the sun. Indeed, it seemed that, somehow, the sun had been knocked out of the sky and was on the ground below us and beginning to rise again, only coming up toward us – and fast. At the same time, the ball itself spread outward, too, until it seemed to cover the entire city, and on every side the flame was shrouded, half-hidden by a thick, impenetrable column of grey-white smoke, extending into the foothills beyond the city and bursting outward and rising toward us with unbelievable speed. Then the ship rocked again, and it sounded as if a giant gun – some large artillery or cannons – were firing at us and hitting us from every direction. The purple light was changing to a green-blue now, with just a tinge of yellow at the edges, and from below the ball of fire, the upside down sun, seemed to be following the smoke upward, racing to us with unmeasurably fast speed – although, we at the same time, though not so quickly – were speeding away from what was left of the city. Suddenly, we were to the left of the pillar of smoke, and it continued rising to an estimated height, I later learned, of 50,000 feet. It looked like a kind of massive pole that narrowed at the top and reached for the stratosphere. The scientists later told us they believed the pole was as much as four or five miles wide at its base and a mile and a half or more wide at the top. As I watched, hypnotized by what I saw, the column of smoke changed its color, from a grey0white to brown, then amber, then all three colors at once, mingled into a bright, boiling rainbow. For a second, it looked as though its fury might be ending, but almost immediately a kind of mushroom cloud spurted out of the top and traveled up, up to what some say was a distance of 60,000 or 70,000 feet…the whole column seethed and spurted, but the mushroom top shot out in every direction, like giant waves during an ocean storm. Then, quite suddenly, the top broke off the column, as if it had been cut away with a sharp blade, and it shot still further up; how far I don’t know; nobody did or does; not even the pictures show that, and none of the apparatus could measure it exactly. Some said it 80,000 feet, some 85,000 feet, some even more. … After that, another mushroom, somewhat smaller, boiled up out of the pillar.
Spitzer heard someone say, “I wonder if maybe we’re not monkeying around with things that are none of our business.”
The view from the ground was very different, and far more harrowing. At the hypocenter, where temperatures reached 5,400degrees F, the fireball roasted people to bundles of smoking black char in a fraction of a second as their internal organs were boiled away.” Tens of thousands were killed instantly. An estimated 140,000 were dead by the end of the year and 200,000 by 1950. The United States officially reported that only 3,242 Japanese troops were killed. Among the casualties at Hiroshima were approximately a thousand American citizens, mostly second-generation Japanese-Americans, and twenty-three U.S. prisoners of war, some of whom survived the blast only to be beaten to death by bomb survivors. Several U.S. prisoners of war were killed by the bomb.
Injured and burned survivors suffered immensely. Hibakusha (bomb-affected persons) described it as walking through Hell. The streets were filled with an endless ghost-like procession of horribly burned, often naked people, whose skin hung off their bones. Desperately seeking help for their wounded bodies, searching for family members, and trying to escape the encroaching fires, they tripped over dead bodies that had been seared into lumps of charcoal, often frozen in midstep. Hiroshima’s most renowned atomic bomb poet, Sankichi Toge, who died in 1953 at age thirty-seven, wrote a poem titled “August Sixth” that reads in part:
How could I ever forget that flash of light! In an instant thirty thousand people disappeared from the streets; The cries of fifty thousand more Crushed beneath the darkness. …
Then, skin hanging like rags, Hands on breasts; Treading upon shattered human brains. … Crowds piled on the river bank, and on rafts fastened to the shore, Turned gradually into corpses under the scorching sun. …
The conflagration shifts… Onto heaps of schoolgirls lying like refuse So that God alone knew who they were. …
How could I forget that quiet Which descended over a city of three hundred thousand? The calm How could I forget those pleas Of a dying wife and child Emitted through the whiteness of their eyes, Piercing our minds and souls!
The crew members sat silently on the flights back to Tinian. Some took solace in the belief that what they had witnessed was so horrific that it would definitely end the war. Great Artiste tail gunner Al “Pappy” DeHart said he wished he hadn’t seen what he had just witnessed, adding , “I won’t ever be mentioning it to my grandchildren. Not ever. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing to be telling kids. Not what we saw.”
Truman was dining on board the USS Augusta on his way back from Potsdam when he learned of Hiroshima. He jumped up and exclaimed, “This is the greatest thing in history.” He shortly thereafter said that announcing the news of Hiroshima was the “happiest” announcement he had ever made.
Truman’s reported jubilation made some uncomfortable. One Democratic committeeman admonished him by telegram two days alter: “no president of the United States could ever be jubilant over any device that could kill innocent human beings. Please make it clear that it is not destruction, but the end of destruction, that is the cause of [your] jubilation.”
Soviet leaders were anything but jubilant. Knowing that the bomb was not needed to defeat a nation already on life support, they concluded that the Soviet Union was the real target. The Americans, they figured, wanted to speed the Japanese surrender in the hope of preempting Soviet gains in Asia. Even more disconcerting, they concluded that the Americans, by using it on Hiroshima when it was clearly not necessary, were signaling that the United States wouldn’t hesitate to use it against them too if they threatened U.S. interests.
The Russians got the message. Sunday Times correspondent Alexander Werth, who spent 1941 to 1948 in Moscow, observed, “the news [of Hiroshima] had an acutely depressing effect on everybody. It was clearly realized that this was a New Fact in the world’s power politics, that the bomb constituted a threat to Russian, and some Russian pessimists I talked to that day dismally remarked that Russia’s desperately hard victory over Germany was now ‘as good as wasted.’ ”
It was precisely the gratuitous nature of the bombings that haunted Marshal Zhukov’s memories twenty-six year later and made clear to him what their real intention was. He reflected, “It was clear already then that the U.S. Government intended to use the atomic weapon for the purpose of achieving its Imperialistic goals from a position of strength in ‘the cold war.’ This was amply corroborated on August 6 and 8. Without any military need whatsoever, the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on the peaceful and densely populated Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Other military leaders were also aghast. Gromyko’s son Anatoly recalled his father telling him that Hiroshima “set the heads of the Soviet military spinning. The mood in the Kremlin, in the General Staff, was neurotic, the mistrust towards the Allies grew quickly. Opinions floated around to preserve a large land army, to establish controls over extended territories to lessen potential losses from atomic bombings.”
Political leaders, including Stalin and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, were equally alarmed. “The whole Soviet government interpreted [Hiroshima] as atomic blackmail against the USSR, as a terrible threat to unleash a new, even more terrible and devastating war.” Nuclear physicists were summoned to the Kremlin for daily reports on their progress. Within days, Stalin had launched a crash program to build a Soviet bomb.
Following Hiroshima, Japanese leaders pressed for a quick response from the Soviets on their willingness to mediate. They received a clear answer, when, in the early hours of August 9, the powerful Red Army smashed through Japan’s forces in Manchuria, Korea, Sakhalin, and the Kurils, encountering little resistance. On the morning of August 9, the four top Foreign Ministry officials went to Prime Minister Suzuki’s residence to deliver the bad news. “What we feared has finally come,” Suzuki responded.
Later that morning, before Japan had time to react to the Soviet invasion, the United States dropped an implosive plutonium bomb, nicknamed Fat Man, on the city of Nagasaki. Poor visibility over the primary target – Kokura – forced the pilot, Charles Sweeney, to switch to downtown Nagasaki. The bomb landed two miles off target in the Urakami district, exploding over the largest Catholic cathedral in Asia with a force of 21 kilotons. Forty thousand people died immediately, including 250 soldiers. Seventy thousand died by the end of 1945, perhaps 140,000 in five years. Spitzer said that he and other crew members of the Great Artiste, after watching Hiroshima disappear, could not believe that a second city had been wiped off the face of the earth: “There was no need for more missions, more bombs, more fear and more dying. Good God, any fool could see that.” Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, observed, “The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable, but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki,” which he considered a war crime.
Japanese officials, despondent over the Soviet attack, held an emergency cabinet meeting at which they learned about Nagasaki. Neither that announcement, nor Army Minister Anami’s fallacious report that the United States had a hundred more atomic bombs and that Tokyo was the next target, moved the participants closer to surrender unconditionally. Most saw little difference between the United States wiping out entire cities with three hundred planes and thousands of bombs or doing so with one plane and one bomb. That the United States could and would burn down Japanese cities was an established fact. The Soviet invasion, however, totally demoralized the Japanese leaders. It proved the bankruptcy of both Japan’s diplomatic approach to the Soviet Union and its ketsu-go strategy of fiercely resisting a U.S. invasion. For Japanese leaders contemplating surrender, the atomic bombs provided an added inducement but not the decisive one, although some of them latched to them as a convenient excuse. The emperor announced his willingness to surrender, accepting the Potsdam Declaration, but only as long as “it does not compromise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.”
Suzuki recognized that there was no choice: Japan must surrender immediately, declared, or “the Soviet Union will take not only Manchuria, Korea, Karafuto, but also Hokkaido. This would destroy the foundation of Japan. We must end the war when we can deal with the United States.” Once the emperor’s decision was clear, the three recalcitrant members of the Big Six, who had been holding out for three additional demands – self-determination, no war crimes trials, and no occupation – dropped their opposition to surrender. Thus, with the Red Army rapidly approaching the Japanese mainland, the Japanese leaders decided to surrender to the Americans, whom they viewed as much more likely to allow them to keep the emperor. They also feared that the advancing Red Army would trigger pro-Communist uprisings inside Japan, as they had in parts of Europe.
Truman and his advisors weighed the Japanese offer to surrender. Byrnes warned that retaining the emperor would lead to “crucifixion of the President.” Stimson disagreed, arguing that “even if the question hadn’t been raised by the Japanese we would have to continue the Emperor ourselves…in order to get into surrender the many scattered armies of the Japanese who would own no other authority and…to save us from a score of bloody Iwo Jimas and Okinawas.” In his diary, Stimson expressed his frustration with Byrnes: “There has been a good deal of uninformed agitation against the Emperor…by people who know no more about Japan than has been given them by Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado,’ and I found today that curiously enough it had gotten deeply embedded the minds of influential people in the State Department.” After further debate, they compromised on a vague statement that promised, “The ultimate form of government shall, in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration, be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.”
After the war, Japanese leaders attributed the surrender to both the atom bombs and the Soviet invasion. Although the interviews were carried by U.S. occupation authorities, several still gave primacy to the Soviet invasion – not the atomic bomb or other U.S. actions. Deputy Chief of Staff General Torashiro Kawabe explained:
It was only in a gradual manner that the horrible wreckage which had been made of Hiroshima became known. … In comparison, the Soviet entry into the war was a great shock when it actually came. Reports reaching Tokyo described Russian forces as “invading swarms.” It gave us all the more severe shock and alarm because we have been in constant fear of it with a vivid imagination that “the vast Red Army forces in Europe were now being turned against us.”
Admiral Toyoda agreed: “I believe the Russian participation in the war against Japan rather than the atom bombs did more to hasten the surrender.” Lieutenant General Sumihisa Ikeda, the director of Japan’s General Planning Agency, said that “upon hearing of the Soviet entry into the war, I felt our chances were gone.” The Army Ministry responded similarly to a direct question from General Headquarters, stating “The Soviet participation in the war had the most direct impact on Japan’s decision to surrender.” A study conducted by the U.S. War Department in January 1946 came to the same conclusion, finding “little mention…of the use of the atomic bomb by the United States in the discussions leading up to the decision. …it [is] almost a certainty that the Japanese would have capitulated upon the entry of Russia into the war.”
Erroneously convinced that the bombs had ended the war, 85 percent of the American public approved of their use. Almost 23 percent wished that the Japanese hadn’t surrendered so quickly, so that the United States could have dropped more atom bombs on them. But unknown to most of the public, many U.S. top military leaders considered the bombings either militarily unnecessary or morally reprehensible. Truman’s chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy, who chaired the meetings of the Joint Chiefs, was the most impassioned, classifying the bomb with chemical and bacteriological weapons as violations of “every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all the known laws of war.” He proclaimed that the “Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. … The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. In being the first to use it, we adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the dark ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.” Leahy angrily told the journalist Jonathan Daniels in 1949, “Truman told me it was agreed that they would use it…only to hit military objectives. Of course, then they went ahead and killed as many women and children as they could which was just what they wanted all the time.”
Six of the United States' seven five-star officers who received their final star in World War II rejected the idea that the atomic bombs were needed to end the war.
General Douglas MacArthur always maintained that the war would have ended months earlier if the United States had modified its surrender terms. In 1960, he told former President Hoover that if Hoover’s “wise and statesmanlike” memo to Truman of May 30, 1945, advocating change in surrender terms, had been acted upon, it “would have obviated the slaughter at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in addition to much destruction…by our bomber attacks. That the Japanese would have accepted it and gladly I have no doubt.”
General Henry “Hap” Arnold wrote, “it always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.” Shortly after the war ended, General Curtis LeMay argued, “Even without the atomic bomb and the Russian entry into the war, Japan would have surrendered in two weeks.” “The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war.” General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific, wrote in his diary two days after the bombing of Nagasaki, “When the atomic bomb was first discussed with me in Washington I was not in favor of it just I have never favored the destruction of cities as such with all inhabitants being killed.”
Many Naval officers agreed with the air chiefs. Admiral Ernest King, commander in chief of the U.S. Navy, told his aide, “I don’t think we should do it at this time. It is not necessary.” He told an interviewer, “I don’t like the bomb or any part of it.” Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, told a gathering at the Washington Monument shortly after the war, “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace before the atomic age was announced to the world with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and before the Russian entry into the war.” Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, commander of the South Pacific Fleet, said the following year, “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment. … It was a mistake to ever drop it. … It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot of peace feelers through Russian long before.”
As Brigadier General Carter Clarke, who was in charge of preparing summaries of intercepted diplomatic cables, stated, “we brought them down to an abject surrender through accelerated sinking of their merchant marine and hunger alone, and when we didn’t need to do it, and we knew we didn’t need to do it, and they knew we knew we didn’t need to do it, we used them as an experiment for two atomic bombs.”
Six of the United States’ seven five-star officers who received their final star in World War II – Generals MacArthur, Eisenhower, and Arnold and admirals Leahy, King, and Nimitz – rejected the idea that the atomic bombs were needed to end the war. Sadly, though, there is little evidence that they pressed their case with Truman before the fact.
But Groves knew their views. Before Hiroshima, Groves had prepared an order requiring U.S. commanders in the field to first clear all statements on the bombing with the War Department, because, as Groves admitted, “We didn’t want MacArthur and others saying the war could have been won without the bomb.”
In late August, even Jimmy Byrnes admitted that they bomb wasn’t needed to end the war. The New York Times reported that Byrnes had “cited what he called Russian proof that the Japanese knew that they were beaten before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.”
The Vatican quickly condemned the bombing. Catholic World described the bombs’ use as “atrocious and abominable…the most powerful blow ever delivered against Christian civilization and the moral law.” Federal Council of Churches leader John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s future hawkish secretary of state, worried, “If we, a professedly Christian nation, feel morally free to use atomic energy in that way, men elsewhere will accept that verdict. Atomic weapons will be looked upon as a normal part of the arsenal of war and the stage will soon be set for the sudden and final destruction of mankind.”
Others also deplored the bombings. University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins participated in a University of Chicago Round Table discussion on “Atomic Force – Its Meaning for Mankind” broadcast on NBC on August 12, just three days after the bombing of Nagasaki. Hutchins declared: “This is the kind of weapon that should be used, if at all, only as a last resort and in self-defense. At the time this bomb was dropped, the American authorities knew that Russia was going to enter the war. It was said that Japan was blockaded and its cities burned out. All the evidence points to the fact that the use of this bomb was unnecessary. Therefore, the United States has lost its moral prestige.”
Brave young Americans like Paul Fussell and their Soviet and British counterparts defeated Japans in World War II. Many lost their lives in the process. Yet the myth has been promulgated by Truman, Stimson, and others that the atomic bomb was responsible for the Allied victory and that it saved hundreds of thousands of American lives by ending the war without a U.S. invasion. In 1991, former President George Herbert Walker Bush went so far as to defend Truman’s “tough, calculating decision, [which] spared millions of American lives.” The facts show otherwise. Though the atomic bombs certainly contributed to the Japanese decision to surrender, they were ancillary to U.S. island hoping, bombing, and blockade, and to the dramatic impact of the Soviet invasion, which convinced the Japanese leaders that even holding for a last decisive battle on the Japanese mainland was no longer a viable option. Nor was it for the Americans. As Leahy confessed, “I was unable to see any justification, from a national-defense point of view, for an invasion of an already thoroughly defeated Japan.”
Nor did the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki make the Soviet Union more pliable. It merely convinced Stalin that the United States would stop at nothing to impose its will and that the Soviets must speed the development of their own atomic bomb as a deterrent to the blood-thirsty Americans.
And, in what many Americans consider a cruel irony, the United States allowed Japan to keep the emperor, whose retention, most experts believed, was essential to postwar social stability. Contrary to Byrnes’ admonitions, Truman suffered no political repercussions from that decision.
The nuclear arms race that Szilard and others feared was now under way. Truman had helped make real his nightmarish vision of a world poised on the brink of annihilation. Stimson made the same point in his 1947 defense of the bombing, writing, “In this last great action of the Second World War we were given final proof that war is death. War in the twentieth century has grown steadily more barbarous, more destructive, more debased in all its aspects. Now, with the release of atomic energy, man’s ability to destroy himself is very nearly complete.”
Truman always claimed that he felt no remorse, even bragging that he “never lost any sleep over that decision.” When television interviewer Edward R. Murrow asked him, “Any regrets?” he responded, “Not the slightest – not the slightest in the world.” When another interviewer asked if the decision had been morally difficult to make, he responded, “Hell no, I made it like that,” snapping his fingers.
Truman met Oppenheimer for the first time on October 25, 1945, and asked him to guess when the Soviets would develop a bomb. When Oppenheimer admitted that he didn’t know, Truman declared that he did: “Never.” Unnerved by this truculent display of ignorance, Oppenheimer said at one point, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” Truman responded angrily. “I told him the blood was on my hands – to let me worry about that.” Afterward Truman told Dean Acheson, “I don’t ever want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.” He later called Oppenheimer a “cry-baby scientist.”
The horrors and bloodshed of World War II hardened a lot of people to the suffering others. Future renowned physicist Freeman Dyson, who was then ready to go to Okinawa as part of the Tiger Force fleet of three hundred British bombers, tried to illuminate the process:
I found this continuing slaughter of defenseless Japanese even more sickening than the slaughter of well-defended German. But still I did not quit. By that time I had been at war so long that I could hardly remember peace. No living poet had words to describe that emptiness of the soul which allowed me to go on killing without hatred and without remorse. But Shakespeare understood it, and he gave Macbeth the words: “…I am in blood/Stepp’d in so that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as going o’er.”
Writer and social critic Dwight Macdonald captured this dehumanization even before Hiroshima’s devastation. He traced the transformation from the “unbelieving horror and indignation” people felt when Franco’s planes killed hundreds of Spanish civilians in 1938 to the abject indifference to hundreds of thousands of victims in Tokyo: “We have grown callous to massacre. King Mithridates is said to immunized himself against poison by taking small doses which he increased slowly. So the gradually increasing horrors of the last decade have made each of us to some extent a moral Mithridates, immunized against human sympathy.”
Not all were immunized against human sympathy. Many of the scientists involved in the bomb project became lifelong antinuclear activists, like Leo Szilard, who switched from physics to biology and founded the Council for a Livable World; Albert Einstein, who became the chair of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists in 1946; and Joseph Rotblat, who campaigned tirelessly for nuclear abolition until his death at age ninety-six and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.
Even British Prime Minister Winston Churchill recognized the difficulty of defending the atomic bombings. Churchill visited Truman toward the end of his presidency. Truman threw a small dinner to which he invited Robert Lovett, Omar Bradley, Harriman, and Acheson. Margaret, the president’s daughter, described the scene: “Everyone was in an ebullient mood, especially Dad. Without warning, Mr. Churchill turned to him and said, ‘Mr. President, I hope you have your answer ready for that hour when you and I stand before Saint Peter and he says, “I understand you two are responsible for putting off those atomic bombs. What have you got to say for yourselves?” The atomic bombings would not be the only thing Churchill and Truman would have to answer for as the United States and Great Britain charged toward confrontation with the Soviet Union.
The person who did the most to try to stop that confrontation, Henry Wallace, has been largely lost to history. Few people remember how close Wallace came to getting the vice presidential nomination on that steamy Chicago night in July 1944. What might this country have become had Wallace succeeded Roosevelt in April 1945 instead of Truman? Would atomic bombs still have been used in World War II? Could we have avoided the nuclear arms race and the Cold War? Would civil rights and women’s rights have triumphed in the immediate postwar years? Might colonialism have ended decades earlier and the fruits of science and technology been spread more equitably around the globe? We’ll never know.