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The Decision to Drop the Bomb

Was the issue of dropping the bomb on Japan sufficiently looked into before a decision was made?

Fifty-six years after the only atomic bombs ever used in wartime were dropped, the debate still continues over whether the usage of the bomb was justified. While this argument will probably never be resolved, people continue to discuss it, even though no matter what the outcome it cannot bring back the 100 thousand Japanese that lost their lives. Instead of debating the issue of the dropping of the bomb, as we are covering that in History class, I have decided to investigate how much research the U.S. government did before decided to drop the bomb. As the saying goes, hindsight is the best site, but surely the U.S. government would have anticipated the reaction that it would get from the rest of the world when it dropped the bomb on Japan. Hopefully, this information should help to better define the argument over whether the act was justified.

We will pick up where the last section left off- The test at trinity. At 5:30 am on the 16th July 1945, the first ever man made nuclear bomb had been detonated in the Alamagordo Air Base in the New Mexico desert. The results were beyond any of the scientists wildest imagination- equivalent to 20 000 tonnes of TNT. The 500 metre high fireball lasted several seconds, and was dwarfed only by the 300 metre high mushroom cloud. The explosion was heard for 180 miles around, and all that was left of the ground where the bomb was detonated was a 400 metre wide crater in the earth. Oppenheimer was shocked- He called himself "the destroyer or worlds".

There was no time to stay nostalgic however, and the war situation in the pacific was becoming increasingly desperate. As early as September of 1942 Roosevelt and Churchill had met to discuss the usage of the bomb- Britain still had the right to voice its opinion under the Quebec Agreement. They decided that the world was not to be informed that they had created an atomic bomb, however there was still the possibility that the bomb was to be used against the Japanese. This worried the scientists working on the project, who thought that it was unwise for the Americans to keep secrets from the rest of Europe. Many scientists wrote letters and petitions to Roosevelt- most notably Albert Einstein. However, time progressed with not much happening, and then Roosevelt died in April 1945.

This was a major disturbance in the project. Truman knew nothing about the Manhattan project prior to becoming president, and couldn't believe the size of the project. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson was asked to breif the president on the project and its implications, and Truman listened attentively to everything Stimson had to say. Truman perhaps was influenced a little too much by Stimson- Not only did Stimson explain the effects of dropping the bomb on Japan, he added his own opinions, making Truman beleive, as Stimson did, that the usage of the atomic bomb would significantly shorten the length of the war. Truman set up an Interim Committee to discuss the usage of the bomb. The group did not meet before the war was over in Europe, meaning that Japan would be the sole target of the atom bomb if the decision was made to deploy it.

The Committee met, and decided on several things. They published a document outlining there initial findings (click here to read the paper). Truman raised the subject of a non-military demonstration of the bomb to show the Japanese what the U.S.A had created. This idea was discarded however when someone mentioned that a failure of this demonstration (which was likely if the Japanese attacked it) would do more damage to the U.S.A than it would do good. Though the possibility of a demonstration that would not destroy human life was attractive, no one could suggest a way in which it could be made so convincing that it would be likely to stop the war". The Committee also decided that it wanted the bomb dropped without warning- to destroy the possibility that Japan would move P.O.W's into the major cities.

Szilard and Franck also published a conflicting report, which had Oppenheimer's backing. They said that to usage of such a weapon, while it may end the war, would destroy the United States' popularity around the world and create a lot of post-war instability. However, the Interim Committee's decision had already been taken as gospel by the Government, who were looking for a way to justify the $2 billion (AUD$40 000 000 000) spent on the project so far. Even Churchill distanced himself from the project at this stage, saying that the decision was the United States' to make. Relationships had broken down with the Russians, so a coordinated invasion from both mainland Russia and the Pacific was no longer feasible. The situation degraded, and on July 25, 1945, President Truman ordered that the first Atomic Bomb be dropped on Japan.

The moment that scientists had been working towards for over 6 years had finally occured- but at what cost? While the project had been a pinnical of 20th century organisation at its best, the decision to use the bomb was rushed and ill-thought out. One of the unfortunate causes of this was the death of President Roosevelt, who had followed the Manhattan Project since its creation and knew a great deal about the bomb. Truman, through no fault of his own, did not have the experience he should have had, and when it came time to make a decision he was influenced too much by the government and the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. This was very unfortunate, and whether or not the decision was the right one there is no denying that the amount of thought given to it did not justify (i) the amount of time and effort put into the project by the scientists, whose pleas to stop the usage of the bomb went unnoticed, and (ii) the monolithic power and destructive force of the weapon itself.


Yass, Marion, Hiroshima, (Wayland Publishing, East Sussex 1971) p. 61