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Was Truman’s decision to drop the Atomic Bombs on Japan in World War II

justified?

A: Plan of Investigation (2 Marks)

Was Truman’s decision to drop the Atomic Bombs on Japan in World War II justified?

On 6 August 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped by a B-29 Superfortress aircraft on

Hiroshima, Japan. This atomic bomb, dropped as a nuclear attack in an attempt to make

Japan surrender, destroyed Hiroshima and over 90,000 people were instantly killed.

Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese government refused to accept the United States’ terms

of surrender, and on 9 August 1945, the second atomic bomb was dropped over Nagasaki.

Many people opposed to the use of the atomic bombs, as the bombing off civilians was

considered a barbaric act. The aim of this investigation is to find out whether Truman’s

decision to drop the Atomic Bombs over Japan was justified. This investigation will

briefly cover the events that led to the United States’ involvement with World War II and

its interactions with Japan during the war before the atomic bombings, as well as

Truman’s decision to allow the bombs to be dropped over the cities. Research from

various official documents, eyewitness accounts, and transcripts from Truman’s speeches

and diary will indicate whether his decision to drop the atomic bombs over Japan in

World War II was justified or not.

B: Summary of Evidence (5 marks)

1. Events Leading to the United States’ involvement in World War II


From the start of World War II in September of 1939, the United States

remained neutral until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor was a

naval base located in Hawaii, and as the Japanese forces pushed into China, the

United States started increasing defenses. However, a mock attack was conducted

and the defenses were deemed a “failure”.

However, on the morning of 7 December 1941, the fleet stationed at Pearl

Harbor and other US forces were attacked by the Empire of Japan’s Carrier

Striking Task Force. Thirty minutes prior to the attack, a message was sent to the

US, breaking off relations. This surprise attack left 2403 Americans dead and

1178 wounded. In addition, 188 aircraft were destroyed and numerous vessels

were sunk or damaged, including five battleships and three destroyers. In this

attack, Japan’s losses included 64 dead and 1 captured. In addition, 29 aircraft and

5 submarines were lost. The purpose of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor

was to protect Japan’s advances into Singapore and the Dutch East Indies by

preventing the US fleet from intervening.

Roosevelt’s response to the Pearl Harbor surprise attacks was that he

called a joint session of Congress and called the day of the attacks a “day which

will live in infamy”. Congress declared war on Japan, outraged at the attacks and

Japan’s late notification of their broken relations. Public opinion had been divided

as to whether the US should enter the war or not, but overnight it changed -

Americans shared a common opposition against Japan.


2. Reasons Which Lead to Truman’s Decision to Drop the Atomic Bombs over

Japan

The atomic bombs were dropped both for diplomatic reasons and as a

method of forcing Japan to surrender. Russia was planning to join the war against

Japan 90 days after VE Day according to the Potsdam Agreement, but the US

wanted to win the war before the USSR joined in order to prevent Stalin from

claiming land in Japan and spreading communist influence. Thus, in order to

decrease the potential Russian influence in post-war Japan, the Allies had to

defeat Japan before the USSR joined the fight. The atomic bomb was a diplomatic

way of keeping the USSR out of the fight and the decision over post-war Japan. In

addition, military simulations predicted that a land attack against Japan would

result in over 1,000,000 casualties, making the idea of dropping the atomic bombs

more strategic.

3. Production and Dropping of the Atomic Bombs

In 1941, the Manhattan Project was started to develop the first nuclear

weapon. The project was directed by J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American

physicist, and administrated by General Leslie R. Groves. In 1945, three nuclear

weapons were successfully produced. The first, “Trinity”, was a test bomb,

detonated near Alamogordo, Mexico on July 16. The second bomb, “Little Boy”,

was detonated over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6. The third and final bomb,

“Fat Man”, was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9.


Ten days before the US dropped “Little Boy” over Hiroshima, an

ultimatum was presented: The Potsdam Declaration demanded unconditional

surrender from the Japanese emperor. Months before the Hiroshima bombings, the

Japanese were willing to surrender on the terms of preservation of the Japanese

empire and national polity, assumption by the Japanese for responsibility of

disarmament and demobilization, and no occupation and delegation to the

Japanese government of the punishment of war criminals. However, this did not

meet the ultimatum, and ten days later, the first atomic bomb was dropped over

Hiroshima. Two days later, the Japanese still did not surrender, and the second

bomb was dropped over Nagasaki. On 12 August 1945, Emperor Hirohito

accepted the Potsdam Agreement’s terms of surrender.

C: Evaluation of Source (4 marks)

Two of the sources used were:

Wainstock, Dennis D. (1996). The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb. Praeger

Publishers.

This book is based on extensive research both in the United States and Japan

regarding the decision to drop the atomic bomb. The book follows both the

decisions made in Washington, USA and Tokyo, Japan that led to this deadly

decision and also investigates the possible opportunities that could have led away

from these decisions. This book analyzes the politics, diplomacy and military

actions that influenced both the United States and Japan. The book also looks into
topics such as the Manhattan Project and the numerous debates within the Truman

administration, such as whether to change the United States’ demands, plan a land

invasion of Japan, or bomb Japan to surrender. The book’s value lies mostly in

that the book offers a view from both the Japanese and American side as well as

providing a non-opinionated view of the situation; the author’s personal

comments were kept to the back of the book. However, this is limited because the

book does not cover the moral dilemma Truman face adequately.

Knebel, Fletcher and Bailey, Charles W. (1960). No High Ground. Harper and

Row.

This source is most valuable because it provides an objective view at both the

United States and Japan before and after the decision to drop the atomic bombs.

This was written by two American authors who wrote political books. The

limitations of this source could be that it does not provide any moral views

regarding this situation; it merely provides the facts.

D: Analysis (5 marks)

The events leading up to the point where Truman decided to drop the

atomic bomb are critical points in this debate. The Germans had recently

surrendered, and in the Potsdam Conference, Japan’s terms of surrender were

explained in the Potsdam Declaration. If Japan did not surrender, it would face

utter destruction. The United States, USSR, and China (hereon referred to as the

Allies), after defeating Germany, had the upper hand against Japan.1 They had
more forces, more resources, far more land, and more leverage in the political

struggle.

The Allies had defeated Germany through conventional warfare (fighting

with military units such as infantry, tanks, and aircraft, or any military fighting

which does not involve chemical, biological, or nuclear payloads), starting with

the D-Day assault on Normandy. Truman considered attacking Japan with

conventional warfare, but military simulations projected over 1,000,000 casualties

in a land invasion of Japan.2 The number of people killed by the atomic bombs in

Japan was merely a fraction compared to the number of soldiers that would be lost

in a land battle. One of the difficult morality issues Truman had to decide on was

whether to send in soldiers to invade Japan when he knew that there were going to

be many casualties or whether to drop the most powerful bomb the United States

had ever made on a Japanese city. Obviously one would think to go with the

strategy that involves the least deaths, but it was stated in the International Laws

and Customs of War on Land that “the attack or bombardment of towns, villages,

habitations, or buildings which are not defended, is prohibited”; bombing civilians

was a cruel means to win a war.3 However, Truman got around this issue by

referring to Hiroshima as a “military” base in a radio speech and told his diary

that he ordered the bomb dropped on a “purely military” target.4

Truman also had to deal with the issue of the use of such a powerful

weapon. The “Trinity” test was dropped in Alamogordo, Mexico with several

eminent scientists observing from positions 10-25 miles away. The closest

scientist, Enrico Fermi, described the explosion as a “very intense flash of light
and a sensation of heat on the parts of my body that were exposed”. Similar

accounts were also reported by other scientists up to 25 miles away from the

bomb site. Fermi estimated the explosion of the blast to be about 10,000 tons of

TNT. This intense power shocked many of the scientists, including J. Robert

Oppenheimer, also known as “the father of the atomic bomb”, who felt that he

had become the “destroyer of worlds”, that, instead of using science to improve

humanity, he had used it to destroy.5,6 In fact, the thought of using such a powerful

weapon against other humans was such a shock to the physicists and scientists

that the Szilard Petition (1945) was written, signed by 69 members of the

Manhattan Project. These scientists strongly urged the President not to use the

atomic bomb for fear of bringing the world to a nuclear age where different

nations will have no limit to the amount of destructive power that can be

harnessed by the atomic bombs. The moral point was also raised, saying that

using such a weapon is not justified and would weaken the United States’ moral

position and that all the cities of the United States and other countries will be in

constant danger of sudden annihilation.7 Truman went on with the bombing of

Hiroshima, despite the voiced concerns from many of the very scientists who had

designed and created the atomic bomb and felt that it was morally wrong to drop

the bomb.

However, it must be said that, despite the moral issues of this situation,

Truman had many reasons to make the decision to drop the atomic bomb. The

Japanese were ready to fight, should a conventional war be brought to their

homeland, causing many casualties on both sides. One side effect of a


conventional war would have been a prolonging of the fight. Rather than spending

months, even years, fighting a war in Japan and suffering many losses, the

prospect of simply dropping a bomb over Japan and ending the war was more

appealing. Truman wanted to minimize the amount of time needed to force an

unconditional surrender because Russia was to join the fight against Japan within

90 days after VE Day. If Russia joined the fight against Japan, the other countries

would be obligated to give her a portion in determining post-war Japan, which

would result in the communist influence being spread over to Japan and

eventually the entire Pacific.

E: Conclusion (2 marks)

Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan was justified in the

sense that he was making the decision that would lead to what he thought would

be the best outcome, or rather the outcome with the least amount of loss and

destruction. Losing 1,000,000 Americans in a land invasion of Japan would surely

be worse than dropping the atomic bomb, even with the moral issues.

Although Truman’s initial decision to drop the atomic bomb was justified,

the second atomic bombing was not. Before the first bombing, ten days were

given to the Japanese citizens in advance, with airplanes dropping leaflets

warning them of the upcoming bombing. However, the second atomic bomb was

dropped only three days later. The Japanese citizens and government had very

little time to react and decide whether to surrender or not. Truman’s decision

should have been to wait another ten days to drop the second atomic bomb rather
than drop the second bomb three days later and run out of nuclear weapons. This

would have given the Japanese citizens more time to convince the government to

surrender, and could have possibly led to a more peaceful and less destructive

outcome.

F: List of Sources (2 marks)

Endnotes

1. "Potsdam Declaration | Birth of the Constitution of Japan." Birth of the

Constitution of Japan. 2004. National Diet Library. 13 Jun 2007

<http://www.ndl.go.jp/constitution/e/etc/c06.html>.

2. Wainstock, Dennis D. (1996). The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb. Praeger

Publishers.

3. "The Avalon Project - Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague,

II); July 29, 1899." Yale University. 1998. Yale University. 13 Jun 2007

<http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/lawofwar/hague02.htm>.

4. Dannen, Gene. "Atomic Bomb: Decision (Hiroshima-Nagasaki)." Atomic Bomb:

Decision. 2000. 13 Jun 2007 <http://www.dannen.com/decision/index.html>.

5. U.S. National Archives, Record Group 227, OSRD-S1 Committee, Box 82 folder

6, "Trinity."

6. U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of

Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, 201 Groves, L. R. Lt. Gen., telephone

conversations.
7. U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Chief of Engineers,

Manhattan Engineer District, Harrison-Bundy File, folder #76.

Bibliography

1. Dannen, Gene. "Atomic Bomb: Decision (Hiroshima-Nagasaki)." Atomic Bomb:

Decision. 2000. 13 Jun 2007 <http://www.dannen.com/decision/index.html>.

2. Knebel, Fletcher and Bailey, Charles W. (1960). No High Ground. Harper and

Row.

3. "Potsdam Declaration | Birth of the Constitution of Japan." Birth of the

Constitution of Japan. 2004. National Diet Library. 13 Jun 2007

<http://www.ndl.go.jp/constitution/e/etc/c06.html>.

4. "President Truman Did Not Understand." US News & World Report 15 Aug 1960:

68-71.

5. "The Avalon Project - Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague,

II); July 29, 1899." Yale University. 1998. Yale University. 13 Jun 2007

<http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/lawofwar/hague02.htm>.

6. Truman, Harry S. Year of Decisions . Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company,

1955.

7. U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of

Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, TS Manhattan Project File '42 to '46,

Folder 5B "(Directives, Memos, Etc. to and from C/S, S/W, etc.).”


8. U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of

Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, 201 Groves, L. R. Lt. Gen., telephone

conversations.

9. U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Chief of Engineers,

Manhattan Engineer District, Harrison-Bundy File, folder #76.

10. U.S. National Archives, Record Group 227, OSRD-S1 Committee, Box 82 folder

6, "Trinity."

11. Wainstock, Dennis D. (1996). The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb. Praeger

Publishers.