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Pacific FrontJuly 1945

The decision to drop the bomb

Why did the Allies decide to drop nuclear bombs on Japan?
The decision to drop two nuclear bombs on Japan in August 1945 remains controversial. Why was it taken?

Video Transcript

Commentary: Here in the desert of New Mexico on the 16th July 1945, history was about to be made. After years of research the Allied efforts to build an atomic weapon had at last borne fruit. And this is the first ever nuclear bomb. A plutonium device code-named the ‘Gadget’. For the Americans it represented victory in the race to be the first nation to possess nuclear power.

Dr Conrad Crane: We start to develop the atomic bomb because we think the Germans are developing the atomic bomb. They’re going to use it against us so we have to have it, and if we had gotten it ready before the Germans had surrendered it would have been used against the Germans.

Commentary: And once human beings had created a destructive device of this immense power, it was always going to be difficult to prevent human beings from exploding it in war.

Sir Max Hastings: I think one of the foremost forces of history most visible in the Second World War is what I call, slightly pompously, ‘technological determinism’. That when weapons existed, when fleets and airforces were created, they get used.

Commentary: Professor Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the nuclear bomb programme, later said that as he watched the test explosion a line from a Hindu sacred text came into his mind. ‘Now I am become death. The destroyer of worlds.’ News of the successful test of the nuclear bomb reached President Truman just before the start of the Potsdam Conference, here near Berlin. Truman had only recently been appointed President, after the death of Franklin Roosevelt, and he now suddenly had become the most powerful leader in history. 

Sir Max Hastings: When Truman became President, which was only a couple of months before the bombs were dropped, nobody said to him, ‘Mr President, you’re going to have to make a huge decision about whether or not to drop these atomic bombs, which are very soon going to be ready, on Japan.’ Instead they simply said, ‘Mr President, you should know that you are shortly likely to find yourself in control of the most effective and powerful weapons the world has ever seen, and we will have these ready to drop in August.’ It wasn’t so easy to see these great moral issues with the clarity that we can see. What everybody felt then, everybody was sick of the war - they wanted it to be over. They were tired, a huge number of people had died, an awful lot of innocent people had suffered terrible things. If by one day this thing could be ended by just dropping some more bombs on these Japanese, well so be it.

Commentary: And it wasn’t as if the Americans hadn’t already been dropping a lot of bombs on the Japanese. For months giant B-29 Superfortresses had been firebombing Japanese cities. In March 1945 a hundred thousand people had been killed in one night in Tokyo. The destruction was so great that, incredibly, the US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, came to see the nuclear bomb as almost a humane weapon by comparison.

Dr Conrad Crane: Stimson writes one of the reasons I approve the dropping of the atomic bomb was to end the fire raids. He said look, the fire raids are worse than what we’re going to do with this bomb. I could stop them. We’re burning down 60 something Japanese cities, we’re killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese. If this will end the war then let’s use this bomb.

Commentary: The bomb on Hiroshima was to be dropped by a B-29 commanded by Colonel Paul Tibbets. He’d named the plane the ‘Enola Gay’ after his mother. 

Wartime archive narration: The crew has had their final briefing on weather and air sea rescue. Only yesterday they have been told of the true power of the weapon they are to carry. 

Dr Conrad Crane: You ask how you can drop this immoral weapon. Well, we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of casualties invading Japan. And even though American leaders know this bomb is going to kill a lot of Japanese civilians, their first obligation has got to be to their own people.

Wartime archive narration: At 2:45 in the morning, August 6th 1945, Colonel Tibbets takes the Enola Gay down the runway into the air, beginning the six and one half hour flight to Japan. Over Iwo Jima they begin the slow climb to bombing altitude. At 8:15 a weather plane reports from Hiroshima that conditions are good. Two tenths lower and middle and two tenths at 15,000 feet. As they approach the target area the weapon is checked for the last time. At 9:11, 31,000 feet over Hiroshima, the Enola Gay begins the bomb run. At 9:15 the bomb is dropped. Just 50 seconds later, 15 miles from ground zero, the Enola Gay is rocked by the blast.

President Harry Truman (6th August 1945): A short time ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb has more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbour. They have been repaid many fold, and the end is not yet.

Professor Geoffrey Wawro: In Truman’s defence he had this weapon, he had done a lot of damage to Japan, he’d repeatedly asked them to surrender, they refused to surrender, he had the Soviets breaking into Manchuria heading towards Japan. He had to make a tough call. And by then, at that point nuclear weapons didn’t have the sort of taboo reputation they have now.

President Harry Truman (6th August 1945): We are now prepared to destroy more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have in any city.

Professor Geoffrey Wawro: That said, people like General Dwight Eisenhower, Fleet Admiral William Leahy were appalled by its use. They said this is barbaric. I can’t believe we did this. But Truman, you know, he was in the White House, the President has to make tough decisions and not pass the buck. And so he took that decision and it did end the war and it doubtless saved tens of thousands of American lives. So it remains an open question, but I’m sure there’s an awful lot of grateful American families that he took that decision.

Commentary: The destruction caused by one single atomic bomb at Hiroshima, and then three days later another bomb at Nagasaki, was without precedent. Hundreds of thousands of people were injured by the two bombs, and more than a hundred and fifty thousand died. Many of them of painful cancers, radiation sickness and other injuries caused by the after effects of the attack.

Professor Akira Iriye: I still think it was a morally reprehensible strategy, that other alternatives could have been found or should have been pursued. Both sides are trying to win by all means, but by all means short of nuclear weapons would have been less unjustifiable than all means including nuclear wars. I mean, Americans recognise that because they have not used nuclear weapons since that time.

Wartime archive narration: In Chicago more than a million sing and dance in the streets in the biggest celebration the windy city has ever seen.

Commentary: Whether the dropping of the bomb was morally justifiable or not remains a question of debate. But there’s no debate about the fact that the two nuclear bombs on Japan resulted in the end of the war.

Wartime archive narration: The pose may not be dignified, but the young lady is not the least upset. Far in to the night the happy crowd screamed their relief at the end of the greatest war in history. From early Tuesday morning the celebration went on for 24 hours.

Commentary: But there remains at least one other legacy of this dramatic and controversial means of ending the war.

Professor Geoffrey Wawro: By the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese Emperor afterwards was able to claim, ‘We’re a victim. We were a victim of this American technology. And we’re a martyr,’ if you will. And that to this day continues to affect our record of this war and our analysis of this war. The Japanese have still not owned up to the horrible things they did, and that’s in part because of the decision to drop the atom bombs. And I don’t include that in a criticism of Truman’s decision because he clearly wasn’t thinking in that way, but that’s one of its impacts.

Commentary: The main reason the Americans dropped their nuclear bombs was simple. They wanted to end the war and save American lives. But in doing so, they gave notice that any future all out war between great powers would be still more destructive than this, the Second World War, had ever been.


The colour photo of Truman and Stalin at Potsdam is U.S. Army, Courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library.