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Harry Truman and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb
Peter Robinson expressed his opinion on Twitter today that President Truman did not approve the use of the nuclear bomb. “Truman never approved the use of the bomb–or disapproved it,” He wrote. “The military considered it one more weapon, like a new submarine or aircraft. They kept Truman informed. But they did not ask his approval.”
That’s not my memory from reading David McCollough’s Truman, so I decided to look it up, as best I could.
Here’s what Truman himself said of the matter, as quoted by McCollough on page 442 of the paperback edition:
The final decision of where and when to use the atomic bomb was up to me. Let there be no mistake about it. I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used.
McCollough continues on the same page:
Though nothing was recorded on paper, the critical moment appears to have occurred at Number 2 Kaiserstrasse later in the morning of Tuesday, July 24, when, at 11:30, the combined American and British Chiefs of Staff convened with Truman and Churcheill in the dinning room. This was the one time when Truman, Churchill, and their military advisers were all around a table, in Churchill’s phrase. From this point it was settled: barring some unforeseen development, the bomb would be used with a few weeks.
Peter followed up by saying that Truman authorized the release of a “document explaining the bomb, not the bomb itself.”
With the start of his second week at Potsdam, Truman knew that decisions on the bomb could wait no longer. At 10:00 Sunday morning, July 22, he attended Protestant services led by a chaplain from the 2nd Armored Division. …
[Secretary of War] Stimson had appeared at Number 2 Kaiserstrasse shortly after breakfast with messages from Washington saying all was about5 ready for the “final operation” and that a decision on the target cities was needed. Stimson wanted Kyoto removed from the list, and having heard the reasons, Truman agreed. Kyoto would be spared. “Although it was a target of considerable military importance,” Stimson would write, “it had been the capital of Japan and was a shrine of Japanese art and culture…” First on the list of approved targets was Hiroshima, southern headquarters and depot for Japan’s homeland army. …
Tuesday, July 24, was almost certainly the fateful day.
At 9:20A.M Stimson again climbed the stairs to Truman’s office, where he found the President seated behind the heavy carved desk, “alone with his work.” Stimson had brought another message:
Washington, July 23, 1945
War 36792 Secretary of War Eyes Only top secret from Harrison.
Operation may be possible any time from August 1 depending on state of preparation of patient and condition of atmosphere. From point of view of patient only, some chance August 1 to 3, good chance August 4 to 5 and barring unexpected relapse almost certain before August 10.
Truman “said that was just what he wanted,” Stimson wrote in his diary,” that he was highly delighted….”
Late on Monday, July 30, another urgent top-secret cable to Truman was received and decoded…
The time schedule on Groves’ project is progressing so rapidly that it is now essential that statement for release by you be available not later than Wednesday, 1 August….
The time had come for Truman to give the final go-ahead for the bomb. This was the moment, the decision only he could make.
The message was delivered at 7:48 A.M., Berlin time, Tuesday, July 31. Writing large and clear with a lead pencil on the back of the pink message, Truman gave his answer, which he handed to Lieutenant Elsey for Transmission:
Suggestion approved. Release when ready but not sooner than August 2.
On July 25, Truman had written in his journal, McCollough quotes on pages 443-444:
We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world… This weapon will be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo, where the Imperial Palace had been spared thus far].
He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them a chance.
McCollough notes that Truman knew that it was “only partly true” that the bomb would be used only against military targets. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the sites of military installations, so they were legitimate military targets, but of course we know that many civilians perished. The morality of the atomic bomb is not the subject of this post, but I’d like to mention that at this point more than 50,000 American soldiers had been killed in just four months of island hopping and that 100,000 Japanese had died in a single night of firebombing.
On page 457:
On August 9, the papers carried still more stupendous news. A million Russian troops had crossed into Manchuria–Russia was in the war against Japan–and a second atomic bomb had been dropped on the major Japanese seaport of Nagasaki.
No high-level meeting had been held concerning this second bomb. Truman had made no additional decision. There was no order issued beyond the military directive for the first bomb, which had been sent on July 25 by Marshall’s deputy, General Thomas T. Handy, to the responsible commander in the Pacific, General Carl A. Spaatz of the Twentieth Air Force. Paragraph 2 of that directive had stipulated: “Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by the project staff.” A second bomb–a plutonium bomb nicknamed “Fat Man”–being ready, it was “delivered” from Tinian, and two days ahead of schedule, in view of weather conditions.
There are no doubt additional relevant quotes, but I’ll limit it to these. Does anyone else have insight into this momentous decision?Published in General
Truman is a great book. I highly recommend it!
My thoughts off the top of my head. No one should question the decision to drop the bomb. Given everything that had happened and would likely happen there was no other choice. What we all should be questioning is how Western Civilization got itself into the 20th century that went so wrong. WWI, The Armenian Genocide, The Bolshevik Revolution, Italian Fascism, Stalinist Genocide, German Fascism, WWII, The Holocaust, and finally The Bomb.
What happens when you think that Science has all of the answers. When you think Faith & Morality no longer have a place at the table. When you think that Faith & Morality are just emotional expressions that have no objective meaning. That’s how the 20th century really got started. That’s how, one step at a time, we locked ourselves into dropping the Bomb. Don’t blame Harry Truman because all of his options had already been used up and all there was to do was drop it. He did it not to kill more people but to save both American & Japanese lives. The question is how did we get there. We need answers.
When I wrote that Truman never approved or disapproved of the bomb, I was on Twitter, constrained by the limited word count. Here’s what I was trying to get at:
I’ve found over the years that a lot of people assume that there must have been one single moment when President Truman considered the enormous, utterly unprecedented destructive powers of the atomic bomb, carefully considered the targets in Japan on which the military proposed using it, and then made a solemn and formal decision to go ahead, signing some document or memorandum. In particular, I’ve noticed, people who now sit in judgement on Truman argue about the wrongness–or sinfulness–of making such a decision, as if he did just that, making, again, a single and solemn decision.
But he never did.
Consider the materials that Max presents above. Truman was participating in a project that was already underway. He was kept informed. He was presented options. He was brought into critical conversations, even the consideration of targets. And strictly speaking, he could have ended it all at any time by invoking his powers as commander-in-chief. But a single moment of solemn decision? None took place.
Read the material that Max quotes from page 448 very carefully. McCullough writes that “The time had come for Truman to give the final go-ahead for the bomb.” But the facts will not bear the weight of quite such a dramatic statement. Again, read the passage very carefully. What Truman was being asked to approve was a statement about the bomb, not the dropping of the bomb itself. Truman wrote in pencil on the back the request, “Suggestion approved. Release when ready but not before August 2.” The word “release” referred to the statement, again, and not to the bomb. He wanted the statement held until August 2, the last day of the Potsdam Conference, because of Josef Stalin. If the statement were released sooner, Truman would find himself forced to explain the bomb to Stalin, which he wanted to avoid. (Truman did tell Stalin about the bomb during the conference, but spoke about it only in vague, general terms.)
Note in particular one figure who appears in this account: Lt. George Elsey. “Truman gave his answer,” McCullough writes, “which he handed to Lieutenant Elsey for Transmission.” Who explained all of this to me? George Elsey. George died in 2015, but I got to know him during the final years of his life.
Note that my point is a narrow one. Did Truman approve of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Certainly. Was he kept informed? He was. Secretary of War told the new president of the bomb’s existence on April 15, 1945–you’ll recall that Truman had become president on the unexpected death of FDR on April 12–and made certain that Truman remained informed thereafter. In early July, before the first successful test of the weapon, Truman was briefed on a plan to give the Japanese some form of warning before we invaded the Japanese mainland, and on July 16, the day Truman reached Potsdam, he was informed of the first successful nuclear explosion, the Trinity Test, at Alamogordo in New Mexico. But was there a single, unambiguous moment of decision? No. Like other historians, McCullough suggests that such a moment came on July 30. What Truman approved on that date, however, was, again, the release of a fact sheet or statement. You can certainly argue that it was as close as Truman came to a single moment of decision. But close to the thing isn’t the thing itself.
These are fine distinctions. What does it matter whether Truman gave the dropping of the bomb no explicit formal approval when he clearly did approve of it? Does any of this really matter? It does, I believe, because of it tells us about the moral context. Truman bears ultimate responsibility for dropping the bomb, but only formally–only, again, because he could, strictly speaking, have called it off. But to do so would have been to subvert one of the great accomplishments of FDR, the Manhattan Project, and project that had involved dozens of scientists and military figures, and which was bound up, again, with the personal prestige of FDR, who had served as president for 12 years whereas Truman had served, when the bomb was dropped, for not quite four months. Trying to stop the project would have been like trying to stop a train.
And why was that? Why had the development of the atomic bomb developed such mass and momentum? Why did Stimson and Groves and others involved in the project feel free to select the final targets and drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without absolutely explicit and formal presidential approval? (Truman only learned of the actual targets as he was returning to Washington.) Because of the war. Because several hundred thousand Americans had already died. Because the Japanese had perpetrated mass atrocities in Nanjing and elsewhere and then demonstrated a determination to fight to the death on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Because everyone understood that as awful as the bomb would prove, it could stop the killing.
Which it did.
Those who now sit in judgement on Truman could do worse than ponder that. And the moralists among my fellow Catholics? Bear in mind that the Japanese had all but obliterated the distinction between civilians and combatants, distributing the manufacturing of ammunition and other war supplies throughout civilian neighborhoods. And bear in mind too that the just war tradition requires leaders to take into account the prospects for victory and defeat, for inflicting damage and suffering it. Which is to say that the just war tradition requires realistic assessments of actual, practical alternatives.
In my own judgment, Harry Truman–and Henry Stimson and Leslie Groves and all those involved–were moved by a single aim: Ending the war. They were good men. And they did right.
To nobody’s surprise, I agree with Peter Robinson over David McCullough. But I’ve got some backup. Alex Wallerstein’s Nuclear Secrecy Blog has some very relevant material on this crucial period of history. Five Days in August, by Michael Gordin, is a fine short book on a previously overlooked subject, the plans and activities of the bomb assembly team at Tinian. Neither has blockbuster counter-factual revelations, but they considerably sharpen the picture. The decision to use the first bomb was effectively on autopilot, governed by a directive called the Handy Memorandum, simply giving the Army an open ended OK to start using the bombs once available.
Truman can legitimately claim to be, not the man who dropped the bomb, but the man who stopped the bomb. There is no doubt that he was the one who ordered a stop after Nagasaki. There is a postwar myth that we “knew” that the one-two punch would end the war, but Tinian was prepared to keep the assembly line going well into 1946.
“‘Coronet’ never got much beyond this [the planning] stage, although the assault troops were chosen and already in training. But ‘Olympic,’ against Kyushu, was well into its collecting and stockpiling stages before the war ended. What it must have been like for some old-timer buck sergeant or staff sergeant who had gone through Guadalcanal and Bougainville and the Philippines, to stand on some beach and watch this huge war machine beginning to stir and move all around him and know that he very likely had survived this far only to fall dead on the dirt of Japan’s home islands, hardly bears thinking about.” James Jones
One of my favorite trivia facts. The military produced so many Purple Hearts in anticipation of causalities that when the invasion did not occur, the supply lasted until 2000.
There are dozens of “Handy Memorandum”. Link to source would be great.
I have just finished reading 77 letters from my Dad when he was in the WWII ETO, from Aug 44 to Aug 45. Dad was a Combat Infantry Squad Leader (MOS 653). Dad mentions in a few letters that he thought that once the war ended in Europe that he would be sent to either the South Pacific or Burma. He was equally excited and terrified about going to either place. He had lived thru a year of combat (including being at Bastogne w/the 101st), had two purple hearts, was in the hospital for wounds four times (twice going AWOL to get back to his outfit), and did not have any illusions about being bullet proof.
Circa 1994 I met Paul Fussell author of “Thank God for the Atom Bomb”. He served in Europe and was scheduled to invade Japan.
THank you for getting Peter to respond in long form.
Mitsuo Fuchida on the Hiroshima bomb:
“You did the right thing. You know the Japanese attitude at that time, how fanatic they were, they’d die for the Emperor … Every man, woman, and child would have resisted that invasion with sticks and stones if necessary … Can you imagine what a slaughter it would be to invade Japan? It would have been terrible. The Japanese people know more about that than the American public will ever know.”
Fuchida actually led the Pearl Harbor attack. He is the one saying “Tora, Tora, Tora” in the movie, although it was actually a radio operator sending the message back to the fleet
From this conversation: https://ricochet.com/763824/hiroshima-and-mitsuo-fuchida/
I highly recommend William Styron’s defense of the atomic bomb against Japan:
“Meanwhile, orders to carry out the atomic attacks were being written and distributed in Washington. A special B-29 air group based on Tinian had trained to drop the atomic bombs, and was ready to perform their mission. Various components of the weapons were being transferred to the Marianas by air and sea. General Carl Spaatz, recently named overall commander of USAAF Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific, was in Washington. On July 25, he reported to the War Department and conferred with Marshall’s deputy, General Thomas T. Handy, the acting army chief of staff in Marshall’s absence. Spaatz had received verbal orders to drop the two bombs, but he told Handy that he needed a “piece of paper” spelling out the order. Handy drafted and signed an order directing the Twentieth Air Force to deliver the “first special bomb as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945 on one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki.” Additional bombs would be dropped on the same list of target cities “as soon as made ready by the project staff.”103 A final clause added that the directive had been issued “by direction and with the approval” of Secretary Stimson and General Marshall. That was the only written order pertaining to the use of atomic bombs against Japan. [emphasis added]”
(continued next comment, including citation)
At the “Little White House” in Potsdam, on that same date (July 25), Truman met alone with his secretary of war—and if the president’s diary is to be believed, his verbal instructions to Stimson could not be reconciled with the orders just issued in Washington: I have told the Sec. Of War, Mr. Stimson to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old Capitol or the new [i.e., Kyoto or Tokyo]. He & I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance.104 But Handy’s order, written under Stimson’s authority, was in line with the instructions he had already received from Potsdam. It was based upon the recommendations of the Interim Committee and its subcommittees, as approved by the cabinet and the president. The bombs would be dropped as they were made ready, and as weather conditions permitted, on the four Japanese cities selected by the Target Committee. The order made no mention of warnings, military objectives, or sparing women and children. The cities had not been chosen for their military character, and the military installations therein were not specified as aiming points for the bombs. They were chosen because they fulfilled the three conditions specified by the Target Committee—namely, that they were “large urban area[s] of more than three miles diameter,” which were “capable of being damaged effectively by a blast,” and were “likely to be unattacked by next August.”105 Truman’s diary entry of July 25 remains an inexplicable curiosity. Perhaps he felt sudden qualms, and soothed them with therapeutic delusions. He might have sensed that future historians and biographers were reading over his shoulder, and hoped to be commended as a man of delicate conscience. If so, the entry was a feckless gesture, serving only to leave the impression that the diary was not a faithful record of Truman’s inner thoughts.
Toll, Ian W.. Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945 (Vol. 3) (Pacific War Trilogy) (pp. 684-685). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
To say that Truman “stopped” further use of the bomb implies that we had more of them. My understanding is that we did not have another one on hand or in once “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were expended.
The alternative to the A-bomb– sequential large scale (larger than Normandy) amphibious landings on Japanese home islands with horrific civilian causalities driven by a fanatical defense resulting in hundreds of thousands of American casualties was unacceptable. Measured in lives, the a-bomb decision was a humanitarian no-brainer.
Cities were military targets in that war. Some argue that that was inherently immoral. However, if the bomb were dropped as a demonstration in a remote area, offshore or on a mountaintop, it would have been dismissed as a ruse, and the news easily hidden from the public.
We had a 3rd bomb, Fatman type which was in Utah, it was loaded and on the West coast, ready to be transported to Tinian when the Japanese surrendered.
There was material for about 8 more in the pipeline, and the decision had been made to use them tactically to support Operation Olympic if the Japanese had not surrendered and the invasion of Kyushu had become necessary.
Probably several million lives were saved by the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of them Japanese.
I just finished a book “140 Days to Hiroshima ” which went over all the aspects of the events leading up to and after the atomic bombings.
Followed by a 1,000 word comment. You know, there has to be a happy medium somewhere in there
Well, that’s pretty cool! I’m glad you had that first-hand experience to draw on.
In defense of McCollough, I left out this from page 337 (the same page as Elsey’s appearance above) :
On the next page:
Anyway, there’s a lot more.
To me the morality of using the atomic bomb is beyond question. Millions of lives were saved–mostly Japanese and Russian. More important to those of us who are American, dropping the bomb saved American lives. My good friend’s father was 19 at the time and had received orders to ship out to the Pacific. In all likelihood, if Truman had not authorized the use of the bomb (I don’t care if there’s no piece of paper — The bomb was used because Truman authorized it) then my friend’s could have died and my friend might not even exist today. In fact, neither might I — my grandfather was also in the Pacific (as a mechanic in the Navy).
With all due respect to Peter, somebody I have come to have the greatest respect for, you are being much more clear about this. Harry Truman was Commander in Chief. He knew he was Commander in Chief and he knew all about the bomb. Harry pulled the trigger. The estimates at the time (and nobody has really ever challenged them) were that it would have cost 2 million American lives to invade the Japanese Islands and conquer them by conventional means. I don’t even know the estimate of Japanese dead but it would have been much higher than 2 million.
There is no way to remove the bomb from human history. There is no way to make Harry Truman a scapegoat for employing the bomb. What we should do is ask why our basic enlightenment moral beliefs became so deeply questioned that monsters like Hitler, Tojo, and Stalin were in power and brought the disaster of WWII down upon everyone.
IIRC, there was no “stop” to be ordered. At the time, we only had enough material for three bombs: Trinity (the test), Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. The two bombs we dropped were accompanied by a threat for more, but it was a bluff. Ultimately, Savannah River Plant was built and large scale production of bomb-grade material could begin . . .
Even a Marxist history professor I had in the 1970s acknowledged this — that in a democratic republic there was really no other choice than to use it.
See comment # 15. Production of three bombs per month, increasing to 5 and then 7 per month before the end of the year.
Check out Five Days in July. We had one more plutonium core finished and ready to ship. Bomb components were already stockpiled on Tinian. True, another one after that would have taken a month or so. This is one reason why some people (I’m one of them) think we should have waited longer to drop the second bomb, so the gap between that and the third one would have been less. Weather conditions rushed them into the second drop.
Whatever you think of the morality of Hiroshima, it was a nearly flawlessly executed mission. By contrast everything about the Kokura/Nagasaki flight was a screwed up mess.
An ominous side note. Since the beginning of the atomic age, it’s been emphasized how hard it is to make the things go off accidentally. That’s basically been true of complicated implosion weapons–but it wasn’t true of the uranium gun, “Little Boy”. In the Fifties there was a plan to build and detonate one obsolete gun-style bomb for instrumentation and testing, but the AEC demurred for safety reasons. anonymous could explain this better than I can, but the detents that held back the “bullet” weren’t that robust, and if the B-29 crashed on takeoff, it would almost certainly have failed to stop an accidental detonation.
At the time, Tinian was the world’s largest airport. Imagine what the Japanese, believing in their mandate from heaven, would have made of half or more of the air fleet on Tinian suddenly vanishing in an intense fireball.
Just finished “Twilight of the Gods” and am now going back to the first of the series and rereading. Toll is a terrific writer and a very good researcher as well. Highly recommend all three of his books in that series.
The atomic bomb has been stigmatized into myth since it’s use and subsequent calculations, endless negotiations, and lots of propaganda for disarming one’s foes. Just a military weapon is pretty good, except it was bigger than the last bomb. Why not just firebomb another city ? Is the X factor ( number of bombs dropped on Dresden) equal to the Y factor (number of dead in Nagasaki) ? Only in numbers of units dropped . Truman’s place in history is settled and he is honored for the body of his work. The same forces of stigmatizing will never let up and someday they will show up in Independence and try to tear down his house . Funny how the conflicted ,tortured soul icon Oppenheimer gets better press often, pity he wasn’t included in Paul Johnson’s “Intellectuals”.
It’s from James Jones’s book WWII. I doubt the text is available on-line. I typed it in.
It was not. He made the decision on July 22 when he removed Kyoto from the target list. By communicating the targets he was giving approval to release weapons on them.
Here is the text of the order communicated to the field.
Think about the incredible pressure those leaders felt after seeing the horrendous casualties on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
“As US forces pushed forward, island by island, troops continued to bear witness to Japanese soldiers and civilians taking their own lives. Okinawa was a particularly hellish scene as nearly one-third of the island population died. Among these were Koreans who had been forcibly migrated from annexed Korea to Japanese islands to be press-ganged as laborers and comfort women. While the Japanese government states there was “military involvement” in these suicides, survivors attest to a compulsory mass suicide, or shudan jiketsu.
Ota Masahide, a survivor and Okinawa historian, wrote in an article for the Asia-Pacific Journal in 2014 that the military distributed hand-grenades to the civilian population as the means to commit suicide with loved ones. Those that survived the grenades “worried” about being alive and found other ways to kill themselves with other weapons such as scythes, razor blades, ropes, rocks, and sticks. Military propaganda had warned the civilian population that if they were captured, the Americans would torture, rape, and murder them.”
Imagine what would have happened in the Japanese home islands. If you read about Fuchida in the linked conversation above:
“He was surprised to find his former flight engineer, Kazuo Kanegasaki, whom all had believed had died in the Battle of Midway. When questioned, Kanegasaki told Fuchida that they were not tortured or abused, much to Fuchida’s surprise, and then went on to tell him of a young lady, Peggy Covell, who served them with the deepest love and respect, but whose parents, missionaries, had been killed by Japanese soldiers on the island of Panay in the Philippines.
For Fuchida, this was inexplicable, as in the Bushido code revenge was not only permitted, it was “a responsibility” for an offended party to carry out revenge to restore honor. The murderer of one’s parents would be a sworn enemy for life. He became almost obsessed trying to understand why anyone would treat their enemies with love and forgiveness.“
The culture gap was impossible to close. We had no choice. The two atomic bombs saved millions – of Japanese.
A book that was recently reviewed in the Wall Street Journal (if I remember well) provided some insights into the decision. If you can find the book or the review somehow, or if other readers have, I would be interested in your comments.
The thesis of the book is that Truman did make the decision to drop the bomb, and that the reason had nothing to do with preventing American casualties from an invasion. In fact, the Japanese had already offered to surrender, so he knew no invasion would be needed. He rejected their surrender because he wanted to drop the bomb for other reasons–if I recall, they had to do with making a demonstration to the USSR that we had this new terrible device. But don’t quote me on that part.
The book gives detailed of how the history that we’ve all been taught–“the bomb was necessary to prevent massive American (and Japanese civilian) casualties”–was a successful disinformation campaigned cooked up by a Truman operative, starting in about January of the next year.