Harry Truman and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb


Harry Truman

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.”

Page 435-437:

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
Top Secret
Operational Priority
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….”

Page 448:

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?

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  1. James Gawron Inactive
    James Gawron

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Mikescapes (View Comment):
    Why wasn’t that alternative tried?

    I don’t want to spend the time to answer the question, particularly when I (and now you) have access to a remarkably well presented answer.

    Here you go.


    Works for me.



    • #151
  2. Architectus Coolidge

    Bryan G. Stephens, Trump Aveng… (View Comment):

    The surrender was so tenuous, I am boggled you would suggest that.

    Go study history.

    And, the topic has actually been covered well by some in the previous responses to the OP.  It is soooo easy to sit back now and question, but far different when 100s of thousands of American lives were on the line.  

    • #152
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