The Decision to Drop the Bomb
Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam
Day of Trinity
Hiroshima Plus 20
Now, twenty years after the scientific triumph that became a political nightmare, we are still trying to come to terms with the decision to use the bomb. Burdened as we are with the terrible legacy of Hiroshima—the shame, the responsibility, and the fear—that decision strikes us as one of the most momentous this nation has ever taken. Yet at the time, when the feverish work at Los Alamos was coming to a conclusion, there was no problem of a decision at all. To General Leslie Groves, who directed the Manhattan Project, “There was never any question in my mind that we would use the bomb when we got it ready and also that we would get it ready just as fast as we could.” It was an opinion reflected at the highest levels of government and later expressed by President Truman himself when he wrote: “I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used.” Not only was there no doubt that it should be used, there was never any discussion of the matter. It was simply assumed. As Churchill has written in words which today seem remarkable in their matter-of-factness, “The decision whether or not to use the atomic bomb was never an issue.”
If it was not an issue in 1945, it has become one in 1965. Why? Perhaps because our consciences are nagged by the suspicion that the sacrifice of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may not have been necessary. Perhaps because we have become more skeptical about the rhetoric which nations use to justify the impersonal violence of war. Perhaps because we are no longer so callous about the slaughter of the innocent, whether at Hiroshima or in the villages of Vietnam. And perhaps because today, unlike 1945, we feel the hot breath of the atom upon our own necks and know that our fate hinges upon a decision similar to the one made, or assumed, by American policy makers in the last months of the war against Japan.
At the time it was tested, the bomb seemed like an extension of the weapons already in use—different in degree, but not in kind. Being a weapon of war, it was used as a weapon of war. Today we find it shocking that it was dropped without warning on unprotected civilians as a device of terror quite divorced from any military significance. And it is. But the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians did not begin at Hiroshima. It was launched at Guernica and in Ethiopia, and developed on a larger scale at Rotterdam, Leningrad, and Dresden. It was refined by the US Air Force in the fire raids against Japanese cities where civilians were the primary target. In a single raid on Toyko 83,000 people were burned alive—a toll greater than that taken by either of the atomic bombs. Few, however, bothered to question such brutality, although among the few was Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who …