Harry Truman
Harry Truman; drawing by David Levine

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 later told Robert Oppenheimer that “he found it appalling that there had been no protest over the air strikes we were conducting against Japan which led to such extraordinarily heavy losses of life…He did think there was was something wrong with a country where no one questioned that.”

Belatedly, but in growing numbers, such questions are being asked by a new generations of Americans, who see the dropping of the bomb on Japan as a decision which weighs heavily on all of us who are its descendants. In coming to terms with the legacy of Hiroshima, there is no better point of departure than The Decision to Drop the Bomb by Len Giovannitti and Fred Freed. This is an intricately detailed, scrupulously fair, and totally engrossing study which grew from two NBC White Papers the authors prepared for television. With objectivity and an impressive knowledge of their material, they analyze the personalities, the decisions, and the forces in operation during those four momentous months between the death of Roosevelt and the surrender of Japan. Marred only by a cursory index, this is an indispensable guide to an understanding of the extraordinarily complex cross-currents involved in the decision to drop the bomb.

In this recreation of history the authors have helped put the tensions and the conflicts of that period into perspective, and to wrench the struggle of human wills out of the grey hulk of documents. Here is Harry Truman suddenly become President on April 12 without ever having known that the bomb project existed; here is Averell Harriman telling him only a week later that we were faced with a “barbarian invasion of Europe” by the Russians; here is Stimson advising Truman to hold off negotiations with Moscow until the bomb was tested; here is Secretary of State James F. Byrnes suggesting to Leo Szilard that “the demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia with America’s military might”; here is Undersecretary of State Joseph Grew desperately searching for a way to end the war before the Russians got in; here is Assistant Secretary of State Archibald MacLeish trying to sabotage Grew’s plan to speed surrender by retaining the Emperor; here are the scientists, often intimidated by the generals and politicians, and divided among themselves on the wisdom of using the bomb; and here in the middle of it all is Truman, endowed with a titanic military power he was incapable of using politically. It is a dramatic story, and Giovannitti and Freed make the most of it.


From their mass of documents and interviews they determine, along with most other observers, that it was not necessary to drop the bomb on Japan to win the war. By the time the bomb was ready, the war was virtually over and the Japanese were frantically extending peace feelers. The war could have been ended without a costly invasion—either by a continuation of the air strikes, or by the shock of Russian entry, or by a relaxation of surrender terms—or perhaps even by simply waiting a few weeks. But by the summer of 1945 the makers of US policy were no longer eager to have the Russians enter the war and saw them as rivals, possibly as enemies, in the post-war world. The bomb offered the means to end the war quickly without Russian help. At this point the authors stop. While they point out the diplomatic weight it carried in the Truman administration, they deny that the “sole, or even primary, reason for using the bomb was as a political weapon against the Russians.” Rather, in their words, it was “an additional reason.” It was, it would seem, a question of degree.

If the bomb was not necessary, was it at least justified? Again, the answer is categorical. “In the end,” they conclude, “the decision was made because a decision not to use it could not be justified.” Congress and the public would demand to know why $2 billion had been spent on a weapon that was never used. American soldiers would die, and their families would believe they had been needlessly sacrificed. Maybe the Japanese would surrender if the Russians entered the war…if they could keep the emperor…if the devastating bombardment continued. But maybe they would not. The alternatives were all so vague—and after July 16 the atomic bomb was a certainty. To nearly everyone concerned it seemed inevitable that the bomb would be used. To refrain from using it would have meant to reverse the wheels that had been put in motion six years before and to make a deliberate decision not to use it. It was a decision which virtually no one in authority at the time—neither the major officials of the administration nor the key scientists at Los Alamos—saw the need to make.

This is a moderate and rueful view of the events that culminated in the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It points no fingers, casts no blame, and identifies no villains—unless villains be all men of heavy responsibilities and inadequate vision. But it is not the only view, and, indeed, as far back as 1948 the British physicist and Nobel Prize winner, P. M. S. Blackett, charged that the dropping of the atomic bomb was not the final blow of the Second World War but the opening gambit of the cold war between Russia and the West. Blackett’s charges, long dormant, have now been revived, expanded, revitalized and documented with some 1400 citations by a young historian who has written a devastating attack on those responsible for American foreign policy during the crucial months before and after the Potsdam conference.

In Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, Gar Alperovitz, who was only nine years old when the events he describes took place, undertakes a daring and elaborate work of historical reconstruction which questions not only the motives behind the decision to drop the bomb, but the very origins of the cold war. Wading through the published material on the period, plus the unpublished dairies of Stimson, Grew, and Admiral Leahy, Alperovitz arrives at the conclusion that the bomb was not used primarily to spare an invasion of Japan and thus save American lives, as is generally believed, but rather to intimidate the Russians and make them more manageable in Europe.

In brief, his argument runs like this: Almost as soon as he became President, “Truman launched a powerful foreign policy initiative aimed at reducing or eliminating Soviet influence from Europe.” Initially he favored Churchill’s plan to have an early showdown with the Russians while the British and American armies in Europe were still at full force, but he was talked out of this by Secretary of War Stimson, who told him that because of the atom bomb project at Los Alamos “we shall probably have more cards in our hands later than now.” Accepting the new strategy of “tactical retreat” Truman changed his poker face for smiles and became the model of amiability toward the Russians—even to the point of sending Harry Hopkins on a conciliatory mission to Moscow. It was all a ruse, however, designed to stall a confrontation with the Soviets until the bomb was tested. The bomb, as Byrnes told him, “could put us in a position to dictate our terms at the end of the war.” Resisting Churchill’s insistent pleas for a Big Three meeting in the spring. Truman decided that Potsdam would have to wait for Los Alamos. The only trouble was that Potsdam could not wait forever. After twice postponing the scheduled conference, Truman reluctantly had to set sail for Europe in July without knowing whether the “master card” was an ace or a deuce. But his policy was already clear: “If it works, as I think it will,” he confided on the eve of the conference, “I’ll certainly have a hammer on those boys!” Back at “Trinity”—as the New Mexico testing ground had been baptized by Oppenheimer—the scientists were working furiously to get the bomb ready in time. By July 16, the date the Potsdam conference opened, Truman had his answer: the bomb would work. The President was elated, and told Stimson that the bomb “gave him an entirely new feeling of confidence.” Not only could it be used to make the Russians behave in Eastern Europe, but it now made their entrance into the war against Japan quite unnecessary. The bomb would allow the US to win the war without an invasion and without the Russians. It was the answer to Washington’s prayers. Yet oddly enough, the news did not make Truman noticeably stiffer in his attitude toward Stalin, nor in his demands that the Soviets comply with the Yalta accords as the West understood them. If Truman tried to intimidate the Russians in Eastern Europe with the bomb, he failed totally. As Herbert Feis later wrote, the explosion at Trinity “filtered into the conference rooms at Potsdam only as a distant gleam.”


Why so dim and distant? Because Truman had decided, presumably on Stimson’s advice, that he should not “have it out with Russia” until the bomb had been demonstrated by actually “laying it on Japan.” Thus—and here is Alperovitz’s coup de force—the bomb had to be used against Japan in order for it to be effective as a diplomatic instrument against the Russians. Although he does not try to prove this accusation, he strongly implies that there was no military justification for dropping the bomb, and American policy makers knew it. “Despite their subsequent assertation,” he charges,

They were no longer primarily worried about having to undertake a costly invasion of Japan. They believed a Russian declaration of war in itself would probably end the war quickly if necessary. They were also prepared to moderate the surrender terms to end the war before an invasion. Consequently, the fundamental objective was no longer military, but political—could the war be ended before August 8?

And August 8, as the President and his advisers knew, was the date by which the Russians, as they had secretly agreed at Yalta, were to declare war on Japan. The bomb struck Hiroshima on the 6th.

These are serious implications, and it is not surprising, considering the issues and the reputations at stake, that they have aroused such controversy. Whatever one’s skepticism about some of Alperovitz’s assumptions, it is clear that the central point of his thesis is well-documented and as conclusive as such things can be until the archives are opened: the bomb had a determinant effect on American foreign policy during that critical period between the death of Roosevelt and the surrender of Japan. It almost certainly accounted for Truman’s two postponements of the Potsdam conference, for his perplexing shifts in policy, and for the behavior which inspired De Gaulle’s acid comment that “the Americans and British hoped to recover in application what they had conceded in principle” at Yalta.

This is the backbone of Alperovitz’s book, and it gives some substance to his suggestions that: first, the cold war began about two years earlier than is generally admitted in the West, and that it may have even been stimulated as much by American bomb-rattling in the summer of 1945 as by Soviet greediness in Eastern Europe; and second, that, at least to some degree, the bomb was directed against the Russians as well as against the Japanese. Otherwise, why did Truman refuse to demonstrate the bomb in an uninhabited area (as many scientists urged), or wait until after August 8 to see if Russian entry would shock Japan into surrender? Even Herbert Feis—whose definitive work, Japan Subdued, Alperovitz continually refutes—believes that these probably would “have impelled the Japanese government to yield almost as soon as it did.” During the past twenty years a variety of reasons have been given for Truman’s refusal, but none has been fully convincing.

But it is one thing to maintain that the desire to keep Russia out of the Japanese war and to make her more manageable in Eastern Europe was a reason for dropping the bomb. It is something quite again to state that “Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to be sacrificed primarily for political, not military reasons.” Alperovitz doesn’t prove this, nor does he try, and on this ground his historical sleuthing is little more than guesswork. Even in analyzing the strategy of Potsdam, he leaves too many loopholes unplugged. For example, Truman is supposed to have twice delayed the Potsdam meeting so that he could use the atomic bomb as a “hammer” on the Russians. He had his hammer the day the conference opened. Why didn’t he use it? Why did he wait eight full days before mentioning it to Stalin—and then only so casually that the Soviet dictator could hardly be expected to know what he was talking about? Alperovitz says it is because Stimson reversed himself and wanted to delay the showdown until after “laying it on Japan.” But no evidence is offered for this assertion, nor any reason given why Truman would accept such contradictory advice. Isn’t it equally possible that Truman intended to use the bomb as a diplomatic weapon, turned out to be inept at doing so, and refrained from telling Stalin about its full power for fear he would demand to know how it was made? Further, why did Truman bother beating a “tactical retreat” during the three months before Potsdam—if, as Alperovitz claims, he wasn’t really worried that the Russians would renege on their promise to declare war on Japan? What if the bomb didn’t work? Then he would have lost his chance to drive a hard settlement with the Russians in Eastern Europe. Would he have been foolish enough to put all his eggs in one untested basket? Perhaps…and perhaps not.

Truman was, like any statesman, almost certainly duplicitous, and no doubt tried to squeeze whatever political advantage he could out of the bomb. That he was so spectacularly ineffectual was not a tribute to his virtue but a mark of his incapacity. To imply, however, that he was a nuclear Machiavelli is to press beyond the weight the documents will bear. More likely, Truman himself, ignorant as everyone else about the effects and the aftermath of the bomb, was swept up in a tide he could not control. Only a man of great vision and understanding could have mastered the terrible forces at work during that crucial summer of 1945—and it was because such a man had died that Harry Truman became President.

Alperovitz’s dissection of American diplomacy during the four-and-a-half months following Roosevelt’s death is a provocative and original work of historical induction that is likely to be discussed, analyzed, and argued about for a long time to come. It would be even better if he speculated less and stuck to the evidence—which is explosive enough. While he throws new light on the role of the bomb in the formation of American policy during the genesis of the cold war, he does not convincingly show that the bomb was dropped on Japan primarily to intimidate Russia, nor that Truman and his advisers had any more than a dim awareness of the political power put in their hands. On this count the judgment of Herbert Feis still holds that “the Americans at Potsdam either did not know how to use their command of the new weapon effectively as a threat, or chose not to use it in that way.”

Yet, ironically, as Richard Rovere points out in a typically stimulating essay in Hiroshima Plus 20, a useful, if spotty, collection of pieces by various authors on the bomb and its aftermath compiled by The New York Times, it is likely that “the bomb and its diplomatic consequences have had, by and large, a stabilizing effect on our time.” It was the bomb and the knowledge of the horror it could—and did—inflict, that have created something approaching an agreement among nations that almost nothing is worth a nuclear war. As a result of the revulsion caused by the bomb, nuclear war has become, if not impossible, at least unthinkable, and the crises which would ordinarily have driven the great powers to war several times during the past two decades have been resolved, in one way or another, at lower levels of violence. Perhaps, obscene as it sounds, our fragile peace rests upon our knowledge of what happened twenty years ago at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The bomb has brought a new level of violence into our lives, but also a new understanding of man’s limitations—as well as of his powers. It has taken some of the hubris out of our diplomacy and made us, perhaps, more aware of the responsibilities that go with power, and of the punyness, as well as of the strength, of man before the forces of nature. Maturity is a slow and agonizing process for nations as well as for men, but if any one point can be fixed, it may well be that ours began on that terrible, awesome morning when the sun rose twice over the deserts of New Mexico.

It was a morning that changed the world, and in Day of Trinity, a Time correspondent, Lansing Lamont, provides an account of the story behind the building of the bomb that is at once exciting, exasperating, corny and absolutely fascinating. Lamont is a journalist of obvious talents, and had he used them to tell his story straight instead of burdening it with philosophy (“the countdown had begun 2400 years earlier with the Golden Age of Greece”) or human-interest (“one of the good things about working on the bomb, [Sgt.] Jercinovic reflected, was the chance it gave a lousy enlisted man to rub shoulders with the big names of science”), he could have written not only an entertainment—which he has done splendidly—but a narrative as impressive as the event that inspired it. Even as it is, Time-ese and all, he has spun a scenario that is hard to put down.

Lamont’s book pulls us back into that cloistered, frantic, dedicated world of the atomic scientists whose labors ushered in on the Day of Trinity, July 16, 1945, a power beyond comprehension and perhaps beyond control. Kenneth Bainbridge, a scientist, expressed it memorably when he turned to Robert Oppenheimer as the mushroom cloud ascended into the sky, looked him in the eyes, and said softly, “Now we’re all sons-of-bitches.”

This Issue

November 25, 1965