This week marks the 73rd anniversary of America's dropping of the second atomic bomb on Japan. Did Truman make the right choice? A look back at the biggest decision of Harry Truman's life.
On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein (1879-1955), the person that Time Magazine would, in the year 2000, recognize at the “Person of the Century,” wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt that “the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future.” Professor Einstein explained further to FDR that “this new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of a bomb and it is conceivable –though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.”
FDR then established a program, known as the “Manhattan Project” to develop an atomic bomb.
The result was the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan on August 6 on Hiroshima and on August 9 on Nagasaki in 1945. (See photo.) By that time, FDR was dead and the decision was made by his successor, Harry Truman, then four months in office.
We think that in one hundred years, the decision to drop those bombs will be the main aspect of a full life for which Harry Truman will be remembered.
Early in his tenure in office Truman was told about the bomb and reportedly said to a staffer: “I am going to have to make a decision which no man in history has ever had to make. I’ll make the decision, but it is terrifying to think about what I will have to decide.” But Mr. Truman was also worried about the cost in lives of an American invasion of Japan which had an intact army prepared to fight and he had inherited and supported the policy of FDR for the unconditional surrender of Japan.
Mr. Truman also knew that the Japanese were not ready to surrender on American terms. American intelligence had cracked communications codes and knew that the Foreign Minister said in what he assumed was a confidential note to an ambassador: “Even if the war drags on and it becomes clear that it will take much more bloodshed, the whole country as one man will pit itself against the enemy…”
On July 26, 1945, the US and Great Britain warned the Japanese to surrender immediately or to face “prompt and utter destruction.” The declaration went on to deny any intention “that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation.”
Japan’s Prime Minister Suzuki Kantaro publicly rejected these terms on July 30. He confided to a senior cabinet official that “for the enemy to say something like that means circumstances have arisen that force them also to end the war. That is why they are talking about unconditional surrender. Precisely at a time like this, if we hold firm, then they will yield before we do.”
The bombs fell in the next ten days and ended World War II. To quote Wikipedia: “Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the atomic bombings killed 90,000–146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000–80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness and other injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima had a sizable military garrison.”
It is our view that atomic bombs shortened the war, obviated the need for a land invasion, saved countless more lives than they took and ended the Japanese brutalization of the peoples of Asia. But does this make their use moral? Many Americans have said, no.
For example on this day seventy- three years ago the general secretary of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ of America protested the “indiscriminate” nature of the bombs. Mr. Truman responded: “Nobody is more disturbed over the use of [a]tomic bombs than I am.” Yet he went on: “but I was greatly disturbed by the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war.”
Later in 1945, Mr. Truman met Director J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist most responsible for the development of the bombs. Dr. Oppenheimer, stricken by what the bombs had wrought, told the President that he believed that he had blood on his hands. Mr. Truman told the physicist that “the blood is on my hands. Let me worry about that.” The president later one of his staff that “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.” It would seem that Dr. Oppenheimer had gotten to him.
Our view: If President Harry Truman had blood on his hands – and there is some evidence that he worried that he did – he certainly wasn’t alone in the horrific episode we call World War II. In those years over fifty million people lost their lives in a war that got to unheard of levels of barbarism.