Truman on the Bomb

On May 8, 1945, the Nazi surrender ended the war in Europe, but the United States was still heavily engaged in what promised to be yet another protracted and painful conflict with Japan in the Pacific. Internal estimates of projected U.S. casualties predicted that some 400,000-800,000 American soldiers would be killed in the war with Japan. On July 26, 1945, in the Potsdam Declaration, the United States called for Japan’s unconditional surrender, threatening “prompt and utter destruction.”

On August 6, a mere 12 days later, the U.S. bombed Hiroshima – an industrial center with a large military headquarters – using a uranium atomic bomb; the first nuclear attack in history. 70,000-80,000 Japanese, including 20,000 soldiers, were killed in the attack; one third of the city’s population was annihilated. And as is the nature of nuclear warfare, within the first months after the bombing its effects ultimately killed approximately 150,000 people.

Following the bombing, President Truman declared:

“If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.”

On August 9th the Soviet Union declared war against Japan, and launched the Manchurian Strategic Offensive Operation.

Japan showed no signs of surrender.

The U.S. then dropped a plutonium bomb on the city of Nagasaki – a city with major war production industries; 60,000–80,000 were killed from the effects of the bombing.

Emperor Hirohito ordered his generals to “quickly control the situation… because the Soviet Union has declared war against us.” He authorized minister Togo to accept the terms of surrender, on the condition that he keep his position. In his declaration to the Japanese people, he added:

“Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

“Such being the case, how are we to save the millions of our subjects, or to atone ourselves before the hallowed spirits of our imperial ancestors? This is the reason why we have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.”

Historians and laypersons alike have debated the morality of the use of nuclear weapons, as well as the specific necessity of their use in the war against Japan – particularly after the Soviet attack. President Truman was adamant that it was the correct choice; in a letter he wrote the very day of the bombing of Nagasaki, he says:

“Nobody is more disturbed over the use of atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.”

I do not wish to express judgment – the U.S. had just ended years of fighting against the Nazis, and faced another painful struggle with Japan.

Yet I wonder if the horror of war makes it inevitable that we dehumanize the enemy…

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