In the early morning hours of
July 16, 1945, great anticipation and fear ran rampant at White Sands
Missile Range near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Robert Oppenheimer, director
of the Manhattan Project, could hardly breathe. Years of secrecy, research,
and tests were riding on this moment. "For the last few seconds, he stared
directly ahead and when the announcer shouted Now!' and there came this
tremendous burst of light followed abruptly there after by the deep growling
of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief,"
recalled General L. R. Groves of Oppenheimer, in a memorandum for Secretary
of War George Marshall. The explosion carrying more power than 20,000
tons of TNT and visible for more than 200 miles succeeded. The world's
first atomic bomb had been detonated.
With the advent of the nuclear
age, new dilemmas in the art of warfare arose. The war in Europe had concluded
in May. The Pacific war would receive full attention from the United States
War Department. As late as May 1945, the U.S. was engaged in heavy fighting
with the Japanese at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In these most bloody conflicts,
the United States had sustained more than 75,000 casualties. These victories
insured the United States was within air striking distance of the Japanese
mainland. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese to initiate United
States entrance into the war, just four years before, was still fresh
on the minds of many Americans. A feeling of vindication and a desire
to end the war strengthened the resolve of the United States to quickly
and decisively conclude it. President Harry Truman had many alternatives
at his disposal for ending the war: invade the Japanese mainland, hold
a demonstration of the destructive power of the atomic bomb for Japanese
dignitaries, drop an atomic bomb on selected industrial Japanese cities,
bomb and blockade the islands, wait for Soviet entry into the war on August
15, or mediate a compromised peace. Operation Olympia, a full scale landing
of United States armed forces, was already planned for Kyushu on November
1, 1945 and a bomb and blockade plan had already been instituted over
the Japanese mainland for several months.
The Japanese resolve to fight
had been seriously hampered in the preceding months. Their losses at Iwo
Jima and Okinawa had been staggering. Their navy had ceased to exist as
an effective fighting force and the air corps had been decimated. American
B-29's made bombing runs over military targets on the Japanese mainland
an integral part of their air campaign. Japan's lack of air power hindered
their ability to fight. The imprecision of bombing and the use of devastating
city bombing in Europe eventually swayed United States Pacific theater
military leaders to authorize bombing of Japanese mainland cities. Tokyo,
Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe all were decimated by incendiary and other bombs.
In all, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in these air strikes
meant to deter the resolve of the Japanese people. Yet, Japanese resolve
stayed strong and the idea of a bloody "house to house" invasion of the
Japanese mainland would produce thousands more American and Allied casualties.
The Allies in late July 1945 declared at Potsdam that the Japanese must
After Japanese leaders flatly rejected the Potsdam Declaration, President
Truman authorized use of the atomic bomb anytime after August 3, 1945.
On the clear morning of August 6, the first atomic bomb, nicknamed Little
Boy, was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. Leveling over 60 percent of
the city, 70,000 residents died instantaneously in a searing flash of
heat. Three days later, on August 9, a second bomb, Fat Man, was dropped
on Nagasaki. Over 20,000 people died instantly. In the successive weeks,
thousands more Japanese died from the after effects of the radiation exposure
of the blast.
- incendiary bomb
- The incendiary bomb was a mixture
of thermite and oxidizing agents employed by the Allies and Axis powers
after 1943. Sometimes incorporating napalm, these bombs were responsible
for burning over 41.5 square miles of Tokyo by the United States in
- unconditional surrender
- Unconditional surrender is a
term used by victors in war to describe the type of settlement they
wish to extoll from the vanquished. The settlement demands that the
loser make no demands during surrender proceedings. Unconditional surrender
was first enunciated by the Allies during World War II at a summit meeting
at Casablanca in January 1943.
- divine guidance or care
- the final propositions, conditions,
or terms offered by either of the parties during a diplomatic negotiation
press release from President Truman on August 6, 1945 following the
dropping of the atomic bomb noting important details about its production
and the rhetoric used.
Distribute copies of the document
to each student to read. Ask students to answer the following questions:
- Who wrote this
- What is the purpose
of this document?
- What date was
this document issued?
- Why is the name
of the city left out?
- Why does the atomic
bomb's power have to be explained?
- Look at the last
paragraph of the second page of the press release. What were Truman's
plans for ending the war? Did he accomplish those goals in dropping
the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why or why not?
- On page three,
Truman advocates the use of atomic power for world peace. How does he
propose to fulfill this goal?
- What reasons does
President Truman use to justify dropping the bomb?
- Armed with all
of the knowledge that President Truman and his advisors had accumulated,
how would you have ended the war in the Pacific?
- Make a table listing
the advantages and disadvantages that the atomic bomb presented to modern
warfare? Why did the fire bombing of Tokyo just weeks earlier that killed
over 120,000 civilians not receive the same moral criticism that the
atomic bomb received? One newspaper critic stated after dropping the
bomb, "Yesterday we clinched victory in the Pacific, but we sowed the
whirlwind." What did he mean by this? Argue for or against this statement.
- Five Reasons for
Dropping the Atomic Bomb...According to J. Samuel Walker in his book,
Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of the Atomic Bomb
Against Japan, states that Truman justified dropping the bomb with five
- it would end
the war successfully at the earliest possible moment
- it justified
the effort and expense of building the atomic bombs
- it offered
hope of achieving diplomatic gains in the growing rivalry with the
- there were
a lack of incentives not to use the weapons
- because of
America's hatred of the Japanese and a desire for vengeance
Divide the class
into five groups, giving each group one of the reasons. Ask them to
explain them in their own words. Do they agree or disagree with President
Truman's thinking? Why or why not? Can they come up with more reasons
to justify dropping the bomb? What reasons are there to not drop the
bomb? Be sure they use facts and figures to support their answers.
- Harry Truman in
1945 "regarded the [atomic] bomb as a military weapon and never had
any doubt it should be used." In a 1958 handwritten document on the
rise of the atomic age, he later stated, "Now we are faced with total
destruction. The old heckler prophets presented the idea of the destruction
of the world by fire after their presentation of a destruction by water.
Well that destruction is at hand unless the great leaders of the world
prevent it." Do you think Truman's views on the use of atomic technology
changed? Would Truman have dropped the atomic bomb in 1958, granted
the situation warranted decisive action? Why or why not?
- President Eisenhower,
in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, on December 8, 1953,
stated, "Even a vast superiority in numbers of weapons, and a consequent
capability of devastating material retaliation, is no preventive, of
itself, against the fearful material damage and toll of human lives
that would be inflicted by surprise aggression." Analyze this statement.
What does it mean? Chart the line of events and personalities of atomic
military buildup from President Truman to the present. What trends do
you see? What do you think the future of atomic weaponry is?
- Write a press
release as President of the United States for a current event. Be sure
to give important details of the event keeping in mind your audience
is the entire United States. Share your press release with your class.
- In Karl Compton's
"If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used," he states, "The atomic bomb
introduced a dramatic new element into the situation, which strengthened
the hands of those [Japanese government officials] who sought peace
and provided face-saving argument for those who had hitherto advocated
continued war." Analyze this statement. Explain Dr. Compton's statement
in your own words. Use other sources to support your answers to the
following questions. Why had some Japanese officials continued to support
the war even after the atomic bomb had been dropped? What was Emperor
Hirohito's role in the surrender process? Why was Hirohito not forced
to abdicate as promised by the Potsdam Declaration?
Issues for Discussion
Consider some of these
questions with your class.
- What are the moral
implications of the atomic bomb?
- Why would President
Truman be against sharing the secret of the atomic bomb with the world?
Why would he support sharing atomic technology with Great Britain and
only divulge minor details to the Soviets?
- To what extent
did the decision to drop the atomic bomb and subsequent postwar foreign
policy decisions of the Truman administration lead to the Cold War?
- General Douglas
MacArthur, one time commander of United Nations armed forces during
the Korean War, in a 1954 interview stated that he had wanted to drop
"between thirty and fifty atomic bombs" on enemy bases before laying
radioactive waste material across the northern edge of North Korea during
the war. Why did Truman decide not to use the atomic bomb in the Korean
War of 1950. How did this precedent dictate warfare in subsequent presidencies?
- What other Truman
policies became precedents for the modern presidency? One example is
United States sponsorship of NATO.
Allen, Thomas B. and
Norman Polmar. 1995. Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade
Japan--and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Compton, Karl T. 1946.
"If the Atomic Bomb had not Been Used." Atlantic Monthly. December.
Ferrell, Robert H.
1994. Harry S. Truman--A Life. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri
Truman, Harry S. 1955.
Memoirs: Years of Decision. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Walker, J. Samuel.
1997. Prompt & Utter Destruction: Truman and the use of Atomic Bombs
Against Japan. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
to student activities using
Whistlestop - This web page (funded through a U.S. Department of
Education Challenge Grant) currently hosts more than 10,000 documents,
photographs, political cartoons and speeches related to President Truman.
You will find sections on the atomic bomb, the Berlin Airlift, the campaign
of 1948, desegregation of the armed services and much more.
Library - This webpage for the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library
and Museum includes a number of resources, activities, and links about
Harry S. Truman.