Through newsreel footage, archival photos, and interviews, this video segment adapted from American Experience traces the decision-making process that led President Harry Truman to order the dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in August 1945. Contributing to his decision were the belief that the Japanese were unwilling to surrender, a concern for American lives, a limited knowledge of the atomic bomb's devastating effects, and a failure to consider other options that might bring the war to a close.
When Harry Truman became president upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of World War II presented distinctly different pictures. Hitler's government was disintegrating, and Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, less than a month after Truman took office. In contrast, Japan appeared undeterred by the thousands of tons of bombs and napalm that had been dropped on its soil and that had claimed 100,000 Japanese lives. The ferocious resistance Japan's army had posed on the island of Okinawa, where 10,000 American and 100,000 Japanese soldiers died, reinforced the notion that Japan would never surrender.
A committee appointed by Truman soon after he took office had a solution to the impasse. It reported that a top-secret weapon, the atomic bomb, would be available shortly and should be used without any prior warning. The report offered no alternatives. While the president did agree in mid-June to plan for a possible U.S. invasion of Japan in the fall of 1945, his lack of experience in office, determination to minimize American casualties, and desire to demonstrate strength to the Soviet Union made him inclined to accept the study committee recommendation. This inclination was reinforced by a sense that aerial attacks by all sides in the war had made the bombing of civilian populations an acceptable practice, and that Japan's initial attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 justified any counterattack. On July 25, Truman learned that the bomb had been successfully tested and ordered military commanders to deploy the weapon at their discretion.
After a final diplomatic attempt to obtain Japan's unconditional surrender failed, the bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6. Truman was shown aerial photos of the devastation two days later, but was unaware that 80,000 Japanese had been killed and that tens of thousands more would die from ensuing radiation sickness. A second strike on August 9 destroyed the Japanese port city of Nagasaki and claimed 40,000 more lives. Japan surrendered on August 14.
Truman claimed to have had no second thoughts on his decision to drop the bombs, yet many have questioned whether less lethal alternatives were available. These critics included several scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, and who felt a test demonstration of its effects would have been sufficiently persuasive. Others have suggested that a clear warning to the Japanese, or an assurance that defeat would not entail replacement of their emperor, would have led to surrender. Ultimately, however, the secrecy under which the bomb had been developed, coupled with a determination to save American lives, kept such options from even being considered.
NARRATOR: American planes dropped 2,000 tons of napalm on Tokyo, burning 16 square miles of the city to the ground. In a single day, 100,000 Japanese were killed.
BARTON BERNSTEIN: What has changed in the war is a redefinition of what is a target. A legitimate target is not simply a city but people in the city who are primarily noncombatants in what is a redefined, virtually total war.So that everybody becomes a target.
NARRATOR: The bombing destroyed nearly all of Japan's biggest cities and killed more than a half a million civilians. Still, the Japanese fought on. But America had been developing a weapon that might force the Japanese to surrender. Just 13 days in office,Truman was handed a memorandum by Secretary of War Stimson. "Within four months," Truman read, "we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history." Stimson went on to tell Truman about the secret site in New Mexico where scientists had been working round the clock for the past two-and-a-half years to fashion a weapon out of the elemental forces of the universe. Truman did not know that some of the scientists who had helped create the bomb were actively attempting to limit its use. They advocated a demonstration bomb that would convince the Japanese to surrender. Their petitions never reached the president, but it is unlikely they could have changed his mind.
GEORGE ELSEY: All his advisors, without exception, recommended the use of the bomb just as soon as it was available. And he agreed with them. If the weapon could stop the killing, then, it was felt, it had to be used. Was it right? Was it wrong?I don't think that was the issue. I think they saw it as necessary.
ROBERT LIFTON: He's aware that it will be much more than a military target; it will kill large numbers of ordinary civilians. But you must remember, he, like all other Americans, saw this as a war against evil. And there was a lot of evil out there, real evil, on the part of the Nazis and Japanese militarism and fascism. In that sense, he can believe that the bomb is justified and that this greatest weapon ever developed has a place in overcoming or combating evil.
NARRATOR: August 6. The Enola Gay, carrying a four-ton atomic bomb, was heading out over the Pacific Ocean toward Japan. 8:15 A.M. The atomic bomb dropped clear of theEnola Gay. 43 seconds later, it exploded over Hiroshima. The atomic bomb had killed more than 80,000 men, women and children. Tens of thousands more would die from radiation sickness in the days and years to come. Three days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, but still, there was no word of surrender. August 9, 11:00 A.M. A second atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese seaport of Nagasaki. In 1/10 of one-millionth of a second, the city was destroyed. Another 40,000 people were killed. August 14. The simple reason Truman always gave for using the atomic bomb was to end the war and save lives. Now, after nearly four years, Japan surrendered. The war was over. "I made the only decision I ever knew how to make," Truman wrote. "I did what I thought was right."
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