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President Harry S Truman and the Bomb


When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on the 12th of April, 1945 his Vice President of eighty-two days’ standing, Harry S. Truman was sworn in as the new Commander-in-Chief, taking over at one of the most critical junctures in history. Although Truman’s achievements are many, his presidency will always be associated primarily with the atomic bomb since he is the only leader – so far – to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. He was also the first to ban the use of atomic bombs and to recognize exactly what kind of weapon it was: not a military one because it was designed to kill civilians, not soldiers; but realized that as a diplomatic tool the Bomb was indispensable.

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It is one of history’s great ironies that on the day Truman was sworn in, the new president knew less about the Manhattan Project than did the Soviet Premier, Joseph Stalin. Russian spies, aided by American Communist sympathizers such as Julius Rosenberg had kept him well informed. Truman had investigated the Project as a senator but had been denied access. However, twenty-four hours after being sworn in, he was informed by his Secretary of War, Henry Stimson of a weapon that “might be so powerful as to be capable of wiping out entire cities” and also “allow the United States to dictate its own terms at the end of the war” (Rhodes, 625-626). When he was given the full details of the Project, Truman accepted it as necessary even while his advisers were still undecided.

The Big Three – the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union – met at the Potsdam Conference between the 15th of July and the 2nd of August, 1945 to decide how to deal with defeated Nazi Germany, and also to issue the Potsdam Declaration which detailed the terms of surrender offered to Japan. On the day after the Conference began, the first nuclear bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert and its success was communicated to Truman at once. Although other politicians, generals and scientists were having second thoughts about using this terrible weapon, Truman never hesitated. His first thought was that the Bomb might bring the Japanese to surrender before the Red Army was due to start its invasion on the 15th of August.

An attempt was made during the Conference to soften the terms of surrender for the Japanese, assuring them that in accordance “with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people” the United States would help establish “a peacefully inclined and responsible government” (Iriye 42). This provision said indirectly what could not be said directly: if the Japanese people chose to keep their Emperor, the United States would respect that wish. In spite of that Prime Minister Suzuki rejected the Declaration “with killing contempt” (BBC Hiroshima). The plan to invade the Japanese homeland, Operation Olympic, was no longer regarded as an option, once Allied radio intercepts had discovered a massive military build-up on the Kyushu peninsula (Frank 3), with projected casualties reaching as high as a million. Truman had little choice, then, but to authorize the immediate use of nuclear weapons.

At 08.15 on the 6th of August, 1945, the first nuclear bomb exploded over Hiroshima, instantly killing over 100,000 people, with as many dying of injuries and radiation sickness later. Three days after that another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On the 10th of August the Emperor offered to surrender if he and the militarist regime could remain in power. Five days after that they agreed to surrender unconditionally, and with that the War in the Pacific was over. The vast majority of Americans supported Truman’s decision wholeheartedly for the first year after peace was declared but gradually, as accounts and pictures of Hiroshima reached the American public, popular feeling turned against the use of atomic bombs. By the 1960s revisionists historians such as Howard Zinn and Gar Alperovitz denounced Truman’s action as a war crime and even today the morality of that action is being debated.

Truman claimed never to have lost a night’s sleep over his decision to use atomic bombs. He believed, and had good reason to believe, that he had saved millions of lives by using these weapons. However, says, military historian Thomas Powers, “he ordered a halt to the atomic bombing on August 10, four days before the Japanese Emperor surrendered, and the reason, according to a Cabinet member present at the meeting, was that “he didn’t like the idea of killing… ‘all those kids’ (32).”

Truman was above all a pragmatist. Under his administration the nuclear arms program went ahead not only to develop bigger and better atomic bombs but also the so-called superbomb, the thermonuclear or H-bomb. When Truman heard about the possibility of developing a weapon that was hundreds, even thousands of times more powerful than the devices dropped on Japan, he did not hesitate: “What the hell are we waiting for?” he asked. “Let’s get on with it” (Isaacs and Downing 148). Truman saw clearly that if the USSR pulled ahead in the nuclear arms race, the US would always be negotiating from a position of weakness.

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In one way Truman’s legacy is a noble one: he prevented the spread of Communism into Western Europe by enacting the Truman Doctrine, stopped North Korea from overrunning South Korea and got Stalin’s respect. In another way the nuclear arms race is largely his creation, even though it must be remembered that the Soviet Union would no doubt have developed atomic and thermonuclear bombs even without the US’s efforts. For most of us, however, he will always by the man who took over from FDR, arguably the greatest and most popular president ever, and led the world from the most destructive war in history into an era of peace.

Works Cited

Documentary film. BBC Hiroshima. 2005.

Frank, Richard B. “Why Truman Dropped the Bomb.” The Weekly Standard, 2005, Volume 010, Issue 44.

Iriye, Akira. “The Failure at Potsdam.” Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War 1941-1945. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1981.

Isaacs, Jeremy and Downing, Taylor. Cold War: An Illustrated History. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998.

Powers, Thomas. “Hiroshima: Was It Right?” The Atlantic Monthly. 1005.

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

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