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Did America drop the bomb in revenge, to prevent the USSR spreading, so Truman could prove he was a big man, so half a million US soldiers would be saved or so the price of the Manhattan project would be justified?

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The reason for why America dropped the Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a contentious, emotive and particularly relevant issue, there are lots of speculations, however these are usually based on lies such as the “to save 500,000 American soldiers”  which is clearly untrue.  The dropping of these two bombs clearly had a massive effect on the World which is felt even today; it could be argued that the dropping of the bombs, rather then being at the end of World War 2, was actually the beginning of the Cold war, in which case it could be seen as an event which changed Europe as we know it.  Overall, I will be looking at these factors: did America drop the bomb in revenge, to prevent the USSR spreading, so Truman could prove he was a ‘big’ man, so ‘half a million’ US soldiers would be saved or so the price of the Manhattan project would be justified.

Many historians believe that the atomic bomb was used predominantly to both intimidate the Russians and to induce the end of the Pacific War before the USSR could become involved and spread Communist influence throughout Asia.  Ronald Takaki clearly supports this view, although he places undue emphasis on racial motives and believes they were more important than reasons regarding the USSR.  Takaki states that the bomb was linked to Russian expansionism and that because Russia had promised to join the war three months after May 7, and the U.S invasion of Japan was scheduled for November 1, the US would have to end the war before “Russia would have declared war against Japan and would have leverage at the peace table.  Everything depended on the atomic bomb test scheduled for July 16”.  This clearly shows that Takaki felt an important reason the bomb was used was to prevent Russian “leverage at the peace table” which would have aided the spread of Communist in Asia.  This is further emphasised by Takaki’s quotes from the Manhattan Project director “Russia was our enemy, and the project was conducted on that basis”.  

However, J. Samuel Walker clearly disagrees, “As an added incentive, using the bomb might provide diplomatic benefits”.  He downgrades the role of the USSR as simply an additional, not particularly important “bonus”; “Truman’s foremost consideration in using the bomb immediately was not used to frustrate Soviet ambitions in Asia or to show off the bomb”.  

However, both these historians seem to ignore USSR-USA relations before Potsdam, which had been contentious at best.  Prior to Potsdam, Harry Hopkins had been sent to Moscow from 26May-6 June 1945, to discuss some of the issues between the USSR and USA.  Here it became evident of the rift between the USA and USSR, which was clear evidence that there was little chance of a post-war relationship between USA and USSR (contrary to J. Samuel Walker’s statement: “he [Truman] and Byrnes still hoped that they could get along with Stalin in the post-war era”).  Stalin outlined the 3 major problems as: The USA’s insistence on France having an equal place on the Reparations committee, which Stalin felt was an insult to the USSR.  The attitude of the USA about the Polish question and the way Land Lease had been curtailed.  This conference hasn’t been mentioned by either historian; Takaki simply focuses on Potsdam itself and overall comes to the conclusion that racial reasons were the main motives for the bomb, where J. Samuel Walker barely focuses on the USSR and instead places the reason as to simply save lives.  Neither even mention the USA’s involvement in the 1919-1921 Russian Civil war; an attempt by the Americans to usurp the Bolsheviks, which would have led to undeniable tension and lack of cohesion between the two countries.

 Clearly, the decision to use the atomic bomb would have been massively affected by the earlier tensions that the USSR and USA had had before the war.  It’s understandable that Takaki would ignore evidence regarding Russian expansion, as he is a professor of ‘Ethnic Studies’ and seems determined to find racial reasons at, ignoring any other evidence (he has a history of writing race-orientated books such as ‘Race and culture in Nineteenth-Century America’ and ‘Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in America’).

          On the other hand, J. Samuel Walker seems determined to remain with the traditional, American view, however as a historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), this is also not surprising.  The NRC is a US government agency, meaning that Walker works indirectly for the government, and could therefore be biased as he is an employee of the US government, which is the very body in question.

  It’s clear that concerns about the USSR must have played an integral role in the decision to use the bomb; their was mutual distrust between the countries, and their opposing ideologies meant that neither could get along long-term; they wanted separate things.  The USSR and USA had not gotten along before the war and there was no reason to speculate they had planned to afterwards.  Also, Truman wrote in his diary “believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in. I am sure they will when Manhattan appears over their homeland”, which indicates that at the very least, Truman had counted on the bomb preventing Russian involvement, which can only mean he wanted to stop the spread of communism in Asia.  Truman could have stated a number of things, but at the foremost of his mind was Russia.

        Another historical approach is that the bomb was dropped to save, as Truman put it, “half a million lives”.  Although J. Samuel Walker clearly agrees that the main reason the bomb was dropped was to save lives, he disagrees with the figures “There was no evidence that he received information...an invasion...would cost...as many as 500,000”.  However, he does concede the bomb was used primarily to save lives “Primary objective...always been to win the war decisively at the lowest cost in American lives”.

 This is in direct contrast to Ronald Takaki who clearly believes that although the bomb was used to save lives it was by no way the most influential reason “the United States did not use the atomic bomb simply to end the war and thereby save American lives”.  Takaki places far more emphasis on racial reasons “a fierce American rage demanded revenge for ‘treacherous action’”.  However, he places too much emphasis on racism, and not, as Walker has, on the will to save American lives.

 Truman had two nephews in the Pacific war, and he also had had experience in combat which meant he could empathise with the soldiers fighting.  Furthermore, before Truman agreed to the bombs, the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in July 1945, killed hundreds of young Americans who suffered a traumatic death, “for five days they floated unseen”.  This clearly would have prayed on Truman’s mind considerably.  Truman had been in the Missouri National Service through World War 1, and so he would clearly have felt fraternally towards Americans in the war.  It is therefore most likely that he would have used any means to save as many “boys” as possible.  Also, Truman in his memoirs wrote “It was their (the committee) recommendation that the bomb be used against the enemy…’We can see no acceptable alternative to direct military use…It was their conclusion that no technical demonstration…would be likely to bring the war to an end”.   This clearly outlines how Truman wanted to drop the bomb as the quickest way to end the war, which would have of course saved American lives.  Truman’s memoirs are unlikely to be objective because they were written by Truman himself, and he had to make it appear as though he had done the right thing, but there’s no reason to believe Truman wouldn’t have done all he could to save as many American lives as possible, however it’s likely that other factors would have played an important role in the use of the bomb as well.

        Revenge against the Japanese and racism are another factor considered for why the bomb was dropped; it is a factor considered by J. Samuel Walker and Takaki considers it the main reason, though it was clearly not as important as containing the USSR and the desire to save lives.

        J. Samuel Walker agrees that there was mass racism in the USA against the Japanese: “Americans felt an especially deep hatred of the Japanese for racial reasons... subhuman or inhuman race and depicted them as vermin, reptiles, rat” although he overall comes to the conclusion that racism and revenge were not the reason for the atomic bombs “Truman did not authorize solely or primarily for those (racist) reasons”.  Walker places little overall emphasis on racism, instead preferring to focus on saving American lives.

However, Professor Takaki, for the majority of the book, blames racial reasons, though he is inconsistent in his argument.  He states that Truman was “swept into the anti-Japanese maelstrom of race hate and revenge.  He, too, was bitter and angry”.  However then goes on to later state that Truman was a “thoughtful and sensitive man”, even quoting a personal letter written by Truman in which he states “I know that Japan is a terrible cruel and uncivilised nation in warfare but I can’t bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in that same manner…My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a humane feeling for the women and children of Japan”.  Takaki leans towards blaming race, although at points he counters this, such as with the inclusion of this letter, and also offers no evidence for why the bomb was dropped for racial reasons, except that Truman was a racist; “Privately Mr. Truman always said ‘nigger’;…Truman was quoted as saying that if blacks sat at a counter in a drugstore in Independence ‘they would be booted out’ because the management of such stores had a right to refuse to serve them.”  This is as well as Truman being a “thoughtful and sensitive man”.  Takaki offers no evidence as to how racism was the motivating factor, except that Truman was a racist.  Even more bizarrely, Takaki then goes on to explain how America was a country built upon racism, how the Americans viewed Asian immigration as a “yellow peril”.  He then describes Hiroshima as the “crucible of Race in American hate”, and goes on to explain how American racism originated from “the founding of Jamestown in 1607”.  Takaki briefly describes a history of racism in America, even referring to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act proving his point that racism was prevalent in the USA but not that that it was a reason why the atomic bomb was dropped.   He clearly seems to believe that by convincing the reader that the USA was racist, he can prove that the bomb was in fact dropped for revenge and racism; two facts which clearly do not correlate.  Takaki proves nothing except that the USA had been racist from conception.

Truman himself stated (according to J. Samuel Walker) that the Japanese had been “repaid many fold” for their attack on Pearl Harbour, which implies that Truman wanted to repay the Japanese for Pearl Harbour, however, it’s still highly improbably that racial motives would have been a major factor.  This is because the Potsdam declaration; although it didn’t tell the Japanese about the atomic bomb, did warn the Japanese to surrender.  The Potsdam declaration is the most important evidence that the bomb was not dropped because of racism, because, quite simply, if America just wanted revenge they would never have given the Japanese a chance to surrender.  The Potsdam declaration was issued by the USA, China and GB, and even warned the Japanese that they were on the “threshold of annihilation” and would face “prompt and utter destruction” if they did not surrender.  The most striking point is that it left an opening for the retention of the emperor which was in direct contrast to the USA’s previous stance of unconditional surrender, and therefore indicates that the USA was anxious to end the war, even if this meant conceding slightly to Japanese demands; If the atomic bomb had been used because of racism then clearly the USA would never have even contemplated changing their stance on unconditional surrender, the only reason they compromised on this was to end the war quicker (all the American generals were convinced that the Japanese would never surrendered if they had tried to usurp the emperor, who was a deity in Japanese society).  Furthermore, if the Americans had been motivated by racism they would not have stated in the Potsdam declaration that Japan would not be “enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation”.  The fact that the USA even warned Japan to surrender is evidence in itself that they were not motivated by revenge; if they had been they would never have warned them, as the Japanese hadn’t regarding Pearl Harbour.

         Takaki also places equal importance on Truman’s need to prove his masculinity.  According to Takaki, Truman an “inferiority complex” (a statement he has clearly taken out of context from a quote Truman made about his childhood) and as a child had been regarded as “effeminate and weak”.  He then goes on to cite how Truman had been bullied as a child “The boys in the neighbourhood called him ‘sissy’… ‘he wore glasses and didn’t play our games…so we called him a sissy’.  Takaki further goes on to explain how Truman had been told by his mother he should have been a girl, and how he had a ‘pugnacious’ father.  According to Takaki, Truman was pleased that Stalin was shorter then he, he wanted to show Stalin how “big” he was, and “the atomic bomb symbolised virility”.  Furthermore, because the coded telegraph to Truman at Potsdam describing the success of the bomb at Alamogordo used ‘pugilistic’ metaphors, this was all evidence that Truman simply was a weak man who wanted to prove his strength.  This argument, again, has no evidence, and is not even covered by any other historian.  Samuel J. Walker does not even mention this as a factor, which overall indicates that this is not a factor, and that Takaki often takes things out of context, or at the very least makes very tentative judgements.

        Another factor which is blamed for the dropping of the atomic bomb is that the US government had to justify the immense money they had spent on the Manhattan Project.  It had employed 130,000 people and cost almost $2 billion, which would be close to $23 billion dollars based on today’s CPI.  This is a factor covered by both Takaki and Walker, albeit briefly.

        Takaki states “So much money had already been committed and spent; what would happen after the war if the project were dismantled or failed?  In his report to Roosevelt, Byrnes had predicted that there would be “relentless investigation and criticism”.  This clearly shows that Takaki believed that the cost of the atomic bombs was an element in the reason why the bomb was dropped, however, as he doesn’t mention this again, and this a very small paragraph, Takaki clearly doesn’t believe it was a particularly important factor.

        This is similar to Samuel J. Walker, who agrees that the atomic bombs were not used justify the cost; he states “As a corollary, and only as a corollary, to the main objective of shortening the war and saving American lives, Truman wanted to justify the expense and effort required to build the atomic bombs”.

Walker clearly believes that Truman simply wanted to save lives, and although he also wanted to justify the expense of the Manhattan Project, this was simply a ‘corollary’ and thus, not the main objective at all.

        America in 1945 had a strong economy which had thrived during the war; the money they spent was incredibly large, however, America could afford it.  The amount of money they spent in Europe post-1945, with Marshall Aid and the Truman doctrine is evidence of America’s thriving economy; they were the richest country in the World as Europe had been bankrupted by WW2.  Therefore, it’s likely that monetary issues wouldn’t have been a major factor in the use of the atomic bomb, because, put simply, America could afford to spend what they had spent.

        Furthermore, Truman could have always justified the bomb by saying it was an important weapon to have against the Soviets, he didn’t have to drop the bomb to prove this point.  If Truman wanted to justify anything, it would have been not using the bomb and having to explain why to the families of American soldiers killed in the last few weeks before the war would have ended naturally, as Walker states “If he had not used the bomb once it became available, he could never have explained his reasoning in a way that would have satisfied the American people, particularly those who lost loved ones in the last few days or weeks…public confidence in his capacity to govern would have been, at best, extremely undermined”.  If Truman had wanted to justify anything, it would have been not using the bomb, as opposed to spending too much money on it.

        However, this view is entirely opposed by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who in 1985 produced a leaflet stating “General Groves…was desperate to see the fruits of his labours before the end of the War.  The bomb had been developed at a cost of $2000 million. It would have been difficult to justify not using it after such a vast financial investment.  Two types of bomb had been developed.  Nagasaki was simply an experiment to try out the second type”.

        These are just suppositions, facts are assumed and placed together in an emotive fashion; although it’s true that the Manhattan project had been a “vast financial investment”, there is no proof that General Groves was “desperate” and furthermore, this source overlooks any other possibility for why the bomb was dropped.  The use of “$2,000 million” indicates that this is an emotive piece of propaganda; $2,000 million clearly sounds worse then $2 billion, and so it’s clear that the purpose of this piece to convince the reader, rather then portray actual facts.  Although the facts are right, there is also no evidence that the bomb on Nagasaki was just an “experiment”.

        As this leaflet is from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it’s clear that it is not from an objective source; it is biased against the use of the Atomic bomb, and as such is not entirely accurate.

        Admiral Leahy, however, in his memoirs also states “It was my reaction that the scientists and others wanted to make this test because of the vast sums of money that had been spent on the project.  Truman knew that, and so did the others involved”.  This appears to counter the view that the bomb was dropped to save lives, though Leahy also states that “President Truman faced the decision as to whether to use it.  He did not like the idea, but was persuaded that it would shorten the war against Japan and save American lives”.  Clearly Leahy believes that Truman himself was motivated to save lives, although the scientists from the Manhattan Project weren’t.

        Leahy’s memoirs were written during the 1950s, when Truman was still alive, and Leahy and Truman had been good friends throughout the war, so it’s possible that Leahy wrote that Truman dropped the bombs to save lives, so that he could appease Truman.  However, as Leahy was already retired, it’s more likely that he would have been truthful in his memoirs, meaning that Leahy honestly believed that Truman genuinely wanted to save American lives.  Overall, Leahy’s memoirs are likely to be biased as Leahy worked for the US government and was a personal friend of Truman and was thus likely to have been biased, rather then being objective, but overall this is an unlikely factor because there were far more important things for the US to worry about, such as the spread of the USSR.

        Overall, there are many factors which could be believed as to why the atomic bombs were dropped on an already destroyed Japan in summer 1945, however, it’s clear that the two main reasons were undoubtedly to prevent the USSR spreading their ideology into Asia, and to save American lives.

Holly Maria B. Daher, 13M

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