The Most Momentous Presidential Decision Ever Made
“If I live to be a hundred years old, I’ll never forget the day that I was first told about the atomic bomb,” Harry Truman wrote in his memoirs. “It was about 7:30 p.m. on the evening of April 12, 1945, just hours after Franklin Roosevelt had died at 3:35 p.m., and no more than half an hour after I was sworn in as president at 7:09 p.m. Henry L. Stimson, who was Roosevelt’s secretary of war and then mine, took me aside and reminded me that Roosevelt had authorized the development of a sort of super bomb and that that bomb was almost ready.” It was “a new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power.”
Truman realized he alone would soon have to make a tremendous decision, one that no other human being in history had ever been forced to contemplate: whether to actually use such a terrible weapon. On April 25, the new commander-in-chief held a secret meeting in the Oval Office with Stimson and Major General Leslie Groves, the man in charge of the Manhattan Project. Groves snuck into the White House through a back door. Truman said “Stimson handed me a memorandum that said ‘Within four months we shall in all probability have completed the most terrible weapon ever known in human history, one bomb which could destroy a whole city.’” The president signed off on a recommendation to form a group called the Interim Committee, which would study the merits of using the bomb and offer advice accordingly.
When Franklin Roosevelt first ordered the Manhattan Project in 1941, he did so out of fear. A letter signed by the prominent physicist Albert Einstein, who had fled Hitler’s Germany in 1933, warned that the Nazis were racing to develop an atomic bomb of their own. But now, with Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945, the focus shifted to Japan. Truman and the Interim Committee placed their decision within these parameters: What was the quickest way to end the war in the Pacific, while minimizing American — and Japanese — casualties, which were mounting as US forces clawed their way closer to the Japanese mainland?
The numbers were horrendous. The Japanese were self-proclaimed fanatical warriors who would fight to the death rather than surrender; in thirty-five days of vicious fighting on the tiny island of Iwo Jima in February and March, nearly seven thousand Americans were killed and twenty thousand wounded. As the Interim Committee weighed its options, American casualties were piling up on another island, Okinawa, just 340 miles from Japan. Over eighty-three days, an estimated twelve thousand American servicemen were killed; another thirty-six thousand were wounded, in what was the bloodiest battle for the United States in the entire Pacific War. The president, who closely monitored casualty reports each day, agonized at the growing bloodshed.
On June 18th, three days before the battle of Okinawa ended, Truman met with his Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss Operation Olympic — the invasion of Japan itself. Its chairman, General George C. Marshall, gave the president sobering estimates of American casualties: 250,000 killed, 500,000 wounded. Truman was horrified: “The statistics that the generals gave me were as frightening as the news of the big bomb,” he wrote. “I could not bear this thought and it led to the decision to use the atomic bomb.”
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Truman made one final attempt to get the Japanese to surrender. But a July 29th plea was rejected and the commander-in-chief issued the momentous order, sealing the fate of at least one of four targets that had been selected: Hiroshima, Kokora, Nagasaki, and Niigata — all cities thought to be heavy military manufacturing areas. On August 6th, at 8:15 a.m., local time, Hiroshima was destroyed in the blink of an eye. Three days later, a second bomb fell on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered on August 15th, bringing history’s most devastating conflict to an end.
Between the initial blast, burns, and exposure to radiation, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 210,000 people by the end of 1945 and 340,000 within five years — mostly civilians. Horrific as they were, the bombs appeared to do what the Interim Committee and Truman determined they would do: save more lives than they took, and hasten the war’s end. The Soviets’ entry into the war in the Pacific on August 9th, the day of the Nagasaki bombing, also influenced the Japanese decision to surrender, but Emperor Hirohito specifically referred to “a new and most cruel bomb” in his surrender proclamation.
In the decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has been argued that the atomic bomb was so devastating, so morally wrong, that its use would surely open a Pandora’s box of horrors for future generations. Truman always dismissed such hand wringing. “I couldn’t worry what history would say about my personal morality,” he said in a 1965 speech. “I made the only decision I ever knew how to make. I did what I thought was right,” he said.
21 Presidents, 21 rooms, 21 insider stories. That’s “Under This Roof,” by Paul Brandus of the award-winning White House-based news service West Wing Reports. Pre-order your copy now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and follow Paul on Twitter: @WestWingReport