Sixty five years ago today, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. That and another bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later forced the unconditional surrender of Japan – ending World War II.
The use of the bomb was one of the most controversial issues of the war. The efficacy and appropriateness have been discussed to death, and I will not debate it here except to state that I believe from the perspective of ending the war quickly, with the least loss of life on both sides, that the strategy was not only effective, but moral – as moral as anything in war can be. It also prevented the possible carving up of Japan by Soviet and American forces which would have resulted from a land invasion. The straw arguments brought out by those who state that Japan was on the verge of surrender in summer 1945 would be laughable if they weren’t made in the face of Japan’s human rights abuses both before and during the Second World War – both against Allied military personnel and innocent civilians. Isn’t it interesting that Japan’s behavior in atrocities such as the Bataan Death March and the rape of Manchuria are utterly forgotten by those who use August 6 to declaim America’s evil? Some of this is doubtless due to Japan's own whitewashing of her history.
One question that has been raised is whether Franklin Roosevelt would have used the atomic bomb and if he knew of its potential for destruction. There is no doubt among serious historians that Franklin Roosevelt fully intended to use the bomb. Although certain naïve persons have been misled by FDR’s genteel image, he was particularly tough on issues of American security: pushing J. Edgar Hoover to make broad use of wiretaps, approving the execution of several German nationals who snuck into the United States with the intent of sabotage, and signing Executive Order 9066 - which led to the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry. (For what it’s worth, both Hoover and Harry Truman though Japanese Internment was a mistake and unjustified by American security concerns.)
It was FDR himself who put the development of an atomic bomb on the agenda after he received a letter from Albert Einstein advising that Germany was working on just such a weapon. He immediately told his military aide, General Edwin “Pa” Watson, that “this requires action” and to keep all documents relating to the project in the White House safe.
Roosevelt followed the development of the Manhattan Project closely and was fully aware of an atomic bomb’s potential power, telling an aide that one dropped in Times Square “would lay New York low”.
When the Germans broke through Allied lines in the Ardennes in late 1944, FDR called in Leslie Groves to ask about the possibility of fast tracking a bomb to be dropped on Berlin to force an end to the war. Groves had the unpleasant duty of informing the President that production of a workable bomb was months away.
There is also the written account of James Roosevelt, the last of FDR’s sons to see him alive, who in January 1945 confessed to this father his fears concerning Operation Olympic – the planned invasion of Japan. FDR bluntly told James “There will be no invasion of Japan. We are developing a weapon of immense power, and we will use it if we can.” For FDR, who always kept his cards close to his chest and hadn’t even told his wife about the Manhattan Project, to drop such a broad hint was extraordinary.
Shortly after FDR’s death, his Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, advised Harry Truman of the existence of the atomic bomb project - although Truman had suspected the Manhattan Project centered on a new kind of “super-weapon” since he stumbled upon the project while chairing the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program when he was a Senator. As the targets were being chosen, it was Stimson who persuaded the military against Kyoto as a target – as it was primarily a cultural and religious center.
FDR would have used the bomb. The only questions are when and where. But FDR died, and that decision fell to another man.
Thank God for Harry Truman.