The Bureaucrats Who Singled Out Hiroshima for Destruction

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The Bureaucrats Who Singled Out Hiroshima for Destruction
How committee meetings, memos, and largely arbitrary decisions ushered in the nuclear age

Paul Ham- AUG 6, 2015

On May 10, 1945, three days after Germany had surrendered to the Allied powers and ended World War II in Europe, a carefully selected group of scientists and military personnel met in an office in Los Alamos, New Mexico. With Germany out of the war, the top minds within the Manhattan Project, the American effort to design an atomic bomb, focused on the choices of targets within Japan. The group was loosely known as the Target Committee, and the question they sought to answer essentially was this: Which of the preserved Japanese cities would best demonstrate the destructive power of the atomic bomb?

General Leslie Groves, the Army engineer in charge of the Manhattan Project, had been ruminating on targets since late 1944; at a preliminary meeting two weeks earlier, he had laid down his criteria. The target should: possess sentimental value to the Japanese so its destruction would “adversely affect” the will of the people to continue the war; have some military significance—munitions factories, troop concentrations, and so on; be mostly intact, to demonstrate the awesome destructive power of an atomic bomb; and be big enough for a weapon of the atomic bomb’s magnitude.

Groves asked the scientists and military personnel to debate the details: They analyzed weather conditions, timing, use of radar or visual sights, and priority cities. Hiroshima, they noted, was “the largest untouched target” and remained off Air Force General Curtis LeMay’s list of cities open to incendiary attack. “It should be given consideration,” they concluded. Tokyo, Yawata, and Yokohama were thought unsuitable—Tokyo was “all bombed and burned out,” with “only the palace grounds still standing.”

A fortnight later, at the formal May 10 target meeting, Robert Oppenheimer, the chief scientist on the project, ran through the agenda. It included “height of detonation,” “gadget [bomb] jettisoning and landing,” “status of targets,” “psychological factors in target selection,” “radiological effects,” and so on. Joyce C. Stearns, a scientist representing the Air Force, named the four shortlisted targets in order of preference: Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, and Kokura. They were all “large urban areas of more than three miles in diameter;” “capable of being effectively damaged by the blast;” and “likely to be unattacked by next August.” Someone raised the possibility of bombing the emperor’s palace in Tokyo—a spectacular idea, they agreed, but militarily impractical. In any case, Tokyo had been struck from the list because it was already “rubble,” the minutes noted.

Kyoto, a large industrial city with a population of 1 million, met most of the committee’s criteria. Thousands of Japanese people and industries had moved there to escape destruction elsewhere; furthermore, stated Stearns, Kyoto’s psychological advantage as a cultural and “intellectual center” made the residents “more likely to appreciate the significance of such a weapon as the gadget.”

Tokyo had been struck from the list because it was already “rubble,” the minutes noted.

Hiroshima, a city of 318,000, held similar appeal. It was “an important army depot and port of embarkation,” said Stearns, situated in the middle of an urban area “of such a size that a large part of the city could be extensively damaged.” Hiroshima, the biggest of the “unattacked” targets, was surrounded by hills that were “likely to produce a focusing effect which would considerably increase the blast damage.” On top of this, the Ota River made it “not a good” incendiary target, raising the likelihood of its preservation for the atomic bomb.

The meeting barely touched on the two cities’ military attributes, if any. Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, had no significant military installations; however, its beautiful wooden shrines and temples recommended it, Groves had earlier said (he was not at the May 10 meeting), as both sentimental and highly combustible. Hiroshima’s port and main industrial and military districts were located outside the urban regions, to the southeast of the city.

The gentlemen unanimously agreed that the bomb should be dropped on a large urban center, the psychological impact of which should be “spectacular” to ensure “international recognition” of the new weapon.

* * *

The question was not “Will this weapon kill civilians?” but rather, “Will any civilians remain?”

Total war had debased everyone involved. While older men, such as Marshall and Stimson, shared a fading nostalgia for a bygone age of moral clarity, when soldiers fought soldiers in open combat and spared civilians, they now faced “a newer [morality] that stressed virtually total war,” observed the historian Barton J. Bernstein. Marshall recommended, for example, on May 29, in discussion with Assistant War Secretary John McCloy, the use of gas to destroy Japanese units on outlying Pacific islands: “Just drench them and sicken them so that the fight would be taken out of them—saturate an area, possibly with mustard, and just stand off.” He meant to limit American casualties with whatever means available.

Stimson believed the dawn of the atomic era called for a deeper human response energized by a spirit of cooperation and compassion. He did not act on his compulsion, but dwelt long on the atomic question—and the question in Stimson’s troubled mind was not “Will this weapon kill civilians?” but rather, if we continue on this course, “Will any civilians remain?” He poured much of his anxiety into his diary.

Officially, Stimson seemed contradictory and muddled. In the meetings, he summarized his position on the bomb thus: (1) “We could not give the Japanese any warning;” (2) “We could not concentrate on a civilian area;” (3) “We should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible.” He meant to use the bomb to shock the enemy—“to make a profound impression”—with a display of devastation so horrible that Tokyo would be forced to surrender. However, he insisted it must be a military target. His statement’s inherent contradiction—how could the bomb shock Tokyo without concentrating on a civilian area?—either eluded Stimson, or he lacked the intellectual honesty to confront it. Whatever the case, it provoked no comment in the Interim Committee meeting, and eased the task of James Conant, a prominent scientist on the committee: “The most desirable target,” then, he said, “would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses.”

The meeting that had opened with Stimson’s declaration of mankind’s “new relationship with the universe” ended with his approval of the first atomic attack, on the center of a city, to which he consented moments after he had rejected the bombing of civilians.

The committee unanimously agreed that the atomic bombs should be used: (1) as soon as possible; (2) without warning; and (3) on war plants surrounded by workers’ homes or other buildings susceptible to damage, in order to make a spectacular impression “on as many inhabitants as possible.”

* * *

On June 1, 1945, President Harry Truman rose early to prepare a statement for Congress. It was a bright summer’s day, and he chose one of his three new seersucker suits—a gift from a New Orleans cotton company. The president felt refreshed after hosting the prince regent of Iraq at a state dinner a few nights earlier. He had spent Memorial Day on the presidential yacht, cruising the Potomac, playing poker, and approving his speech for the San Francisco Conference on the creation of the United Nations, then in session.

“There can be no peace in the world,” Truman told a rapt house, “until the military power of Japan is destroyed. ... If the Japanese insist on continuing resistance beyond the point of reason, their country will suffer the same destruction as Germany.”

That left four cities on the target list: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki, listed in order of how well they conformed to the Target Committee’s criteria. Nagasaki, being hilly, was not ideal, but its Mitsubishi Shipyards (then out of use), where Japan’s huge battleships had been built, gave it strong symbolic appeal.

On July 25, 1945, Groves finalized these targets in a directive issued for Carl Spaatz, the commanding general of the United States Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific: “The 509 Composite Group, 20th Air Force will deliver its first special bomb as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945 on one of the targets. … Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready.”

A clear-weather report for August 6 made Hiroshima the preferred target on the list that day. Seventy years ago, the first atomic bomb fell on the city.

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