Understanding the Decision to Drop the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

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Published on Center for Strategic and International Studies (http://csis.org)

Understanding the Decision to Drop the Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki


By Nathan Donohue

This week marks the 67th anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 6, 1945, U.S. President Harry Truman informed the world [1] that an atomic weapon had been detonated on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Nicknamed Little Boy, the bomb with a power of over 20,000 tons of TNT destroyed most of Hiroshima, killing an estimated 130,000 [2] people. Three days later on August 9, a second bomb nicknamed Fat Man was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki destroying most of Nagasaki and killing roughly between 60,000 - 70,000 [2] people. Six days after the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan surrendered, marking the end of World War II.


The destructive power of these nuclear weapons and the subsequent casualties of the Japanese have continued to prompt questions over whether the U.S. should have decided to use these weapons against Japan during World War II. Even 67 years after the event, the decision to drop the first atomic bomb continues to be widely debated.


Certainly, the power of this new weapon was understood before its use against Japan. President Truman stated that “it was the most terrible thing ever discovered.” To that end, the decision to use this new weapon was not taken lightly, nor was it made in a vacuum devoid of dissent, despite what historical accounts may depict. Specifically, historian J. Samuel Walker purports that history has painted a false dichotomy which posited that Truman had to choose between using the atomic bomb and risking hundreds of thousands of American lives. Instead, as Walker highlights in his book “Prompt and Utter Destruction [3],” the historical records show a much more complex situation.


To be sure, as the development of the atomic bomb was nearing its completion, the U.S. was still engaged in a massive war with the Japanese. By all accounts, from the middle of 1944, it was clear to both the Japanese and the United States that the Japanese were losing the war and that the question was when not if the Japanese would finally capitulate. As the summer of 1945 began, the U.S. military campaign continued to involve numerous aerial raids as well as large scale invasion of Japanese islands. Accordingly, before the atomic bomb became available, the U.S. was planning another large scale invasion of Japan codenamed Operation Downfall for the fall of 1945, which it hoped would overwhelm the Japanese and end the war.


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