Posted by Anita Folsom
Today is the anniversary of the second use of an atomic bomb during World War II. On this date in 1945, the Japanese refused to surrender after the devastation of the first bomb, which had destroyed Hiroshima three days earlier. On August 9, a bomb containing plutonium-239 exploded over Nagasaki, causing at least 45,000 immediate deaths.
Each year on this anniversary, critics of America’s wartime policy chime in on the terrible consequences of President Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons. But what were the factors that influenced him to approve the bombings?
First, Truman needed to save the lives of American POWs. By the summer of ’45, hundreds of thousands of American, British and Australian soldiers had been prisoners-of-war for more than three years. These captives were being used as slaves at work camps throughout Japan, China, and southeast Asia. Truman knew that most were near death from malnutrition and overwork. When the U.S. had liberated some POWs in 1944, the conditions they found were indescribable, many had died, and Truman knew that other POWs must be freed soon or none of them would survive.
Second, Truman needed to save lives of American servicemen. Without the atomic bomb, the U.S. would have to invade the home islands of Japan. Casualty estimates ranged from hundreds of thousands to more than one million Americans wounded, killed, or missing in action. In the spring of 1945, the high casualty rates during the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa alarmed Americans and seemed to prove the gloomy predictions for an invasion of Japan.
Third, Truman knew that the carpet bombing of Tokyo on March 9-10 had led to a fire storm, killing as many as 100,000 civilians in a few hours. Would Japanese old men, women, and children die in larger numbers if he prolonged the war by authorizing an invasion without the use of atomic weapons? Possibly.
As described in our book FDR Goes to War, Harry Truman decided that he must use the atomic bomb to end the war as quickly as possible, and in the long run, he would save American lives as well as those of Allied POWs. Japan surrendered within a few days of Nagasaki’s destruction.
An American soldier in training for the invasion of Japan described his reaction to the news that the war was over:
“I was a 21-year-old second lieutenant leading a rifle platoon. Although still officially in one piece, in the German war I had aready been wounded in the leg and back severely enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my legs buckled whenever I jumped out of the back of a truck, my condition was held to be satisfactory for whatever lay ahead.
When the [atomic] bombs dropped and news began to circulate that “Operation Olympic” would not, after all, take place, that we would not be obliged to run up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being mortared and shelled, for all the fake manliness of our facades we cried with relief and Joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.”