The Myth of the Atomic Bomb

Caroline Beaudoin
March 5, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016

Conditions When Entering the Presidency

Fig. 1: Harry S. Truman- The 33rd President of the United States of America. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Harry S. Truman, pictured in Fig. 1, ascended to the presidency overnight upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945 and left the presidency as one of the least popular of all time. He entered during a pivotal moment when World War II was coming to a close in Europe. The war in the Pacific theatre, however, provided many challenges to the Truman administration. Ending the war with Japan was imperative as more and more U.S. lives were lost during the island hopping initiatives, such as Okinawa. Due to the attack on Pearl Harbor and instances of the Imperial Army acting cruelly such as the Bataan Death March, Americans viewed the enemy as deeply barbarous, evil, and deserving of annihilation. The United States demanded an unconditional surrender from the Japanese as retribution for their war atrocities. Despite the extensive fire bombings that burned down all of Tokyo and multiple other noncombatant areas, the Japanese proved relentless in their fight. Through loyalty to their emperor, the Japanese resorted to kamikaze pilots in their moments of desperation to avoid failure. Americans agreed that an invasion of Japan was necessary to win the war at this point. [1] Truman decided to unleash a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and then two days later another on Nagasaki, instead of invading which eventually forced Japan to surrender. August 6, 1945, just a few short months into his presidency, Truman made history as he ushered in an era of the atomic bomb that fundamentally changed the nature of foreign relations permanently. [2]

The Myth of Why Truman Dropped the Bomb

Critics question why Truman chose to drop the bombs and instantaneously kill upwards of 200,000 citizens. The most widely circulated speculation is that the decision was based on the fact that an invasion was inevitable without dropping the bomb. Given that an assault on the Japanese island might be expected to cost over a million causalities to American forces alone, Truman saved a vast amount of American lives. [1] The reality of the situation, however, differed greatly from popular belief.

The Truth of Why Truman Dropped the Bomb

Several other alternatives to an invasion and the atomic bomb existed at the time. Three major options included: intensifying bombing efforts, waiting for the Soviet Union to enter the war and force a surrender, and mitigating the demand for unconditional surrender by allowing the emperor to remain in place. [1] All of the options presented issues of their own and put the question of American image at stake. Japan was heavily weakened from the attacks, and so the possibility that the war could have ended before an invasion or use of the bomb was a valid one. Additionally, even if the United States had invaded Japan, military advisors believe that number of deaths would be far below the one million predicted by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. The decision to drop the bomb did not originate from the question to drop it or not, it was a multifaceted one. Dropping the bomb allowed Truman to achieve many goals at once. He was able to end the war as early as possible as American moral was low in addition to making diplomatic gains with other countries. The need to justify the effort and money that went into making the bombs existed and he lacked overall incentive not to use it. These factors, coupled with overall hatred of the Japanese, influenced Truman's decision to use the bomb. [1]

After Effects

Truman encountered heavy backlash from the American people and countries all over the world. By dropping the "most terrible thing ever discovered," Truman changed the face of global security entirely. Many argue that Truman used the bomb as a means to achieve his short-term goal, but he neglected to see the bigger picture. His decision fundamentally altered the nature of warfare. Throughout the 1960's, countries accumulated nuclear weapons themselves. The Soviet Union, most notably, rushed to build up their arms in order to inflict total retaliation if necessary. [1] The fear associated with possessing the ability to completely wipe out a country crippled citizens and politicians throughout the Cold War. Despite understanding how powerful of an asset the bomb was, Truman's administration failed to recognize the ethical implications that accompanied the decision. All posterity lives under the constant threat of nuclear warfare. As weapon design continues to develop and become more and more lethal, presidents must heavily consider the ethical implications to ensure the safety of the human species.

© Caroline Beaudoin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. S. Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan (University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

[2] "Atomic Bomb Revolutionizes War; Hit Japan like 20,000 Tons of TNT," International Herald Tribune, 6 Aug 1945.