US Nuclear Weapon Decision-Making Framework in the 1950s

Kelsey Page
May 16, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Aerial photograph of the nuclear bomb attack on Hiroshima. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The decision-making framework behind the US decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan at the end of World War II is an area that has been explored extensively by scholars. It is also an area in which retrospective history and access to more complete information due to declassification laws have changed the general consensus about the decision to evolve greatly since the 1950s. The decision to bomb Japan is a critical turning point in the history of the world, and justifiably, is the topic of great scrutiny. The Hiroshima atomic bomb (shown in Fig. 1) killed about 192,000 people total and the Nagasaki bomb killed about 70,000 people total. [1] It is critical to include the comparison to the B-29 incendiary raids over Tokyo, as these raids killed about 225,000 people. [2] This statistic is often referenced as a point of justification for the bombings and it is a necessary reference point for dialogue surrounding the scholarly military analysis of the decision. However, this report does not seek to justify the decision or complete a life-cost analysis comparison. Rather, it examines the biases inherent in the decision making framework that ultimately led to the nuclear attacks.


Structurally, the framework in the 1950s gave power to the military stakeholders that allowed their institutional pro-nuclear bias to permeate the decision-making conversation and stifle dissenting opinions. As Bundy summarizes, the primary objective was a speedy victory. Becuase of this objective, the judgment on the effectiveness of any strategy had to be military. [3] However, because the military advice was to use the bomb as soon as it was obtained, this emphasis on the military effectiveness stifled other opinions on plans of action. Since those involved in the Manhattan Project assumed use, there was a natural push from the relevant stakeholders for the government to use the bomb. This decision-making framework created another layer of problems, in that physicists were not politicians and did not have the full military or political context of the US strategy in Japan. Regardless, physicists maintined influence and advocated strongly for the continued development of nuclear bombs in important committees like MAUD and the Interim Committee. [4] This misinformed sense of a comprehensive understanding of both the military and political aspects of the war was highlighted when physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer admitted that, "We didn't know bean about the military situation," after a meeting with the Interim Committee. [5] Though it would be difficult to prove, there can also be a strong case made for the idea that because the rhetoric of the technical memorandums focused on the decisive potential of the nuclear weapons, these physicists' reports contributed to the widely held belief that Soviet intervention in the Pacific would not be decisive in comparison to a nuclear bomb.

Influential Factors

The most common factors that scholars identify when considering the presence or absence of their influence on US nuclear policy are the Soviet intervention in the Pacific, speed, and desire to gain the best possible position in the post-war world order. Scholars, like Wilson, criticize the US for not weighing factors like the Soviet intervention and conventional war alternatives heavily enough. [6] Regardless of Soviet action, the US still maintained the incentive to use this weapon because of the increasing domestic pressure on the Truman administration to bring a swift end to the war in the Pacific. [7] The nuclear bomb gave the Truman administration the incentive to frame it as part of the American exceptionalism narrative and more heavily weight the symbolic value of nuclear bombs in terms of the American geopolitical power. [5]


Having a structure for decision-making that inherently favored using the nuclear bomb from its inception also contributed to the lack of open questioning of assumptions and doubts about using the bomb in the war. As Bundy reveals, both Roosevelt and Truman had doubts about using nuclear weapons, but they were seldom discussed in Interim Committee meetings or otherwise. [3] Because of the top-secret status of the nuclear weapons program, the number of relevant stakeholders with sufficient information to make well-rounded decisions was very small. With the framework's predisposition to use nuclear force, there were few to no significant dissenting voices in the most influential governing bodies to advocate for alternative actions, like conventional war or renegotiating diplomatic terms. Even if it were possible to reduce the dominance of the pro-nuclear narrative in this decision-making process, the factors that influenced the administrations to build their decision-making strategies in such a way in the first place would have likely over-ridden a push for consideration of other options. [8]

© Kelsey Page. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] M. Hall, "By the Numbers: World War II's Atomic Bombs," CNN 6 Aug 13.

[2] K. T. Compton, "If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used," The Atlantic, December 1946.

[3] M. Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (Random House, 1988), pp. 54-97.

[4] B. C. Reed, Atomic Bomb: The Story of the Manhattan Project (Morgan and Claypool, 2015).

[5] B. J. Bernstein, "The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered," Foreign Aff. 74, No. 1, 135 (1995).

[6] W. Wilson, "The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima," Int. Security 31, No. 4, 162 (Spring 2007).

[7] C. Beaudoin, "The Myth of the Atomic Bomb," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[8] C. Davis, "The First Time the World Heard of Atomic Energy," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2015.