On August 6, 1945, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb called “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. The ill-fated city vanished under a phantasmagorical column of seething gas, smoke, and dust that rose 40,000 feet into the sky. Paul Tibbets, the pilot and mission commander, looked down and saw “a black, boiling nest… I didn’t think about what was going on down on the ground—you need to be objective about this. I didn’t order the bomb to be dropped, but I had a mission to do.”
The Enola Gay’s 12-man aircrew fell silent as they returned to base. Co-pilot Robert Lewis wrote in his mission log, “Just how many Japs did we kill?... My God, what have we done?” Radar operator Joe Stiborik was “dumbfounded.” He judged that the crew was in a “state of shock. I think the foremost thing in all our minds was that the thing was going to bring an end to the war, and we tried to look at it that way.”
Landing on Tinian eight hours later, the crew was greeted by an ebullient crowd of servicemen, journalists, and photographers. Congratulated and feted, they drank an extra ration of cold beer, danced in a jitterbug contest, and watched thea technicolor movie, “It’s a Pleasure.” President Harry Truman, returning by sea from Europe on the cruiser Augusta, received the news by radio dispatch. “The greatest thing in history,” he exclaimed to his staff. He read the dispatch to a mess deck crowded with sailors, who erupted into cheering. Later he read a statement for a film crew in his stateroom: “It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.”
Americans greeted the news with unbridled jubilation. After almost four years of savage war, few were inclined to shed tears for the fate of Japanese civilians on the ground. Attacking cities from the air was no longer seen as unjustified. All the major combatant nations had engaged in “terror bombing” of enemy cities. At first, few Americans even paused to consider that Hiroshima was a city. The White House statement misleadingly identified the target as an “important Japanese army base,” rather than as a large Japanese city with a base in it. An earlier draft had called it “purely a military base.”
To Pacific War veterans, who had dreaded an invasion of Japan, the atomic bomb meant even more. It was a godsend, an unexpected reprieve, a stay of execution. Paul Fussell, a 21 year old Army lieutenant, recalled of his unit: “We cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.” To Robert Edson Lee, a sailor in the Pacific, the bomb meant simply “that we could go home, and that ended our moral concern.”
Muffled by the general revelry and applause, however, there were notes of doubt, pangs of regret, and even righteous anger. Pondering the news that one bomb carried by one plane had leveled a city, servicemen and civilians grasped that humanity, for the first time, wielded the power to cause its own extinction. A few iconoclasts protested that Truman had needlessly undercut the country’s international moral standing. Among the dissidents were some of the highest-ranking officers in the military. General Douglas MacArthur confided his thoughts to his personal pilot, who recorded in his diary on August 7: “General MacArthur definitely is appalled and depressed by this Frankenstein monster.” When Dwight D. Eisenhower had learned of the Manhattan Project, several weeks earlier, he had urged against dropping the bomb on Japan: “I disliked seeing the United States take the lead in introducing into war something as horrible and destructive as this new weapon was described to be.”
Among the Navy brass, feelings ran strong against the bombings. Admiral Ernest King, the chief of naval operations, told his co-author that he did not like the atomic bomb “or any part of it,” and said that the air-sea blockade would have been enough to force a Japanese surrender. Several leading air commanders, including Generals Hap Arnold and Curtis LeMay, said that the atomic bombs were unnecessary because conventional bombing had already brought Japan to its knees. Remarks of this sort can be understood in the context of internal military politics and budgetary positioning. Yet it is clear that many military leaders thought the atomic bombings unjustified and even immoral. Admiral Bill Leahy, the senior most active-duty US officer of the Second World War, left a scathing passage in his memoir, charging that the United States had “adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying woman and children.”
During the war, Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was famous for his bloody-minded tirades against the Japanese. He had publicly said that Japan was “not fit to live in a civilized world.” He had joked about castrating all Japanese males. To reporters he had implied that the emperor Hirohito would be executed, and threatened to let his forces sack and pillage Tokyo. Americans had delighted in his exhortations to “Kill Japs, kill Japs and kill more Japs!” Halsey and his smashmouth motto had appeared on the cover of Time magazine just two weeks before the bombing of Hiroshima. But in September 1946, after John Hersey’s graphic “Hiroshima” article ran in the New Yorker, the admiral told reporters: “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment. It was a mistake to ever drop it.” He blamed the scientists, who “had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it. It killed a lot of Japs, but the Japs had put out a lot of peace feelers through Russia long before.”
This outburst angered a group of scientists, who wrote Admiral Nimitz to complain. Nimitz replied that neither the scientists nor the military were responsible for the bomb: “I am informed that the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japanese cities was made at a level higher than that of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Of course, military leaders were only human, and therefore fallible. Gold braid and stars did not equip them to render incontrovertible ethical and moral judgments. They may have been led astray by mistaken intelligence, or were less than fully informed about the deadly intransigence of Japanese army leaders. As older men who had begun their military careers at the turn of the twentieth century, their sensibilities may simply have fallen behind the times.
But with 75 years of hindsight, one is struck by the pervasiveness of anti-atomic bomb sentiments across the top echelon of the military. In 1945, eight Americans (four generals, four admirals) held five-star rank. Seven later stated that the bombings were either unnecessary to end the war, morally indefensible, or both. That fact is all the more arresting when you consider that their professional code discouraged second-guessing the decisions of superiors, and that they were discussing an event that had already happened, and thus could not be reversed. Right or wrong, their opinions do not deserve to be dismissed, ignored, or suppressed. They had led our armed forces through the largest and bloodiest war in history. They had seen the battlefields and the cemeteries. None held illusions about the extent and depravity of Japanese war crimes. All had studied and debated the options to achieve victory in the Pacific. They had worked together to prepare the invasion plans, and they held direct responsibility for American troops deployed in the theater. And yet they also cared deeply about the reputation and standing of the United States in the long lens of history.
In 1947, former Secretary of War Henry Stimson published an influential article in Harper’s Magazine entitled, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” This essay laid the foundation for what became known as the traditional or “orthodox” story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which sank deep into the American consciousness and remains lodged there to this day. Truman, it was said, faced a categorical or binary choice between dropping the bomb or launching a bloody invasion of Japan. Faced with these alternatives, he chose the course that would result in fewer net deaths and the least aggregate suffering. By setting the decision up as a forced binary—Door A or Door B—this account purged the moral uncertainties. It was a textbook-perfect case of Benthamite utilitarian reasoning (“the greatest good for the greatest number.”) With surgical precision it removed the notion, widely held in 1945, that the bombings were condign retribution against a barbaric enemy. It preserved Americans’ common understanding that we were a fundamentally good and just nation that had set a righteous example for the world.
The story is simple, unambiguous, internally consistent, and flawlessly logical. Like the lyrics of a beloved old folk song, it is easy to learn by heart. It has been handed down through the decades, taught by one generation to the next. The lyrics have remained consistent over time, proving largely impervious to the emergence of new evidence. Critics call it a myth, while defenders maintain that it is essentially the truth.
Over time, the traditional or orthodox view acquired a misleading postscript. Many came to believe that the atomic bombings had been uncontroversial during and after World War II. Opposition and criticism, it was suggested, were an artifact of the Vietnam era, when “revisionist” historians emerged amid the turmoil of the antiwar movement and the rise of the New Left. The term “revisionism” was often heard in 1995, during the heated public controversy over the Enola Gay exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Leading journalists, columnists, and elected officials joined with veterans’ groups and military associations in gang-tackling the museum curators and the historians on its advisory board. Charles Krauthammer wrote that the controversy proved that “elite American museums, like the universities, have fallen to the forces of political correctness and historical revisionism.” Edwin Yoder dismissed criticism of the atomic bombings as “a byproduct of the great quarrel over Vietnam—far more a product of the furies of the 1960s than of the war planning of the 1940s, when President Truman and his advisors made the decision.” The US Senate adopted a resolution denouncing the script as “revisionist and offensive to many WWII veterans.”
But the dread term “revisionism” has always been a misnomer. New evidence about the atomic bombs emerged little by little, decade by decade, as a result of document declassifications and the publication of memoirs and diaries. It would be strange if relevant new information had come to light without prompting a revision of earlier views. The specialists in this field are not tribunes of the academic left, as the critics have so glibly charged; they are objective scholars committed to empirical methods and rational analysis. They debate various disputed points, and some can be roughly sorted into contending “camps.” Broadly speaking, however, all can at least agree on the salient facts, and their disagreements are largely a matter of emphasis and interpretation. The history they have pieced together is substantially more complex and ambiguous than the story lodged in popular memory. The controversy over the bombings is really several discrete subsidiary debates. It is not simply: “The atomic bomb, yes or no?” But rather: “An explicit prior warning, yes or no?... Hit military targets instead of cities, yes or no?... Guarantee Hirohito’s throne, yes or no?... The bombings were intended to gain leverage over Stalin, yes or no?... The Russian declaration of war forced Japanese surrender, yes or no?... Without the bombs, Japan would likely have surrendered prior to invasion, yes or no?... Nagasaki, yes or no?” As for the persistent canard that criticism of the atomic bombings was a “byproduct of the great quarrel over Vietnam,” the on-the-record views of leading WWII officers stands in refutation.
The hard question has never been whether or not the United States should have used the atomic bomb. Given the circumstances, and Truman’s limited options, I believe it was justified to use this new weapon to hasten the war’s end. The hard questions, in my view, are whether the bomb should have been used without a prior explicit warning, and whether it should have been dropped on a city. In confronting these questions, Truman appears to have suffered his own pangs of conscience. On July 25, 1945, he recorded in his diary: “I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children…The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance.”
But on that same day, the War Department issued an order to drop two atomic bombs on a list of four target cities. The order made no mention of warnings, military objectives, or sparing women and children. The cities had not been selected for their military character, and the military installations therein were not specified as aiming points. Two weeks later, with no explicit prior warning, “Little Boy” wiped out the seventh largest city in Japan.
The July 25 entry in Truman’s diary is bizarre and inexplicable. Perhaps he felt sudden qualms, and soothed them with therapeutic delusions. He may have sensed that future historians and biographers were reading over his shoulder, and hoped to be commended as a man of delicate conscience. If so, the gesture hardly does him credit. But if he meant what he wrote, it suggests that Truman knew, at some level, that dropping this monstrous weapon on a city was wrong. If FDR had lived, would he have given the order that Truman pretends he gave? If Truman had been in office longer, would he have gained the courage of his convictions, and given the order that he plainly believed to be right? Alas, posterity can only speculate—and will continue to speculate, each time this ghastly anniversary comes around.
Meet the Author
Ian W. Toll is the author of a nonfiction trilogy about the Pacific War. The final book, Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945, will be published on September 1, 2020. He was a speaker at The National WWII Museum’s 2019 International Conference on World War II.
This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by Bank of America.