About the Episode
In the hours after Truman drops the bomb on Hiroshima, news reports begin to surface of “a city vanished.” Truman never regretted the decision, seeing the bomb as the quickest way to bring an end to the bloodiest war in history. Speaking to the American people via radio, Truman described the bomb as “harnessing of the basic power of the universe,” and swore that “we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war.” Though Truman hoped to avoid as many civilian casualties as possible, the loss of innocent lives was inevitable, and tens of thousands would die upon impact, with tens of thousands more dying from radiation poisoning and other longer-term effects.
No other event is as inextricably linked to Truman’s legacy as his decision to use the atomic bombs, and 75 years later, there is still debate among historians over whether it was truly the best option left to end World War II. Operation Olympic, a planned invasion of Kyushu set to take place in November, was anticipated to cost hundreds of thousands of lives. A full-scale invasion of Asia would result in not just the deaths of Allied troops, but potentially hundreds of thousands of innocent Asian noncombatants as well. What became clear to Truman and his administration was that there was no good and clean solution to end the war with Japan; rather, no matter what path the United States chose, there was going to be more bloodshed and more countless people would die before there was peace.
This week’s episode, hosted by the Museum’s Dr. Kristen Burton and written by executive producer Gemma R. Birnbaum, was recorded remotely with historian Richard B. Frank. With travel prohibited due to the Covid-19 pandemic, producers have continued to conduct historical interviews, do research, and record and edit episodes from their homes. This episode was possible thanks to assistance from the Harry S. Truman Library and the Museum’s digital collections team.
Topics Covered in this Episode
- The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
- The Soviet Union declares war on Japan
- Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk and the crew of the Enola Gay
- The after effects of the atomic bombs
- Japan’s unconditional surrender and the end of World War II
- J. Robert Oppenheimer’s concerns over nuclear power and war
Richard B. Frank
Richard B. Frank is an internationally renowned expert on the Pacific war. After graduating from the University of Missouri, he was commissioned in the US Army, in which he served for nearly four years, including a tour of duty in the Republic of Vietnam as an aero rifle platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division. Frank completed studies at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC. Soon afterwards he began research on his first book, Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle, which was published in 1990 and won the US Marine Corps’ General Wallace M. Greene Award.
At 5:29 a.m. (MST) on July 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb detonated in the New Mexican desert, releasing a level of destructive power unknown in the existence of humanity. Emitting as much energy as 21,000 tons of TNT and creating a fireball that measured roughly 2,000 feet in diameter, the first successful test of an atomic bomb, known as the Trinity Test, forever changed the history of the world.
Theodore Van Kirk, known as Dutch, was born in Pennsylvania. He grew up in a very small town and he described himself as a river rat because they lived so close to two rivers.
Kristen D. Burton is the Teacher Programs and Curriculum Specialist at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, LA.
"To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family and Bank of America.
Archival Audio - President Truman’s Radio Report to the Nation
The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians. But that attack is only a warning of things to come. If Japan does not surrender, bombs will have to be dropped on her war industries and, unfortunately, thousands of civilian lives will be lost. I urge Japanese civilians to leave industrial cities immediately, and save themselves from destruction.
I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb.
Its production and its use were not lightly undertaken by this Government. But we knew that our enemies were on the search for it. We know now how close they were to finding it. And we knew the disaster which would come to this Nation, and to all peace-loving nations, to all civilization, if they had found it first.
That is why we felt compelled to undertake the long and uncertain and costly labor of discovery and production.
We won the race of discovery against the Germans.
Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.
We shall continue to use it until we completely destroy Japan's power to make war. Only a Japanese surrender will stop us.
Dr. Kristen Burton
In the early morning hours of August 6, 1945, the American bomber Enola Gay took off from the island of Tinian and set its course for Japan. The crew of 12, under the command of pilot Colonel Paul Tibbets, were charged with carrying the 9,700 pound uranium-based bomb, called “Little Boy,” to its target, a target they had only learned about hours earlier.
After a nearly 7 hour journey, the Enola Gay reached the city of Hiroshima. Residents of the southern Japanese city had already been awakened by multiple air-raid sirens that morning, all of which turned out to be false alarms. The false alarms lured some into a false sense of security; others remained on edge.
When the final siren sounded that morning, Tibbets and his crew had already dropped the bomb, and in less than a minute, the bomb detonated, killing 80,000 people and injuring 35,000 more. Three days later, when an unconditional Japanese surrender still had not come, the United States dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki, killing approximately 40,000 people instantly and injuring 60,000 more.
Tens of thousands more would die from long-term effects of radiation from the blasts, and 75 years later, there is still debate over the use of atomic weaponry and its effectiveness as a deterrent to war. For his part, President Truman remained steadfast through the rest of his life that his decision to authorize the use of the bombs to end the war was the right decision. For many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, they feared what they had unleashed and what the use of nuclear weapons would mean for a postwar world.
Archival Audio - Truman Taking the Oath of Office
“I Harry S. Truman do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.”
Dr. Kristen Burton
You’re listening to “To the Best of My Ability” from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and this is episode 7, “A City Vanished.” I’m your host, Dr. Kristen Burton.
This week, the United States drops two atomic bombs on Japan in a final attempt to end years of total war.
Archival Audio - The US Drops an Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima
(Somber music begins to play)
The Enola Gay’s mission starts from Tinian in the Marianas. The crew has had their final briefing on weather, and air and sea rescue. Only yesterday have they been told the true power of the weapon they are to carry. The massive bomb has been loaded.
(Sounds of engines starting are heard over the music.)
At 2:45 in the morning, August 6, 1945, Colonel Tibbets takes the Enola Gay down the runway into the air, beginning the six and one half hour flight to Japan.
(Music halts and there are sounds of an airplane flying.)
Over Iwo Jima, they begin the slow climb to bombing altitude. At 8:15, a weather plane reports from Hiroshima that conditions are good -- 2/10th’s lower and middle, and 2/10th’s at 15,000 feet. As they approach the target area, the weapon is checked for the last time.
(Somber music fades back in.)
At 9:11, 31,000 feet over Hiroshima, the Enola Gay begins the bomb run. At 9:15, the bomb is dropped. The aircraft banks away at high speed. Just 50 seconds later, 15 miles from ground zero, the Enola Gay is rocked by the blast.
(Somber music plays for a brief moment then fades out.)
Dr. Kristen Burton
Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk was one of the 12 men on the Enola Gay the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Van Kirk, who served as the navigator of the aircraft, trained along with the rest of the crew for months before dropping the bomb. In the evening hours of August 5, they prepared for their flight, received their final briefing, and boarded the plane. Due to the weight of the bomb, they had trouble on their initial takeoff attempt, but they were soon in the air. Van Kirk recalled the moment of the bomb drop and the immediate aftermath.
Oral History - Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk
So we went in, and suddenly you felt the plane surge, because 9,800 pounds had left all of a sudden, and immediately Paul [Tibbets] switched off the autopilot and started to go into the turn to get away from it, 160 degrees to the right, steep as you can make it, and he pushed the throttles all forward, put the nose down to get speed to get away. And a lot of people ask does that maneuver have a name, and I said I don’t know that it does but I always call it “getting the hell away from the bomb,” and that sort of thing.
So we kept going in that direction out there, and 43 seconds until the bomb actually reached its altitude at which it exploded. Everybody in the airplane sitting there, they don’t have a watch, they’re counting “one thousand 1, one thousand 2,” and I think we had concluded that it was a dud because it seemed to -- 43 seconds seemed to be a long 43 seconds, let me put it that way. And suddenly there was a bright flash in the airplane from the bomb exploding, so we knew the bomb exploded. We kept going away from it and that sort of thing.
Very shortly thereafter, the first shockwave hit the airplane and later I found there was measured about 2 ½ to 3 G’s, that doesn’t seem like much to a fighter pilot but if you’re in a B-29 at 30,000 feet it seems like a lot. And the sound was worse than the shockwave because it sounded like a piece of sheet metal snapping you know, if you have a piece of sheet metal or something of that type. Somebody on the airplane called out “flack,” I don’t know who it was, and then NAME the tailgunner says “it wasn’t flack, it was a shockwave, and here comes another one.” And then a second one, a reflection shockwave hit us, less intensity than the first one. So after we were sure we weren’t gonna get any more shockwaves, we turned to take a look at what had happened. The first thing you saw was a large white cloud over the target, and this white cloud was well above our altitude already, I’d estimate it was up to maybe 45,000 already, and under the base of that cloud, the entire city was covered with thick black smoke, dust, anything that was kicked up by the blast.
Dr. Kristen Burton
“Little Boy” exploded with 15 kilotons of force, and caused near-instantaneous and incalculable destruction. The temperature of the fireball it produced measured hotter than the surface of the sun. Instantly, those who lived closest to the center of the blast were killed. Others were killed by falling buildings or trapped under the debris, and hundreds more tried to escape fires that were burning across the city by jumping into the river. Tens of thousands more would perish in the weeks that followed from radiation poisoning, burns and other wounds they suffered.
Meanwhile Truman, who left Potsdam days earlier and was on board the Augusta sailing home, was tense. Once the authorization had been given, he was not to receive updates until the mission was complete. The Man from Missouri took to prayer as he waited, and wrote in his diary that “military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children,” though he knew that civilian deaths were a certainty. It wasn’t until nearly 16 hours after the bomb dropped that Truman was handed a note informing him that the mission had been successfully completed and that everyone on the Enola Gay had survived. The note read:
“Hiroshima bombed visually with only one tenth cover at 052315A. There was no fighter opposition and no flak. Parsons reports 15 minutes after drop as follows: ‘Results clear cut and successful in all respects. Visible effects greater than in any test. Conditions normal in airplane following delivery.’”
Seated at a desk in a cabin aboard the ship, Truman read a prepared statement announcing the success of the mission to the world.
Archival Audio - President Truman Addresses the Nation from the Augusta
A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb has more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor; they have been repaid many-fold and the end is not yet. With this bomb we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces in a present form. These bombs are now in production and even more powerful arms are in development. It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.
The first from which the Sun draws this power has been used against those who brought war to the Far East. We are now prepared to destroy more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have in any city. We shall destroy their dogs, their factories and their communications. Let there be no mistake; we shall completely destroy Japan's power to make war. It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July the 26th was issued at Potsdam their leaders promptly rejected. That ultimatum: if they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the likes of which has never been seen on this earth.
Dr. Kristen Burton
Joining us this week to discuss the situation within the Japanese government and the aftermath of the bombs is historian and author of the recently released book “Tower of Skulls” Richard Frank.
Well, one thing that’s happening is what’s not happening. After the Hiroshima bomb, they tried to get a meeting of this inner cabinet called the Big Six, which is where the—the real decision-making of the government is going to be made. And they want that as early as the eighth. But the military members of that managed to fend off having the meeting until the morning of the 9th. The meeting of the morning of the 9th is not triggered by Soviet intervention. It is the meeting that was scheduled—that they tried to schedule earlier for Hiroshima.
So that’s—that’s what’s happening. And they also have a team going down to Hiroshima to investigate. But Emperor Hirohito, we now know, told the foreign minister, the afternoon of August 8, that the war must end now. And this is before Soviet intervention or even before Nagasaki. And we knew that from shortly after the war, when the foreign minister, who was a fellow—a fellow named Togo, reported that, that there didn’t seem to be any support for that beyond what Togo recollected.
Now, from the emperor’s standpoint, I think part of the problem is that he knows that even if he says, “I think we should surrender,” he’s not entirely confident the armed forces will comply. At the beginning of 1945, from this postwar statement he made, he talks about sharing the same view at imperial headquarters, which is that if they can’t change the military situation, they can’t achieve in diplomacy an end to the war that they would accept.
And what’s striking the first time I came to this was when the news that something terrible has happened in Hiroshima and they hear Mr. Truman has said it was an atomic bomb, they don’t have to stroke their chins and—and, you know, think about it for a while. They immediately respond as follows. The Imperial Army says, well, we’re not going to concede that the Americans have an atomic bomb until there’s an investigation.
And the Imperial Navy comes back and says, well, even if the Americans have an atomic bomb, they can’t have that many of them. They can’t be that powerful. And basically what they’re saying is, we’re only going to be impressed if the United States has an arsenal of powerful nuclear weapons. So had we offered to do a demonstration, their response would have been, “Very interesting, but we’d like to see you do four in a row to prove that you have an arsenal.”
Dr. Kristen Burton
The Big Six met all the while unaware that President Truman had already authorized the dropping of the second bomb. Plans were underway to bomb Kokura as soon as weather allowed, and had already been put into motion as the President addressed the nation from the Augusta.
Early in the morning on August 9, 1945, for the second time, an American bomber left Tinian. Carrying a plutonium based bomb called “Fat Man,” the second and only other complete atomic bomb that the United States had successfully produced, the B-29 Bockscar took off toward Kokura, which was home to a large Japanese arsenal. When cloud coverage proved too dense, they changed course and headed to their backup target, Nagasaki.
At 11:02am, the bomb detonated. The force of the explosion destroyed one third of the city almost instantly, and reportedly sent the Japanese government, who had also received word that the Soviet Union had officially declared war, into a panic.
And of course, in—in many respects, what we’re doing in August ’45 is a bluff. We only have the two bombs immediately available, and they’re dropped. Bang, bang. And one of the effects of the Nagasaki bomb is suddenly it makes the Japanese leadership think that we in fact do have an arsenal of atomic weapons. The War Minister Anami, who’s the second most powerful man in Japan after the emperor, who’d been adamant after Hiroshima, turns around and starts telling the other members of the government that the Americans have a hundred atomic bombs and the next target may be Tokyo, which is a heck of an argument for continuing the war at that point, isn’t it?
Dr. Kristen Burton
The next morning, on August 10, the Japanese government communicated to the Allies that they would be accepting the terms of the Potsdam declaration, and unconditional surrender was imminent.
For Truman, this was both a moment of triumph and a moment of reflection. The loss of civilian lives weighed heavily on him for the remainder of his life, though he never expressed any regret over the decision he made.
I think what you really have to understand is that Mr. Truman, at least the way I see him, in his mind, sort of compartmentalized his reaction at two levels.
The first level, the one that he spoke publicly about often, where he claimed he never lost any sleep and things like that—I think what he was thinking of at that point was, given the choices that I was presented in 1945, they really were not good choices. They were choices that ranged from the really terrible to the really horrific. And what I did was I chose what Secretary of War Stimson would later call the least abhorrent choice, when you understood all the possible ramifications of all the alternatives.
And I believe that he generally believed that right to the end and never doubted that if anyone else had been sitting in his shoes, faced with the same decisions, he or she also would have thought he’d made the correct decision. At the personal level, however, this really hits him—it hits him very hard right after Hiroshima. And he gets—he reads an intercept that we get where—a Japanese Navy intercept where they say that 100,000 human beings died at Hiroshima.
And in a cabinet meeting before some other officials shortly after, Truman specifically uses that figure: 100,000 dead, talks about all those kids. Well, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that he didn’t randomly pick that number of 100,000 out of thin air. That shows he was reading it or whatever here. So he understood that.
And later, he gives a lot of comments where he talks about how the bomb is not really a weapon of war and things like that. So at a very personal level, he felt a deep responsibility for the consequences of the choice. But he never doubted that overall, he had made the correct choice.
Dr. Kristen Burton
For some of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, the question of whether it was necessary to use the bombs was less clear, and many struggled for years with the role they played in their development. Most notably was J. Robert Oppenheimer, who famously remarked after the Trinity Test these words from Hindu scripture, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
While Oppenheimer had no regrets about developing the bombs, he was deeply concerned that the decision to use these weapons on Japan, and the second bombing on Nagasaki in particular, was not correct, and he didn’t believe Japan truly knew the extent of the damage these weapons could cause when the Potsdam Declaration was issued, instead hearing only “pious platitudes” from President Truman.
Oppenheimer and Truman’s relationship quickly deteriorated. In an October 1945 meeting, Oppenheimer told Truman that he felt he “had blood on his hands.” Incensed, Truman ended the meeting, and after Oppenheimer left, reportedly told his staff, "I don't want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again."
Years later, Truman was asked about Oppenheimer receiving the prestigious Fermi Award from the Department of Energy.
Archival Audio - Truman Discussing the Manhattan Project Scientists
Interviewer: Alright Mr. President, do you feel that it was right for Oppenheimer to have received a Fermi Award?
Truman: Yes. I think he earned it.
Interviewer: Was his work on the hydrogen bomb- that is, when he was offered the work on the hydrogen bomb he did not want to do it. Yet, you said to go ahead to work on the hydrogen bomb.
Truman: That's correct. Well, he was like all the scientists are. They discover these things and find out how terrible they are and then they don't want to take any blame for the consequences if there is blame. But that didn't make any difference. He didn't have to make the decision, I made it.
And there’s—there’s always this sort of wistful thing of putting the—the genie back in the bottle: if we just could go back and redo certain things, that it wouldn’t have—things would have not played out the way they did. And I think—I think in terms of what happened in 1945, that’s sort of wishful—wishful thinking after the Trinity test.
Dr. Kristen Burton
In our next episode, “Sign Surrender,” we’ll hear more from Richard Frank, as he takes listeners through the Japanese surrender, and the daunting task of rebuilding a devastated Asia.
From The National WWII Museum, I’m Dr. Kristen Burton. This episode was written by our executive producer Gemma R. Birnbaum. Media production manager Jeremy Burson did the sound mixing.
Archival audio is courtesy of the Department of Energy, CriticalPast, and the Screen Gems Collection at the Harry S. Truman Library. Oral history segments are from the digital collections of The National WWII Museum.
If you like this podcast, please leave us a review. Reviews are important to help others find the series. "To the Best of My Ability" is part of an ongoing series of programs commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the End of World War II made possible by The Nierenberg Family and Bank of America.