In the early morning hours of July 16, 1945, great anticipation and fear ran rampant at White Sands Missile Range near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, could hardly breathe. Years of secrecy, research, and tests were riding on this moment. "For the last few seconds, he stared directly ahead and when the announcer shouted Now!' and there came this tremendous burst of light followed abruptly there after by the deep growling of the explosion, his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief," recalled General L. R. Groves of Oppenheimer, in a memorandum for Secretary of War George Marshall. The explosion carrying more power than 20,000 tons of TNT and visible for more than 200 miles succeeded. The world's first atomic bomb had been detonated.
With the advent of the nuclear age, new dilemmas in the art of warfare arose. The war in Europe had concluded in May. The Pacific war would receive full attention from the United States War Department. As late as May 1945, the U.S. was engaged in heavy fighting with the Japanese at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In these most bloody conflicts, the United States had sustained more than 75,000 casualties. These victories insured the United States was within air striking distance of the Japanese mainland. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese to initiate United States entrance into the war, just four years before, was still fresh on the minds of many Americans. A feeling of vindication and a desire to end the war strengthened the resolve of the United States to quickly and decisively conclude it. President Harry Truman had many alternatives at his disposal for ending the war: invade the Japanese mainland, hold a demonstration of the destructive power of the atomic bomb for Japanese dignitaries, drop an atomic bomb on selected industrial Japanese cities, bomb and blockade the islands, wait for Soviet entry into the war on August 15, or mediate a compromised peace. Operation Olympia, a full scale landing of United States armed forces, was already planned for Kyushu on November 1, 1945 and a bomb and blockade plan had already been instituted over the Japanese mainland for several months.
The Japanese resolve to fight had been seriously hampered in the preceding months. Their losses at Iwo Jima and Okinawa had been staggering. Their navy had ceased to exist as an effective fighting force and the air corps had been decimated. American B-29's made bombing runs over military targets on the Japanese mainland an integral part of their air campaign. Japan's lack of air power hindered their ability to fight. The imprecision of bombing and the use of devastating city bombing in Europe eventually swayed United States Pacific theater military leaders to authorize bombing of Japanese mainland cities. Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe all were decimated by incendiary and other bombs. In all, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in these air strikes meant to deter the resolve of the Japanese people. Yet, Japanese resolve stayed strong and the idea of a bloody "house to house" invasion of the Japanese mainland would produce thousands more American and Allied casualties. The Allies in late July 1945 declared at Potsdam that the Japanese must unconditionally surrender.
After Japanese leaders flatly rejected the Potsdam Declaration, President Truman authorized use of the atomic bomb anytime after August 3, 1945. On the clear morning of August 6, the first atomic bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. Leveling over 60 percent of the city, 70,000 residents died instantaneously in a searing flash of heat. Three days later, on August 9, a second bomb, Fat Man, was dropped on Nagasaki. Over 20,000 people died instantly. In the successive weeks, thousands more Japanese died from the after effects of the radiation exposure of the blast.
Have students examine a primary source from a momentous presidential decision and examine it thoroughly.
1. Examine a primary source document
2. Interpret a historical decision
3. Put themselves in the position of the president
2. Continuity and change in the history of Missouri, the United States and the world
6. Relationships of the individual and groups to institutions and cultural traditions
7. The use of tools of social science inquiry (such as surveys, statistics, maps, documents)
KANSAS STANDARDS (High School-US History)
Benchmark 2: The student uses a working knowledge and understanding of individuals, groups, ideas, developments, and turning points in the era of the Great Depression through World War II in United States history (1930-1945).
8. (A) examines the entry of the United States into the nuclear age (e.g., Manhattan Project, Truman’s decision to use the atomic bombs, opposition to nuclear weapons).
Benchmark 5: The student engages in historical thinking skills.
1. (A) analyzes a theme in United States history to explain patterns of continuity and change over time.
2. (A) develops historical questions on a specific topic in United States history and analyzes the evidence in primary source documents to speculate on the answers.
Allen, Thomas B. and Norman Polmar. 1995. Code-Name Downfall: The Secret Plan to Invade Japan--and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Compton, Karl T. 1946. "If the Atomic Bomb had not Been Used." Atlantic Monthly. December.
Ferrell, Robert H. 1994. Harry S. Truman--A Life. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.
Truman, Harry S. 1955. Memoirs: Years of Decision. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Walker, J. Samuel. 1997. Prompt & Utter Destruction: Truman and the use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Read the press release from President Truman on August 6, 1945 following the dropping of the atomic bomb noting important details about its production and the rhetoric used. http://www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/research-files/press-release-white-house
incendiary bomb The incendiary bomb was a mixture of thermite and oxidizing agents employed by the Allies and Axis powers after 1943. Sometimes incorporating napalm, these bombs were responsible for burning over 41.5 square miles of Tokyo by the United States in March 1945.
Unconditional surrender is a term used by victors in war to describe the type of settlement they wish to extoll from the vanquished. The settlement demands that the loser make no demands during surrender proceedings. Unconditional surrender was first enunciated by the Allies during World War II at a summit meeting at Casablanca in January 1943.
Providence divine guidance or care
the final propositions, conditions, or terms offered by either of the parties during a diplomatic negotiation
Distribute copies of the document to each student to read. Ask students to answer the following questions:
- Who wrote this document?
- What is the purpose of this document?
- What date was this document issued?
- Why is the name of the city left out?
- Why does the atomic bomb’s power have to be explained?
- Look at the last paragraph of the second page of the press release. What were Truman’s plans for ending the war? Did he accomplish those goals in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why or why not?
- On page three, Truman advocates the use of atomic power for world peace. How does he propose to fulfill this goal?
- What reasons does President Truman use to justify dropping the bomb?
- Armed with all of the knowledge that President Truman and his advisors had accumulated, how would you have ended the war in the Pacific?
- Make a table listing the advantages and disadvantages that the atomic bomb presented to modern warfare? Why did the fire bombing of Tokyo just weeks earlier that killed over 120,000 civilians not receive the same moral criticism that the atomic bomb received? One newspaper critic stated after dropping the bomb, "Yesterday we clinched victory in the Pacific, but we sowed the whirlwind." What did he mean by this? Argue for or against this statement.
- Five Reasons for Dropping the Atomic Bomb...According to J. Samuel Walker in his book, Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of the Atomic Bomb Against Japan, states that Truman justified dropping the bomb with five reasons:
- it would end the war successfully at the earliest possible moment
- it justified the effort and expense of building the atomic bombs
- it offered hope of achieving diplomatic gains in the growing rivalry with the Soviet Union
- there were a lack of incentives not to use the weapons
- because of America’s hatred of the Japanese and a desire for vengeance
Divide the class into five groups, giving each group one of the reasons. Ask them to explain them in their own words. Do they agree or disagree with President Truman’s thinking? Why or why not? Can they come up with more reasons to justify dropping the bomb? What reasons are there to not drop the bomb? Be sure they use facts and figures to support their answers.
- Harry Truman in 1945 "regarded the [atomic] bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt it should be used." In a 1958 handwritten document on the rise of the atomic age, he later stated, "Now we are faced with total destruction. The old heckler prophets presented the idea of the destruction of the world by fire after their presentation of a destruction by water. Well that destruction is at hand unless the great leaders of the world prevent it." Do you think Truman’s views on the use of atomic technology changed? Would Truman have dropped the atomic bomb in 1958, granted the situation warranted decisive action? Why or why not?
- President Eisenhower, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, on December 8, 1953, stated, "Even a vast superiority in numbers of weapons, and a consequent capability of devastating material retaliation, is no preventive, of itself, against the fearful material damage and toll of human lives that would be inflicted by surprise aggression." Analyze this statement. What does it mean? Chart the line of events and personalities of atomic military buildup from President Truman to the present. What trends do you see? What do you think the future of atomic weaponry is?
- Write a press release as President of the United States for a current event. Be sure to give important details of the event keeping in mind your audience is the entire United States. Share your press release with your class.
- In Karl Compton’s "If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used," he states, "The atomic bomb introduced a dramatic new element into the situation, which strengthened the hands of those [Japanese government officials] who sought peace and provided face-saving argument for thos