The extensive hopes and expectations for the bomb

Principal author:
John L. Clark


A look at two critical histories of the decision to use atomic bombs towards the end of World War II reveals a different picture than what had been asserted by the official and deliberate oversimplification and distortion after the bombs were used.

In addition to its terrifying and grievous protocols that manifested as the Holocaust, Germany inflicted tens of millions of deaths upon the Soviet Union—at the time an ally of the United States and Great Britain—during its World War II invasion. Thus did Germany unambiguously declare its full commitment to command the continent, and Stalin received the message with agonizing clarity. Yet even in the face of such overwhelming suffering, the metaphorical clouds from the first military manifestations of nuclear power over Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue to cast a shadow over our world today. The bombs threatened a new ease with which the scale of aggression experienced during the war could be inflicted in the future, and the way in which their costly message was delivered remains quite revealing. The light of their message is polarized, for example, by the Japanese attempts to negotiate their own surrender weeks and months prior to Hiroshima. These various acts of war were both symbols as well as horrible discrete events, and because of their ongoing symbolic power about the potential for dealing death and destruction, nuclear weapons have rightly been the focus of intense scrutiny since that power was realized. This review continues that scrutiny by describing two books that have examined the considerations that led to using those bombs against Japan in August of 1945.

The books provide an interesting complement to one another. In Hiroshima, Ronald Takaki provides a brief survey of several different viewpoints immediately surrounding the decision to drop the first atomic bomb. In this way, he provides a basic—though powerful—outline about the nature of the decision. With A World Destroyed, Martin J. Sherwin fills in, and thus reinforces, part of this framework by providing a deep look at the high level decision-making surrounding the bomb from its conception in the late 1930s to its use at the end of World War II. Takaki, however, notes certain important details that Sherwin elides from his main narrative, which highlights the continuing need for historical refinement.

Takaki provides a critical review of key assumptions surrounding the decision to drop the atomic bombs. One of the still pervasive defenses of the decision was its necessity to end the war and avoid unnecessary American deaths, so Hiroshima opens with a dissection of the reality of the military situation leading up to the end of the war. From there, Takaki reviews the effect of the mistrust between the United States and the Soviet Union on US nuclear weapons policy, particularly given the potential for Soviet power in northern Asia. The book examines the cultural situation in the United States that helped enable wartime policies, including the nature of racism against Asians and particularly against the Japanese. It also looks at Truman, and considers how his life shaped his attitudes and thus his policies. Finally, the book reflects on how various decision makers involved in the deployment of nuclear weapons attempted to understand what they and their country had done. In reviewing these perspectives, Hiroshima is a response to the trends in understanding this decision in the fifty years since it was made.

Sherwin's account provides a revealing look at the factors that held the attention of leaders associated with the atomic bomb in the United States while they were directing its development and considering its use. As it started as a research project, Sherwin begins by considering the impact of scientists on the fear and hope that bred and nourished the Manhattan Project. Scientific concerns were rapidly dominated by military control, and Sherwin describes Franklin Roosevelt's evolving understanding of the impending new weapon. Roosevelt had to consider how to manage cooperation with Britain; whether to cooperate with another ally of the United States, the Soviet Union; and how much to involve his close advisers. When Roosevelt died, Truman was overwhelmed with responsibility; his advisers, largely inherited from Roosevelt, guided him towards their vision of using atomic weapons to ensure a stable and peaceful postwar world.

Sherwin has augmented his book over time. Although the main presentation has not been changed, he has provided new insights in sections added to the beginning of the book as new editions have been released. Sherwin originally published A World Destroyed in 1973, but the Preface to the Third Edition (from 2003) and the Introduction to the 1987 Edition add extremely valuable depth to the overall book. These sections respond to some of the same historiographical problems that Takaki addresses with Hiroshima. It is unfortunate, however, that an effort has not been made to expand upon Sherwin's detailed history with these new insights in view.

Both books, particularly considering the additions to A World Destroyed, are explicitly concerned with how the period surrounding the development and use of the atomic bombs has been perceived in the years and decades following the end of the war. For example, they both reflect meaningfully on the controversy aroused by the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian in 1994–1995. A useful starting point for examining the moral understanding of the history of the bomb is the powerful article that Henry Stimson, Secretary of War under both Roosevelt and Truman, wrote for Harper's magazine in 1947; again, both Sherwin and Takaki note this article as a turning point in the national understanding of “the decision to use the bomb”.


Explaining the steps in the decision strictly in the context of the Pacific War and the objective of “avoiding the enormous losses of human life which otherwise confronted us,” he left no room for the suggestion that considerations beyond the war could have been factors, or that in future similar circumstances the government would not be compelled to take similar actions.

 --[She1973, pxxvii–xxviii]
Stimson's article was written with the explicit intention of producing public support for potential future use of nuclear weapons, in order to ensure that they retained their leverage over international negotiations. This demonstrates the power of understanding history and helps to motivate these books, and others.

A key element of this overriding emphasis on the heroic justification for dropping the bomb was the scale of the war effort that would have otherwise been required. In his article, Stimson indicated that he “was informed that such operations might be expected to cost over a million casualties, to American forces alone”. Later, Truman and Churchill would strongly reinforce this impression by lending these assertions the weight of their authority and by specifically emphasizing the potential death toll.


The primary argument for the “necessity” of using the atomic bomb was saving American lives. President Truman wrote in his memoirs that half a million U.S. soldiers would have been killed had the planned invasions been launched. Winston Churchill claimed that the figure was closer to a million. Could any responsible Commander-in-Chief send so many young men to die on foreign shores when an alternative like the atomic bomb was readily at hand?

 --[She1973, pxxviii]
Both authors indicate, however, that these claims were misrepresentations of the expected military outcome at the time. The original narrative of A World Destroyed does not incorporate an analysis of the military situation in the Pacific theater in 1945, but in the later editions Sherwin does recognize that “recently discovered estimates of invasion casualties dramatically contradict the figures released by Truman, Churchill, and Stimson”. [She1973, pxxviii] “For example, on June 15, 1945, the Joint War Plans Committee (JWPC) estimated that about 40,000 Americans would be killed and 150,000 wounded if both southern Kyushu and the Tokyo plain had to be invaded (on November 1, 1945, and March 1, 1946, respectively).” [She1973, pxxx] Generals MacArthur and Marshall provided Truman with similar estimates around the same time. Sherwin notes that these estimates were on the same order as the losses “[d]uring the first 30 days of the Normandy invasion”. [She1973, pxxx]

Clearly, the newer preface and introduction to A World Destroyed provide a powerful, if immediate, moral analysis of the decision to use the bombs. The original body of the book provides detailed, if incomplete, background that leads up to that decision. Oppressed by swelling Nazism and Fascism, many European scientists fled to the United States. Fearful that Germany might turn recently discovered nuclear fission into a powerful weapon, and hopeful that in the hands of the United States such a weapon could be used to force the world into a lasting peace, these scientists proposed what would become the Manhattan Project to President Roosevelt. “In this atmosphere it was natural that many scientists came to believe that they themselves, rather than the military, bore the ultimate responsibility for victory and the security of the nation.” [She1973, p48] As the project progressed, several high-profile scientists in the project advocated sharing knowledge of the bomb with the Soviet Union, but national interests overtook these ideals early in the life of the project.

One of the first questions that Roosevelt had to face was whether to continue coordinating development efforts with the British. Some advisers, such as Section-1 (the Manhattan Project) adviser and scientist James Conant, advocated a domestic monopoly over the bomb in order to concentrate the expected economic benefits. This was the “view—which the other members of the Top Policy Group soon came to share—that the continuation of an equal partnership would be inimical to American postwar commercial interests”. [She1973, p72] In the end, though, Roosevelt directly negotiated a deal with Churchill so as to bind American and UK interests. “If Churchill wanted the bomb to bolster Britain's otherwise weak military position, Roosevelt wanted Churchill to have it as a hedge against the revival of isolationism within the United States. To the day of his death the President was never confident that his long battle against the isolationists had been won.” [She1973, p91] Roosevelt could, and did, use the bomb, even long before it was finished, to push the United States firmly into a position of power on the international stage.

In this respect, as in others, Roosevelt considered the way in which the bomb could be used to manipulate international partners and rivals. “Even during the early stages of the war, it is clear the policies governing the development of the atomic bomb were being formulated with an eye toward potential postwar implications.” [She1973, p63] This would clearly apply to the relationship between the United States and the Soviets; high-level US policy was deeply distrustful of the Soviet Union, particularly when it ossified its position in Eastern Europe after Germany was defeated. In addition, many people associated with the project wanted to have the bomb available in order to demonstrate United States superiority. “Even before Truman took office, the race for the bomb had already changed from a race against German scientists to a race against the war itself.” [She1973, p145]

When Truman did take office, he was guided by many advisers, who had once served under Roosevelt, to see the Soviet Union as a threat. “[Truman] accepted without question the hostile interpretation of Soviet behavior presented by his advisers.” [She1973, p152] In addition, they saw the bomb as a way to suppress Soviet aggression. “Believing that the bomb should be used if it was ready before the Japanese surrendered, Truman, Stimson, and Byrnes reasoned that such a clear demonstration of its extraordinary power would induce the Soviets to exchange territorial objectives for the neutralization of this devastating weapon.” [She1973, p194] Even further, these leaders believed that the only way this approach would work would be if the weapon was actually demonstrated. “[Stimson] could not consider an untried weapon an effective diplomatic bargaining counter; on the contrary, its diplomatic value was related to, if not primarily dependent upon, its demonstrated worth as a military force.” [She1973, p197] Indeed, Truman shifted the date of the Potsdam Conference with Stalin to July 15, 1945 in order to have the “master card” of the atomic bomb in hand. The successful test on July 16 at Alamogordo, New Mexico (the Trinity test) greatly boosted Truman's confidence at the meeting. “Fortified” by the exciting news of the bomb, the president “stood up to the Russians in a most emphatic and decisive manner.” [Tak1995, p114]

Sherwin continues on to recount how this paradigm drove the war to its conclusion, although he fails to consider key aspects of both the US and the Soviet military situations. For example, it's not clear how Truman incorporated the military assessment earlier in the summer or the military opposition to the use of the atomic bomb to end the war, such as Eisenhower's discussion with him during the Potsdam Conference, into his decision making process. Sherwin's narrative also does not thoroughly examine how the Truman administration responded to the impending Soviet entry into the Pacific war, as agreed at the Yalta Conference. Takaki emphasizes the timing of the Soviet war effort against Japan, given the Yalta agreement.


On August 8, Russia declared war on Japan. Russia was exactly on schedule: at Yalta, Stalin had agreed that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan three months after the end of the conflict in Europe. The Red Army immediately launched a massive attack against Japanese troops in Manchuria; this military action put fierce pressure on Japan to surrender.

 --[Tak1995, p47]
Sherwin does highlight some of these facts in the separate sections that introduce his later versions, but he does not incorporate them into his deeper—and otherwise quite valuable—discussion of US policy development leading up to the end of the war.

Takaki lays out even more facts about the nature of the military situation at the time. It is striking that General MacArthur, “supreme commander of Allied forces in the Pacific, was not even consulted about the use of the bomb. When he found out about the decision for the atomic attack, he thought it was “completely unnecessary from a military point of view”. [Tak1995, p30] In addition, General Eisenhower and General Leahy actively argued that using the bomb was unnecessary.


Thus, three very important and highly respected military leaders — Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Leahy — did not think the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was a military necessity. Their views were confirmed shortly after the war. In a 1946 report, the U.S. Bombing Survey concluded that “certainly prior to 31 December 1945 and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945 [the date of the planned Kyushu invasion], Japan would have surrendered even if the bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”

 --[Tak1995, p32]
Japan had been working to negotiate its surrender with the Soviet Union at least as early as the Potsdam Conference; the only real obstacle to the Allied policy of unconditional surrender was the Japanese desire to maintain their emperor, and even after the United States dropped the bombs, the Japanese surrender terms preserved the position of the emperor.

As seen when considering the military situation, the United States faced a number of alternative paths to end the war with Japan. Since the invasion was not planned until several months after the atomic weapons were actually deployed, the United States could have waited to see if the bombs would continue to be needed to end the war, possibly also applying additional pressure with a blockade. In addition, the Soviet Union was actively redeploying into the Asian theater, as they had agreed earlier in the year, and their military action was also likely to contribute to a Japanese surrender. “The choice in the summer of 1945 was not between a conventional invasion or a nuclear war. It was a choice between various forms of diplomacy and warfare.” [She1973, pxxxii] As we have seen demonstrated by both Sherwin and Takaki, however, powerful political and military interests later pushed the public to believe that the choice had been between artificially restricted and exaggerated options. “As reports, images, and tales of death, dying, and suffering from nuclear warfare filtered into the American press, the alternatives to the invasion were filtered out.” [She1973, pxxxi–xxxii]

True, the bomb hastened the end of the war, but a picture emerges that the way in which that war ended was of extreme importance to the leaders of the United States. As a result, the moral weight of the decision to drop the bomb has to be considered as a part of the larger moral framework of the prosecution of the war. War, itself, is used as a tool for manipulating the international situation, and from that perspective it is unsurprising that a new, powerful weapon would be used for the same end, only in a proportionally more dramatic way.


Martin J. Sherwin. A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies. Stanford University Press, 1973, 1975, 1987, 2003.

Ronald Takaki. Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb. Little, Brown and Company, 1995.

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