Introduction

After Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945, the war continued in the Pacific, as did planning for the invasion of Japan. Allied military leaders believed invasion was the only way to force the unconditional surrender for which Allied policy called (see the Potsdam Proclamation). Intense bombing of Japan (on March 9-10, 1945, for example, bombs leveled nearly 16 square miles of Tokyo and killed 90,000 Japanese) had not moved Japan to surrender. Continued fighting in the Pacific (Iwo Jima, February-March, 1945; Okinawa, April-June 1945; and ongoing fighting in the Philippines) led to mounting American casualties. The experience of the invasion of Normandy June 4, 1944 also informed decision making about the use of the atomic bomb.

In May of 1945, Secretary of War Stimson set up a committee, the Interim Committee, to consider issues arising from the development of usable nuclear energy. The Interim Committee was chaired by Brigadier General Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the two who led the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Among other things, this committee considered whether and how the atomic bomb should be used. A sub-committee consisting of scientists involved in the bomb project reported on this question on June 16, 1945. The Interim Committee recommended to Stimson on June 21 “that the weapon be used against Japan at the earliest opportunity, that it be used without warning, and that it be used on a dual target, namely, a military installation or war plant surrounded by or adjacent to homes or other buildings most susceptible to damage.”

On June 18, 1945, President Truman met with his civilian and military advisers to consider the plan for the invasion of Japan. At the subsequent Potsdam Conference, Truman and Allied leaders warned Japan of the consequences of further resistance.

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing 80,000 people instantly. The American people learned about the new weapon from a White House press release. Three days later, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki that killed 35,000 people. Japan surrendered unconditionally on August 14. Devastating though these attacks were, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not the only factor that led the Japanese to surrender unconditionally. A blockade had fully isolated Japan from outside resources by the summer of 1945 and the Russians entered the war against Japan, August 9, 1945. The latter event was a factor considered on June 18.

Shortly after the first use of the bomb, Oppenheimer wrote to Secretary of War Stimson to express his growing concern, shared by many of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, about the military and political consequences of atomic weapons.


Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers, The Conference of Berlin (Potsdam Conference), 1945, Volume II, 1474–76. Available online from Digital Collections, University of Wisconsin–Madison Libraries. https://goo.gl/ND2XHC


We – the President of the United States, the President of the National Government of the Republic of China, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, representing the hundreds of millions of our countrymen, have conferred and agree that Japan shall be given an opportunity to end this war.

The prodigious land, sea and air forces of the United States, the British Empire and of China, many times reinforced by their armies and air fleets from the west, are poised to strike the final blows upon Japan. This military power is sustained and inspired by the determination of all the Allied Nations to prosecute the war against Japan until she ceases to resist.

The result of the futile and senseless German resistance to the might of the aroused free peoples of the world stands forth in awful clarity as an example to the people of Japan. The might that now converges on Japan is immeasurably greater than that which, when applied to the resisting Nazis, necessarily laid waste to the lands, the industry and the method of life of the whole German people. The full application of our military power, backed by our resolve, will mean the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.

The time has come for Japan to decide whether she will continue to be controlled by those self-willed militaristic advisers whose unintelligent calculations have brought the Empire of Japan to the threshold of annihilation, or whether she will follow the path of reason.

Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.

There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest, for we insist that a new order of peace, security and justice will be impossible until irresponsible militarism is driven from the world.

Until such a new order is established and until there is convincing proof that Japan’s war-making power is destroyed, points in Japanese territory to be designated by the Allies shall be occupied to secure the achievement of the basic objectives we are here setting forth.

The terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.1

The Japanese military forces, after being completely disarmed, shall be permitted to return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful and productive lives.

We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, but stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals, including those who have visited cruelties upon our prisoners. The Japanese Government shall remove all obstacles to the revival and strengthening of democratic tendencies among the Japanese people. Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights shall be established.

Japan shall be permitted to maintain such industries as will sustain her economy and permit the exaction of just reparations in kind, but not those which would enable her to re-arm for war. To this end, access to, as distinguished from control of, raw materials shall be permitted. Eventual Japanese participation in world trade relations shall be permitted.

The occupying forces of the Allies shall be withdrawn from Japan as soon as these objectives have been accomplished and there has been established in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people a peacefully inclined and responsible government.

We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.

Study Questions

A. When discussing bringing the war against Japan to a close, what factors did President Truman and his military and civilian advisers consider? Did their concerns differ from those of the committee of scientists who offered advice on when and how to use the bomb? How might these different considerations have affected the decision to use the bomb? Should the points made in Oppenheimer’s letter have led to the decision not to drop the bomb? Is the advice given in by report of the Interim Committee scientific advice? Why should anyone have listened to it?

B. Based on the documents concerning Progressive advocacy of eugenics and the documents on the atomic bomb, what is the proper relationship between science and politics? Does politics control science or does science control politics?

C. What do both the dropping of the atomic bomb and President Washington’s decision to call out the militia to end the Whiskey Rebellion tell us about the evolving understanding of executive power in the United States?

Footnotes

  1. In the 1943 Cairo Declaration, the United States, Britain, and China had pledged to eject Japanese forces from all conquered lands, including China, Korea, and Pacific Islands.