Through newsreel footage, archival photos, and interviews, this video segment adapted from American Experience traces the decision-making process that led President Harry Truman to ...
American Experience: "Truman"
This media asset was adapted from American Experience: "Truman".
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Adapted from American Experience: "Truman". Third party materials courtesy of Woodfin Camp, Corbis/Bettmann, Corbis/Hot Shots Cool Cuts, Getty Images/Archive Films, Grinberg, Harry S Truman Library, Los Alamos National Lab, National Archives, and Stock Montage.
When Harry Truman became president upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt, the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of World War II presented distinctly different pictures. Hitler's government was disintegrating, and Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, less than a month after Truman took office. In contrast, Japan appeared undeterred by the thousands of tons of bombs and napalm that had been dropped on its soil and that had claimed 100,000 Japanese lives. The ferocious resistance Japan's army had posed on the island of Okinawa, where 10,000 American and 100,000 Japanese soldiers died, reinforced the notion that Japan would never surrender.
A committee appointed by Truman soon after he took office had a solution to the impasse. It reported that a top-secret weapon, the atomic bomb, would be available shortly and should be used without any prior warning. The report offered no alternatives. While the president did agree in mid-June to plan for a possible U.S. invasion of Japan in the fall of 1945, his lack of experience in office, determination to minimize American casualties, and desire to demonstrate strength to the Soviet Union made him inclined to accept the study committee recommendation. This inclination was reinforced by a sense that aerial attacks by all sides in the war had made the bombing of civilian populations an acceptable practice, and that Japan's initial attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 justified any counterattack. On July 25, Truman learned that the bomb had been successfully tested and ordered military commanders to deploy the weapon at their discretion.
After a final diplomatic attempt to obtain Japan's unconditional surrender failed, the bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6. Truman was shown aerial photos of the devastation two days later, but was unaware that 80,000 Japanese had been killed and that tens of thousands more would die from ensuing radiation sickness. A second strike on August 9 destroyed the Japanese port city of Nagasaki and claimed 40,000 more lives. Japan surrendered on August 14.
Truman claimed to have had no second thoughts on his decision to drop the bombs, yet many have questioned whether less lethal alternatives were available. These critics included several scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, and who felt a test demonstration of its effects would have been sufficiently persuasive. Others have suggested that a clear warning to the Japanese, or an assurance that defeat would not entail replacement of their emperor, would have led to surrender. Ultimately, however, the secrecy under which the bomb had been developed, coupled with a determination to save American lives, kept such options from even being considered.
- Throughout the war, Americans had been told that they were fighting "evil." Do you think that this concept influenced the decision to use the bomb?
- Unlike the majority of U.S. Presidents, Harry Truman had actually seen combat. Do you think this experience had any influence on his decision to use the bomb?
- Did the secrecy under which the bomb had been developed limit Truman's ability to consider alternative approaches?
- How did the manner in which Japan fought the war play a role in Truman's decision to use the bomb?