The Biggest Decision: Why We Had To Drop The Atomic Bomb


Neither MacArthur nor Nimitz ever communicated to Truman any change of mind about the need for invasion or expressed reservations about using the bombs. When first informed about their imminent use only days before Hiroshima, MacArthur responded with a lecture on the future of atomic warfare and even after Hiroshima strongly recommended that the invasion go forward. Nimitz, from whose jurisdiction the atomic strikes would be launched, was notified in early 1945. “This sounds fine,” he told the courier, “but this is only February. Can’t we get one sooner?” Nimitz later would join Air Force generals Carl D. Spaatz, Nathan Twining, and Curtis LeMay in recommending that a third bomb be dropped on Tokyo.

Only Dwight D. Eisenhower later claimed to have remonstrated against the use of the bomb. In his Crusade in Europe , published in 1948, he wrote that when Secretary Stimson informed him during the Potsdam Conference of plans to use the bomb, he replied that he hoped “we would never have to use such a thing against any enemy,” because he did not want the United States to be the first to use such a weapon. He added, “My views were merely personal and immediate reactions; they were not based on any analysis of the subject.”

Eisenhower’s recollections grew more colorful as the years went on. A later account of his meeting with Stimson had it taking place at Ike’s headquarters in Frankfurt on the very day news arrived of the successful atomic test in New Mexico. “We’d had a nice evening at headquarters in Germany,” he remembered. Then, after dinner, “Stimson got this cable saying that the bomb had been perfected and was ready to be dropped. The cable was in code . . . ‘the lamb is born’ or some damn thing like that.” In this version Eisenhower claimed to have protested vehemently that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” “Well,” Eisenhower concluded, “the old gentleman got furious.”

Myth holds that several of Truman’s top military advisers begged him not to use the bomb. In fact, there is no persuasive evidence that any of them did.

The best that can be said about Eisenhower’s memory is that it had become flawed by the passage of time. Stimson was in Potsdam and Elsenhower in Frankfurt on July 16, when word came of the successful test. Aside from a brief conversation at a flag-raising ceremony in Berlin on July 20, the only other time they met was at Ike’s headquarters on July 27. By then orders already had been sent to the Pacific to use the bombs if Japan had not yet surrendered. Notes made by one of Stimson’s aides indicate that there was a discussion of atomic bombs, but there is no mention of any protest on Eisenhower’s part. Even if there had been, two factors must be kept in mind. Eisenhower had commanded Allied forces in Europe, and his opinion on how close Japan was to surrender would have carried no special weight. More important, Stimson left for home immediately after the meeting and could not have personally conveyed Ike’s sentiments to the President, who did not return to Washington until after Hiroshima.

On July 8 the Combined Intelligence Committee submitted to the American and British Combined Chiefs of Staff a report entitled “Estimate of the Enemy Situation.” The committee predicted that as Japan’s position continued to deteriorate, it might “make a serious effort to use the USSR [then a neutral] as a mediator in ending the war.” Tokyo also would put out “intermittent peace feelers” to “weaken the determination of the United Nations to fight to the bitter end, or to create inter-allied dissension.” While the Japanese people would be willing to make large concessions to end the war, “For a surrender to be acceptable to the Japanese army, it would be necessary for the military leaders to believe that it would not entail discrediting warrior tradition and that it would permit the ultimate resurgence of a military Japan.”

Small wonder that American officials remained unimpressed when Japan proceeded to do exactly what the committee predicted. On July 12 Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo instructed Ambassador Naotaki Sato in Moscow to inform the Soviets that the emperor wished to send a personal envoy, Prince Fuminaro Konoye, in an attempt “to restore peace with all possible speed.” Although he realized Konoye could not reach Moscow be- fore the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Foreign Minister V. M. Molotov left to attend a Big Three meeting scheduled to begin in Potsdam on the fifteenth, Togo sought to have negotiations begin as soon as they returned.

American officials had long since been able to read Japanese diplomatic traffic through a process known as the MAGIC intercepts. Army intelligence (G-2) prepared for General Marshall its interpretation of Togo’s message the next day. The report listed several possible constructions, the most probable being that the Japanese “governing clique” was making a coordinated effort to “stave off defeat” through Soviet intervention and an “appeal to war weariness in the United States.” The report added that Undersecretary of State Joseph C. Grew, who had spent ten years in Japan as ambassador, “agrees with these conclusions.”