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This historical investigation will examine the Manhattan Project and the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Why did the United States pursue the Manhattan Project, and why did the United States decide to drop the atomic bombs on Japan? This investigation is conducted using qualitative analysis of articles and books about the development of the atomic bombs and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Articles were chosen from media and scholarly sources, including the New York Times and the Journal of American History. In addition, a recent book published about the bombing of Japan was chosen for its relevance to the investigation's central questions. These sources were all chosen because they provide impartial evidence and facts and present numerous sides of the issues.
Summary of Evidence
Beginning in 1945, and completed during the same year, The Manhattan Project was basically defined by the development of the most dangerous bombs known thus far to the world: nuclear weapons that could destroy more land and more citizens than the world had ever considered possible. The Project was rushed, mainly because of Truman's desire to avoid an invasion of Japan, which would have resulted in a catastrophic number of casualties. As a result, Truman chose to stop the war altogether through the use of the largest bomb ever used in warfare, also referred to as the A-bomb (Gewen, 2008). But prior to the building of the atomic bomb, Japan was on the verge of collapse anyhow. The Germans knew they were defeated, but continued to fight to the bitter end. According to most historians, the only thing America had left to do was drop the bomb on Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki, in order to absolutely ensure the surrender of Japan, and the end of World War II (Gewen, 2008).
Opinions about whether or not America should have dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima vary. Arguments for and against the bombing continue even today. The bombing of Hiroshima has been referred to as "America's Auschwitz," by many, because of the mass genocide in Hiroshima that happened when the bomb was dropped (Gewen, 2008). New York Times writer Gewen points out how American mainstream society was absolutely ecstatic over the development of a bomb that could instantly destroy the enemy. Like Truman, America desperately wanted to see the war come to an end, and the new weapon meant a faster victory for America. It also meant "the likely scrapping of a planned invasion of Japan with its incalculable loss of lives" (Hiroshima, 1995, para. 7).
Prior to the bombing, the number of United States soldier's casualties was already astoundingly high. In Okinawa alone, by the summer of 1945, United States casualties were huge. There were 12,500 soldiers dead, and another 36,600 wounded (Hiroshima, 1995). As a result, Truman's strategy to end the war with newly created nuclear weapons was, in general, embraced by the American public. Government officials "wholeheartedly" agreed with the decision as well (Hiroshima, 1995). For example, Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, and Truman's new Secretary of State, James Byrnes, agreed that the new nuclear weapon would be very useful in relations with Moscow after the war ended, but they disagreed on whether or not changes needed to be made to America's unconditional surrender policy in order to allow for the possibility of peace between the two countries (Hiroshima, 1995). Thus, the rush to create the A-bomb began.
Evaluation of Sources
Hamby's article in the Journal of American History is essential for this investigation because it provides a varied account of the numerous sides in historical scholarship about the dropping of the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Hamby's article notes that there are scholars who believe that the United States could have ended the war with Japan without a land invasion of the homeland and without dropping the bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In other words, hundreds of thousands of civilians who died from the nuclear blasts could have been spared if the U.S. pursued diplomacy with the Japanese leadership. However, Hamby also documents the evidence in the historical scholarship that contradicts this premise. There is strong evidence, Hamby notes, that the Japanese leadership never would have surrendered, and thus an invasion of the Japanese homeland would have been required, killing hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Max Hastings' book, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945, claims that "the myth that the Japanese were ready to surrender anyway has been so comprehensively discredited by modern research that it is astonishing some writers continue to give it credence" (Hastings, 2009, p. xix). However, Hastings does not believe this justified the use of the atomic bombs against civilian populations. Rather, he simply states that the Japanese military leadership would never surrender without an extraordinary military defeat, or the demonstration of the atomic bombs. Hastings thus suggests that the United States could have tested the bombs on military targets rather than civilian targets.
Yet the most interesting premise of Hastings' book is the fact that the American people desired retribution against the Japanese. The U.S. and the Allied powers had already killed nearly 1 million German and Japanese civilians through air bombings, so the use of the atomic bombs was not considered barbaric but rather the equivalent of firebombing major cities with the same results as an atomic blast. This sheds light on the mentalities in the United States about the targeting of civilians during World War II. It was accepted as necessary retribution.
One of the questions that plague many historians are whether or not Japan would have surrendered even if they had not been bombed (Hiroshima, 1995). The question has initiated many heated debates among scholars. For instance, author and historian, Gar Alperovitz has studied the attack on Japan and the affect it had on post-war Japan extensively, and wholly disagrees with the decision. His latest project, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth, in which Alperovitz argues against the atomic bomb, has drawn wide attention (Hamby, 1997).
Alperovitz argues that the atomic bomb was unnecessary to end World War II for many reasons. First, his thesis espouses that Japan was ready to surrender at the time the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and that the motives behind the bombing were therefore dishonest and self-serving (Hamby, 1997). He espouses that Japan would have likely surrendered sooner, if only the United States had enacted a modified surrender policy that ensured the continued Japanese Emperor's reign on the throne (Hamby, 1997).
In addition, Alperovitz points out that when the USSR entered the picture and allied with the United States in August of 1945, Japan would have more than likely surrendered shortly thereafter (Hamby, 1997). Alperovitz criticizes the failure of the government to implement a new version of America's surrender policy, and the lack of public support for the modification in general. The decision, he states, was too rushed; this attitude simply kept the war going, when it could have been concluded far earlier than the use of the atomic bomb was deemed necessary (Hamby, 1997).
In fact, Alperovitz espouses that the real reason Truman chose to approve the two bombings was largely done in order to show the Soviet Union how powerful America had become (Hamby, 1997). Mostly, America was concerned about possible interests the USSR had in Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia (Hamby, 1997). The monopoly of other countries by the USSR frightened the United States.
More recently, writer Max Hastings has suggested that the bombing on Japan was a necessary action if the war was to stop, and limit the number of US casualties. This was, in part, due to the strong and powerful Japanese defenses that were often intimidating to American soldiers. In return, US soldiers found it necessary to bomb "large areas of the city," despite being told to restrain themselves from massive firepower (Hastings, 2009, p. 137). The difference in cultures between the Filipinos and Americans was ignored.
Hastings claims that America at times considered avoiding civilian bombing out of respect for "humanity and their moral standing" with the Far East (Hastings, 2009, p. 137). Much to the chagrin of President MacArthur's "subordinates," and as proof of America's desire to show their respect for humanity, MacArthur refused to employ air bombings over Manila (Hastings, 2009, p. 137). It was only when the United States suffered 235 casualties in a single day that McArthur changed his strategy, allowing the troops to "really go to town" (Hastings, 2009, p. 137). In other words, according to Hastings argument, the United States had tried almost everything to establish some sort of peace with Japan, even if it was within the confines of war. As such, it was the Japanese who propagated the war, not America; therefore, America was forced to go to the extreme by using nuclear weapons. This example shows how retribution was firmly entrenched in the American mentality toward the Japanese, who started World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Americans cared more about ending the war without another American soldier's death, not about deaths of Japanese civilians.