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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Countdown to Hiroshima, July 25, 1945: Truman Tells Stalin About the Bomb

Each summer I count down the days to the atomic bombing of Japan (August 6 and August 9, 1945),  marking events from the same day in 1945.  I've written  three books on the subject:  Hiroshima in America (with Robert Jay Lifton),  Atomic Cover-Up (on the decades-long suppression of shocking film shot in the atomic cities by the U.S. military) and Hollywood Bomb  (the wild story of how an MGM 1947 drama was censored by the military and Truman himself).

July 25:  Still at Potsdam, Truman wrote in his diary this day the following.  Did he know that the vast majority of citizens then living in the target cities were women and children--or was he lying to himself and history?   "We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.  Anyway we ‘think’ we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexico desert was startling - to put it mildly. ...The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles and more.

"This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.

"He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful."   Note:  "Military" made up only about 10% of the casualties in Hiroshima, and 1% at most in Nagasaki (including American POWs.).

July 24:   Truman at Potsdam discloses the existence of the atomic bomb to Stalin (who had possibly already been informed about it by his spies).  In his memoirs, a decade later, Truman would describe it briefly this way:  "On July 24 I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force. The Russian Premier showed no special interest. All he said was he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make 'good use of it against the Japanese.'" American officials present would assert that Stalin failed to grasp the import of the new weapon in future world affairs.  But a Soviet official with the Stalin party later claimed that Stalin immediately ordered his scientists to speed up work on their own weapon.  See views of Churchill and others who witnessed the telling.

Gen. Groves drafts the directive authorizing the use of the atomic bombs as soon as bomb availability and weather permit. It lists the following targets in order of priority: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki. This directive constitutes final authorization for atomic attack--no further orders are issued.  Indeed, there would never be a separate order, even by Truman, to use the second bomb against Japan--it just rolled off, as if from atomic assembly line. 

July 23, 1945:  More decoded cables and reports suggest Japanese might very well surrender soon if "unconditional surrender" amended to allow them to retain their Emperor as symbolic leader.  U.S. will rule that out in its upcoming Potsdam Declaration, but then allow it, after using the bomb.

Truman had come to Potsdam mainly to get the Russians to keep their promise of entering war against Japan in early August--and Truman believed that would mean "fini Japs."  But, after Trinity, Stimson writes in diary today, that he and Gen. George Marshall beleive "now with our new weapon we would not need the assistance of the Russians to conquer Japan."  So he again presses for info on earliest possible date for use of bomb. 

Out in the Pacific, the first bomb unit, without explosives, dropped in a test at Tinian.  Meanwhile, 600 bombers get ready to bomb the hell out of Osaka and Nagoya without conventional weapons.

July 22, 1945:  Still at Potsdam, Stimson meets with Churchill, who says that he was baffled by Truman's sudden change in getting tough (see below), almost bullying, with Stalin but after he learned of successful first A-bomb test he understood and endorsed it.   Everyone also cheered by "accelerated" timetable for use of bomb against cities--with first weapon ready about August 6, and the second by August 24th.  Stimson in diaries notes that two top figures endorse his striking of Kyoto off target list.

The U.S. learns through its "Magic" intercepts that Japan is sending a special emissary to the Soviet Union to try to get them to broker a peace with the U.S. as soon as possible (they don't know the Russians are getting ready to declare war on them in two weeks).  

July 21,  1945:  Stimson in his diary recounts visit with Truman at Potsdam after they've both read Gen. Groves account of the successful Trinity test.  He finds Truman tremendously "pepped up" by it with "new confidence."  As I voted below, this "Trinity power surge" helped push Truman to use the new weapon as soon as possible without further reflection,  with the Russians due to enter the war around August 7.  Truman has not yet told Stalin about existence of the bomb.

Note: Groves' lengthy memo generally pooh-poohed radiation effects on nearby populations but did include this:  "Radioactive material in small quantities was located as much as 120 miles away. The measurements are being continued in order to have adequate data with which to protect the Government's interests in case of future claims. For a few hours I was none too comfortable with the situation."

July 20, 1945:  On this date (might have been one day later), Secretary of War Stimson met several top U.S. generals in Germany.   Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower would years later in Newsweek write:   "Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. …the Secretary, upon giving me the news of the successful bomb test in New Mexico, and of the plan for using it, asked for my reaction, apparently expecting a vigorous assent.   During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face’. The Secretary was deeply perturbed by my attitude."

Bombing crews start practicing flights over targets in Japan.

July 19, 1945:  Gen. Leslie Groves' dramatic report on the Trinity test lands on Secretary of War Henry Stimson's desk.  Residents of New Mexico and Las Vegas, who witnessed a flash in the desert (some received radiation doses) still in the dark.

The Interim Committee has settled on a target list (in order):  Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki.  Top priority was they must be among the few large Japanese cities not already devastated by bombardments--so the true effects of the new bomb can be observed.   That's also why the bomb will be dropped over the very center of the cities, which will also maximize civilian casualties.  Hiroshima has the added "benefit" or being surrounding by hills on three sides, providing a "focusing effect" which will bounce the blast back on the city, killing even more.  Kyoto, on the original target list, was dropped after an appeal by Stimson, who loved the historic and beautiful city. 

July 18, 1945:   Truman has met with Stalin at Potsdam and mentions Stalin has some "dynamite" but Truman also has "dynamite" which he's not revealing yet--i.e., the A-bomb. See below for how the Trinity test gave Truman a "power surge."

But in his diary he also scribbled one of his most revealing, and most-discussed, pre-bombing comments.  After noting that Stalin has affirmed that he would be declaring war on Japan in early August, as planned, Truman writes: "Fini Japs when that comes about."  This suggests that Truman knew that the much-dreaded, by Japan, Soviet entry into the war would soon provoke a Japanese surrender--with no need for the atomic bomb.  So some historians have charged that this only heightened Truman's determination to use the bomb, and as soon as possible, to keep the Soviets from gaining much territory--and also to show that he huge amount of money spent on the new weapon had been necessary.

In a later diary entry that day, Truman declares that he now believed that Japan "will fold" even before Russia declares war.  Stalin had showed him a telegram from Japan's foreign secretary "asking for peace."  He then states that he was "sure" Japan would surrender after use of the bomb--if they haven't already. 

Earlier, Truman had toured Berlin and in his diary remarks on the utter destruction, effect on civilians, although this doesn't make him pause to consider what would soon happen to two large Japanese cities.  

See my new piece at The Nation on my part in 1995 protest of exhibit featuring the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian.

July 17, 1945:  Secretary of War Stimson writes in his diary that he has carried the secret message of the successful test to President Truman, at Potsdam, who is "delighted" with it.  Now Truman will feel he can really be tough with Stalin--what Robert Lifton and I in our book call "the Trinity power surge"--and no longer desires Russia's entry into the war against Japan, set for early August.  Eyewitness accounts of the test by top scientists  here.

Anyone who thinks the U.S. would be surprised by the force of the coming blast over Hiroshima--a city of 300,000 overhwelmingly populated by women and children--and its radiation dangers, might consider this immediate official assessment, including this:  "Partially eviscerated dead wild jack rabbits were found more than 800 yards from zero, presumably killed by the blast. A farm house 3 miles away had doors torn loose and suffered other extensive damage."

July 16, 1945:  The Nuclear Age began this morning, with the Trinity test of the first weapons in the New Mexico desert--and already amid secrecy, cover-ups and radiation dangers (including a drifting radioactive cloud).  Oppenheimer speaks his famous words, "I am become death/Destroyer of Worlds."   See my full piece at The Nation

July 15, 1945:  The first bomb is readied for the first top-secret test at Trinity--just a day off.   Few plans to warn nearby residents about drifting radioactive cloud. Truman, heading for Potsdam, awaits results, which will help dictate how tough he is vs. the Russians.  Meanwhile, Oak Ridge scientists sign Leo Szilard petition calling on Truman to re-consider any use of the bomb (see below).   They change the terms a bit, however, to:   "We respectfully petition that the use of atomic bombs, particularly against cities, be sanctioned by you as the Chief Executive only under the following conditions:  1. Opportunity has been given to the Japanese to surrender on terms ensuring them the possibility of peaceful development in their homeland.  2. Convincing warnings have been given that a refusal to surrender will be followed by the use of a new weapon.  3. Responsibility for use of atomic bombs is shared with our allies."

July 13, 1945:  "The Gadget" is carefully placed on top of the detonation tower at the Trinity and nearly ready to be set off in the first atomic test, but thunderstorms are in the forecast.

Washington intercepts and decodes a cable from Japanese Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo to his Ambassador in Moscow that states, "Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace." Secretary of Navy  James Firrestal writes in his diary: "The first real evidence of a Japanese desire to get out of the war came today through intercepted messages from Togo, Foreign Minister, to Sato, Jap Ambassador in Moscow, instructing the latter to see Molotov if possible before his departure for the Big Three meeting and if not then immediately afterward to lay before him the Emperor’s strong desire to secure a a termination of the war."

July 12, 1945:  Headline in Wash Post:  "U.S. Brushes Jap Peace Feelers Aside."  Indeed, this was the case, awaiting (possibly) successful first test of the atomic bomb at Trinity.   The U.S. was demanding "unconditional surrender" while the Japanese were attaching one large condition:  that they be allowed to keep their Emperor, at least as a symbolic leader.  The U.S. would firmly reject that (a month later, after use of the two new weapons, they would accept it, for our own ends, and still call the surrender "uncondtional").

July 11, 1945:   Truman was heading to Potsdam to meet with Stalin and Churchill, where he would issue the final ultimatum for a Japanese surrender.   But he awaited word on whether the new weapon  would work in its first test, due in a few days, weather permitting, knowing that it might allow him to dictate terms to the Soviets in the postwar world.  The first two targets for use of the bomb had been picked--two large cities in Japan previously not bombed, which would allow experts to assess the full power of the new device.   The bombs would be dropped over the center of the cities,  now occupied mainly by women and children, for the same reason.

The assembly of the first atomic bomb, called by scientists "The Gadget," began at the Trinity test site in the desert near Alamagordo, N.M., starting with installation of the explosive lens, trhe urnaium reflector and the plutonium core.  Video below:

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