Friday, April 9, 2010

Questions About the Bomb

With the recent death of Morris Jeppson, there remains only one living member of the Enola Gay flight crew who dropped the first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. He is Theodore Van Kirk, the navigator.

Personally, I have always been fascinated with the history of the bomb, perhaps because I was born one year and one day after Hiroshima, and as a young boy I had a Sunday School teacher who talked about going into Nagasaki with the American military after the explosion.

The history of the bomb, at least from the American perspective, seems to begin in August, 1939, with a letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, telling him of research “into a new and important source of energy” that might be used to build very powerful bombs. As Einstein explained, “A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.”

As a result of that letter, the Manhattan Project was formed and ultimately the atomic bomb was created. The secrecy surrounding the project was so great that even Harry Truman did not learn of the project until he became President after Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. It was less than four months before Truman would be faced with the most important decision of his life -- Should America drop the bomb? In fact, no one was certain what would happen when a atomic bomb was detonated until the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, less than a month before the bomb was used in war.

For most of my lifetime, the United States justified the use of the atomic bomb with the simple explanation that it eliminated the need for an invasion of Japan and as a result it saved a million American lives. This explanation has been questioned in recent years, as scholars have gained access to documents that were classified for decades.

Some of the questions now being asked, include:
• Why was the bomb dropped at a time when Japan was already close to surrender?
• Why didn’t the U.S. simply demonstrate the power of the bomb to the world without killing so many Japanese civilians?
• Did Truman use the bomb to gain the upper hand in negotiations with Joseph Stalin?
• Would America have used the bomb on Europeans?
• Did the U.S. spend so much money developing the bomb, that it had to use it?

While I have my own perspective on these questions, I do not pretend to have the final answers. Needless to say, these questions, and others like them, promises to provide scholars with a heated debate for decades to come.

Today, I look at the bomb from the perspective of someone born at the beginning of the atomic age; someone who spend forty-five years of his life living in a Cold War with the constant threat of nuclear war; someone who now lives in a world where nuclear weapons continue to proliferate as the rhetoric between opposing sides grows louder. Today, I must wonder what would the world be like if Einstein had not written his letter to Roosevelt; if the Manhattan Project had failed; if Truman had not given the order to drop the bomb, if atomic power had remained undiscovered?


  1. Would America have used the bomb on Europeans? There is no question in my mind that if D-Day had been a failure and the Russian offensive on the eastern front had been stopped, that we would have used the atomic bomb on Berlin.

  2. Or to put it another way... if the A-Bomb had been ready in 1943, there is no doubt in my mind that we would have used it on Germany. In fact, I am sure that Japan would have been safe from the A-Bomb until Germany surrendered.