GROUND ZERO

The Rush to Nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki

It took less than 90 days for the U.S. to turn a theoretical weapon into fearsome reality. President Truman was eager to end World War II and stop Stalin in his tracks.

SSPL/Getty

Every nuclear arms negotiation is about a weapon that nobody in their right mind would ever use. So negotiations like those with Iran come with a Kafkaesque twist: The most forceful moral authority for stopping the creation of another nuclear power is vested in the only nation actually to have used nuclear weapons, the United States. To be sure, the U.S. was not the only party to the talks with Iran, but it was the primary power. Poignantly, the Iran deal was made during the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945.

Seventy years is a long time for the policy that became known as nuclear non-proliferation to have remained effective, but it has. Surely, there have been scary moments, but the bomb has proved against all odds to be a durable deterrent—contemplation of its effects is enough to prevent its further use, something unique in the history of warfare.

But this was not foreseen by the people who chose to drop two bombs on Japan in 1945. The military and political leaders involved spent no time considering the moral implications. To them it was simply a matter of expediency, the chance to gain a decisive military advantage.

What is striking now is the extraordinary velocity of the events leading to the bombing of Hiroshima. In just 90 days the idea of a “doomsday” weapon went from theoretical to awfully real.

Technically, the clock began ticking on May 9, 1945, when U.S. Army Air Force Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. arrived at the Glenn. L Martin airplane plant in Bellevue, Nebraska. He was there to collect a B-29 bomber off the assembly line for a mission that at that time remained top secret, even from him. Little over a month later the B-29 was flying exercises from an air base in Utah, simulating attacks on an unspecified Japanese city carrying only one bomb—a weapon that was yet to be tested and that nobody was sure would work.

Harry Truman had his first official briefing as president on the bomb on April 25, 12 days after taking office following the death of Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, Truman had known about it two years earlier when, as a senator, he had discovered that huge sums of money were being sucked up by a secret program called the Manhattan Project. In an amazing violation of secrecy he had written to a political friend talking about “the construction of a plant to make a terrific explosion for a secret weapon that will be a wonder.”

The briefing at the White House on April 25, delivered by Secretary of War Henry Stimson and the head of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie R. Groves, revealed the true scale of the program and its cost, $2 billion, by far the largest military undertaking in history. Groves explained that the first bomb, called Little Boy, was being assembled even though the first test explosion was still months away.

Tibbett’s B-29 reached Guam on June 27, where its bomb bay was modified for Little Boy, which was a 10-foot long cylinder resembling a water boiler with tailfins attached, weighing 9,700 pounds. On July 6, Tibbett and his crew flew the B-29 to a base on the Pacific atoll of Tinian, from where it would take off for its flight to Japan.

The next day, July 7, at Newport News, Virginia, Truman boarded the cruiser USS Augusta, bound for a summit conference in Europe with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

A week later, at Los Alamos, New Mexico, the center of the Manhattan Project, a closed black truck with an escort of seven carloads of heavily armed security agents left for Albuquerque. The truck contained most of the components of Little Boy in a 15-foot crate, and in a separate lead cylinder, the bomb’s radioactive uranium projectile. From Albuquerque the bomb parts were flown to Hamilton Field, San Francisco, where they were loaded onto the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, which took them to Tinian.

The main business of the summit meeting, at Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin, was to settle the post-war shape of Europe and to discuss on what terms a Japanese surrender would be accepted.

But, as the summit dragged on, for President Truman and his delegation there was a secret and pressing concern: Would the bomb work?

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On July 16, at the test site in New Mexico, in a desert area called the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death), there had been a weather delay. The test bomb sat atop a 100-foot tower, armed and ready. At 2 a.m. the weather began to improve and at 5:10 a.m. the countdown began. At 5:29 a.m. the nuclear age began as night turned to day with a vast expanding globe of fire rising from the desert.

At 7:30 a.m. a coded message was sent from the test site to the Pentagon, then to Stimson at Potsdam: “Operated on this morning. Diagnosis not yet complete but results seem satisfactory and already exceed expectations…”

It took another five days for a detailed report of the test to reach Potsdam. At 3 p.m. on July 21 the President was first given a dry military assessment of the results but this was followed by a more visceral account put down by a witness, Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell.

“The lighting effects beggared description… it was golden, purple, violet, gray and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described… it was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately… followed almost immediately by the strong, sustained, awesome roar which warned of doomsday and made us feel that we puny things were blasphemous to dare tamper with the forces heretofore reserved to The Almighty.”

The effect on Truman was less spiritual. People around him noted a new confidence in him. He grasped more quickly than others a simple fact: America’s negotiating hand had just been strengthened with a power unequalled in history.

On July 24, Stimson told Truman that the first bomb, Little Boy, would be ready to drop some time after August 3.

That evening Truman was to meet again with Churchill and Stalin. Was it time to tell the Russians about the bomb? Truman decided that it was, and that he would do it alone.

The Big Three sat in a conference room at a round table big enough for only 15 chairs. They had been trying to settle how much of Europe Stalin would control—and they agreed that, on the issue of Japan, only unconditional surrender was acceptable.

At the end of the meeting, at 7:30 p.m., Truman got up and wandered over to talk to Stalin, leaving behind his interpreter. (Stalin’s interpreter hovered by them.)

“I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force,” Truman wrote in his memoir. “The Russian Premier showed no special interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make ‘good use of it against the Japanese.’”

Churchill recalled: “I was perhaps five feet away, and I watched with the closest attention the momentous talk. I knew what the President was going to do. What was vital was to measure its effect on Stalin. I was sure that Stalin had no idea of the significance of what he was being told… his face remained gay and genial and the talk between these two potentates came to an end. As we were waiting for our cars I found myself near Truman. ‘How did it go?’ I asked. ‘He never asked a question,’ he replied.”

But according to Soviet generals present when Stalin returned to his quarters he had understood very well, and ordered Russia’s covert nuclear program to be accelerated. The Russians already knew a lot about the Manhattan Project, thanks to a physicist working at Los Alamos named Klaus Fuchs.

Fuchs had been an ardent communist in Germany when Hitler came to power, and had fled to Britain when the Nazis began rounding up known communists. He had been employed in Britain’s nuclear research program and then sent to work on the Manhattan Project with other scientists from Britain. The information he passed to the Russians helped to accelerate their own development of atomic weapons.

On August 5, on Tinian, Colonel Tibbets named his B-29 for his mother, Enola Gay. The next morning, at 2:45 a.m. she took off. By 8:38 a.m. it leveled off for its bombing run at 32,700 feet and at 9:09 a.m. the crew had Hiroshima in sight. Little Boy was dropped at 9:15 and 30 seconds.

The center of Hiroshima was vaporized. The blast killed 80,000 people and destroyed 70 percent of the city’s buildings. Injuries and the effects of radiation would take the total deaths to around 166,000.

Like many military programs the development of the atomic bomb seemed to gather an ever-accelerating momentum of its own, able to override the misgivings of some of its key creators and make its eventual use inevitable. At no point did Truman ever consider not using it.

“I regarded the bomb as a military weapon,” he said, “and never had any doubt that it should be used.”

There is no record of Truman ever taking a formal decision to use the bomb—apparently it never occurred to him or anyone else that this was necessary.

Given the moral and ethical complexity of the act, Hiroshima has been fertile ground for revisionist historians. Was it necessary to drop the bomb at all? Some of the scientists involved in its creation wanted it to be dropped on an uninhabited forest as a salutary demonstration of what it could do, allowing people to extrapolate that image to a densely populated city.

Another group of 69 scientists, led by the Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard, wrote a petition to Truman arguing that the bomb should not be used. “Such a step ought not to be made at any time without seriously considering the moral responsibilities which are involved.”

Szilard’s view should have carried weight because he was among the small group of scientists who had originally persuaded Roosevelt to develop the bomb, believing that since the Germans had been the first to discover nuclear fission they would start work on a bomb. Now that it was known that the Germans were not close to getting a bomb, Szilard and his cosigners felt the original urgency had passed and that cooler heads should prevail. The petition never got to Truman. Szilard and three colleagues saw Secretary of State James Byrnes, who was unsympathetic and so put off that he once wrote that Szilard “made an unfavorable impression on me.”

Others raised the issue of why it was necessary to drop a second bomb on Nagasaki when the effects on Hiroshima were so horrific.

But as with all history, it’s necessary to avoid retrofitting the past with the values of a different age.

Like Churchill and Stalin, the president had known war in up close and personal terms. He had served as an artillery officer in France during some of the worst carnage of World War I.

The first months of 1945 in the Pacific had brought losses as appalling as any in the trench warfare of World War I. U.S. forces were battling their way from island to island toward the Japanese mainland. On Iwo Jima there were 26,000 American casualties and 6,800 dead—and almost total annihilation on the other side: Of 22,060 Japanese soldiers on the island, 18,844 had died. On Okinawa there were 62,000 U.S. casualties and 12,000 dead.

The closer defeat came, the more fanatical the Japanese became. Attacks on American naval forces by nearly 3,000 of the suicidal Kamikaze pilots sank more than 40 Navy ships (the precise number remains disputed), damaged 368 more and, killed 4,000 sailors, wounding more than 4,800.

At Potsdam, Churchill noted: “We had contemplated the desperate resistance of the Japanese fighting to the death with Samurai devotion… in every cave and dug-out… to conquer the country yard by yard might well require the loss of a million American lives. Now all this nightmare picture had vanished. In its place was the vision—fair and bright indeed it seemed—of the end of the whole war in one or two violent shocks.”

Something else had happened that was not discussed in Potsdam and only a few people in the military intelligence staffs saw its significance. The Nazis had successfully deployed the world’s first ballistic missile, the V-2, which they had used against southern England with devastating results. The Enola Gay was already an obsolescent delivery system. Once the intercontinental ballistic missile was paired with a nuclear warhead in the early 1960s the ultimate doomsday weapon was at hand.

The closest the world came to seeing the consequences was in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had to restrain trigger-happy hawks in the military from nuking Russian bases in Cuba and, almost inevitably, launching World War III. The first use of atomic weapons had ended a war. After that, every American leader understood that beginning a war with them would be very different.