By Jeff Olson
In the summer of 1939, six months after the discovery of uranium fission by German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, the publicity of atomic energy increased in some of American news publications, but it didn’t immediately lead to much response and substantive research in our nation’s scientific community.
Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-American physicist and inventor, was extremely disturbed by the lack of American action. If atomic bombs were possible, as he believed they were, Nazi Germany might gain an unbeatable lead in developing them and the consequences of this would be catastrophic.
Unable to find official support, and unable to convince Enrico Fermi of the need to continue experiments, Szilard turned to his old friend Albert Einstein. In August 1939, Szilard, along with fellow Hungarian physicists Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller, convinced Einstein to sign a letter they had written to President Franklin Roosevelt informing him of the dangers of atomic technology in the hands of the Axis powers.
In response, in the fall of 1939, President Roosevelt formed the Uranium Committee, a group of top military and scientific experts to determine the feasibility of a nuclear chain reaction. Convinced that it was, in late 1941 America began a concerted program to design and build an atomic bomb.
It’s code name was the the Manhattan Project and it was officially implemented on August 13, 1942. For nearly three years J. Robert Oppenheimer and a cadre of scientists, technicians and many others from various disciplines worked tirelessly to develop a weapon that all of them hoped would never have to be used.
With VE Day celebrated in May 1945, it was becoming more apparent that victory in the Pacific was just a matter of time – but how much time and how many more lives would it cost?
Plans for an Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland (code name “Operation Downfall”) had been in development since early1945. Experiences on Iwo Jima, Okinawa and other islands had confirmed that the Japanese would fight to the death. In all of the Allied victories in the Pacific, not a single Japanese unit surrendered and there was no reason to believe they would defend their homeland with any less vigor or sacrifice.
Japanese civilians were also armed and trained to fight with everything from bamboo spears to suicide bombs, with the slogan “A hundred million will die together for the emperor and the nation!”
Given these facts and factors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated that Operation Downfall would result in extending the war for more than another year and with 1.2 million American casualties, including 267,000 deaths. The Japanese would face similar losses and likely even more. Also weighing heavily on Truman’s mind were the mounting deaths of Allied prisoners held by the Japanese.
With the successful testing of the atomic bomb at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico on July 16, President Truman was given another option and more leverage which he used at Potsdam, Germany when meeting with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin to negotiate terms for the end of the war.
From this meeting came the Potsdam Declaration, a carefully worded ultimatum to Tokyo, to be issued by the three nations at war with Japan – the United States, Britain, and China.
The document called for Japan’s unconditional surrender, stating in point 3: “The full application of our military power, backed by our resolve, will mean the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.”
The 13th and final point read, “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”
On July 26, this ultimatum was issued to Japan. Officials in Tokyo did not respond until two days later, on July 28. Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki announced that his government did not consider the declaration “of great importance…We must mokusatsu it.” or “kill it with silence.”
Japan had just rejected its last opportunity to avoid the atomic bomb, giving President Truman the answer he didn’t want but nevertheless had to respond to.
Seventy-five years ago this week, August 6, 1945, B-29 Enola Gay piloted by Lt Col Paul W. Tibbets dropped Little Boy, an atomic (uranium) bomb, on the city of Hiroshima, destroying five square miles and killing up to 66,000 people. Again, no response from Japan.
In an official statement, President Truman again emphasized Japan’s clear choice: “If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”
U.S. Planes dropped leaflets over Japanese cities warning of a second nuclear attack. In part they read,” We are in possession of the most destructive explosive ever devised by man…We have just begun to use this weapon against your homeland. If you have any doubt, make inquiry as to what happened to Hiroshima when just one atomic bomb fell on that city.”Japanese leaders remained silent.
A second atomic bomb, if needed, was to be dropped on another major city of war production, Kokura, on August 11. However, meteorological reports forced a change of plans to August 9 and the alternative target Nagasaki. At 11:20 a.m., B-29 Bock’s Car piloted by Captain Charles Sweeney dropped “Fat Man” on Nagasaki.
As a plutonium bomb it was even more powerful generating a force of 21,000 tons of TNT. Upon detonation, it killed some 44,000 people instantly with another 77,000 dying later from the effects of radiation. At 4:05 p.m. on August 14, President Truman received Japan’s formal unconditional surrender.
Yes – World War II war had ended, but a new era had begun. The joyous celebrations would eventually subside, families would struggle to recover and get on with their lives, and soon humanity would come to the sobering reality that the world would never again be the same.