History 102 American History from 1877
Professor Michael Sullivan
December 2, 2012
America’s decision to join World War II was forced upon them December 7, 1941, by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the words of President Roosevelt in his speech to the U.S. Congress delivered December 8, 1941, “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory”1 Congress concurred with President Roosevelt and declared war on Japan. Knowing that this war would be inevitable after the attack on Pearl Harbor, why would Japan choose to awaken this sleeping giant and just how far would America be willing to go to obtain this “absolute victory?”
In the summer of 1941, President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cut off the supply of imported oil to Japan2. After months of planning, “Japanese aircraft made a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii”2. Not more than one day after the attack on Pearl Harbor both the United States and Britain had declared war on Japan. This would be no ordinary war. The United States would fight Japan in “total war,” a war fought with no limits or boundaries2. The United States would also not accept a normal surrender; they “were committed to ‘unconditional surrender’”2. An unconditional surrender does not allow the surrendering country to work out any negotiations with regard to how their country will be affected by the surrender. This idea of “unconditional surrender” did not fare well with the Japanese and they were prepared to fight to the death.
Although Japan was close to defeat in July 1945, many Japanese politicians found the idea of surrender impossible to accept1. On July 26, 1945, President Truman (who had taken office after the death of President Roosevelt in April 1945) made a public appeal to Japan asking for them to surrender. This would later be referred to the Potsdam Declaration. The Potsdam Declaration did not specifically warn the Japanese of an atomic bomb attack, but it warned that if Japan did not proclaim the “unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces…. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction”2.
Although Japan had no knowledge of the atomic bomb, President Truman, on the other hand, had been involved in the “top secret development of the atom bomb” since Roosevelt’s death in April 19453. “Truman himself felt it was right to proceed with the plan to drop the bomb. He had three main reasons for this: first, the bomb would bring the war to an end; second, it would keep the U.S.S.R. out of Asia; and third, it would test America’s new technology”2. Truman was also warned by Henry L. Stimson the U.S. secretary of war that if President Truman chooses to invade Japan it could cost him the lives of an additional 500,000 American soldiers1. At the Potsdam Conference President Truman and the Allies “secured an agreement that the U.S.S.R. would not enter the conflict in the Pacific until after August 15”2. Although Truman wanted to end the war, he wanted to do so quickly and without the aid of the U.S.S.R; Truman feared the U.S.S.R. “would seek to gain control of the region once Japan had been defeated”2. President Truman believed that the atomic bomb, if used, could have the potential of solving two problems at once: first, it would finish the war with Japan; second, it would “deal with Stalin”1.
President Truman planned to use the Potsdam Declaration as his final attempt to end the war as peacefully as possible. Peace, however, would not be agreed upon. The Japanese rebuffed the Potsdam Declaration. “Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki rejected the Declaration at a press conference on July 28. He said the Japanese government ‘did not find any important value in it’”1. After this rebuff President Truman was certain “the bombing of Hiroshima was certain to go ahead”1.
Hiroshima was chosen as the first city that the atomic bomb would be dropped on for several reasons. Hiroshima was home to over 43,000 Japanese soldiers and it was filled with factories producing military hardware2. The terrain of Hiroshima was also ideal, being relatively flat, for the site of the initial bomb.
The first atomic bomb, the Little Boy, was loaded onto the Enola Gay August 6, 1945. “The bomb was dropped at exactly 8:15 a.m., Japanese time”3. The Little Boy instantly “killed about 70,000 people in a blinding flash of heat and radiation”. Many more would die from the effects of the bomb in the years to follow. As Enola Gay flew away from Hiroshima copilot Captain Robert Lewis wrote in his log, “My God, what have we done?” Even now, knowing why the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb, I’m not completely sure that any American can answer Captain Lewis’ question.
"FDR Pearl Harbor Day of Infamy Speech to Congress December 8 1941." The Official Site of the Attack on Pearl Harbor. http://www.pearlharbor.org/speech-fdr-infamy-1941.asp (accessed June 6, 2010). Gonzales, Doreen. The Manhattan Project and the Atomic Bomb in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2000. Grant, R.G. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Austin, TX: Raintree STeck-Vaughn Company, 1998. Lawton, Clive A. HIROSHIMA The Story of the First Atom Bomb. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2004.