Much has been written over the years about the bombings. That literature includes considerable discussion of the process that led to President Harry Truman’s decision to use the two bombs and to target enemy cities, the resulting killing of massive numbers of noncombatants, and the debate over the necessity and ethics of conducting two bombings rather than one or even none.
The still-controversial history of the bombings involves disputes in areas such as sources, the uses of evidence, the standards for assessing and interpreting decision-making, and the basis for defining and evaluating morality and ethics in the context of war.
A key source in this contested history has been the evidence of individuals who were involved in the U.S. government’s development of and decision-making on nuclear weapons. Yet, many of these individuals, be they supporters or critics, somewhat rewrote their history in the aftermath of the August 1945 bombings.
Untangling postwar contentions from actual pre-Hiroshima actions is generally not a simple matter. It requires close attention to pre-Hiroshima archival sources, which account for well more than 100,000 pages in multiple libraries. In using these sources, the analyst should give much greater weight to the pre-Hiroshima sources than to the later, postwar claims in cases of significant discrepancies.
After the war, in memoirs and in related statements, three former wartime members of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff—Admiral William Leahy, the de facto chairman of the Joint Chiefs; General Henry Arnold, head of the Army Air Forces, and Admiral Ernest King, head of the Navy—publicly raised sharp questions about the military-political necessity of those atomic bombings and indicated there were other ways of ending the war. In his own widely reviewed memoir I Was There,1 Leahy passionately condemned the bombings as unethical and even barbarous. Yet, the available records, including his own diary, give no indication that he expressed this opinion to Truman or to any other government associate before the bombings.
Marshall as the Exception
Of the four retired wartime military chiefs, only General George Marshall, the wartime Army chief of staff, never in public or in any documented private statements in the postwar period joined in such criticisms or even in hints of having ever entertained such doubts about the 1945 use of nuclear weapons. In various interviews and related statements, Marshall strongly defended the atomic bombings of Japanese cities as militarily and politically necessary and as ethically justifiable.
The May 29 Meeting
At the May 29 meeting, much of the discussion among Marshall, McCloy, and Stimson focused on military policies to help end the Asian war and the use of significant weapons—atomic bombs and toxic gas—against Japan in future months. Breaking ranks with the other two officials, Marshall hoped to use gas, thereby violating Roosevelt’s public pledge of no first use of a “poisonous or noxious” gas,3 but McCloy and Stimson showed no interest in endorsing such a radical departure from established policy. By their response, they seemed uneasy about such a proposal.
A Likely Missed Opportunity
Marshall’s pleas on May 29 did not seem to gain support from Stimson or McCloy. Two days later, Stimson helped shape the nuclear targeting policy by outlining with a secret blue-ribbon panel, the Interim Committee, that the weapon should be used without any warning to Japan and on a military-industrial target surrounded by workers’ houses.6
After the war, Marshall apparently never disclosed, even to his official biographer, historian Forrest Pogue, that, at the May 29 meeting with Stimson and McCloy, he had sought to alter the course of nuclear history as it was then unfolding.
If the United States had issued a substantial, explicit warning to Japan before using the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; if the U.S. attacks truly had targeted manufacturing areas; or, more significantly, if the targets in Japan had been actually a military installation, the postwar dialogue about the bombings might have been different.
6. For the Interim Committee minutes of May 31, 1945, see Harrison-Bundy Files, #100, MED Records, RG 77. For President Harry Truman’s Potsdam diary of July 25, 1945, see Truman Papers, Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MO. For Marshall’s interview with Pogue of February 11, 1957, see Larry and Joellen Bland, eds., George C. Marshall Interviews and Reminiscences for Forrest C. Pogue, rev. ed. (Lexington, VA: George C. Marshall Research Foundation, 1991), pp. 422-425.