Answers to last week

Carnegie Mellon students seem to be familiar with U.S. history. Over half of the students responding to last week?s poll recalled correctly that the United States? justification for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to force Japan?s surrender and save both American and Japanese soldiers? lives.

However, students were indecisive when they were asked to pick out quotations from the United States? current stance on nuclear weapons. The responses make it clear that students are more familiar with our nation?s past than our nation?s present.

The clearest perspective as to why the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb is found in President Truman?s statement issued to Americans after the bombing of Hiroshima. In that declaration, Truman stated, ?It was to spare the Japanese people from utter destruction that the ultimatum of July 26 was issued at Potsdam. Their leaders promptly rejected that ultimatum. 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.?

Truman explicitly declared that nothing short of unconditional surrender would do. In other speeches and letters, Truman also expressed his desire to save as many American lives as possible. From Truman?s perspective, it appears that his decision was that of utility and he did what was necessary to bring to an end one of the most gruesome wars this world has ever seen.

However, history forces us to look back and examine Truman?s altruistic motives. In his statement, Truman declares, ?The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid manyfold. And the end is not yet.? This and other statements issued by Truman have fueled the theory that the bombings of Japan were meant to retaliate against the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Another theory claims that the U.S. wanted Japan to surrender before the USSR became involved. The reasoning is that the U.S. did not want the Soviets to influence postwar Asia as they would postwar Eastern Europe. The first bomb was dropped two days before the USSR declared war against Japan. In his August 1985 article ?Leaving the Bomb Project? in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Joseph Rotblat claimed he overheard General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, state that the ?real purpose in making the bomb was to subdue the Soviets.? However, Rotblat was unsure of Groves? exact meaning because at the time the U.S. and the USSR were allies.

Rotblat eventually abandoned the Manhattan Project, the only scientist to do so. He did so at the end of 1944, when it became clear the Germans had abandoned their bomb project.

Unfortunately, it appears as though all actual accounts of why the bombs were dropped have been recorded, leaving historians with little left to uncover. We may never be sure of the exact reason or reasons. All we know for certain is that the atomic bomb was created and used. Truman described the creation of the bomb as ?the greatest achievement of organized science in history.? Now we are left to deal with it.


  1. What was the United States? official explanation for why they attacked Japan with nuclear weapons? Answer: b) to force Japan?s surrender and save American lives
  2. Which of the following statements are excerpts from the 2001 United States Nuclear Posture Review? Answers: a) ?U.S. nuclear forces still require the capability to hold at risk a wide range of target types.? b) ?New capabilities must be developed to defeat emerging threats such as hard and deeply buried targets... mobile and relocatable targets...and to improve accuracy and limit collateral damage.? e) ?Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States.?