Posts Tagged ‘Atomic Bomb’

At some point in your life, I’ll bet you’ve uttered a phrase that started with, “If only I was the President…”.  I’ve done it…many times.  But like the rest of us, I really have no idea what goes on behind the doors of the White House.  There are incredible burdens that the President has to bear…burdens with which I’d never want to be troubled.

Take President Harry Truman.  On April 24, 1945, the man hadn’t even been in office two weeks following the sudden (though not totally unexpected) death of his predecessor, President Roosevelt.  In two short weeks, he had been thrust from the relative safety and obscurity of the Vice President’s job to that of Commander-in-Chief, where the buck stopped on a bundle of issues, not the least of which was a massive 2-front war.

One front, in Europe, was in the last phase.  The Americans were a day away from meeting the Russians at the Elbe River and the German military was in its death-throes.  And with the Russians pulverizing Berlin and fighting just a couple miles from Adolf Hitler’s last redoubt, the outcome on this front was no longer in doubt.

But the other front, the one made of up mostly water and islands of coral, that front was far from being decided.  U.S. Army and Marine forces were now fighting an increasingly violent and treacherous battle on Okinawa.  In the air, the Air Force was pummeling Japanese cities one after the other, and the Japanese military steadfastly refused to throw in the towel.  An invasion of Japan was looking more and more likely.

It was on this day and against this backdrop that President Truman was given the full details of the top-secret Manhattan Project.  Employing well over 100,000 people and costing several billion dollars, the goal of harnessing the power of the atom into a weapon was nearly complete.

When Truman was the Vice President, “Manhattan” meant things like “that area in New York City” or “an end-of-the-day libation”.  He was given zero information on the bomb project.  But for President Truman, the full weight of the military’s “Manhattan” (with all its associated implications) was laid squarely in his lap.

And when the first atomic test was a resounding success, Okinawa was firmly in American hands.  Japan had reached the brink of collapse as LeMay’s bombers and Nimitz’s Navy surrounded and pounded the island nation.  But still they refused to surrender.

And President Truman’s burden got a lot heavier.  Yep, it’s great to not be the President.

Recommended Reading:  Truman – This might be McCullough’s masterpiece.

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The Japanese government didn’t really know what had happened in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.  In fact, no one in the country knew.  What the surviving residents of the decimated city did know was that they had lived through one of the most horrific events in the history of warfare.  Tokyo had been fire-bombed back in March (as had numerous other cities), but this was different.  The burns were different, the deaths were different, the destruction was different.

Shortly after Little Boy had done its damage, the Truman Administration had reiterated to the Japanese government its call for unconditional surrender.  But the Japanese still waffled.  They desperately wanted the Emperor to remain in power, they didn’t want an occupation force in the homeland to oversee disarmament, and they wanted to be in charge of war crimes trials.  But much like the end of the war in Europe, a conditional surrender was unacceptable.

And so another B-29Bockscar, was loaded, this time with the same Plutonium-239 weapon tested just weeks before at Alamogordo.  Called “Fat Man“, it utilized a small Plutonium sphere, surrounded by explosives, which in turn was surrounded by detonators.  The detonators would fire the explosives simultaneously, compressing the Plutonium onto itself, causing a nuclear reaction.  Well, that’s the layman’s description.

The designated target was the city of Kokura, with Nagasaki as the secondary.  When Bockscar arrived over Kokura (late due to a rendevouz mishap), the once visible city was blanketed with clouds.  Unable to drop the device and getting low on fuel, the B-29 crew made its way to Nagasaki, where clouds also obscured the target.  After flying around for a bit, a break in the clouds allowed the target to be seen and, at 11:02am on August 9, 1945, Nagasaki became the 2nd (and hopefully last) city to feel the effects of atomic destruction, as Fat Man exploded with the force equivalent to 42,000,000 pounds of TNT.  Like Hiroshima, death counts are impossible to pinpoint, but 60,000 immediate deaths is not far from the mark.  And like Hiroshima, thousands more would die later from radiation poisoning.

And still the Japanese military government waffled, but this time the Emperor, sensing the Allied terms included the possibility of him remaining in power, decided enough was enough.  His message of surrender was recorded, he narrowly escaped death when a coup (from military personnel determined to continue fighting) sought to eliminate him, and Japan capitulated on August 15th.

Offering opinions is not generally my way.  I’m too new to writing, and lack the insight to really speak to the morality of the atomic bombs dropped.  I don’t know Japanese history or culture well enough to know if, given more time, they would have ended the conflict without the need for WMD’s.  It’s possible, though their methods of fighting throughout the Pacific certainly argue against that.

Maybe the U.S. government lacked the patience to wait.  An impending invasion of Japan, based again on prior experience, looked to be horrifically expensive in terms of lives lost.  And the U.S. certainly had conventional means to inflict tremendous suffering.  The Tokyo bombing we looked at in March proved that.  In fact, nearly as many people died or were injured then as were in both atomic attacks combined.

At the end of it (and this will sound really trite), war is sometimes necessary.  But even if the ends are moral, the means never are.  Whether by bullet to the head, or sword across the neck, or cyanide in the chamber, or by bombs from the air, or by microscopic bits of matter being converted directly to energy, the same terrible result occurs…man’s inhumanity to man.

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An ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded at 5:30 a.m. in the New Mexico desert near San Marcial on a remote section of the Alamogordo Air Base reservation.”  So said the El Paso Herald-Post on the afternoon of July 16, 1945.  The shock wave from the explosion was felt more than 100 miles away.  The light of the explosion was seen from 150 miles away.  Windows rattled more than 200 miles away.  It was a huge ammunition dump.

Alternatively, it was one piece of ammunition sitting on a tower.  Had the United States government been in a position to actually tell the truth, it may have read something like this:  “At just a few seconds before 5:30am, the United States entered the Atomic Age when an implosion-design Plutonium bomb was detonated near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The explosion, equivalent to setting off 40,000,000 pounds of TNT, resulted in the incredible mushroom cloud displayed in the photo above…

This first test of the atomic bomb (called the Trinity Test), was the culmination of years of painstaking research, millions of man-hours of labor, billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, and a single goal:  develop an atomic weapon before the enemy does.

It was no secret that Germany had been pursuing the creation of atomic bombs as one of the many “miracle” weapons that would ultimately save the Third Reich from defeat.  What the U.S. did not know was just how badly Germany’s anti-Semitic and pro-Aryan policies had crippled its atomic ambitions.  Numerous physicists had fled Europe’s growing instability in the 1930’s and these men, with names like Born, Einstein, Fermi, Oppenheimer, and Bohr, all received a warm welcome in the U.S. and Britain.

But when war broke out and Germany invaded Norway and began targeting its supplies of heavy water, the U.S. assumed the worst (that Germany was farther along than it was), and its own nuclear program, famously called The Manhattan Project, went into overdrive.  Overseen by General Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer, this undertaking would grow to involve nearly 130,000 people, spread all over the United States, working in strict secrecy, often on small pieces of the puzzle so only a few knew the form of the finished product.

And then the first bombs were finished.  This first test was deemed a success, and President Harry Truman was immediately notified that an atomic option was now available.  What to do with this weapon, in light of the ongoing war in the Pacific and Japan’s steadfast refusal to surrender, would now be up to him and the military.

Recommended Reading: Heisenberg’s War – The Secret History of the German Bomb – Read about the efforts Germany made in the atomic arena.  I really liked this book.

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