Armed Hostilities

Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Historical Documents

Norton, Mary, Carol Sheriff, David Blight, and David Katzman, the authors of the book A People and a Nation shed light upon the most significant facts and figures, representing the events of the summer of 1945. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast the representation of the historical events of bombing the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in A People and a Nation and the primary sources, namely historical documents from the National Security Archives, articles, and memoirs of the participants of the events.

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According to Norton and her colleagues, at the end of the Second World War, Japanese leaders did not want to admit their defeat and accept unconditional surrender, trying to avoid humiliation and to preserve the sovereignty of their monarch. The American airpower attacked Japanese cities during the following five months and killed about 900, 000 people. Intending to bomb the USA mainland, the Japanese constructed bomb-bearing balloons, which did not reach the territory of America and fell on unpopulated areas. The American resources outlasted the forces of Japan though the latter refused to accept the terms of the unconditional surrender. The authors of A People and a Nation consider Truman’s desire to end the war as quickly as possible and save the lives of Americans as the primary motivation for using atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At the same time, the historians mention the debates concerning the President’s decision to use the nuclear power instead of negotiating the terms of the surrender, the influence of the nationalism and racism ideologies on the choice of the American leader, and the accuracy of the projected figures of the consequences of the atomic attack. Not getting deep into the discussion of the debates and various historians’ hypotheses, Mary Norton and her co-authors conclude that the selection of bombing was predetermined with the US strategy of using machines instead of people. Describing the background for the American bombing of Japan, the authors admit that the moral line had been already crossed during the war and it was only the efficiency of atomic bombs that distinguished them from the conventional weapon. When on July 26, 1945, Japan received an ultimatum from the Allies, but the leaders of the country decided to ignore it. Then on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, killing about 130, 000 innocent civilians. On August 8, 1945, the Soviet Union levied war against Japan, and a second American atomic attack took place at Nagasaki, killing about 60, 000 people. Japan’s surrender on August 14 is considered as the end of the Second World War.

A review of the primary sources, including the secret documents from the national security archives and memoirs of Laurence William as the witness of the events, sheds light upon the numerous aspects of developing the strategy of atomic bombing the Japanese cities. The Minutes of the Second Meeting of the Target Committee demonstrate the wide range of technological and psychological factors that were taken into consideration by Truman’s administration for selecting the cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the targets for the bombing and planning the attacks. The participants of the meeting emphasized psychological factors in selecting the targets. “Two aspects of this are obtaining the greatest psychological effect against Japan and making the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized when publicity on it is released” (“Minutes of the Second Meeting of the Target Committee”).

It means that to finish the war and save the lives of American citizens, as it was indicated by the authors of A People and a Nation, the American administration was aimed at drawing international attention to a nuclear weapon. Technical details of choosing the height of detonation, considering the weather conditions and radiological effects of using the nuclear weapon were discussed during the meeting that shows the high level of preparation for the operations which were kept top secret. Politicians, military strategists, and scientists united their efforts, working on the project. For instance, a physicist, Leo Szilard, and 58 of his colleagues signed A Petition to the President of the United States, in which they pointed at the destructive power of this unconventional weapon and consequences of the scientific liberation of atomic power. This petition demonstrates that the members of the team who had been working on the project were not unanimous as to the atomic bombing of Japan. Szilard and 58 co-signers agreed that the use of the nuclear weapon could accelerate the end of the war and Japan’s surrender but asked the president to consider alternative strategies.

“Given the foregoing, we, the undersigned, respectfully petition that you exercise your power as Commander-in-Chief to rule that the United States shall not, in the present phase of the war, resort to the use of atomic bombs” (Szilard, A Petition to the President of the United States). As opposed to the assertion of the authors of A People and a Nation that the moral line had been crossed during the Second World War and it became the precondition for Truman’s decision, the physicists were against the path of ruthlessness and criticized the implemented strategies. “At present, our Air Forces, striking at the Japanese cities, are using the same methods of warfare which were condemned by American public opinion only a few years ago when applied by the Germans to the cities of England” (Szilard, A Petition to the President of the United States).

The historical document Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons provides additional evidence of the wide range of opinions of the scientists as to using atomic bombs. “The opinions of our scientific colleagues on the initial use of these weapons are not unanimous: they range from the proposal of a purely technical demonstration to that of the military application best designed to induce surrender” (“Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons”). Not the whole scientific society recognized the atomic attacks as the necessary means at the final phase of the war. The fact that these debates were not mentioned in A People and a Nation and the decision of Truman’s administration is presented as inevitability can be explained with the authors’ focus on the results instead of depicting the details of the process. At the same time, the fact that the majority of the petitions were addressed to the President as the Commander-in-Chief proves that his word was final and the data of the primary sources does not contradict the approach chosen by the authors of A People and a Nation but deepens the knowledge on the complexity of the processes of policymaking and a great number of forces which can have an impact on the decisions of the President’s administration.

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The debates concerning the moral aspect of using nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been conducted within several decades. The historical representation of the events in A People and a Nation is focused on the atomic bombings as the most effective method for finishing the war as soon as possible and saving the lives of Americans, sacrificing the lives of thousands of Japanese people at the same time. This perspective can be explained with the nationalistic approach of the authors to the presentation of the historical events. Limiting the background of selecting the option of atomic bombing to implementation of the strategy of using machines instead of people where it is possible in A People and a Nation provides a single-sided view on the facts. Review of the primary sources helps to retrieve additional information for understanding the complex character of the process of developing the strategies and additional factors which had a significant impact on the final decision of Truman’s administration such as demonstration of the efficiency of a nuclear weapon to other countries for influencing the post-war alignment of forces in the world.

The relationships of the United States with the Soviet Union played an important role in the process of decision making of Truman’s administration. “Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed to force the capitulation of Japan before the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan” (Shannon, “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Victims of nuclear terror”). Defining the Japanese cities as a background for demonstrating the strength of the nuclear weapon views the policy of Truman’s administration from a new perspective, going beyond the scope of saving the lives of American soldiers and finishing the war, pointing at the international character of the conflict. The authors of A People and a Nation mention the dates of the Soviet Union entering the war and bombing Japanese cities, as a matter of fact, not paying much attention to this juncture of events. Some researchers consider the implementation of the nuclear weapon on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a mere demonstration of the enormous efficiency of the unconditional weapon and preventing future international conflicts and resulting in the prolonged period of the cold war. At the same time, the opportunities of the United States to demonstrate its strength are preconditioned with the impact of the Second World War on the economy of the country. The war ended the period of the great depression and allowed allotting costs to the research and development of the atomic bomb and working out the strategies for attacking Japan.

Critical evaluation of the situation in Japan in 1945 is significant for deciding whether the use of the atomic bombing can be justified and was the only way out from the situation in which Japan did not want to accept unconditional surrender, continuing the war conflict. The American Combined Intelligence Committee prepared a report on the state of affairs in Japan Estimate of the Enemy Situation on July 6, 1945. The results of the report demonstrated that the country’s resources deteriorated but Japan’s leaders did not want to accept the terms of the unconditional surrender, trying to save the ace of the country and to preserve the sovereignty of their monarch. “The Japanese as a nation have a strong concept of national survival, regardless of the fate of individuals” (“Estimate of the Enemy Situation”). The results of the report of the commission demonstrated that despite the deteriorated resources, the government of Japan was far from accepting the terms of the surrender.

At the same time, the materials of this historical document do not prove that atomic attacks were the only possible way out, not excluding alternative strategies for finishing the war. On the contrary, the materials of the report pointed at the weakness of the defense capabilities of Japan and the decision of implementing the nuclear power on Japanese territories cannot be explained with the situation in the enemy country without considering the motivation of demonstrating the efficiency of the nuclear power to the world community. Thus, explaining the decision of Truman’s administration to use the nuclear weapon with the goals of using machines instead of humans, the authors of A People and a Nation limit their representation of the historical events to nationalistic approaches, underestimating the influence of the choice on future of the world community in general and the place of the USA on the international arena in particular. The review of the primary sources and historical documents helps to shed light upon the moral aspect of utilizing the nuclear weapon and demonstrating its ruthless power on Japanese territories as well as the wide range of contradicting opinions as to its implementation in the team which worked out the Japanese strategies.

The ultimatum that was delivered to Japan on July 26, 1945, is taken for granted in the representation of the historical event in A People and a Nation and the review of the related historical documents helps to learn the details of the process and discussion of the crucial importance of considering the opportunity of negotiating the terms of the surrender of Japan before proceeding to crucial measures. For example, like many other military leaders, Ralph Bard, the Under-Secretary of the Navy, emphasize the importance of giving a preliminary warning to Japan instead of implementing the nuclear weapon without negotiating the alternative ways of solving the conflict and mentioned it in his memorandum addressed to President Truman “The position of the United States as a great humanitarian nation and the fair play attitude of our people generally in the main for this feeling” (“American Military Leaders Urge President Truman not to Drop the Atomic Bomb”).

Though this information does not contradict the presentation of the events in the book A People and a Nation, the analysis of the historical documents allows shedding light upon the additional circumstances, making the picture of the development of actions more comprehensive. The memoirs of William Laurence as one of the participants of the atomic mission add the perspective of ordinary people to the historians’ discussion of the events, their political significance, and consequences for the whole world community. Though the opinion of this American citizen is only a subjective point of view of a soldier, it is significant for providing an insight perspective for evaluating the operation in general. “In about four hours from now one of its cities, making weapons of war for use against us will be wiped off the map by the greatest weapon ever made by man” (Laurence “Eyewitness Account of Atomic Bomb over Nagasaki”). Soldiers considered the Japanese cities as the places where their enemies lived and not considering all the global consequences of implementing the atomic strategies did not regret the thousands of innocent Japanese civilians that were sacrificed to implementation of the strategic plan. Still, the analysis of the emotions of the participant of the events is valuable for viewing the events from the perspective of ordinary American citizens for expanding the dry historical facts as they were presented in the book A People and a Nation.

The materials of the historical documents and the memoirs of the participant of the events, in general, do not contradict the representation of the historical events in A People and a Nation but expand the dry facts with some significant details which were underestimated by the authors of the book. A set of the primary sources provides a clearer understanding of the main motifs of Truman’s administration for bombing Japan, including those of demonstrating the power of the nuclear weapon to the Soviet Union and the rest of the countries, taking into account the global consequences of utilizing the unconditional weapon for inducing Japan to accept the unconditional surrender and finishing the Second World War.

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Works Cited

“American Military Leaders Urge President Truman not to Drop the Atomic Bomb”. The Colorado University Website, n.d. Web.

“Estimate of the Enemy Situation”. The George Washington University Website. 1945. Web.

Laurence, William. “Eyewitness Account of Atomic Bomb over Nagasaki”. Atomic Archive, 1945. Web.

“Memorandum of Conference with the President”. The George Washington University Website. 1945. The George Washington University. Web.

“Minutes of the Second Meeting of the Target Committee”., 1945. Web.

Norton, Mary, Carol Sheriff, David Blight, and David Katzman. A People and a Nation: A History of the United States. Boston: Cengage Learning. 2010. Print.

”Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons”. The George Washington University Website. 1945. Web.

Shannon, P. “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Victims of nuclear terror”. Green Left Weekly. 1995. Web.

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Szilard, Leo. A Petition to the President of the United States. Truman Library, 1945. Web.

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