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In the late 1930s, nuclear physicist Leo Szilard watched some disturbing events unfold in both Europe and Asia: Japan invaded Manchuria, China, in September of 1931; Germanys Chancellor Adolf Hitler acquired absolute power in March of 1933; and Germany, Italy, and Japan formed the Axis powers in a March 1938 agreement. Well aware of the possibility of an atomic bomb, Szilard decided that if an Axis nation developed a nuclear weapon, Americas only defense might be an atomic weapon of its own (Sublette). Therefore, he persuaded fellow scientists Albert Einstein and Alfred Sachs to collaborate with him on a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The letter was delivered by Sachs, an economist who frequently advised Roosevelt, and signed only by Einstein (McPhillips 22-23).
Despite the suggestions of such well-known people, the letter did little more than prompt Roosevelt to form the Advisory Committee on Uranium. However, when the United States entered World War II, it formed the S-1 project. It was later replaced by the Manhattan Project (Sublette).
The Manhattan Project, an Army Corps of Engineers endeavor, was officially called the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) (Sublette). The name was deliberately misleading; most scientists working on the project were based at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The uranium-235 and plutonium needed for the bombs were produced at facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, respectively (McPhillips 24-25). Meanwhile, Enrico Fermi was busy constructing the CP-1, the worlds first nuclear reactor, at the Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) at the University of Chicago (Sublette).
The head of the Manhattan Project was Colonel Leslie Richard Groves, who had just finished supervising the construction of the Pentagon (Sublette). Groves was a strong, experienced leader. His decisive and brusque style of leadership was necessary to the Manhattan Projects success, but it earned him few friends (McPhillips 24-25).
Groves, though, was a military man and not a scientist. He needed a physicist to direct the project. Over much controversy, Groves appointed a brilliant professor from the University of California at Berkeley, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer worked well both with Groves and other scientists (Sublette).
Research on the bomb continued on many fields. By early 1945, it seemed certain that the uranium weapon under development would be successful within a few months. The plutonium bomb seemed unlikely to be available as quickly, although several difficulties in its development had been overcome. Around the same time, the military selected Tinian Island as the base for planes delivering the atomic bombs to Japan, if necessary (Sublette).
Meanwhile, an important and tragic political event shook America. President Roosevelt died of a brain hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, in Warm Springs, Georgia. President Roosevelts vice president, Harry S. Truman, assumed the presidency.
Americas new leader found out about the Manhattan Project the on his inauguration day; President Roosevelt had never included Truman in the small circle of officials who knew about the project. President Truman decided that he alone could not decide how the bomb should be used. He needed more information (McPhillips 29, 31-32).
To deal with this, he formed a committee headed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson to deliberate the power of the bomb and its future. Stimson knew the bombs destructive ability, and he realized that if the United States chose to use nuclear weapons, there would be horrible consequences. He also knew the terrific toll an invasion of Japan would take in both Japanese military and civilian lives. More important to the committee, it could cost the lives of as many as one million American soldiers. Eventually, Stimsons committee and President Truman decided that the bomb had to be used but not necessarily on an actual target. Could a demonstration of the bombs power be enough to convince Japan to surrender (McPhillips 32-33)?
No, the government decided. The Japanese army had fought so fiercely in previous battles that it did not seem likely that a mere display of power would sway Japans opinion. The only sure path to an unconditional Japanese surrender, it appeared, was a surprise nuclear attack on a major Japanese city. However, the U.S. would give diplomacy one last chance. President Truman sent the Japanese government the Potsdam Declaration, which warned it to surrender or face "prompt and utter destruction." The Japanese formally rejected the proposal on July 30 (McPhillips 32-33, 36).
The United States was certainly in a position to make good its threats. In early July, the researchers at Los Alamos had started the final preparations for the testing of the atomic bomb. They had chosen Alamogordo Air Base for the test, an isolated desert location 200 miles south of Los Alamos. Oppenheimer code-named the test "Trinity."
Bad weather canceled the initial test times. By 4 A.M. on July 30, the sky was clear. The team at Alamogordo withdrew to a bunker five miles from ground zero, the location of the worlds first atomic bomb (McPhillips 34). Code-named Gadget, the bomb detonated at forty-five seconds past 5:29 A.M. The explosion had the destructive power of between twenty and twenty-two kilotons of TNT (Sublette). The age of nuclear weapons dawned as an atomic fireball brighter than the sun rose in the desert sky (McPhillips 34).
President Truman, meanwhile, had realized that Japans rejection of the Potsdam Declaration meant that America had to use the atomic bomb. He ordered that the bomb be ready to drop by August 3. It was an incredibly difficult decision, and more than fifty years later, people are still trying to decide if he made the right choice (Black and Blashfield 26).
The final preparations for dropping the bomb on Japan were quickly completed. A special group of pilots had been training in Utah. They did not know what their mission would be, though, until just before setting out on their mission. Then, the crew of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, commanded by Colonel Paul Tibbets, Jr., was informed that on August 6, they were to drop the most destructive bomb in the worlds history. It was never described as a nuclear weapon or an atomic bomb. The missions commander would be Navy Captain William Parsons (Black and Blashfield 26, 28).
Shortly after midnight on August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay took off from its airstrip on Tinian. Overweight from the nearly 10,000 pound atomic bomb "Little Boy" it carried, the B-29 lifted off slowly. Captain Parsons and an assistant armed the bomb shortly after takeoff. He had decided to do so as a precaution; if the bomb had been readied and the plane had crashed on the runway, the explosion could have wiped out the entire island of Tinian (Black and Blashfield 29-30).
At 4:55 A.M., two other B-29s joined the Enola Gay. These aircraft were equipped to measure the force of the bomb and to take pictures. Aircraft sent out in advance of the three B-29s radioed the Enola Gay and its escorts to head for Hiroshima, the primary target, because the cloud cover there would not interfere with the bombing (Black and Blashfield 30-31).
Shortly after 8 A.M., Japanese lookouts on the ground saw the three B-29s but cancelled air raid warnings because the three planes seemed to pose no major threat. The lookouts were horribly wrong (Black and Blashfield 30-31).
At 8:16, Little Boy exploded 2,000 feet above the Hiroshimas central business district, melting granite with a fireball hotter than the suns surface (McPhillips 39) and "instantly and completely" destroying four square miles of the city (MED Report). It destroyed or damaged over ninety percent of the citys buildings (McPhillips 39), killed 66,000 people, and injured 69,000 (MED Report). According to the City of Hiroshimas web page (http://www.city.hiroshima.jp/intro/2-3-3.html), the bomb "...destroyed all levels of administration, transportation facilities, including railroads, the communication system, journalism, offices, factories of private and public corporations, and all other facilities . It was utterly impossible to grasp the number of dead and wounded."
Eventually, 130,000 (McPhillips 40) of the citys 255,000 residents would die from the effects of the bomb (MED Report).
Even the massive destruction the atomic bomb dealt on Hiroshima and President Trumans threat to "continue to use it until we completely destroy Japans ability to make war" were not enough to convince the Japanese government to surrender. In a frantic attempt to avoid yielding, it tried to get the Soviet Union to act as an intermediary for peace talks between Japan and the United States. The Soviet Union, however, declared war on Japan the eighth of August (McPhillips 46). When Japan still showed no signs of surrendering, the Americans dropped a plutonium bomb, "Fat Man," on the industrial section of the port city of Nagasaki (McPhillips 46).
The carnage there was not as bad as at Hiroshima, although still horrific. Thirty-nine thousand people died and 25,000 injured, and three square miles of the city were demolished. The official report of the Manhattan Engineer District compared the damage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
The central portions of the cities underneath the explosions suffered almost complete destruction. The only surviving objects were the frames of a small number of strong reinforced concrete buildings which were not collapsed by the blast; most of these buildings suffered extensive damage from interior fires, had their windows, doors, and partitions knocked out, and all other fixtures which were not integral parts of the reinforced concrete frames burned or blown away; the casualties in such buildings near the center of explosion were almost one hundred percent. In Hiroshima fires sprang up simultaneously all over the wide flat central area of the city; these fires soon combined in an immense "fire storm" (high winds blowing inwards toward the center of a large conflagration) similar to those caused by ordinary mass incendiary raids; the resulting terrific conflagration burned out almost everything which had not already been destroyed by the blast in a roughly circular area of 4.4 square miles around the point directly under the explosion . Similar fires broke out in Nagasaki, but no devastating firestorm resulted as in Hiroshima because of the irregular shape of the city.
Even after learning of this incredible damage, top military officials in Japan were reluctant to surrender. Only after Emperor Hirohito, the leader of Japan who was revered almost like a god, intervened did the Supreme War Council agree to accept the Potsdam Declaration. After working out the details with the Allies, Japans unconditional surrender to the Allies was signed aboard the U.S.S. Missouri. World War II was finally over, but at a great price (McPhillips 47).
The havoc wreaked by the atomic bombs was indeed a great price. Many people considered the use of them as a war crime. They also argue that the mainly white leadership in the United States would have had less difficulty making the choice to use incredibly powerful weapons on a country full of "Japs" than they would have on the "Old Country" of Germany. Other people point out that the Allies firebombed many German cities, such as Dresden. Those people are sure that if the atomic bomb had been needed against Germany, America would have used it (McPhillips 49-50).
Regardless of these arguments, President Truman said that he never regretted his decision to use the bombs. In his mind, it was a move that shortened the war, saved American soldiers lives, and saved the lives of Japanese soldiers and civilians that would have been lost in a conventional invasion (McPhillips 49-50).
Oppenheimer was not as convinced that the United States had taken the right path. He once exclaimed to President Truman, "Mr. President, I have blood on my hands!" (McPhillips 26) At other times, he argued that nuclear weapons had the ability to be a peacemaker because of the fear with which that humanity regarded it (McPhillips 26).
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